Being okay with not knowing: A conversation with Lexi Vega of Mini Trees
Usually you’d hear an artist finding their footing in a debut album. That isn’t so much the case for Los Angeles-based musician Lexi Vega, who performs under the stage name Mini Trees. After two EPs (with Slip Away topping From The Intercom’s Best EPs of 2020), her debut album Always in Motion sees her at her most expressive and contemplative yet. There are elements that those familiar with Vega’s previous work can identify, like the upbeat song dreading events surrounding an ongoing pandemic (“Doomsday”) and open-ended closers that leave listeners with much to think about (“Otherwise”).
This time around, there’s a tangibility around the album’s themes that listeners can grasp and take with them long after the 36 minute runtime. Not knowing what will happen until it happens seems like an abstract statement, but it’s a concept that will feel more palpable even after one listen. In short, Always In Motion feels like you’re just about to reach that light at the end of the tunnel, and even though the brightness can be so blinding after spending so much time in darkness, you still move forward anyway.
We spoke with Vega to discuss easing back into live music, her start in the LA music scene, life growing up with Japanese-Cuban identity, and the inspirations behind her debut album.
FTI: First of all I want to congratulate you on “Cracks In the Pavement”!
Lexi: Thank you!
FTI: How does it feel having that out in the world?
Lexi: It feels good! I think this one felt like a different direction sonically. And I feel like this is a case with a lot of songwriters where we feel like stuff is really different and then the average listener doesn’t really think of it that way. I had a little bit of apprehension about this song when we first worked on it in the studio and when I was first writing it cause for some reason I just felt like it had such a different direction. So I think there was a little bit of apprehension in just releasing it as well as curiosity to how people would respond to it.
As far as I can tell, I think the response has been a positive one from people who follow along but it’s also a kind of weird experience releasing music as we’re exiting quarantine in a way, but also not. It’s exciting and fun to release music always, but also, without the live show element it kind of leaves me feeling a little bit unfulfilled. I think for me everything revolves around getting to actually play music with people in the same room and connect on a more human level directly. When everything exists on the internet, I just miss that aspect of it. I guess it’s kind of a roundabout way of saying I’m excited it’s out, I hope people like it, but I’m also dying to get on the road again and play shows and be with people
FTI: Yeah, I totally get you on that. I really liked the single too. It seemed a bit like, for lack of a better term, darker in a good way. I liked the direction that it was going.
Speaking of live shows, I also wanted to give you kudos on your first live show back a couple days ago with Thao Nguyen!
Lexi: Thanks! Yeah, that was so fun. I mean Thao is incredible so it was really really cool to share the stage. We have another show with Thao in D.C. that I’m really looking forward to, then Thao is also on that Julien Baker tour, so we’ll be playing for those shows as well. Yeah, it was the coolest first show back I could’ve asked for.
FTI: When I was doing some research for this interview, I listened to your interview with Marina (of Witching Hours) and you both mentioned that this LA indie scene you’re involved in is like this Marvel universe… and I was like YES, that’s 100% correct. I was going into this deep dive of LA artists after one of my friends helped promote A.O. Gerber’s album and that’s how I found your stuff, then I found All Things Blue, Jake Tittle, D.C.R. Pollock, Derek Ted, Field Medic, etc. How has the LA scene brought you all together, and what is it like being in that scene?
Lexi: Yeah, everybody is friends and connected, at least in the circle you’re talking about. I feel like I came into it a little bit later because we really didn’t start playing shows until 2019, so a lot of those artists were already somewhat established. I think for me, I used to play drums for All Things Blue and that was how I got more plugged into the LA scene. Before that, I played drums for another band based out of Long Beach called Nebulamigo. We played a lot but we didn’t really break into the LA music scene. It was kinda more like those guys were all from the Long Beach/Orange County area so we kinda just played down there, but that was how I got connected with my friend Jon Joseph, who produces my music. And through him, before Mini Trees, he put me in touch with India from All Things Blue cause she needed a new drummer and so I didn’t know anyone at that point and showed up to rehearsal. The first show I played with them was at the Satellite and that was how I started to meet people in that circle. A lot of those people grew up together and it was really interesting . Everybody in All Things Blue grew up together and Jake Tittle is part of that as well. His little brother Sean Tittle is in the band.
Anyways, there’s kind of like some connection among these people that has been there throughout their entire lives. The rest comes from when you start playing and going to people’s shows. When you’re supporting other local artists and meeting people, it’s like a domino effect that you just click with. Then you start meeting more people and getting invited to open their shows and it’s really organic.
I think people just appreciate when you show up to things. I feel really grateful to have met some amazing friends through it cause, in LA, whether you’re trying to pursue an acting career, or a music career, or any kind of form of entertainment, I think LA has a reputation of people being very kind of narcissistic and pursuing their own success and doing whatever it takes to be successful. I really don’t feel like that’s the case with the people that I’ve found through music. I think everyone’s genuinely supportive of each other and gets really excited for each other’s successes and shows up. I think there’s probably a lot of niche music communities that are like that as well. But yeah, I feel very lucky for the one that I found.
FTI: I read in the album bio that you grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in SoCal, and how your dad is of Cuban descent and your mom is Japanese. So I was wondering what life was like growing up and how navigating your identity was like at that time?
Lexi: So my mom is second generation. My grandma, on my Japanese side, was born here (US) and, with her family, was ripped from her home, and sent to an internment camp in Idaho and had this crazy experience as a child of losing everything. On my dad’s side, he was an immigrant. He and his family immigrated here from Cuba when he was a kid and they were essentially fleeing Castro and having their property seized. They had a really wild experience in getting over here where they had to split the family and half came first then the other half came later. My grandparents lived through such extraordinary things.
Then there’s my childhood which was incredibly normal. Despite what the generations before me had experienced I think both my mom and dad and all my grandparents worked so hard to try to get my sister and I our best chance [in life]. Part of that was my dad became a pretty established professional drummer/session drummer. That was his job and through his success was able to buy a home and raise my sister and I in this town called La Cañada Flintridge which is near Pasadena. It’s a more affluent suburb. His thinking at the time was, “They got really good public schools and it’s safe. That’s the kind of life I wanna give my kids.” My mom had actually been a musician herself. She was a vocalist in this Japanese pop jazz fusion group called Hiroshima. That’s how they actually met, through music, but she quit that when my older sister was born.
Yeah, they wanted the best for us in terms of safety and education and all that, so we were incredibly lucky to be able to live in the suburb I grew up in. But I think, because of living there, we were mostly surrounded by students and family that were predominantly white. There was some diversity but not as much as other parts of LA. A lot of our cousins and family members actually lived around Torrance, which is where I live now actually, so we’d have to drive out to see family. We had a lot of good people around us but I think that I subconsciously felt a little different, like an outsider but there was no aggression or anything like that towards my family or me at any point.
It wasn’t until I got older and later on in life when after my dad passed away and my mom got remarried we moved to a different affluent neighborhood, and then eventually going away to college, and all of these communities I’ve been a part of, up until more recently, I started realizing there were few people in my circle who could ever really understand the things my family went through. Even things like the food that we would eat — and my family would make all kinds of food, not just strictly Japanese — but like the Japanese dishes I grew up eating, just kind of lacked relatability. What started to become really apparent to me was feeling like I was the butt end of everyone’s jokes. And these were people who were my friends and cared for me and loved me and yet like make racist jokes cause it’s like — I don’t know if it’s because they felt like it was more teasing and lighthearted and because I know that they care about me that I wouldn’t take it that way.
I think I put up with it for a long time. I would even make jokes about myself because it would make a good reaction out of people and I think over time I started realizing that “Ooh, I actually hate this. I don’t like how this feels at all” and I wouldn’t have any jokes to make back towards anybody. It was very one-sided. That’s what woke me up a little bit. I also started realizing things about myself through the years. Like I tried to fit in as best as I could, whether that was trying to do my hair exactly like my friends with completely different types of blonde hair that would be configured into a messy bun while I had so much thick hair so it would never look the same. I’d get so frustrated that I couldn’t look like them. I tried to dress like them and I think it was just, all at once I started realizing the ways I wasn’t really proud of my heritage and culture. That started to change a lot, especially after college, and I got to go to Japan with my partner a few years ago and that made me so appreciative of my family and where I come from and the things that made our heritage and culture really unique and special.
But for a lot of my life I never really acknowledged it like I was supposed to. It’s been a long learning process. There’s still so much for me to learn about my Cuban side too. I’m still trying to discover more about my family and about myself and my identity.
FTI: I remember seeing a tweet of yours (LP1 in four albums) and I’m genuinely curious. I can definitely hear Phoenix in there, but did Blue Jean Committee, Kingdom Hearts, and Spongebob really have an influence on the album?
Lexi: We were in the studio that day and joking about it. Phoenix was a real, actual influence, especially with “Carrying On.” With that song the demo I originally wrote felt more similar to my past releases, it was kinda more like “Slip Away.” We were talking about how we could reimagine this one and Jon asked “What have you been listening to lately. Is there any influence you wanna draw from any music?” I was like “Honestly, I’ve been listening to that old Phoenix album and it’d be fun to kinda bring that back.” So we listened to a couple of the songs and that was what informed how we rearranged “Carrying On” and retracted some of the guitar stuff.
The other three… I think we said Spongebob because we had a friend play a lot of pedal steel on this album which we had never done before and that made us think of Spongebob’s music.
For Blue Jean Committee, there’s a couple of songs, “Spring” is one of them, where there’s kind of like a minor chord progression that resolves on a major chord and that’s classic Beatles, but it’s also in a lot of music. Blue Jean Committee is kind of a parody of the Beatles and that era of California music so I think that we started joking about that, especially when we were putting down all the harmonies for it.
Kingdom Hearts, I don’t even remember why that one came up. I played it as a kid, but it was so long ago and I don’t really remember the music so I guess Jon must’ve made that reference and we just threw it in there. If you know the Kingdom Hearts music maybe you can point me in the right direction cause I don’t even remember why we used that one.
FTI: I played Kingdom Hearts a little bit as a kid, so I don’t really remember much of the music either, but there’s this synth progression in “Youth” that vaguely reminded me of Kingdom Hearts maybe?
Lexi: Oh that’s funny, I’ll have to go back and dig up some old gameplay videos or something or maybe look up the theme song.
FTI: What made Always In Motion feel more like an album than an EP? I also read that initially it was going to be an EP.
Lexi: Part of the decision was having so many plans cancelled last year so it was like “Okay, I can still write music and potentially record it.” So it shifted gears in thinking how I can make this year productive and utilize this extra spare time. Part of it was practical but I think in the past when we talked about EPs, they weren’t really intentional bodies of work. It wasn’t necessarily like when I would go into writing an EP it would be like these five songs are all tied to this theme. It was more organic, like I would just write music and if there was a song I like I would make plans to take it into the studio and eventually there would be five songs. It wasn’t super intentional and it was easier for me to fund and record something that was shorter and so that was the workflow that I was in.
So at the beginning of 2020, still being independent and funding everything myself, I wanted to continue recording and releasing stuff, and doing it in EP form was more comfortable for me and something I could feasibly do. When everything shut down I thought, “I think this is a good opportunity to see if there’s more here and put more of my focus on writing.” With that, I started reaching out to labels again cause I did a little bit of that with the Slip Away EP, and I actually already talked to the people at Run For Cover. I knew they liked the music but it was more of a timing thing where it didn’t really work out for the EP. Then I sent them a couple of the new songs that I had worked on and they dug it and were just down to get the ball rolling right away. That helped in terms of knowing that I had some actual financial support to put into recording an album.
It also mentally shifted for me to go into album writing mode. All of the writing I was doing was intentional to fit into this larger theme. It wasn’t something that took a lot of effort in a way because I think naturally writing all the songs out of that era of my life last year kept things pretty closely tied to a certain theme. It naturally really fit the larger theme for the album just by way of me writing all those songs. That was who I was at the time, those were the thoughts I was having, the emotions I was feeling. It came naturally.
FTI: When I was listening through the album, I was reminded of songs from the Slip Away EP. For example, how “Spring” touches on the evolution of long-term relationships and the themes that surround “Garden” and trying to help someone get in a better place. And with “Cracks In The Pavement” it reminded me of “Want Me To Stay” but where “Want Me To Stay” was situated in the present moment of unrequited love, “Cracks In The Pavement” sounded more like a retrospective track looking back at that moment from a more experienced place. Do you think those songs are more evolved versions of those Slip Away tracks?
Lexi: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. I tend to revolve around a lot of these themes in my songwriting, at least up until this point. There are definitely some connections between the EP and the album. It’s interesting you picked up on “Garden” and “Spring”, cause they’re about the same person, my long-term partner. “Garden” was more about – the Slip Away EP had a lot to do with mental health – I think overall darker, slightly more pessimistic body of songwriting, the album is dismal in a lot of the songs too, which is kind of my M.O.
With “Garden” it was a little more desperate reflecting on how I was watching my partner go through anxiety attacks and really wishing I could take that away and fearing losing this person. It was more about caring about somebody so much that you’re afraid to lose them which is sort of talked about in “Spring,” but more in a relational sense, not so much having to do with the loss of this person in an external way or fear around that. It was more reflecting on the bond and attachment that comes with a long-term partner and hoping that never changes, but also recognizing time and maturity and changing over the years. There’s always that potential. So that’s maybe kind of the fear, but at least sonically I try to keep it in a more lighthearted place.
“Cracks in the Pavement” was not about the same person that older songs are about. I think it is a little more mature in that where previous songs were unrequited love songs, “Cracks in the Pavement” started out a reflection on a person I had feelings for and I started going down that path. Then the overall message changed where it was less so much about heartache and “I wish I could be with this person” and wallowing in that, and more of a reflection on “What is it that I’m feeling” on a deeper level. “What hole in my life am I trying to fill, what satisfaction am I looking for?” Kind of resolving this note of, “Being with this person will not solve this feeling.”
There was more to deal with internally at that time; it wasn’t something circumstantial that needed to be resolved. It was something internal in thinking that I was dealing with looking towards this person as being the solution like, “If only we were together we’d be happy” but it was more the realization that “That’s not the solution to my problem, there’s more work to be done on myself. I’m not going to find that satisfaction going down this path.” Maybe that was the evolution that you can maybe see with “Cracks in the Pavement” as opposed to older songs like “Want Me To Stay” where it was more like a heartache song.
FTI: In the album bio it mentioned towards the end of the album that you like leaving projects open-ended. I definitely heard that in “Honestly” and how your vocals would fade out asking all these questions.
Then in “Otherwise”, there’s this open-endedness, but there’s more of an acceptance that feels tangible. Like there’s this solid feeling that is present throughout the album. This concept of “not knowing what you don’t know until you get there.” Is that the central concept/theme of Always in Motion?
Lexi: Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of interesting trying to put myself back in that place when I was writing the Slip Away EP, writing “Honestly,” and then trying to compare that to where I was at when I was writing the album. Not that much time has passed between the two: I think it was a year or maybe even less than a year. One of the major themes of the album that’s definitely touched on in “Otherwise” is this acceptance in not knowing, or it’s this tension at times being very – like “Doomsday,” despite it being a very fun sounding song, is like a big panic attack about fearing who I was losing in the pandemic. That also goes with “Carrying On.” Those are songs where I’m very not comfortable with the idea of uncertainty and not knowing what’s coming.
Whereas in songs like “Otherwise” it’s either an acceptance of it or maybe just surrendering to it. In a way it’s acceptance, but it’s still a struggle to be okay with that. When I reflect on myself now since writing that song for the album, I think I’ve been able to move a little more towards genuine acceptance and peace in accepting, where I don’t think I had quite arrived at yet with the album but I think I was working towards it.
That song I wrote – actually I talked to her about it, I think that she’d be comfortable with me mentioning it – that song I actually wrote about my friend Sarah from illuminati hotties because her mom passed away last year. A few friends and I went to go see Sarah a week or a couple of weeks after that had happened and we brought dinner over and we were just trying to show up for her. It was this wild night where her dog and her partner’s dog attacked a skunk and both of them got sprayed and we were only hanging outside because it was still the summer of last year.
So we were hanging out, enjoying our time together, then the dogs got sprayed by a skunk and it’s the most gnarly smell I’ve ever experienced. It was so horrible. So we’re all panicking and one of the dogs somehow got into the house running around and rubbing the skunk odor all over the house. Someone went to get cleaning solution and then vinegar – I forget what you’re supposed to get for skunk spray – but everyone was just frantically running around, trying to clean up after these dogs and wash them, this was all at Sarah’s house. After a while, I realized that she’s not here like “Where did she go?” so we settled down, still smelling horrible but in a slightly better place. So I was just like “I’m gonna walk around and try to find her” and went out into the street and saw her there and sat down next to her.
She had been doing okay all night. That was just something that put her over the edge cause that was so stressful with the loss being so fresh. For me it was interesting to watch your close friend go through a similar loss that I had gone through. The way in which we lost our parents were really different and mine was so long ago, but oftentimes when I have a friend who goes through something like that there’s this sense of kinship with them, at least a basic understanding of what that’s like and how much it sucks.
In trying to comfort her and provide some sense of hope that things will get better, I think it was also apparent that I wasn’t even sure if I believed in that myself because of how much I, to this day, really struggle to make peace with losing my dad. So it’s kind of like this tension where I really want to tell my friend that everything’s going to be okay but I’m not totally sure that I’m convinced of that being true. How do you comfort your friend when you don’t know if you can truthfully tell them that it’s going to be okay? It’s like this existential crisis of a song.
If I were to write that now, I think that there maybe would have been a little bit more of a sense of peace and acceptance. At that time I was definitely more unsure of that. Yeah, that’s kind of the bigger story around that song.
I don’t think that song would be the one that I’d pick out of the bunch to represent the whole album on a sonic level, but thematically it’s pretty central to the overarching themes.
FTI: What is your favorite song on the album at the moment?
Lexi: That’s a good question. I feel like it changes and also there’s certain songs that I’m excited to play live, but wouldn’t necessarily be my favorite song. I’m definitely excited to play “Doomsday” live. I think that’s going to be really fun. Just to have something that’s more upbeat and dancey. I think I’m gonna have my friend go up on stage and play conga with us. That’s gonna be super fun.
I think maybe track one, “Moments In Between.” It was actually the very first song I wrote for this album cycle. It’s a shorter song, it’s not a terribly different sounding song from my previous stuff, but I think when I reflect on that one, there was stuff that was coming out at a time when I was like a ball of anxiety at the beginning of quarantine. That song was really an attempt to pull myself out of that and to try to remember that I never lived through a global pandemic before, but also reflecting on the challenging and really difficult experiences I have lived through, that my family went through and tell myself that I’m going to make it through. I’m kind of surprised that at the time in my life I was trying to pull myself out of that anxious place. And I think re-listening to it kind of made me feel comforted in a weird way. That’s what I hope it does for other people too, that listening to it could be somewhat comforted or encouraged by it.
There’s a lot of other songs that weren’t going to be singles that are special to me even though they may not be the ones I’d put as highlights. “Underwater” is one of those songs I’m excited for people to hear. I’m excited about how that one turns out.
This interview was conducted by Karolyn Jaranilla via phone on August 25, 2021. Header photo by Danielle Parsons. Other press photos by Nina Raj and Shab Ferdowsi.
Always in Motion is out now via Run For Cover Records.