Cybèle is a name you will want to keep an eye on in 2019. Not only does her music have a fun beat, you’ll find important and powerful messages in her lyrics. I got the chance to talk with her about the role the song “Ben” played in getting her involved in music, how her grandparents inspired her song “Anything”, her wide range of songwriting influences, what she nerds out about and so much more! Keep reading to see what she had to say.
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making and performing music.
Well, according to the ancient mythical legend, when I was just a baby my mom heard me hum the song “Ben” in perfect pitch. I think I was about eighteen months old and my mom was shocked that I could retain that melody. From then on, my mom wanted to nourish my talent so she decided that it would be best to put me in music classes. She liked Music Together classes and could not find one in China, so she got certified to start her own class. Here, children would clap their hands gleefully and use wooden castanets to make rhythms and have fun. From then on, I would be as creative as I could. My mom also fostered my love of music by buying me CDs with different types of music that she thought I would like. I remember getting CDs of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, ABBA, and one from Taylor Swift. The music really spoke to me because it proved that one woman on her own could also write and produce songs. That appealed to me and from then on I began to write songs. I often wrote songs when I felt intense emotions of anger or injustice, especially when I felt I had been betrayed. As far as performing, I am lucky, it comes naturally to me. I was always a born extrovert and I thought what better outlet than performing. Performing allows me to feel so liberated and so far away from all the petty problems of my school. I always tried to get on stage and was lucky to get the lead in school plays starting young – I was Clara in The Nutcracker, the Cat in the Cat in the Hat.
Was there a specific person or moment that made you realize music is what you wanted to pursue professionally?
I would say that from the beginning I always wanted to pursue music professionally. Ever since I saw these icons in music videos like Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Lady Gaga, I idolized them and I wanted to be just as boundless as them in developing my craft and in making statements with my art. For me, I was not even pondering the possibility of doing any other career. For as long as I can remember it was, “I’m doing music and there is absolutely nothing that will stop me. I am going to sing for the rest of my life.” Since then, that has always been my attitude. I agree it takes a lot of effort to push through the hard times, the criticism, the discouragement, but I see all the negative things as blessings because they are simply preparing me for what is next and what is ahead for me.
I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey with their music. So how would you describe your sound without using genre names? What kind of music do you produce?
I guess my sound would be a seasoned and soulful old woman trapped inside the unfitting body of a fifteen-year-old. The sound may be contemporary and with the times, but in terms of what I have to say and of my delivery, my message is completely different from a lot of mainstream pop and R&B. A lot of the song topics in today’s music talk about the superficiality of life and all the frivolous things we base our self worth on. I want to make caring about humanity cool again. I want to bring back the idea of beauty through love and self-improvement. I want popular music to be based again on the content and the substance of the lyrics, not simply on the “hype” or the rising popularity of a persona. Music should be about what we have to say, not simply what others say about us.
Let’s talk about your new single, “Anything.” What’s the story behind that song?
For the making of this song, I drew most of the inspiration from my grandfather who has had to deal with Parkinson’s for the last twenty years of his life. Before this, he was a Chinese immigrant, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished, and went to become a Yale professor of Physics for almost 50 years. Only days after his retirement from Yale, a six-year-old me beared witness to his near-drowning accident while swimming together. For years since, he has been working on recuperating, and he has been day-in and day-out doing physical therapy, making the best of what he has and never giving up. Indeed, my grandmother is also a hero behind this story. She has been there to consistently rehabilitate him and she has never faltered in pushing through with what she truly cares about.
Why would I feel compelled to base a song around them? Both of them are living proof that truly anything is possible. It is possible to arrive in a country, faced with economic challenges, discrimination, sexism, and make it to being educators of future generations. It is possible to raise children who become Ivy League graduates despite economic hurdles and barriers. It is possible to contract a disease and live beyond the confines of your condition. It is possible to have faith every day and decide that instead of wallowing in misery and the ill-fortune of your fate, you can accept the things you can’t change, and be grateful for what you have. A hard life is never determined by the perceived amount of obstacles thrown your way, a hard life is determined by the mindset you adopt that demonstrates whether you are going to be the victim or the front-seat driver.
What was your writing process like for this song? Did you write it by yourself or did you collaborate with others?
The songwriting process for the song was long. Especially for this song. It was a countless number of emails involving the back and forth of our drafts and removing or adding words with the producers and writers of The Jam. Every single sentence, word, syllable was picked apart to have the song where it is right now. It was honestly about working the song until it was completely perfected.
Going off of that, who are some of your influences when it comes to songwriting?
While I never focus on one artist or another in how I approach my songwriting, I have many little techniques that pull from specific musicians. Right now, I am heavily influenced by Lauryn Hill and her boundless lyricism. I love Kanye West’s at times offensive and crude denunciation of reality. I love Kehlani’s bad girl, playful vibe. I adore Mariah’s ability to turn sorrow into golden melodies. Right now, I’m also focused on writing with Jazmine Sullivan’s ability to weave intricate runs into the melody and use this as a mechanism to not simply ostentatiously show off her vocal agility but also emphasize the tone and the mood of the song.
What was the recording process like? Was this song recorded in one single session? Were there any major changes made to the song once you got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?
The recording process was quite easy, to be honest. We simply arranged a few hours to be blocked out in the studio and we recorded it on the spot. The song was able to be recorded in one session because everything was very organized and strategic. We arrived, then we recorded. This meant there was enough time for harmonies and adlibs. The efficiency of the process goes to show that if you’re prepared, then the time needed to complete something is drastically decreased.
I know you’ve sung for many benefits, including the Ascencia Homeless Shelter, Los Angeles Christmas Toy Drive, American Cancer Society Relay for Life and Cancer Walk, Save the Animal Rights Campaigns, and the 1990 Institute. What is your favorite part of being able to give back?
My favorite part of being able to give back is being able to see the smile on a person’s face when I sing for them. To see that smile and to know that is genuine and pure joy at its finest is the most rewarding feeling. All your practice and time perfecting has allowed for this person to feel lifted, at least from where I perceive it.
You’re still relatively new to the music game. What are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks you aim to reach in the next couple of years?
I’m aiming to get my song “Anything” on the radio. I’m praying to get signed to a label. But my primary goal over the next couple of years would be to get a number one hit. I think that would break me into the industry and allow myself to become seriously established as an artist and a brand. Once I can make some money from my music, I hope to parlay it into something bigger – like start my own organization regarding food distribution.
Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner-nerd. What is something, besides music, that you nerd out about?
I guess I would nerd out about anything history-related. My favorite time period to study is the early 1930s up until 1989, and I would have to thank my teachers for giving me this love of learning. What I find fascinating is that beyond the scope of the test and the essays, learning more about history almost helps give me a broader and richer view of the human race. It also helps me realize that if everyone were educated and there were no ignorance, how the people who dictate and rule over us wouldn’t even be in power. It helps to remind me just how much statements made in the current day and age are based on sentiment and firmly-held traditional beliefs and often are not substantiated by context or knowledge. Learning about the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, the wars in the Middle East… help me to build a more complete puzzle in my mind of what everything surrounding me means.