A Conversation with Luna Li – By Grace Doh

Luna Li first went viral on TikTok after posting clips of jam sessions from her bedroom during the pandemic. Playing violin, harp, guitar, bass, piano, and drums, The Toronto-based artist composed and produced her debut record, ‘Duality’, released in 2022. Since then, she’s headlined a US-Canada tour and began working on new music, continuing to explore the possibilities within unique sounds and instruments — embodying her signature experimental style.


On Dec 3, hours before an intimate yet dazzling solo performance at ILLUMINATE!, a mental wellness concert co-hosted by WBRS, Student Union, and Brandeis Wellness, Luna Li gave an interview with WBRS, detailing her relationship with her cultural background, her musical perspective as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, and more about how she’s been influenced by the world around her. 


Have you played in the US a lot before? How are you finding it?


I did my first US tour in 2021, where we opened for Japanese Breakfast. That was an amazing experience, like an incredible way to start off my touring career in the US. So it’s been a couple of years of touring since then. And I mean, there’s always ups and downs with touring, especially in the US. There’s such long stretches in between shows, and it can be exhausting, but it’s always very rewarding. And the audiences are amazing here. I love it.


If you could listen to one song, album, or artist for the rest of your life, what would it be?


Right now something that I feel like I can always put on is Dorothy Ashby. She’s a jazz harpist and an amazing, incredible musician. The arrangements are so cool and it’s just such a unique thing to have harp as part of a jazz ensemble. I think that’s something that I would never get tired of.


You’ve spoken before about how your cultural identity has influenced your work. Would you like to expand on how it has shaped your songwriting and musical process?


In terms of ‘Duality’ and that whole record, that was really a record that was shaped around my identity; it really felt like a coming-of-age record. And I guess coming to terms with my background, how I connect with my culture, and honoring that — I think that that was a really important thing for me to explore in that record. ‘Duality’, the name, refers to a few different things, but one of them is my Korean-Canadian background and figuring out how to balance those two sides of myself. That was heavily a part of that project. And I’m working on a new record right now. I think I will, of course, inherently take my Asian-Canadian perspective with me wherever I go, even if my work is not directly about my identity. I think that will always fit into my work, no matter what I do.


Do you have a vision for what you’re working on right now? Are you trying anything new?


Yeah, I was really excited to go into the creation of this album because I was working on ‘Duality’ for so long and getting to start fresh is really a blessing. It really has been just like a year and a half of exploration, figuring out what sounds I want to play with, being really open with myself, and allowing myself to try different directions to see what works and see what doesn’t. For now, I think I’m just gonna leave it open. I’m still working on an album title, so the concept is coming together. But yeah, it’s been a really fun time to work on new stuff.


You shared a video of you playing the gayageum, which I thought was so cool because I’ve never seen anyone play it in a non-traditional context. As a multi-instrumentalist, do you have a specific process for learning new instruments?


With stringed instruments, I find it easier to pick them up because having played violin and harp and even having the background of playing the piano, you can take all of those skills and transfer them to a new instrument, especially within the same family of instruments like the string family. And so with the gayageum, I found it easy to pick it up and figure it out because it’s quite similar to a harp or a guitar or something that I’ve played before. I think, with each instrument that you play, it gets easier. If I were to learn like a woodwind or brass instrument, that would be a whole new learning curve. With the string stuff, I can be more self taught with new things that I learn. If it was something new, I probably would take some lessons or find a more formal way to learn. But I find learning is such a big part of my process. Because as I’m learning new things, I’m constantly inspired and having new ideas. I think that’s a really great way for me to feel like I’m moving forward and staying inspired. And it helps with writer’s block a lot.


Where do you turn to for inspiration for your lyrics in your writing process? 


I try to pull from anything I can. I mean, most of my work is about my personal experience, whatever emotional work I’m going through. And I like to pull from different areas of creativity, so, of course, the most direct one being listening to other artists’ music and being inspired by that. But also, I am definitely inspired by novels that I read and films that I see and the relationships that I have throughout my life with all different kinds of love. The other main thing that inspires me is nature. Just getting some quiet and being close to nature always helps me clear my mind and inspires me to write and make something.


Who are some of your major influences — from other artists to books or films? 


I’ve been listening to a lot of Dorothy Ashby as I mentioned. I got really into Minnie Riperton this last year, she’s amazing. And there’s been such an amazing influx of Asian American artists in the last five to 10 years: Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, Jay Som, SASAMI. Seeing other women who are succeeding and staying true to their vision is really inspiring to me. In terms of novels, last year I read ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Power. That was such a beautiful work of activism which had some really amazing poetic prose and was also inspired by nature and trees and the love and protection for old growth and forests. That was a big inspiration for me in terms of some of the imagery that I’ve been writing lately.


Having been classically trained on the piano and violin, what was it like to break into the music industry in another direction? Was it a form of rebellion for you?


I tend to be intense about things like when I get really into something, I really focus all my energy on that, so I don’t know if I felt it was a rebellion more than just kind of like switching my focus. But I did kind of exit the classical world — I was on the track, you know, doing classical violin, and then I decided to drop out of school and start a band and got really involved with the Toronto music scene. And that community was what really helped me get started. There was a big indie rock and psych rock scene happening in Toronto and it’s still there now. I was just lucky to have an incredible community of people who were always putting on shows and I learned so much from them and was inspired by them. That really helped me get going with kind of abandoning the classical background. I think I also turned my back on the classical background for a while when I first started, then slowly decided to try to incorporate it a little bit more and started using my violin again. Then incorporating some more classical sounds and arrangements into my music and that’s made me really happy to blend the two things together.

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