With the advent of YouTube in 2005, the world quickly saw a quiet surge of everybody flinging their creative work into the universe. It suddenly became easy for people who never had a worldwide platform to step onto one.
But not without some strangeness.
I remember uploading an audition video to YouTube for the CBC TV show Cover Me Canada and somebody commented that I was an “Asian Lady Gaga.” Suddenly I felt self-conscious. I was just being me: a young singer-pianist with a sassy personality.
Why did the fact that I was Asian have to qualify me in comparison to another bold songwriter and performer? I’m not an Asian version of anybody. I’m just me.
Before YouTube and other online platforms, Asian Canadian female musicians were often overlooked. I’m here to tell you that we are all here, and there’s room for more than one of us.
We are a mix of individuals with unique voices and personal stories to tell. We are not Asian versions of anybody except ourselves.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are fourteen emerging female Asian Canadian artists to follow.
Toronto neo-soul artist Charlotte Fabro lights up the day with her fresh debut single, “Tomorrows,” a picture-perfect song for grooving to the sunrise, written from the perspective of a guiding mother comforting her child. Charlotte leaves no corner of the stage untouched at her live shows, making us anticipate this singer-songwriter-guitarist’s debut EP releasing soon.
Brooklyn-based and Vacouver-raised May Cheung coalesces her musical upbringing of jazz, soul, and experimental music in her debut folk album, “The Departure,” a wise and intricately crafted body of work that paints a wistful landscape of deep-seated stories. From the nostalgic music video of the title track to the song she wrote based on a poem by Leonard Nimoy, “A Thousand Years,” The Huffington Post praises May’s “delicate and consoling vocals” and highlights her all-star production team including Chris Gehringer (Katy Perry, Rihanna).
Mandy W is the mysterious persona behind postmoderndisco, an endlessly talented music composer and producer of atmospheric electronic beats. Her latest release Haze features powerhouse vocalist Jennah B and Esther Khew on french horn, defying the borders of genre and beatmaking. Between moonlighting as a film score composer, custom crochet artist, and music educator, there’s always some kind of secret surprise up postmoderndisco’s sleeve.
Emily M Cheung
The magnificent clarity of Emily M Cheung’s higher-than-angels soprano voice paints a picture of outstanding beauty in her debut single, “Lakmé and Mallika,” which arrived with an enchanting music video produced in the mountainous landscape of Rattlesnake Lake in Washington State. The classically-trained singer has sung in more than 31 countries, performed as a soloist in a private concert for the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and been featured in the 2019 Volvo SUV commercial singing the Queen of the Night aria.
Committed to playing her part in building a “dominant global culture of peace and respect for all life,” Luyos MC is a contemporary explorer of Manuvu and Moro kulintang — a name for both the music composed and the instrument itself, which is a set of vertically-hung, tuned, knobbed-brass gongs of the indigenous Lumad people of the Philippines. Crossing genres from ambient to hip hop to experimental, Luyos MC’s chosen path to regenerate pre-colonial culture integrates electronics, spoken word, and a creative emphasis on original compositions and sonic healing landscapes in the name of realizing truth through “soft power.”
Alt-pop artist Aiko Tomi is gearing up to release her debut single, “Lotto,” at the end of March 2020. It’s a wanderlusty retro-future anthem that’s equally arty, gritty, and fun — a playful wink and a sincere nod to the experience of exploring artistic and cultural identity. A collection of songs are set for release in the coming months, featuring eclectic themes and Tomi’s adventurous energy. Meanwhile, she’s shared a raw and heartfelt late-night creation on her Soundcloud page.
Vocalist, composer, improviser, and arranger of orchestral works of her own and commissioned by Roomful of Teeth, Mingjia is a pianist, guzheng player and visual artist. Her debut EP “feel seen”is her first time as a large ensemble bandleader. She can also be spotted in the music video by Pleasure Craft, an 80s-infused alt-pop band from Toronto. My favourite live video of her is of Extended Layover, a raw and mesmerizing original duet with pianist James Fernando.
Sarah Thawer has organically grown 18.9K YouTube subscribers from the throne of her main instrument, the drum set, but she started as a pianist and singer raised on Indian grooves and rhythms. Her insatiable appetite for music ranges from jazz, gospel, hip hop, prog rock, to Cuban music. Her monstrously joyful playing has already taken her to places such as Portugal as a special guest artist at Jubilee Arts Festival and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as the drummer for Tegan and Sara.
Yunjin Claire Lee
Yunjin Claire Lee is a Korean-Canadian pianist, keyboardist, sound-designer, composer, and producer. Based in Toronto, she is a sought-after collaborator that creates evocative, textural, and electrifying soundscapes. Her projects include the live recording of her ambient original, Launching in 12, the playful weaving of synths, voice, and the Permut8 on flyormosquito from her debut album Voluntary Response, and the team effort that is Sam Tudor’s live-off-the-floor music video, Wading.
Eunice Keitan is an indie, R&b, world folk singer-songwriter, and serial D.I.Y. punk rocker at heart. Her song “Hope is a Bird” is an authentically-charged melody that gathers a soulful community of people who each sing a line of the song based on an Emily Dickinson poem. Montreal-born with an international upbringing, Keitan was nominated for a Toronto Independent Music Award for her earlier EP Where The Road Begins and is the spearheading force of deep listening behind the far too relatable YouTube series, “Too Broke For Therapy.”
And Phung is proof that a millennial can amass a worldwide following before having her own Instagram account. Letting her language of the flute speak for itself, she’s been a session musician for more than 30 recording projects in the past year alone and toured globally while mixing genres like folk, performance art, hip hop (she’s been scouted by Erykah Badu), heavy rock, metal (check her viral Jethro Tull tribute band), and jazz. She also sings, plays mandolin, accordion, double bass, synths, and is a rising shuffle dancer. But back to the flute; with her recent foray into effect pedals, Steve Vai recently became aware of her, as he should.
Those who knew the zany, fire-breathing lead vocalist of Sekoya are the loyal fans who recognized the recent re-emergence of Canada’s First Lady of Modern Funk, Amalia. Her song “Sanctify,” an electrifying dance banger, is already sold-out on vinyl. It’s the kind of music that grooves and swings so deep, it makes your soul jiggle. Rumour has it more is on the way from this “#1 Diva Worldwide” (MTV Iggy, New York), who is a singer, songwriter, DJ, and producer.
Ottawa multi-instrumentalist Gloria Guns lived in Nunavut working as a poverty lawyer and her experiences in the Arctic inspired her to write two full albums for her dream-pop shoegaze band, Scary Bear Soundtrack. The band’s most recent single and music video, pyongyang explores the capital city of North Korea with puppetry and vivid synths. Listening to the band’s latest album, boomerang kids, it’s no wonder that Gloria, whose songs are propelled by social justice, also has a passion for writing public legal education materials as accessible cartoons.
I’m impatiently waiting for more of the world to discover Jaqueline Teh. Her deeply moving songwriting is paired with tender vocals and a highly understated piano self-accompaniment that weaves a delicious harmonic language system. Her 30-day song challenge, “Love is a colour” is a mix of R&B and neo-soul with some jazz influence. According to her, it explores “different aspects of love represented by colours to offer a visual connection to the music.”
Be sure to support these artists and other female artists on International Women’s Day and year-round!
Cover image photo credit: Jeremy Lim
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