Bwog Staff Writer Gigi Silla sits down with Christina Li (CC ‘24) to chat about opening Bacchanal, the singer’s love of live music and storytelling, and finding her voice in the early stages of her career.
I first saw Christina Li perform back in November in the narrow, dimly-lit alcove of Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel. I was seated so close to the stage, I could see the almost microscopic tremble of Li’s fingers as she perched herself on a stool and readied her acoustic guitar.
When Li performed at Battle of the Bands in Lerner Hall last Friday night, her act was a far cry from the one I witnessed last semester. Having shed her acoustic guitar for a robust, eight-part band, complete with a horn section and a stand-out drummer, Li’s act attracted a jubilant mass of friends and fans who sang along and bobbed their heads in enthusiastic time to the beat. From my position in the back of the crowd, I could barely make out the top of Li’s head, but even from afar, the singer glowed with confidence and charm, and she and her band infused the night with a brassy, summery bounce.
Li’s act will size up once again tomorrow night, when she opens Bacchanal for Rick Ross, Amaarae, Sarah Kinsley and Maude Latour at Terminal 5, a venue with a 3,000-person capacity in Hell’s Kitchen.
The Wednesday before Li’s big performance, I sat down with the singer, who is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in Music, to talk about her burgeoning singing career.
When I asked if she was excited for Bacchanal, she responded with an emphatic “yes.” “I am very excited,” Li said. “Very nervous. [I’ve] never played for this many people.” Li told me her most recent performance prior to Battle of the Bands was in February at Kobrick Coffee, a small coffee shop in Chelsea. “It was seventy-five people. Intimate compared to Terminal 5, but for that moment it was like, my biggest show.” As excited as she is to perform at Bacchanal, having an opportunity to play at a venue of such a large size was not exactly what Li had pictured for this early point in her career. She envisioned her audiences growing gradually, she explained. “I imagined it to be like seventy-five, one-fifty, two-hundred. Now it’s like: seventy-five, three thousand! So, it’s interesting. I mean, I’m not complaining, it’s great,” she said with a slight laugh.
Li hails from Hong Kong and grew up with music, starting piano lessons at five or six years old. She began writing music at the end of middle school when she got her first guitar, noodling around at summer camp and crafting songs for her friends. In her sophomore year of high school, Li took a songwriting class, her first serious foray into the world of creating music. “Looking back, it was really bad,” she remarked of her early projects. “But at that moment it was like, wow, like, this is something I created that’s out in the world.”
Li’s concise discography mostly falls into one of two categories: either shimmering surf-pop jams that aim for a spot on your pool-party playlist or deeply confessional acoustic ballads laced with colorful poetry. In the former genre, tracks like her recent single “Residue” evoke the tropical, electric riffs of Phum Viphurit, the lavish pop synths of Dayglow, and the sexy, twanging bass of Steve Lacy. In the latter category are songs like “Golden,” a vocally stunning, seven-minute ballad, reminiscent of the work of contemporary singer-songwriter powerhouses like Haley Heynderickx, Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo, and Maggie Rogers.
Li said of her musical influences: “One side is like, acoustic, indie-pop, like, intense, personal lyricism, like Eloise, Lizzy McAlpine. And on the other side I really love live bands, and soul, and retro-pop, like Lawrence, Melt, Lake Street Dive… I’m slowly realizing that I want those [two genres] to coalesce [in my music].” The multiplicity of genres in Li’s work is a stylistic choice, the singer explained, more so than it is an oversight or the product of an unfocused creative lens. “I grew up listening to a lot of K-Pop, so I do think that has influenced my songwriting quite a bit. K-Pop’s very all-over-the-place, in the best of ways… There’s not really a genre, they just take whatever they want and throw it in there, which is something I really love.”
Like Lizzy McAlpine and Eloise, a common thread that runs through all of Li’s music is her penchant for storytelling. “I think I’ve gotten to a point now with my songwriting, where I can say that I’m telling stories,” she reflected. “I don’t think I could have with my first releases.”
Even before she began writing songs, Li took an interest in crafting narratives. “I can really see that growing up it was something I loved doing. I made short films and wrote scripts,” Li shared. “I wanted to be a novelist at one point, I wanted to be a director… I mean, I’m glad to not be doing [filmmaking now, but] I think that it definitely influenced my music. I think I had to go through those phases to get to music.”
Influenced by her love of bands like Lake Street Dive, Lawrence and Melt, Li holds a special reverence for live music. “Live music is irreplaceable,” she affirmed. Li fashions the live arrangements of her songs herself, viewing the process as an extension of her role as a songwriter. She took time to assemble the band that performed with her last week at Battle of the Bands and that will travel with her to Terminal 5 Saturday night, building the ensemble member by member, a mix of old friends and new collaborators, curating the group to match her vision exactly. “I knew I wanted horns,” she told me vehemently, “because that was the sound I wanted.” Li’s performance stood out last Friday in large part because of her band, because of the palpable sense of joy and camaraderie between the instrumentalists and the singer which made the group sparkle just a little brighter than all the other acts.
Li’s passion for live music bleeds even into the production of her records. Take, for example, the openings of “Stay Foolish” and “Truth,” both of which feature B-roll audio of Li and her collaborators goofing around in the studio. “Everyone, focus on blending, listen to each other,” someone instructs at the beginning of “Truth” as the intro chords chime and musicians chatter in the background, priming listeners to imagine a band of performers as they enjoy the recorded track.
As evidenced by the lively B-roll audio in these intros, music has largely been a communal affair for Li so far in her career. Her seven-track debut EP features four other artists, and both of her most recent singles are collaborations. So, when I asked at the end of our interview if Li has a “dream collab,” I was surprised by her response.
“I think I actually have too many collaborations,” she half-joked. “The next [song I release] definitely won’t be [a collaboration]. I think that I’m in a stage in my career, that I want to figure out who I am alone. And I think all the projects that I’ve had so far have been very community oriented, like reaching out to people, which is obviously great. But I do think that I’m maybe at a turning point, where I’m figuring it out and finding my sound, who I sound like, who I want to sound like.”
Christina Li! via Rommel Nuñez