Liance is an intrepid wanderer.
Just one listen to any of his projects–whether that’s The Golden Flesh EP or his debut LP Bronze Age of the Nineties–and you’ll hear how clearly his many life experiences have shaped his music. And it’s no wonder: James Li, the 23 year-old British-Chinese songwriter behind Liance, has spent most of his life in different places–growing up in Hong Kong, majoring in English at Michigan’s Calvin College, and now residing in Brighton. A self-proclaimed “perpetual outsider”, Li spends most of his time making music to express his feelings and tell stories about his life one song at a time.
Inspired by popular indie-folk songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, Li’s sound finds an interesting middle-ground between the two. He playfully spins stories about locations like Stevens, but with the added enigmatic, literary touch of Newsom. For an even more apt comparison, take a listen to Stevens’s Seven Swans or Michigan and it’s easy to draw direct connections between the two artists. In fact, Li refers to Stevens as a “torchbearer”, guiding him in his own musical journey. Thanks to personal connections, Li is even friends with Stevens’s immediate family, making the music of Liance and Stevens nearly cut from the same cloth.
But that’s not to say that Li only takes inspiration from Stevens. As a major contributor to Reddit’s online community /r/indieheads (you’re sure to bump into him at least once during your visit there), Li is also an avid follower of everything going on in the music scene at large. His own side project, Ministry of Interior Spaces, is dedicated to ambient, atmospheric sound recordings taken from the places that he has been to. In his very own way, Li is not only nomadic in life, but also one in terms of musical exploration. All of his music reflects that–he’s a musician that plays with all of these elements (he channels Car Seat Headrest and Pavement in The Golden Flesh EP), unapologetically trying out different genres, and flitting between them with ease. You never know what kind of album he’ll put out next.
On November 21st, Li is planning to release his second EP, The Rat House. Before he does, we talked to Li about what inspired his new EP, the kind of themes it covers, and what it’s like to be a British-Chinese indie folk artist in Brighton.
What’s the reasoning behind the name of your newest release, The Rat House EP?
That was the name of the house in Grand Rapids I was living in for a few years. It was a quietly beautiful place to live even though it’d served as a crack house once during the Nineties. The rent was also extraordinarily cheap, like $150 a month at one point. But there were some pretty significant issues, one of them being rats. Luckily they never made it up above the basement but it took a Dante’s Inferno of traps and a Michigan winter to finally rid of them. All of the songs in the EP take place during the time I lived in this house so I thought it’d be a naturally fitting name.
One of the biggest lyrical themes, it seems, throughout the album is Michigan. You’ve got mentions of the I-94, a highway that runs across a few northern states, “Sem-Pond”, a nickname for a small pond in the middle of a Calvin College, and the state’s name itself used multiple times throughout the record. What does Michigan mean to you?
The Rat House serves as a companion piece to 2015’s Bronze Age of the Nineties, hence the dark folk instrumentation. Most of these songs were actually written during the same time as the album but were never released for personal reasons. Because of that the EP sort of lives in its own bubble of space and time that’s now since gone. I still wanted to stay true to the source material and edit and record as if I were currently living there, even if most of the characters have since moved to different parts of the country and some have sadly passed away.
Michigan’s pretty much where I became a full person and it still informs my worldview daily. While I only spent four years there for my undergrad I really connected with it on a deep level and was really intentional about being present for everything I was experiencing. I feel like I was able to live several different lifetimes there and there’s still a whole library of significance to unpack, all of these weird disconnected micro-narratives stored on my mind’s hard drive. As you can probably tell I like to document things.
There’s plenty of loss here as well, lots of apologies I wish I could have but will probably never receive. That’s in these songs as well. Writing about Michigan always excavates difficult feelings I’d sometimes rather forget and I haven’t visited for more than a year now, but I still believe it’s always important to investigate the magic in your life and to discern the events that have shaped you.
You’re behind the ambient project Ministry of Interior Spaces on the side. What is it like creating music for this project vs. the other? Do you go into each with a different mindset each time?
They’re certainly separate approaches to the same source material. Even though it’s technically all music I’m definitely accessing a completely different part of my brain when I operate as either Liance or Ministry of Interior Spaces.
I think it stems down to how songs aren’t always the most appropriate way of approaching certain feelings. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go to sound and trust that it does the job. It’s a bit of an ego release to not have your voice or concrete experiences at the forefront of your music and to be untethered by traditional song structure. This process more closely mimics nature, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that Ministry of Interior Spaces deals more predominantly with the natural world.
A lot of your music seems to be inspired by places that you’ve been to (each song released on MoIS is named after a place or state, and the same concept applies to some of the songs off of Bronze Age of the Nineties and on The Rat House (the titular song, “Bernie Rally”)). How do “places” inspire your work–what stands out to you about them when you’re writing a song?
While I generally tell people that Ministry of Interior Spaces deals with place and Liance deals with memory, place and memory are honestly synonymous. When we replay memories our minds immediately place them in mental maps of the spaces they occurred.
I like including the names of places because it tethers the songs to a shared reality – you can visit the Fieldhouse at GVSU [Grand Valley State University], you can eat at Ike and Jane in Athens or swim in Lake Michigan and walk around Eastown at dark. But you don’t have to do that to understand that they’re real living places and that there are likely equivalents in your own life. Concrete details work well because they’re the medium in which we experience this world. If used wisely they can be stitched together to point towards larger themes and universal experiences, but even on their own they’re useful as an empathetic tool for listeners to anchor themselves in the singer’s shoes.
What is it like working in Brighton now, compared to when you were working in Michigan? What is the music scene like?
Things are both completely different and not different at all. On the surface level I sometimes feel like I’m still in America, like when I’m the only non-white person at an Amen Dunes show or am able to reference It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in casual conversation. But people here are a lot more wary and reserved when it comes to unfamiliar people than Michiganders. It’s been a huge readjustment because I’m essentially learning how to be a foreigner again.
There was a one month period here when I received racist abuse from strangers almost every day. I felt compelled to leave but I simply didn’t know where else to go to. While Brighton may seem like a progressive friendly city from the outside I honestly don’t feel very welcome here, although I’m still trying very hard to make it work.
Brighton’s music scene has some familiar touchstones with West Michigan’s but with notable differences. Ska and drum n bass have healthy followings here, for example, and there’s a local music college that puts out safe iterations of indie rock. DIY exists here as well but people don’t try to sell themselves as “DIY” as strongly as they do in the States, and small artists play in pubs rather than house shows as houses aren’t as big over here. We also host an SXSW-esque festival called The Great Escape which brings in lots of growing bands every May, which is if anything an incredibly inspiring weekend. I’d probably know far more about the scene and play more shows if I wasn’t spending all my weekends working.
The cover artwork, which consists of a hand picking up a telephone among a yellow background, is striking in its simplicity and quite memorable in its presentation. Could you tell us a little bit about what it means, and how it relates to the project?
The album art was made by my illustrator friend Claire Heiney. I was instantly captured by its imagery of communication. As somebody who’s lived in three different countries my friends are consequently scattered across many time zones. Phones are a reoccurring motif in my music as I’m often talking to people I love but haven’t seen in years. No matter where I go there’s always some distance present.
What is it like being an Anglo-Asian operating in the indie music scene today? Do you feel as if the industry’s changed now that there are labels like 88Rising and bands like Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and Rina Sawayama in the public eye?
I’m a big fan of Mitski and especially of Japanese Breakfast – Michelle Zauner is one of the hardest working people in the industry right now. But I feel like they’re the exception to the rule which makes sense as they’re exceptional musicians. And at the risk of being misinterpreted I should probably also observe how the majority of recent Asian indie music success stories have been American women. Which is remarkable as being a woman in the music industry comes with its own layer of incredible challenges that men simply don’t face. But racism is gendered and Asian men are wrongly perceived as weak, emotionally stunted and non-sexual – characteristics that you wouldn’t traditionally want in a frontman – and I speculate that’s why the industry isn’t quite ready to put its weight behind us yet.
I feel there’s been a more proactive effort to be inclusive over the past two years but I don’t believe it’s been effective, or at the very least I don’t think there’s been a discernible difference for most Asian musicians. Indie music is still very much an industry disproportionately represented by white men and there’s a lot of fierce resistance to keep it that way.
However, and perhaps this may be an unpopular opinion, I find that some methods such as affirmative action can be self-defeating at worst and condescending at best. I would never want to be on a bill or label just to fill a superficial diversity quota that has nothing to do with my music. It seems like an uncreative way of building the illusion of diversity. It’s also open to arbitrary value systems: There are many different groups unfairly excluded from mainstream culture, so how do you weigh them against each other? And in the relatively specific case of American college admissions we can see that Asians actually routinely lose out from affirmative action.
I think it’s far more worthwhile to spotlight Asian musicians and stories like this website has been doing and to openly challenge underlying racist assumptions that Asian people aren’t as creative, soulful, or emotional as anybody else. This of course is far slower and much more difficult than methods such as affirmative action, but I believe it’s the only real way to make meaningful lasting change.
What’s your favorite lyric from the new album, and why?
The Rat House‘s title track is an amalgamation of several different threads and unfinished songs and I’m very happy with how it turned out. I’d known that I wanted to write a song about this specific night ever since it happened but couldn’t quite find the right music to fit it – it was only after listening to “Now Only” by Mount Eerie that I found the lyrical rhythm that I’d been searching for. “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun ended up informing the third verse as it shares the same themes of night wandering and loneliness that I wanted the song to convey from the beginning. I also included a layer of Biblical and literary allusion because I enjoy how John Darnielle uses that in his own music, the deliberate intertextuality between myth and “ordinary” life.
If I had a favourite lyric from that song it’d probably be from the second verse:
We’ve all got debts to pay
like Moses when he killed the man and ran away
or when Cassy drove to Athens through the night
telling no one but myself about her new life in the South
What’s your favorite place to go to to get a “chicken salad sandwich and an iced coffee” (lyric taken from “The Rat House”)?
Hah, that’s actually a quote from my friend Cassy who that verse is about. I’d written most of the song already and sent the lyrics over for her consent as it’s a pretty personal story. When she gave the thumbs up I asked more questions just for journalistic accuracy. Cassy told me about getting up and walking to this cafe and having the same incredible chicken sandwich on her own every day, and something about that simple routine and the decision to do it for herself without asking for anyone’s permission stuck with me.
As for myself I’m not really a chicken salad sandwich or iced coffee guy. But give me a flat white and a good taco and my day will have been made.
NOTE: Liance is pronounced LIE-ance.
Check out “Milk”, the first single from The Rat House.
This interview was conducted via email from October 8-23.