Emili Talks Chinese Idol, the Asian-American Music Industry and Her New Single, “Nothing”

In an exclusive interview, I sat down with Emily Li, also known as Emili, to talk about her music career thus far and plans for the future.

As the pandemic continues to impact the lives of people around the world, restlessness is becoming a common feeling for those of us who have been stuck at home for months now. Many people have begun picking up new hobbies in an attempt to escape the boredom. But what does it feel like to do nothing? In Emili’s new single, “Nothing”, she talks about exactly that.

Emili is a an emerging pop singer-songwriter from New Jersey who is currently studying cognitive science as a Sophomore at Yale University. A fan of musical theatre, she draws inspiration from Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Lianne La Havas, and Regina Spektor. Although she may seem like an ordinary university student here, she’s actually quite famous in China, where she won third place on Chinese Idol and went on to star on various reality TV shows. This interview has been edited and condensed.

So first off, how did you get into music and how did you get into singing?

I grew up in New Jersey and my parents are Chinese immigrants so ever since I was young, I played piano and violin like most immigrant children do. But I didn’t actually start taking an interest [in music] until I was around 9 years old, which is when I started singing. How that happened was for my birthday one year, my parents got me this computer and I would search up lyric videos and sing all around the house. So my parents talked to this singing teacher at my Chinese school who took me under her wing and taught me until high school. I performed at a lot of Chinese-American events, and places in New York City.

When you were only 15, you competed and placed third in Chinese Idol, congratulations! What was that experience like?

Thank you! It was really, really crazy because that was after my freshman year of high school and I go back to China every summer anyways to visit my family. But that year, I did a bunch of auditions because I had competed in the [Water Cube Cup Singing Contest] the year before and although the competition was really small, it was the first time I had competed in a singing competition. That was super helpful for my growth as a singer and as a performer. So the following year, I thought “I want to do another competition” because it really helped me grow a lot and learn a lot. I was actually trying to get on The Voice of China but at the time, I was only 14 so the directors said I was too young. And then, Chinese Idol swooped in because they had been hearing about me and said, “You can come to us!” It was really unexpected. The first round of auditions was in July of 2014 and then that month, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to take a year off of school [to do the show]. I was really crazy lucky because somehow I ended up with third place and competed up until the finals. After that, I signed a contract with the television network and did a few more shows for the rest of the year. So when I came back, I was all refreshed and ready to be a high schooler again.

That’s incredible! As an Asian-American, what was it like going back, and being a foreigner in a way?

The thing is, I’m fluent in Chinese so it wasn’t difficult to understand anyone but I definitely have an accent and I’m clearly an American. It was like a trait. It was very strange but it was also really exciting because everyone was really nice to me, since I was the ‘baby’ of the competition. All of the singers and directors were very protective and very nice to me the whole time so I think the scariest thing was just that my parents weren’t with me the whole time. I was very young and living with the other competitors, so that was probably the hardest part. I had to grow up really fast.

And then you went on to do other shows, right?

Yeah, I did Dancing with the Stars (China) and then I did Exploration of the World which is basically this Amazing Race-type reality TV show where we got to travel to 12 different countries. Then I ended the year with a solo concert in Hangzhou where I had little fan groups come, and it was a very cool way to end things.

So now you’re in college studying cognitive science. How do you balance schoolwork and music?

I’m now a rising junior at Yale, and I really consider myself majoring in extracurriculars. I spend most of my time doing my own music stuff, jamming with friends, writing music and taking advantage of the network and facilities I have, because we have recording studios in our basements. When I was applying to college, I was deciding between going to a conservatory or music school versus an actual college. In the end, I decided to go for a more traditional college experience because I felt like if I was going to college, I wanted to surround myself with people who had varying interests. Everyone here is into very different things, which is very exciting for me and I love being around that type of energy. But balance-wise, I spend most of my time doing music stuff besides going to classes, obviously. I plan on doing music for the rest of my life (hopefully) so classes right now are more of an interesting thing.

After graduation, are you planning on developing your artistic career here or in China?

That’s actually a really good question. I’ve definitely been debating this question ever since my gap year because I have so many connections in China compared to the connections I have in America. But I started writing music when I was 16 and because I am natively American, all of my lyrics is in English. I’ve tried to write in Chinese but it’s harder, not because I don’t know the language, but it’s much harder to write music in a language that isn’t your first language. Right now, I’m planning on pursuing music in America since I can’t even go to China right now because of coronavirus. I was actually supposed to study abroad in China for the whole year but clearly those plans have changed. I’m open to opportunities wherever they come and I’ll keep those doors open, but as of right now, I plan on finishing my degree and doing music in America when I graduate. But who knows?

I know what you mean. It’s definitely harder for me to write songs in Chinese as well. So you just released your new single, “Nothing.” That’s so exciting! What was that process and inspiration behind the song?

“Nothing” is actually my second single ever and it’s very exciting to be releasing original music online. I wrote the song last summer when I was sitting in my living room and doing literally nothing, like, I was staring at a ceiling fan. And even though I was doing nothing, I was really stressed out because I was doing nothing. I feel like that’s so bad and very reflective of our current state because it’s like, “We must be productive,” or else we’ll feel guilty about it. It’s something I definitely struggle with a lot, like the inability to just chill out and take a break sometimes. So the song is about my attempt to do nothing and try to enjoy it. I had wanted to release it for a while but I thought it was really appropriate right now because a lot of us are stuck at home. I think it’s important to realize that sometimes it’s okay to just sit on your couch and hang out.

Wow, the song is so timely.

Yeah, the producer of the track, Josh Northwood, actually reached out to me on Instagram a few months ago wanting to collaborate with me. So we worked on this track together while he was in England and I was in New Haven. We were sending the track back and forth and it was really fun to collaborate with someone over the internet like that. Also, do you know about YoungArts?

Yes, I do.

So I’m an alumni of their program and they actually funded the production of this song. I applied for a micro-grant in November or December and they really helped me make this single come to fruition. That was also a big part of the process and I’m super grateful for their support.

What was your experience like participating in the YoungArts program?

It was so, so amazing because it was right at the end of my high school career and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and whether or not I wanted to pursue music as a career. It was a program that literally made me feel like music was worth pursuing and that I had something special enough to spend my life doing. It also gave me this amazing network of other artists who were planning on doing arts full-time. It was a super cool environment, like we got to collaborate with different artists and we came together to make these interdisciplinary projects. For example, I sang a bird song while this contemporary dancer did an amazing routine to it. I’m so grateful that program happened.

As an Asian-American artist, what changes do you hope to see in the North American music industry in terms of representation and how do you think we’ll be able to achieve those changes moving forward?

That’s something I constantly think about because the reason why I always thought I should only be pursuing music in China was because that’s the only place I could possibly succeed. But the reason why I felt that way was because ever since I was really young, I haven’t seen anyone who looks like me doing really well in the American music industry. There’s really very few Chinese-American, or even Asian-American artists who make it. And even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it’s such a big deal for rising artists like you and me. People who have never seen a role model who looks like them often change their careers because of it.

At Yale, there was this big concert called “Spring Arising” at the beginning of my freshman year that really changed how I looked at this issue. In the Fall of that year, Yale had put on the musical, Spring Awakening and the representation they had for casting was all white, like maybe they had one POC. It was ridiculous because if you look at the theatre community at Yale, there are so many incredibly talented people of colour and it was like, “What happened?” So we had this whole concert where a bunch of really talented POC musical theatre people came together and performed songs from Spring Awakening and other musicals, in parts that have never been casted as Asian-Americans or African-Americans, etc. It was really empowering to go into this and be like, “I have the same emotions as someone who is white, so I don’t understand why the colour of my skin should change whether or not I’m casted as a certain character. Because at the end of the day, we have the same emotions, we can tell the same stories and the way we look [shouldn’t determine the casting].” So it was really empowering to sing these songs and be like, “I can perform these songs just as well as a blonde white chick in ‘Legally Blonde.’”

I realized that someone has to change the fact that there is very little Asian representation in the American music industry. If everyone is thrown off by it and changes their career aspects because they haven’t seen representation, then nothing’s going to change. Someone has to do it eventually, and who’s to say that I won’t or you won’t. That was a big point in my understanding of what I wanted to do with my life. And even though I might have a bigger change of success in China, I want to eventually live in America and I want to be that Chinese girl that people know. I think that would be really inspiring to many younger Chinese-Americans that were in my place a few years ago. So it’s an issue and we need to fix it.

Emili’s new single, “Nothing”, is out now on all streaming platforms and you can listen to it here: