Lijie Yang (楊麗潔) received what some would consider the stereotypical upbringing for a child of Chinese immigrants in the US — she was told to get good grades, take piano lessons, strive for a high-paying career as a lawyer or doctor. But if anything truly prepared Yang for her current path, it was the piano lessons.
“My Asian parents had me learn piano thinking it would develop one part of your brain, not really thinking that it would become a career choice,” laughed the 30-year-old American pop-rock musician and songwriter, who performs tonight at Roxy Roots in Taipei. The Taipei Times spoke with her last week on the telephone while she was visiting relatives in Beijing en route to Taiwan for a run of four shows.
Yang says she “always felt something missing” during her college years. After graduating with a finance degree, she decided to pack her bags and move to Los Angeles to start a music career, much to the shock and disappointment of her parents.
She left Los Angeles after several years of waiting tables and performing at open mics and small clubs, but also came away with material for an impressive-sounding solo album, Roam (2005).
Yang’s voice is strong, soulful and velvety smooth, and will draw admiration from musicians and pop-minded music fans alike. Many of her recorded songs are acoustic guitar and piano-driven ballads full of ethereal atmosphere — think Sarah McLachlan — but she can rock out too. On Bar Song, which can be heard on her MySpace page, Yang croons with a cool sultriness that brings to mind Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
Much of Yang’s music is radio-friendly and has plenty of catchy hooks, but she says she’s most attracted to artists who break away from formulaic song structures. She grew up listening to everything from Madonna and Mariah Carey to Pink Floyd and Radiohead, and cites McLachlan and Jewel as her main inspirations as a songwriter.
“When I write a song, the most important thing to me is ... to make people feel something,” she said.
Yang just graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she decided to enroll after working with Erik Colvin, a graduate of the school and the producer of Roam. She saw her two years at Berklee as an opportunity to hone her musicianship further. “It’s great to sing with passion and play with passion but at the same time, if you can play technically well, it just allows so much more artistic freedom.”
It was a fellow Berklee student that brought Yang to Taipei. Guitarist Sahil Mehrotra, whose family lives in the capital, helped set up her gig dates, which also include a show on Sunday at Kafka on the Shore.
Yang says her parents have warmed up to her pursuit of music as a career. And she is more aware than ever of the challenge of making a living as a rock musician, which was one reason she majored in music business at Berklee.
“When I first told my family I wanted to do music, the first thing I heard was ‘Oh my gosh’ do you know how hard this road is going to be? So even though initially you might think it’s not going to be, you hear it so much that it starts to have some effect,” she said. “I do have faith, though, that the music will get out there somehow. I have no idea how, but it will.”
Besides, Yang says, there’s no turning back. “The more I do it, the more I love it. Even the idea, the thought of not doing music, I don’t even really think like that. It’s like someone asking you, have you ever thought about living without your legs? Almost unfathomable.”