Words by Teresa Tran
When an artist blows up, people often make the wrong assumption of overnight success, but what they don’t see are the years of hard work and fighting that led to finally being seen. No one knows this better than 23-year-old LA-based Chinese American singer-songwriter and Yale graduate Emily Li, professionally known as Emei. Born and raised in New Jersey to Chinese immigrant parents with no connections to the music business, Emei’s been singing since she was 9 years old and was the third-place winner on Chinese Idol by age 15.
A self-described “dramatic little performer,” Emei grew up searching lyric videos and performing song covers for a range of audiences, whether it be herself in her childhood bedroom, her school peers in a gymnasium, or music listeners overseas in China. She’s always been ambitious and admits to even being a bit of a perfectionist, but what I also glean is her willingness to embrace what it truly means to be a songwriter and ride the rollercoaster that is the music industry in a TikTok and social media-defined era, even with all its bumps, demands, and turnovers. She possesses a level of self-awareness that comes from someone whose richest source of inspiration comes from one place: herself.
Last year marked a turning point for Emei, when her single “Late to the Party,” about the relatable angst of being in your early 20s, hit 5.5 million streams across music platforms after it went viral on TikTok and Instagram Reels with 9.5 million views. Not one to rest on her laurels, as I quickly learned from our recent conversation, she’s since been featured in numerous outlets and written more than 75 songs in the span of a little more than a year, released her debut EP End of an Era in October 2022, and launched a new single “Backtrack,” hard-hitting pop rock song with a delicious guitar and live drums riff, the following month to round out her debut era with a flourish.
Below, Emei discusses her latest single and shares a peek into her daily life as a full-time singer-songwriter.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Teresa Tran: I adore your new single “Backtrack.” I’ve been rocking and jamming to it for the past month. How have you been feeling about its release and the reception around it?
Emei: It’s been really great. It almost feels like I released it a really long time ago, but it’s actually only been weeks. It was a song that I wrote in April , and I was really excited about it the moment I wrote it. It was one of those songs that I kept coming back to every time I was debating what songs were released. I was like, “Backtrack” is such a jam! It’s so fun to listen to. So yeah, now I’m feeling really great about it and also all the reception that it’s gotten. Everybody’s just been very supportive.
TT: I also listened to the rest of your new EP End of an Era. One of my favorite songs that I think a lot of people can relate to is “Late to the Party.” As I was listening to it, I remember constantly thinking, “Holy shit, someone is making music that really speaks to this current moment of what it’s like to be an early 20-something, Gen Z young woman in the era of social media and COVID, who’s ambitious and a dreamer, who’s angry but a little hopeful and a little cheeky. And she’s Asian American.” What made you decide to put that experience into this song?
Emei: Oh my god, thank you! That song started with the chorus. The first line I wrote was “21 without a Grammy or a degree.” After I wrote that, I was like, damn. I wrote the song itself like a year and a half ago. I was 21 and I hadn’t graduated college yet. It was a time when I felt there was a lot that I wanted to be working towards, but I hadn’t been, and then it was so easy to compare and compare and compare. I remember when I turned 18, being like (groans) “ugh, I’m 18.” (Laughs). It’s funny how [“Late to the Party”] has meant the same exact thing no matter how old I get. It’s always so easy to constantly compare yourself to other people who are more ahead than you and not appreciate where you’ve gotten and where you’re at.
TT: There was a TikTok of yours where you talk about that same idea, seeing all of your friends getting engaged right now. The question you might expect to follow this would be: what inspired this song or why do you feel this way especially when you’re so young? But I want to know—what are things you feel like you’re early to the party for?
Emei: It’s funny cause all the comments on my “Late to the Party” videos have always been, “Bro, seriously you went to Yale, shut up.” I’m like, “That’s fair.” (Laughs). When I look back at myself, I think the irony of this song is that I was on Chinese Idol when I was 15. I started singing when I was like 9. I had started doing all of this pretty early, nobody around me was doing it. I had always been into it and somehow even in those situations where objectively on paper, it looks a certain way. I think the whole point of the song is that no matter how ahead you are, how much you’re actually doing, you will always feel like this. Even if you look at the biggest superstars, the big Forbes 30 under 30, the people who are doing so well, I’m sure that they feel the same. No 21-year-old has a Grammy.
TT: Maybe Olivia Rodrigo.
Emei: Except for her.
TT: She doesn’t have a degree, so…
Emei: She only has a Grammy, so (laughs). I know I’m early to a lot of things and I need to cut myself a lot of slack. It’s important to look back and set little dumb goals at the end of the year and then look back at them and be able to say, “I did it.” You know, like, “Good job.” I’ve been trying to be a lot more grateful for all the little things because the goalpost keeps changing. If you don’t celebrate and then the goalpost moves again, then you’re never going to be happy. You’re never going to be proud of yourself. For every release, I’ve made it a point to pop a champagne bottle. Most of the time it would be me and my friend at home, like two or three people (laughs).
TT: When you were making this EP, I understand you were very intentional and specific about what you wanted and had envisioned. In fact, a lot of your music is about capturing specific periods of your life, whether that be growing up or during college, or from a relationship. I actually saw in one of your TikTok comments that your music could be described as “existential crisis pop” which I love. In your own words, what is sort of your musical thesis?
Emei: The reason why [a lot of my music] is very time sensitive is because I literally write about random musings in daily life. My main thing is, I have this journal—oh my god it’s right in front of me. It’s a new one, because 2023! But I have this journal, and I mostly go everywhere with it, and things happen in daily life where I’m like, “Oh my god, I can’t find good coffee or I got this paper cut or my nail chipped.” I write stupid things that happen in my daily life and when I go into my sessions, I kind of take anything where there’s more meaning behind it or the most annoying thing that happened to me that week. I blow it up. That’s kind of my thing, like silly musings. This EP was very much about, like, graduating college and transitioning into young adulthood. But the next songs that I have for this year are definitely very different because I am past that stage. Now it’s more trying to pick yourself up off your feet, and figuring out your life. It’s funny that the music is almost behind my life in that sense, but it’s also very reflective for me. I think this year I wrote 75 songs, which is crazy. I literally have never written that much in my life. Not to say they were all good (Laughs).
TT: I know you’ve been making music for a minute now, but for JoySauce readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell me about your journey, specifically how hard you’ve worked to get yourself to where you are today?
Emei: After [performing on Chinese Idol], I signed a television deal where it was me doing entertainment for real in China. I was so exhausted. I came back and realized why children should not be working. I really missed being around people my age, and I came back to school actually very refreshed academically, like, “Oh my god, books! Give me them!” From 16 onwards, I realized that I wanted to write and have my own music and express myself and not just sing other people’s songs. At first, I was really bad. (Laughs). Like, I should probably have quit. But there’s this one quote by Ed Sheeran, and he said writing is like turning on a water tap and you have to turn it on and get all the gunk out first, and then the clearwater will run. After I heard that, it was so inspiring for me because I was like, “Oh, so I’m just getting through the gunk. I have to write a hundred horrible songs and do it and get through it and then maybe one day it’ll be good.” I was like, “I hope you’re right!”
TT: Now that you’re pursuing music full-time, what is a typical day-in-the-life for you? What’s it like to be Emei for one day?
Emei: It’s fun. It depends. Right now, I’ve been in writing mode for a while. I wake up and I try to journal for like 20-30 minutes. Make myself coffee. Respond to some emails. Have breakfast, normally. Then, gym for like an hour and a half, which is my me-time. After that, I tend to make TikToks or edit them. At this point, it’s 12-ish. Then from 1 to 7, I have my sessions [where I write and record songs]. Sometimes [session] is a group full of new people and it can be awkward, but sometimes it can be full of people that I love and who I’ve been working with for a while. After we talk for a little bit from 1 to 2, I’m like, alright, so what do you wanna do today? It makes everything easier if the artist kind of goes in with the idea. So I go in and I’m like, this is the title that I’ve been thinking about or this is the voice memo that I recorded. It’s very random and sometimes it’s very methodical, depending on the day. There’s a writer and then a producer. [The producer] makes a beat, then me and the writer are normally like (mimics) la la la la. We start humming. We start chanting. I work out of a Google Doc and start adding and adding, then before you know it, the song is done at like 4 or 5-ish. I like to record all my lead vocals on the same day I write them. Something about the day that I write it, it’s special, it’s fresh. Then at 7, I go home. I try to cook dinner, but most of the time, I order (laughs). I respond to some emails. I watch some TV. I go to bed next and that’s my day.
TT: Last question, I recently saw you post on your IG story that you were in the studio at the end of last year. Can we look forward to new music already? What can you tease about your upcoming projects in the new year?
Emei: The next EP is done. So that’s really exciting. It’s going to be a slower rollout. It’s gonna be single by single. There is some really fun stuff. I’m so proud of it. I showed it to my mom and she was like, “Oh my god, it’s a level up.” I’m very excited. It’s definitely more me. I’m slowly developing and really figuring out what really makes me tick, and I think I’m getting closer. It’s more of what makes this past round of music, me. More of that and then some. It’s coming soon. You guys will hear it. It’ll be great.
Published on January 23, 2023
Words by Teresa Tran
Teresa Tran (she/her) is an American-born Vietnamese writer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, with a background in theater and community organizing. She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a B.S.Ed in English Education from the University of Georgia and studied British Literature at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing and directing her own short films and working on her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter at @teresatran__.