Foreigners: Meet Emei – Yale Daily News
Photo courtesy of Emily Li
“Sorry, I didn’t see your lyrics, I was in town doing sessions,” Emily Li ’22 told me when we first met at Blue State.
Sessions for what? Why would a student be in New York on a Tuesday? Not knowing enough about Li’s background before the interview, I was lost. I had no idea that Li, who moonlights as a senior cognitive science student at Timothy Dwight, is sort of a pop sensation.
Known as Emei, Li is a singer-songwriter with 165,771 monthly listeners on Spotify and over fourteen thousand Instagram followers. Earlier this fall, she released her second single “Late to the Party”, which garnered over four hundred thousand likes on Tik-Tok in a matter of weeks. Along with this growing fan base, record companies and critics have gained attention. Li now commutes regularly from New Haven to Manhattan, where she develops her music with producers, meets business leaders and lawyers, and collaborates with other artists.
Although her original work only recently entered the mainstream, Li has been on the path to pop idolatry for over a decade, ever since her parents inadvertently introduced her to the music world. She grew up in suburban New Jersey in a Chinese immigrant family speaking Mandarin. On her ninth birthday, her parents bought her a pink laptop computer, which introduced Li to the world of music videos. She retired to her room and spent every hour looking for new artists. She replayed each song until she memorized the lyrics and, once completely captivated by the melodies, began to emulate her favorite artists. Every day was a new round of karaoke: play, pause, sing, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
None of his parents, accountant and engineer, is particularly musical. But they recognized their daughter’s potential and hired a vocal coach. Soon after her age hit double digits, the Li family prodigy was ready: Emily went on tour.
The tour targeted Chinese-American communities in the tri-state region. Li traveled with her teacher to Flushing, Queens, over an hour from her home, where she performed at restaurants and family gatherings. The girl’s voice proved popular, and her audiences relished her performances in Mandarin, their native language. The warm reactions prompted Emily to take music more and more seriously. As she progressed through college, her specialty remained singing Chinese songs to Chinese audiences.
At fifteen, Li ranked well in a voice competition and realized her chance to break through. With the full support of her parents, she decided to suspend her high school education for a year and move to Shanghai on her own.
Li arrived in the megalopolis to participate in the second season of “Chinese Idol”. Similar to âAmerican Idol,â the show brought singers together in front of a panel to compete for the title of Best China. On these new scenes, the American teenager becomes the object of intrigue. The judges were impressed with her soft but precise voice as well as her versatility. Performing both Mandarin plays and Top 40 staples such as “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the Frozen soundtrack, Li ultimately placed third on “Chinese Idol”. His success on the show allowed him to open up to all corners of the Chinese media landscape. She has performed in different parts of the country, performed in other shows, and even turned into a reality TV host. As the presenter of a series of adventures similar to Incredible race, Li ended up on planes across Asia, Africa and even the Pacific Islands.
The experience of traveling the world was thrilling, but Li shared that she was also isolating. Li’s network provided an “assistant” to supervise the child star throughout his sole stay in China. The foreign directors have prescribed every movement to him; sporadic face-to-face calls formed her only connection to her friends back home. After a year of living as a full-time artist, Li returned home.
Back in the United States, Li picked up where she left off and unabashedly embraced her identity as a resident artistic tour de force. She joined dance groups, starred in all of the high school musicals, and traveled through New Jersey for festivals in all states. She was broadly following her previous path, but her return to America marked a critical personal transition: from singer to singer-songwriter..
Li wanted to go beyond the exclusive interpretation of other people’s music, in order to connect the singing with his own experiences and feelings. She attended a songwriting workshop and founded a songwriting club at her school. She has since recorded passing thoughts and observations in a journal. Whenever the urge to write strikes – which Li says usually is when she’s angry – she opens her diary and finds a spark idea.
Li chose to go to Yale rather than a dedicated conservatory in order to have a more traditional college experience. None of Li’s freshman classmates, three pre-med students and a political science major, were particularly musical. Nonetheless, the five girls bonded quickly and today still live together as seniors, years after the supposedly random housing draw made its match. Li herself doesn’t specialize in music either – the department, she says, is too classically oriented. Instead, she discovered a talent for cognitive science while taking an introductory course. She is currently writing a thesis on the subject, finding time between recording sessions and studio meetings.
But when I suggested that Li seemed to have broadened her interests in college, she stepped back and said, “Most of what I do is music.” During her first semester at Yale, Li met Caroline Ho ’22, pianist, cellist and composer of a booming musical career. Realizing their mutual interest in music, the two began to write together, discovered a bassist and drummer among their classmates, and formed Timothy Dwight’s first group: Grove. The quartet has become a micro-icon, performing at almost every TD event and even making their Radio House debut. In addition to singing for her local ensemble, Li took to Mixed Company, one of Yale’s mixed acapella groups. Today, although Grove has passed away and no longer plays acapella, she still fondly remembers those experiences.
If high school made her a songwriter, Li’s college years made her an American songwriter. Growing up, Li had always envisioned his career in China. After all, she became a singer within the diaspora community. In addition, her days with âChinese Idolâ had linked her to the film and music industries in China. As a freshman, she even returned to the country to star in a movie. In 2019, Emily made her plans for the following summer: to pursue Light Fellowship in Beijing, consolidate her language skills and get closer to her future media sphere.
The pandemic canceled Li’s travel plans and relations between the United States and China deteriorated. She found herself confronted with the question: could I be successful here? The question was answered when Li met a young music producer named Lucas Sim through a mutual friend. The duo clicked both personally and artistically. Last summer, Li moved with Lucas to California. Together they created Emei’s most acclaimed single to date: “Late to the Party”.
The idea for this song arose when Li jotted down in her journal, “Did you notice that in the commercials we look more like parents than children?” The sighting got her thinking about her age and got her thinking about gen Z influence phenomena. Everyone else is crossing life milestones and achieving business success, she thought, as she stood still. So the lyrics to âLate to the Partyâ ask, âWhy is every seventeen-year-old a star? While I’m still stuck in my mom’s old car?
The theme is uncomfortable, but Emei seems like an unlikely messenger. She’s an impostor syndrome super-spreader, which was televised before she could even drive. Can she complain that she is “late for the party” when she got there so amazingly early?
But what appears to be irony, Li tells me, is actually his point of view. She recognizes her accomplishments, which have not yet sheltered her from anxiety and insecurity. In her case, the pressure in the music business amplified those feelings. During her time in “Chinese Idol”, she was painfully aware of the expectations surrounding her. âI think the reason I’m shorter than my siblings is because of ‘Chinese Idol’,â she said, joking about the immense stress she endured while in China. . The critical attention received by Li’s recent singles brought her closer to her dream. But deep inside, she knows the buzz could stop at any moment. âMy next song might fail,â she said.
In Li’s Tik Tok – its.emei, 40,000 subscribers – there are two videos in which she lists “8 people who had a Grammy before they turned 21.” Lorde and Rihanna are clearly not just names on Li’s playlist, they’re her inspiration. She declares in the words of “Late to the Party âthatâ I don’t want to care / how people look at me. âBut at the same time, she sings and winks at her listeners,â but still can’t wait to go on tour â.
Fame is a dream for young singers, most of whom have never won an international singing competition and were dubbed an “alternative pop wonder” before graduating from college. From the moment I sat down with Li at Blue State until the moment we left, she seemed confident, and with her track record, she should be. Just as the lyrics to Late to the Party sing,
A Grammy or a diploma
Too bad, it’s sad
Maybe at twenty-three “
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