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On her debut album 'Duality,' Luna Li finds a sense of belonging between two worlds

Luna Li's debut album, <em>Duality</em>, bridges her identity as a classical musician and dreampop singer.
Luna Li's debut album, Duality, bridges her identity as a classical musician and dreampop singer.

Hannah Bussiere Kim, who performs as Luna Li, has had a diverse musical career. Starting with classical piano, she later progressed to violin, and her sound eventually grew to include harp, electric guitar, bass and drums. Now, the Korean-Canadian artist's music teeters on the edge of rock, dreampop, and classical, — and her debut album Duality, which dropped last week, sounds like a welcome from another universe.

Here, she speaks with Weekend Edition about diverging from her orchestral trajectory, the duality of her identity and finding freedom in a stage persona.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Debbie Elliott, Weekend Edition: During the pandemic, you went viral with your jams — these lovely musical interludes that you posted on social media in which you were playing all of these instruments from your bedroom. How did those influence this first album?

Luna Li: Yeah, it's been kind of an interesting trajectory with that because I've been working on this album for four years, which feels like a very long time, especially in your early twenties. And the jams kind of came about halfway through that process, so they were kind of both happening simultaneously. So some of the album's songs are pre-jams, and some of them are post-jams, which were influenced by everything that I learned about production and arrangement when I created those jams. So it's a big span of the four years with the jams kind of sandwiched in the middle.

One of your tracks, "Alone But Not Lonely," seems to speak to the pandemic experience, because so many of us had to find different ways to connect and maintain relationships. What's your story behind this song?

I actually wrote the song pre-pandemic. I had just moved out of my parents' house for the very first time, and got my own apartment. I had a couple of roommates and they were basically never home and we had so many cockroaches. We were [in] downtown Toronto and I was just feeling really lonely and sad, just sitting in the apartment with all the cockroaches. I decided to kind of just make a song to cheer myself up, and "Alone But Not Lonely" became a mantra to me that I repeated to myself until it really became true.

For a while, you were on your way to play violin in an orchestra. What finally pulled you away from that and more toward this dreamy pop sound?

After high school, I felt this pressure to go to university, even though I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted it to be in music, but I didn't know exactly what that role was going to be. And I ended up going to McGill [University] in Montreal for violin, and we had this one class that basically every week we had a guest speaker and they were each kind of in a different career path that you could take after doing the program. And I just remember sitting there week after week and thinking, I don't want to do any of these jobs. And around that time, I had also gotten more involved with the Toronto music scene and seeing my friends back home. I just really wanted to start making my own music. So I dropped out after one semester and with the support of my parents, which was really amazing and my friends were supportive and that made a huge difference, and I moved back to Toronto to kind of just start my own project.

Tell me how you came up with your first album's title Duality. What does that mean to you?

The name Duality first came about when I was having a conversation with my producer, Braden [Sauder], and he noted that a lot of the songs on my album really didn't just have one theme or emotion. If it had sad lyrics, there would be a happy melody, or if it was a happy song, there would still be some element of anxiety or uncertainty. And so I was doing a big brainstorm for album titles in my notebook, and the word "duality" came up. And as I was thinking about it more, I realized how much it really applied to my identity. First of all, my musical identity, with trying to blend my classical background with these newfound rock and pop and R&B sounds that I was exploring, but also my heritage being half Korean and half Canadian and trying to learn how to balance those two worlds and parts of myself growing up. And so it just really felt like a fitting title, not just for the music, but also just for where I was at in life.

The moon is a theme that you come back to in your music. It's even part of your performance persona, Luna Li. It's also featured on several of your tracks. What draws you to the moon?

I've always just thought that the moon has a really special and powerful feminine energy. And that was always something that felt so inspiring and kind of just undeniable, that I wanted to have it be a really big part of my art. And growing up, and being part of the Toronto scene, I didn't really see a lot of women, and especially Asian women, performing. And so when I started out, I made this point that I really wanted to be a big part of representation and working with more women and having more women play in my band and be seen on stage. And so that was always a really big part of the project for me, which ties into the whole idea of feminine energy.

Another song, "Silver Into Rain," is a collaboration with the singer beabadoobee. The lyrics in the song are: "I'm too young for my age, too shy for the stage, too careful to be brave." What is this song about? Is this about growing up?

Yeah, it's about growing, and my insecurities about myself and wondering if I can be good enough to pursue this craft and public persona and music. And I created the name Luna Li in order to have something to step outside of myself. Luna could be someone who is more confident and more big on stage, and that really helped me with my stage presence whilst having these insecurities about my own self. But I also wrote that song when it was raining in Toronto for, I think, 10 days straight — my shoes were soaked all week and I was just really feeling down because of the rain, and that whole song came out of it.

What are you hoping listeners will take from this album?

When I wrote this album, I was trying to find a place for myself in this world, especially coming back to the fact of being half Korean and half Canadian and never really feeling like I belonged in either, despite kind of being a part of both. I found a place for myself in creating this album, and I want to invite anyone who doesn't feel like they belong to come and listen, and be a part of the Luna Li world. And I hope that they can feel accepted no matter who they are.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Candice Wang