“For me, I think that my lyrics are, a lot of the time, train-of-thought and really focused on like just telling exactly how I feel.” This is singer-songwriter Emily Li, but you probably know her as Emei.
Emei is a Spotify Salt playlist fave (more on that later) and the kind of alt-pop singer that just makes you feel like her music gets you. Known for lyrics that tackle those questions about life that come with transition and feeling like you need to keep up with those around you like, “So many people are famous. Should I be trying to be famous?” or “Is being ‘that girl’ really that achievable?,” Emei is that singer pseudo-best friend that knows how to put exactly what you’re thinking into lyrics.
It took time for Emei to find this sound, though. Obsessed with music from the time she got her first pink Dell laptop at 9 years old, she spent hours watching music and lyric videos. Emei, with the support of her parents, would take on vocal lessons (she originally learned to sing in Mandarin), live performances, and even Chinese Idol (she came in third, by the way) all by the age of 15.
It wasn’t until she was 16 that Emei started to chase her own sound. “When I was a kid, it was kind of just me being ‘I like to sing la la la,’ so there wasn’t really much thought into it other than I loved singing and it was so much fun for me and it was everything I wanted to do,” she shared. “But then when I did the whole reality TV thing, and I realized it was really exhausting… especially as a 15-year-old.”
She says these experiences made her value performance more and have influenced how she plans her performances to make them exciting and energetic, but Emei came back wanting to write. “When I was at Idol, I was kind of more so used as a doll, so to speak, like an actor almost,” she told us. “They would give me a character, almost, to act like and songs that would fit the character, and it didn’t feel like it was me. It didn’t feel like I was performing what I wanted to perform or wearing what I want to wear or saying what I want to say, and so when I came back and I started writing, I realized that was very important to me, just creative control and writing my own style of music and saying what I want to say in my music.”
This drive is what gives Emei her writing routine. When she goes into a session, she’s usually starting from scratch, and she’s working with whatever is going through her head at the time. “I’m like, ‘this is how I’m feeling today,’…’this is the thing that I’m feeling the strongest about and I would love to go into.’ It often is something going wrong in my life. It’s often a stupid thing that goes wrong in my life, and then we kind of start from there and extract what that means or why I’m feeling so annoyed about it or frustrated.” It’s this process that gives us Emei’s “anthem-y” lyric-focused songs like “Late to the Party” and “That Girl.”
Emei also recently graduated from Yale with a degree in cognitive science. Even though she’s “all music all the time” now, Emei decided on a traditional college experience, and while she doesn’t see herself going into the field she got her degree in, it does come through in her music. Emei told us, “I think I was just very drawn to psych and how humans work and how human brains work,” and lyrically, she’s into very similar things, “capturing life” in her songs.
“I’m just that girl who tries like way too damn hard” is Emei’s favorite line from her most recent single “That Girl,” an amped-up nobody’s perfect anthem that you can’t help but scream along to. Matched with a retro, pin-up meets 60s housewife meets Barbie aesthetic, “That Girl” was inspired by a day in Malibu when Emei decided she was going to read poetry, journal, and “do all the things” on the beach only to spend the whole day on her phone. Turns out that being the hyperproductive version of yourself isn’t as easy as any of us want it to be.
“I ended up spending like four hours on the beach just fully on my phone scrolling through Instagram, and I got home and I was like ‘What!? Why did I do that?'” Emei shared. “I was just frustrated with myself and why I couldn’t be that person or do that thing. And so when we were writing the song, it actually started in a first-person narrative…I was just describing the person I would love to be or the person that I really want to be, and then I wanted it to just go into ‘this is who I want to be and I’m struggling really super hardcore and I don’t know why and it’s frustrating,’ and that’s kind of how we started.”
It wasn’t until she’d already started writing that Emei learned she wasn’t the only person chasing this idealized self. “Liiv, the other writer on the song, was like ‘Oh wait, this is fully the That Girl trend. You’re just describing what everyone wants to be on TikTok,’ and I was like ‘Ooh!'”
Being frustrated and realizing that this is something everyone is after is really what Emei wants people to take from “That Girl.” “I think I will always be chasing that. I feel like it’s just part of human nature…Everybody wants to be this person, and it’s just objectively unattainable to always be that person, and you can try—and it’s good to try. I think it’s always healthy to strive for that or whatever, but there’s an element of just being forgiving of yourself and being like, ‘You know what, today I just want to sleep in until it’s like dark out.’ You know? I just want to do that and that’s ok.”
“That Girl” marks where Emei is heading with music, visually and soundwise. She shared that a lot of it relates to her phase of life. “I’m working on a project right now, and this next project is basically going to be about that transition and going from college and now living on my own and being an adult and all this stuff. I feel like I’ve graduated a bit, in regards to literally graduating and also music and how I’m feeling and what I’m writing about.”
But wait, slow down. Emei is still celebrating graduation (even if only lightly) and recently not only making Spotify’s Salt playlist but also ending up on the cover of it. “It’s so crazy because they don’t email you. You are not notified! You just pull up Spotify and you’re like ‘That’s my face…Salt was the playlist that I was inspired by when I was making alt-pop. Before ‘Late to the Party’ came out, Salt was the playlist that I wanted to get on.”
We’ll be fully immersed in even more new music soon. Since the release of “That Girl,” Emei has moved to LA and been steadily working on songs. “Me writing for six months and not putting out new music means that I have been sitting on a lot of music, so when ‘That Girl’ was written and some other songs were written, I decided that I want to start releasing again, and so with ‘That Girl”s release, it’s basically like just the start. There’s a lot coming and it’s gonna come pretty fast. I’m excited about that and I hope other people are excited too!”
From “That Girl” to “Trust Issues” (pre-save now), more Emei anthems are on the way. Look out, Salt. Here she comes.