Magdalen Hsu-Li is an Asian-American music artist who is quickly becoming a star in the acoustic/pop/folk/alternative genres. Her music is known for its sexy, soaring vocals and gritty, angst-filled lyricism. She is opening new doors of expression for Asian Americans on the music scene.
Magdalen began her artistic life as a painter and visual artist. Graduating with a BFA in Painting from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI, she won the coveted Oxbow Fellowship, Talbot Rantoul Scholarship and Florence Leif Scholarship for Excellence in Painting. In 1992 she migrated to Seattle, WA and became immersed in the legendary Seattle music scene of the early 90’s. She began her study of jazz and classical music at Cornish College of the Arts, and was the recipient of the 1995 Cornish Music Scholarship.
In 1997, Magdalen founded Chickpop Records. That same year she founded Femme Vitale, The Seattle Women’s Music and Arts Coalition, a women’s arts advocacy organization that won a Special Projects Grant from the King County Arts Commission.
Her music continues to received outstanding reviews in Curve, The Advocate, Performing Songwriter, A Magazine, Rockrgrl, Voice of America, Dish Magazine, Alice, Girlfriends, Yolk, Bamboo Girl, and Women’s Monthly, and in hundreds of newspapers across the country.
Magdalen’s live shows are powerful, magical, high energy events featuring piano, guitar, vocal, and drumset duos, four piece band arrangements, thought provoking poetry readings with elements of comedic standup, and spiritually rousing percussion and drum improvisations.
Born in America’s rural South to Dr. and Mrs. George Tze-Ching Li, Magdalen was raised in one of the only Asian families in Martinsville, VA. In her formative years.
there has not yet been that one music artist that has the power to break through on a mainstream level. I’m surprised by that to be quite honest.
Asiance: Magdalen, let me first say what an honor it is to make your acquaintance. I am originally from New York and moved south. I know it is a bit of a culture shock. You battled racism and prejudice as well as a personal disability. Was it difficult growing up Asian in the South?
Magdalen: It was difficult growing up in the South. I didn’t experience racism until around age 12….but then again a lot of things happened at that age including the onset of Tourettes syndrome. Having Tourettes made me more of a target at school than just “being Asian” might have. I think that anything that sets you apart and makes you noticeably different in some way is challenging to many people living in the South. My experience living there has been very different than my experiences living in the northeast and west coast.
Asiance: For your new album, “Smashing the Ceiling” you have written, “when I was writing the songs on this album, I felt I was experiencing a kind of quantum leap or personal gestalt. There were so many breakthroughs that happened to me personally, emotionally, musically, & spiritually. I am a person that is about breaking barriers. That’s why I chose to call it “smashing the ceiling”. What obstacles have you overcome and what do you attribute your success to?
Magdalen: First off….I felt I made some great leaps as a songwriter during the writing and making of that album. Also, I felt that at the end of the album there were some personal goals that I was really inspired to accomplish which I was able to accomplish. I finished my music degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.9 GPA. I won the Berklee BAS scholarship and the Jack Maher Songwriting Scholarship. That was a promise I had made to myself …to finish my music degree….many years back when I quit music school and leaped into touring full time. I think some of the greatest obstacles are the ones inside of us. I needed to grow as a songwriter and musician and finishing my degree at such a cool school helped me to overcome some inner demons that had been haunting me for years!
Asiance: Will “Smashing the Ceiling” help others to battle their own demons?
Magdalen: Hmm…I’d say that that’s up to the listener and what they glean from my songs. I know for a fact that some of the songs helped a personal friend of mine get over her very bad breakup. And I know from hearing from fans that some of them have found the songs on the album to be very uplifting and inspiring….especially “No Ordinary Girl” and “Mary Magdalene”. If the album helps people to “smash” their own ceilings….that would be great!
Asiance: You are known for your music but also for your painting, poetry, singing and song writing. Tell us about your music, how would you best describe it?
Magdalen: My music comes from a very pure place inside of me. I would describe it as ethereal, positive, and uplifting in sound. Challenging and thought provoking when political or social in context, three dimensional and painterly in regards to the images it evokes. I love Sus 2, Sus 4, and Minor 9 chords.
Asiance: Do you enjoy the process of writing the music and lyrics more than performing?
Magdalen: Most definitely. I always feel a certain amount of anxiety before giving a performance….mostly because I am always wanting to please the promoter and do a great job for them and the audience. I rarely get anxious about performing well for myself….I always feel a great deal of commitment and anxiety about doing a great job for others.
Asiance: You started Chickpop records in 1997. Has it been difficult working in the business side of music?
Magdalen: Well business and entrepreneurship runs in my family…so in light of that, business comes easily to me. On the other hand, running a small business and making it work every year especially through this economic downturn in America….that’s been challenging for everyone I know really. Luckily, I started my business when the economy was good in the late 90’s and that was a blessing. I think the most difficult thing for me has been the constant travel. I’ve developed ways of dealing with it but some of them would make people laugh. I always bring my own pillow and sheets to every hotel I stay in….and eat organic food on the road. That can be really challenging in many rural parts of this country (finding organic food).
Asiance: There are only a few Asian-American musicians working in the industry today. More seem to be making in-roads. Do you think the situation is improving?
Magdalen: I do think the situation is improving. However there has not yet been that one music artist that has the power to break through on a mainstream level. I’m surprised by that to be quite honest.
Asiance: Any advice for aspiring artists who may want to follow in your footsteps?
Magdalen: I would develop some business acumen. If it doesn’t come naturally to you….take a business or marketing class….remember….Doctors and lawyers have to “start up” their practices and businesses from scratch if they decide to go that route…so do artists. If you encounter obstacles…try to find ways around them. Artists should drop the “starving artist” mythology and silence those around them that feed them that mentality. It’s a very damaging and negative mentality and very unrealistic. As soon as you drop the “I can’t do business” mentality….you’re well on your way to being a successful artist. Some of the wealthiest people in the world started with a “creative” idea (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs)…..why artists get fooled into not using their own creativity in business is beyond me. Their ability to think creatively is their most valuable asset and gives them an edge over other people.
Asiance: What is next for you?
Magdalen: Well I just had a little boy…He is amazing and it was an experience I’ll never forget. I am trying to figure out if I should write a book or what the next step is. For the next year, I’m not touring much at all due to raising him. I’m very happy to experience motherhood!!!!