New Sensations

Lucinda Chua: ‘I felt ready to make music without needing to ask permission’

The classically trained cellist and composer dreams up other worlds with her vast ambient pop. Following the release of her critically acclaimed debut, she speaks to Annabel Nugent about delving into her heritage, learning something new, and her “hardcore” Chinese cello teacher

Sunday 13 August 2023 07:04 BST
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<p>Lucinda Chua: ‘I like that feeling of transport: how music can take you outside of your existence'</p>

Lucinda Chua: ‘I like that feeling of transport: how music can take you outside of your existence'

When Lucinda Chua recorded YIAN, her subtle, searching debut album, it felt like an escape. Confronted with the pandemic, the London-based cellist and composer retreated to the studio where she built a world of her own. “I was making a place that I could return to in my imagination, somewhere I could just let go and lose myself,” says Chua, over a milky coffee one cloudy afternoon in London. “I like that feeling of transport: how music can take you outside of your existence.”

Even now, as the pandemic continues to shrink in our rearview mirror, the 37-year-old’s ambient pop remains a refuge. Her album asks listeners to pause their daily mindless fretting. Tune out to tune in. Building on two well-received EPs and following a stint as FKA Twigs’ resident cellist on tour, YIAN is both a culmination of Chua’s experience and of the buzz that has long surrounded her. Largely self-produced, the album has garnered rave reviews, with critics repeatedly admiring her nebulous style. YIAN is sparse and drifting. Many songs are anchored only by her vibrating cello and empathic vocals. Reverb and delay abound. It’s beautiful to listen to, yes, but there is also an urgency beneath the tranquil waters of Chua’s graceful arrangements – one that belies the idea of ambient music as passive.

There is intention behind YIAN – purpose gleaned in lyrics that tell stories rooted in Chua’s autobiography. Born to a Chinese-Malaysian father and white British mother, she wades confidently into the confusion that can come with biracial identity. She asks questions but turns up no answers, reconciling instead with the ambiguity she finds. Lead single “Echo” is a pop song about ancestral trauma, while “Golden” is an orchestral lullaby on which Chua soothes her younger self: “You know it’s not your fault.” She didn’t set out to address any one thing on her debut, though. “I actually got pretty far in before I realised what it was about,” she recalls. “And after that, everything else felt trivial.”

Named after Chua’s middle name in Mandarin, YIAN translates to swallow, a migratory bird whose image flits between many of the album’s tracks. “I really resonated with the symbol of the swallow being this songbird that lives between two places and the idea of feeling at home in both but belonging to neither.” Casting her eyes upwards at the clouds above us, “The sky also is this in-between space – but it’s also a home in itself, you know?”

Excavating “yian” and its meanings was a formative process for Chua. “It’s one of the first times I’ve dug into my identity just for me,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that being mixed-race, it’s hard to talk about yourself without using your parents as evidence. Even saying that I’m ‘half Chinese’, I’m already bisecting myself into two fractions. You refer to your attributes as being your Chinese side or your English side. You think, well what happens in the future when I don’t have my parents with me? Am I still a person? So I’m trying to tap into my heritage and build my own relationship with it separate from my parents.” In a similar vein, she visited China on her own recently. “I’m learning about the culture through my own eyes, rather than being seen through the eyes of someone looking at me.”

Chua arrived at this point in her career by way of classical, punk rock and chamber pop. She was three years old when she learnt to play piano by ear. Every morning at breakfast, she would listen to a cassette tape of all the classical pieces she would be learning. Chua discovered cello on a family day out in Covent Garden; a string quartet was playing “Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major”. Her parents said she could only take up a new instrument if she stuck with the piano until her 10th birthday. And she did so, happily.

Chua was 15 when she started regularly gigging, playing the cello in several bands first at home in Milton Keynes and later in Nottingham, where she moved to study photography at university. “I was even in a Nirvana tribute band. It was great,” she smiles. “My second ever gig in Nottingham was opening for Martha Wainwright at The Rescue.” Felix, her chamber pop two-piece, signed to an indie label in the US on a two-album deal – but even Felix started as a solo project, only expanding out of necessity.

Lucinda Chua: 'Sometimes I feel that being mixed-race, it’s hard to talk about yourself without using your parents as evidence’

“When it came to playing live, I couldn’t play all the parts myself so then it became a band, and then it grew as that,” she says. “But after that second record, I felt ready to do something in my own voice. I felt ready to make music without needing to ask permission, but it was definitely a long journey of figuring out what that voice was – and within that time, I guess I was growing and changing.” Chua’s vocals, which typically lay low in the mix of a Felix song, surge to the surface on her solo output. Her voice stretches to fill in the silences between her notes, as if in conversation with the instruments.

Chua is one to take things slow. Lately, she has been basking in post-release joy. Not because YIAN has received stellar reviews, but because she can now get back to creating without any end goal. “It feels nice to just live life as an artist. To play for the love of it without the pressure of making anything,” she says. “Thinking about the industry isn’t always the best creative catalyst. At the moment in the studio, it feels like anything is possible. It’s exciting to break habits and try new things.” Recently, she began lessons in Chinese dance and Chinese cello. “My teacher is really hardcore so if I’m not doing it right, she’ll let me know. Very different from English teachers.” Chua laughs. “But it’s all about getting back to a beginner’s mindset. It’s my favourite place to be.”

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