Sometimes the most incredible conversations happen by accident. A chance browse through some emails led me to a young woman named Tigerlily. A singer/songwriter from Seattle. Simple enough in description. But trust me when I say, this young woman is no simple artist. With a name like Tigerlily one could forgive you for thinking she’s more of a warrior princess than a pop singer. And in some ways, you’d be right. What follows is a pared-down version of one of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had with an artist.
Tigerlily: A Small Introduction
“A little about me” Tigerlily begins. “I started out making music when I was really, really young. I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. But I really got into music when I was in middle school, which is when I formed the band Bleachbear. I formed it with my younger sister and cousin. And I did that for,” she pauses for a moment, then as if the realization takes her aback. “it was about seven years. We were a dream-pop grunge band, that’s’ what we called ourselves.
“Then I took a break from music for a while and studied abroad for a bit. Then I came back. At this point my sister and my cousin were living on different coasts, and I moved out to NYC. I really missed being in music, so I thought, ‘I wanna do something completely different and do it as a solo project and focus on pop music.’”
Tigerlily Is Inspired
When you say the word Seattle, most music fans leap right into memories of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But Bleachbear, with their self-described “dream-pop grunge” sound, made quite a name for themselves in grunge mecca. “Seattle Weekly” named them Seattle’s Best Underground Band, and they were finalists in Seattle’s Sound Off! All one has to do is listen to their music to understand why one of the most music-rich cities in the States was head-over-heels for the trio. A surprising mix of grunge and ‘60’s-inspired doo wop isn’t something you hear everyday.
“It’s so funny because growing up my dad, he raised us on all the classics,” Tigerlily says. “So I grew up watching the Live Aid concert, listening to Queen and David Bowie. Then Nirvana, all those local bands. He also showed us bands like the Ronettes and all these ’60s groups. I had a lot of interesting influences, and they kind of all came together on the first record. I said, ‘I wanna do stuff that will sound like Nirvana, like the grunge stuff.’ For the second one, I was like, ‘Let’s combine California surf rock and add in some ’60s group three-part harmony.’ We were like 13 and 15 years old having these inspirations that were these old groups.”
“We’re gonna do this!”
Thirteen and fifteen! How does one have the actual gall at that age to decide she’s going to be a rock star? And mean it!
“It was some time in elementary school. I was thinking to myself, ‘Who’s the most famous person I know?’ And I remember the only person I could think of at the time was Michael Jackson. So I was doing the math and was like, ‘You know, I’m still pretty young. I feel like I can pull this off.’” Now that’s a young lady who knows what she wants! It’s crazy to think she was that serious at such a young age. “I was thinking about it realistically,” Tigerlily says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I could totally do this. Like, I’m ahead of things, I’m ahead of the curve. We’re gonna do this!’”
Then convinced her younger sister and cousin to go along with it.
“I did,” Tigerlily exclaims. “At the time when I had this idea there weren’t a lot of other people — I mean, we were in elementary school — there weren’t a lot of people who played instruments, and nobody was really gung-ho about becoming a rock star. So I was like, ‘No one’s serious enough.’ And I got tired of waiting around.
“By the time I graduated elementary school, I was like, ‘I’m getting old! I can’t wait around too long. My time is running out. Michael Jackson started way before me at this point.’ So I went to my cousin and was like, ‘That’s it! You have to do this. You have to take up drums and bass.’”
Forgive me for saying so, but I swear your bias could never! Tiger’s bravado at 15 most people in their 30s still don’t have. You have to admire the spirit.
A Family Affair
“The funny thing is I had all these rules up even as a little kid,” she says. “Like ‘No chewing gum.’ We were so serious. I would have us practicing all day long. It was like band boot camp. It was just so funny. We had our rules, we had our outfits and our themes. We got so close, though, because we got through some weird stuff together.
“My cousin brought up [something] the other day. I forgot she’d done something during band practice, and we outed her. She ran into the band booth. We thought she had run away, so we were looking for her for four hours. Then she popped out of the booth and was like, ‘Oh, hey guys.’ There’s so many weird memories.”
The memories bring an obvious smile to Tiger’s face even over the phone. However, it’s not just her road to music that’s unique. She grew up in a household that never discouraged any dream. No matter how outlandish. I mean, TIger’s back-up plan was to become a professional ice cream taster if music didn’t work out. A very realistic child, obviously. Her family stood behind her all the way, no matter her aspirations. As far as most Korean musicians (at least those I’ve spoken to), this isn’t the norm.
“My parents loved it too. No one in my family comes from a musical background, so they were just kinda, ‘This is out of left field. We don’t know what’s going on, but we’re down.’ They’d show up to all the concerts, and my grandma would show up and dance. She was always confused about why we were in a band, but she was like, ‘This is kinda cool.’”
Same Mess, Different Day
Even Tiger’s decision to step away from music for a while wasn’t a product of parental pressure. It was in fact because she couldn’t relate to any of the artists around her that she took time to reevaluate her place in the industry.
“I started noticing, the older I got, there was no one else that looked like us. And I know a lot of people were like, ‘Well, I don’t know if this might work. If this is ever something a label would pick up.’ I remember when we did Battle of the Bands they suggested that we move to Japan and become a J-pop group. And that’s just so far off of what we did. Like what in the world are you talking about? I’d have to uproot my entire life from Settle and move countries. And they were like, ‘Yeah, we think you’d have a lot of potential there.’ People really didn’t get the idea of a three-piece Asian-American rock band. People were like, ‘Yeah, this is cool, but I don’t know where this fits in the industry.’”
It’s an unfortunate aspect of the industry. Many musicians slog through the mess only to find themselves even more discouraged in the end. Tiger, however, was against so much more than a narrow-minded perspective of her musical identity.
“I feel like there were two places where I was facing opposition,” she says. “One was from being Asian American. The other was from being a woman in music. Being a woman in music, it was always that people were only fixated on our appearance. The feedback we’d get all the time would be about how we look. I was like, ‘This is crazy. I’m up here doing guitar solos and playing piano and guitar.’ Nobody wanted to talk about the music. They only wanted to talk about how we looked and how we could be a K-pop group. And I’m like, ‘You’re not listening to what we’re actually doing.’
Beauty’s Only Skin Deep
“Now that I do pop music,” she continues, “I see that people will discount the music and only focus on appearance. I don’t know if this happens as much to male artists. But when I post covers online, for example, I’ll get so many comments that have to do with how I look and not the music I’m playing.
“I did this study in college where I looked at the Billboard Hot 100. Women are really underrepresented, but Asian Americans are way more underrepresented than women. So it’s kind of similar. I receive so many comments that have to do with the shape of my jawline. I have a very Korean jawline, I guess you could call it. If I post a video of me singing online or something, I’ll get hundreds of comments about the shape of my face. And I’m like, this is insane. There’s so many things you have to deal with as a woman and a minority in music. I mean, I can’t speak for white men, but I don’t believe they would be encountering all that.”
She’s not wrong. Even her manager, Maya, weighs in with, “A white man could never!”
“I’m not sure if I’d call it fetishizing,” Tigerlily reflects. “Most of what I’ve found online from my experience has been people being just overtly racist about certain characteristics. Living my normal, everyday life, I didn’t really encounter that. People are emboldened on the internet, I would say. My dad is white. So I really didn’t encounter that before. It really got me amped up about what’s going on.
“I’m talking to my friend like I don’t know how to handle this. I’m so confused. I haven’t really encountered this kind of racism in my life before. My friend was like, ‘Why don’t you read “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong. I related so much to a lot of the things that she was saying. Just about how growing up I remember always feeling there’s a part of me I always felt wasn’t beautiful. I was trying to figure out why that was. Then I realized a lot of the things I thought were beautiful — this idea of having a really slim face or a really accentuated nose — were things I considered beautiful because I could always see them in the US media. I was always seeing people who always had these very European characteristics.
“I actually made a video the other day on Tik Tok where I responded to one of the comments where someone commented on how my Korean jawline looked ugly. And I was like, ‘You know what, I’m proud of this and I think my people are beautiful.’ And I was so shocked at the response I received. It was one of my videos that got the most traction. There were all these Asian women saying, ‘I look like you, and I never felt that I was beautiful,’ or like, ‘People always talk about my eyes.’ It became this whole group on TIk Tok of people just sticking up for each other. It made me feel so happy.”
In part 2 of our interview, Tigerlily talks to me about her life outside of music. Including what inspired her upcoming debut single. Watch out for it!
In the meantime, check out all of Tigerlily’s streaming and social media accounts!