Raising Asian awareness through music with Kevin LienKevina Lee
Dec 09, 2013
Kevin Lien is a Taiwanese American singer-songwriter from Los Angeles, who has made a living as a fresh-out-of-college engineer and rising Youtube star. After his performance at the University of Florida Chinese American Student Association (CASA) Mid-Autumn show on Oct. 13, 2012, I sat down with him at the local TGI Friday’s to talk about his music, Youtube, Florida, being a nerd, Asian American issues and more — all while waiting for his order of Cajun shrimp and chicken pasta.
Have you lived in LA your whole life?
Yeah, I was the first one in my family born in the States. I was born and raised in Orange County.
What’s it like now, traveling everywhere?
It’s cool. I have a 9-to-5. I’m a materials engineer at Avery Dennison, and I work full time. Most of the time these out-of-town shows are on weekends, so I don’t have to call off work. It’s a blessing, man, being able to actually have a job at my age, like right out of college and being able to do things on the side too.
Tell me about about your college experience. How did you get into materials engineering?
Well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I entered college. I knew what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at. I knew I was good at math, and I was good at science. So I knew I was going to be an engineer. At Cal Poly, where I graduated from, there’s like seven different types of engineering. I just had to choose the one that applied to me the most. The one that was most “science-y” was chemical engineering, so that’s what I went with.
What about the rest of your college experience?
You know, now that I think about it, looking back, if it wasn’t for college, I probably wouldn’t have started making music at a semi-professional basis, I guess. Other than high school, which didn’t really count for me, because it was more like bands and stuff. In terms of my own personal stuff, I didn’t really start making music until my freshman year of college. If it wasn’t for my dorm mates and my people on campus that really liked my stuff, I wouldn’t have ever even thought of it.
I used to be on Myspace — I had a Myspace music page, and it got a lot of attention from my friends at Cal Poly. I started doing music shows at Cal Poly and other campuses based off of what people saw at Cal Poly. From there, I did more college campuses, and I’m still doing it. The exposure first started from a combination of Youtube and word-of-mouth through college campuses.
What inspired you to pursue that?
I don’t know. Just growing up, I was a very “music-y” child. I took piano lessons since I was 5 — I was always very “music-y.” In terms of trying to put myself out there, it was just seeing other artists. I saw people start to make a living off of music, just off of singing songs in their bedroom on Youtube, Myspace and whatnot. A bunch of my friends had already made Youtube accounts and said, “Hey, you should make one.” And I was like, OK. I made it. And people liked it. Everything happened by accident, this whole music thing.
Everything happened by accident, this whole music thing.
How do you feel about coming here to the University of Florida?
It’s so different. When I first got here and was looking at the climate, I was like, “Oh, the weather is pretty similar.” But when you actually come here, it’s so much hotter because of the humidity. It’s so humid. I was practicing in just some random room here, and the carpet was, like, wet. And I was like, “What happened, was there a flood around here?” And they said, “No, it’s just the humidity.” I was like, “I don’t understand.” So, apparently, it’s so humid here. It’s really breezy in California, so I’ve never had that happen to me.
The people are different… The landscape is different. It’s really flat and green here. We don’t have any alligators. And you guys call them gators! You have a short term for alligators called gators.
But it’s really different, I’ve noticed. In terms of CASA, I’ve been to a lot of CASA shows — like a lot of CASA shows — and this is the first one I saw that — not the first, but definitely the most diverse one I’ve ever seen. I always talk about how there’s so many people that are clearly not Asian attending these events, and it blows my mind because that never happens where we’re from — maybe one white guy or one black guy. And I don’t know if you guys call it BSU — Black Student Union? — yeah, we have BSU too, but the fact that they’re able to interact with your CASA is just mind-blowing to me. That’s beautiful.
I think it’s one of the first times we had such a diverse audience because we got a lot of BSU performers, and one of the choreographers is in BSU too.
That’s cool. I heard you guys marketed the event as more of a UF event rather than a CASA or Asian event. That’s, like, the smartest thing. I’m sure you guys didn’t think much of it, you just wanted to make it a campus-wide event and just wanted the exposure. But a lot of schools don’t do that. They just focus it amongst their Asian group or outreach through other Asian groups. So, when you guys have an event like that where everyone can attend for free, that’s really cool.
One of the reasons we do this — we try to do this with our magazine, too — it’s because we want to raise Asian awareness.
Exactly. This is a true event — this happened like a month ago — I got booked for an APASA event, a Filipino club. They asked me, “We want you to talk about your Filipino heritage.” I was like, “Cool. I’m not Filipino though. I’m Chinese — I’m Taiwanese, actually.” They found out and they were like, “Oh. Well, are you going to have a Filipino person perform with you?” I said, “No.” They said, “I’m sorry, we can’t book you for this event.”
Yeah. I lost an opportunity to perform for an audience. It doesn’t matter what club you are — I’ll help you raise awareness for any culture. I’m not Filipino, but that doesn’t mean I can’t rep Filipinos and try to spread awareness through my culture. You know, I could tell Taiwanese people, I could have a Chinese audience come and spread Filipino awareness that way.
So, I think a lot of clubs that do that — it’s actually really, really counterproductive. Like, what’s the point of spreading awareness amongst your own culture to the people who are only in your culture? The point is, you know, what you guys did. To put on a campus-wide event that anyone can attend — that is genius, so I just wanted to congratulate you guys for it. It was a packed house too. That was crazy.
What’s the point of spreading awareness amongst your own culture to the people who are only in your culture?
How were your struggles as an Asian American musician?
Growing up, I think I was fortunate enough… there wasn’t a lot of segregation for me. I grew up in a white area in Orange County, but there were a good amount of Asians. I was in the AP/IB/GATE program — I was really nerdy, and I had Asian friends, but in terms of outside of the school, I wasn’t really treated any differently, which is fantastic. With that, I now treat everybody equally — I don’t just have Asian friends. In Cal Poly, I was friends with everybody.
In terms of being an artist, it is really tough because it doesn’t matter what I am — I’m an Asian American artist. And a lot of labels don’t aim for that. I mean, recently, a lot of guys have been making big moves, like Far East Movement — Asians that have come out into the mainstream media. It’s cool, but the fact that it’s going to be really difficult for me to get signed as an artist because of the way I look is unfortunate, you know? It sucks. It’s something pretty much every Asian American — all of my friends, we’re all musicians, and it’s something we all struggle with. Not to say that we’re OK with it, but to a certain extent, we’re — I don’t want to say that we’ve come to terms with it either, but — to a certain extent, we’re aware of it and we know how to work around it.
So, instead of marketing ourselves to a label and trying to pitch ourselves to a label, we just work around that and interact directly with our audience. That’s what Youtube is. You skip all the technicalities, you skip all the middlemen, and it goes from your bedroom to your audience. That’s something we’re able to utilize now. So, that’s the reason why Asian American music has really grown in the past five years is because of Youtube and other sites like Youtube.
It’s cool, but the fact that it’s going to be really difficult for me to get signed as an artist because of the way I look is unfortunate, you know? It sucks. It’s something pretty much every Asian American — all of my friends, we’re all musicians, and it’s something we all struggle with.
Tell me more about your Youtube experience, with all your collaborations…
It all happened really by accident. I saw a couple of my buddies making Youtube accounts, and they started getting known and recognized at malls. I thought that was really cool. The fact that I can sing at my desk and people can hear it, it blows my mind. It’s hard to say, because I can make up stories about how hard and late at night I tried making songs, but for most of us, that’s not the case. It just happened by accident. It just so happened that we made a song and people liked it. It’s crazy. I’m just as surprised as the next Youtube guy.
In terms of the experience… it’s pretty much overnight. You make a Youtube account, you sing, people like it, and you get booked for shows, and you get to meet the people that listen to your music. It’s crazy. It’s so quick. There’s no middleman. You just talk to the people that genuinely like your music. So, the only experience I really get besides being at home in my bedroom and singing to myself is the interaction with the fans.
And I’m so happy for you! How long ago did you start Youtube again?
Just a little over two years ago, I think.
And you already have so many subscribers.
I think I’m like at 60,000. There are 60,000 people listening to me… It’s nuts.
So what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
If I can keep making music, it’s awesome. But personally, I believe in higher education — I was a chemical engineering major, so I’m really nerdy. And even still, I’m taking classes just for fun.
I’m jealous that you’re doing all of that at once.
It’s hard. Music, honestly, for me, it’s kind of there on the back burner. I mean, I still get booked for shows, I still make videos, I still record music, I still interact with fans… I try to be as involved as I can possibly. But, for example — this is really nerdy and everyone is going to judge me for this, but — Stanford is offering these free online classes, and me and all my friends were like, “Holy shit… are you serious?”
So, I signed up for a class. I’m taking Solar Cells, Fuel Cells and Batteries, because it’s related to my major and it’s something that I’m really interested in… and I actually have homework due tomorrow. So, I really believe in higher education, and I worked my ass off in college and it’s really paid off for me. I’m able to support myself and my family as well.
But yeah, I’m trying to get my PE. I’m trying to become a chemical engineer, like a full-blown, full-time engineer. I’d love to be a full-blown musician, and who knows, I might be able to do that in the future.
But I encourage all my listeners all the time to stay in school, stay practical. Because, especially among the Youtube community, it’s always a scary, touchy subject, thinking about when Youtube is not going to be popular anymore. What’s going to happen to our careers? Are our careers really just based on subscribers and views and how much exposure we can get with our own music? … The fact that Youtube isn’t going to be around forever freaks us out.
For me, I’ve always wanted to become an engineer, so music has always been a second priority for me, which is OK. Do what you love, but also do something that you enjoy doing enough that you can support yourself. I’m not saying don’t wish on music; I’m saying be practical and keep on doing what you love as well.
But I encourage all my listeners all the time to stay in school, stay practical. Because, especially among the Youtube community, it’s always a scary, touchy subject, thinking about when Youtube is not going to be popular anymore.
Great words of advice. So what is your vision for the Asian American community in the entertainment industry?
Personally, people won’t agree with me, but I encourage all Asian ladies to become tiger moms… because it’s working. We’re all really smart and we’re all really tech savvy. We’re the most involved with online media because we’re good with computers, as racist as that sounds. I don’t want to speak on behalf of all Asians, I feel bad — but whatever we’re doing, it’s working. We are getting recognized, whether it’s in sports, whether it’s in music, whether it’s in art, whether it’s in online media or journalism… Asians are finally making a name for themselves. If we can keep this momentum going, the whole “Asian media” thing isn’t even going to be an “Asian media” thing. It’s not going to matter anymore. It’s just going to be media and we’re Asians doing it. We don’t have to worry about Asian American artists, Asian American journalists — we’re just… Asian. And we happen to be musicians or journalists or artists.
I’d rather be “Kevin Lien, the musician” than “Kevin Lien, the Asian American Youtube musician.” You know what I mean?
So, that’s what I want. Yes, we want to raise awareness through our culture, but we also just want to not segregate ourselves. It seems like a paradox, that you want to raise awareness but not segregate. So, it’s tough, but that’s the whole point that I was making earlier. The fact that you guys made [the CASA show] a campus-wide event — that’s exactly what people need to be doing.
I also encourage a lot of Asian American Youtube artists, like a lot of the people that are new and trying to make more music — I highly encourage them to listen to more than just Asian American artists. Because there’s so much talent out there, whether it’s Asian or not. And I encourage people to collaborate with people that aren’t Asian. That’s the only way we can really raise awareness: by breaking out into different genres, sub-genres, sub-cultures, you know.
That’s the only way we can really raise awareness: by breaking out into different genres, sub-genres, sub-cultures, you know.
You talked about tiger moms — did you have a tiger mom as well?
Oh, yeah. Are you kidding me? I was forced to play piano at age 5. I was in the GATE program, which is Gifted and Talented Education. I was an IB student, took AP and IB classes… while still playing piano. I was in orchestra; I played violin, cello and bass…
Spoken like a true Asian.
Yes, yes. And through that, I was able to find what I like through music. So I started singing, practicing on my own time, got my IB diploma, applied to Cal states and UC schools and every school I could think of, applied to internships throughout all of college every summer. As soon as I got out of college, I applied to jobs and got a job.
You know, I’ve made my parents proud, and I feel like it’s not that hard to just follow in the footsteps of what your parents want you to do. Try to make your parents happy because, no matter what, if you make them happy, you’ve succeeded. … But don’t be afraid to tell them about something you love.
I remember growing up, my parents — they always wanted me to be “music-y,” but nerdy “music-y,” like playing Bach and classical music. I learned the guitar on my own and [started to] sing songs, and they hated it. They didn’t want me to do it at all, pretty much, until I started making money off of it. It wasn’t until my parents accidentally saw my videos on Youtube.
What did they say about that?
They just made fun of me about it. My parents live in Taiwan, by the way — but they went from them not supporting me, and now every week they call me on the phone and tell me [they watched] my videos and stuff. It’s awesome. They watch Chinese television, and two weeks ago, I was featured on the Chinese network, so now that they see I’m not just representing musicians but Asian American musicians — and Chinese, particularly — now they super support me.
My dad mentioned me taking a break from working for a summer internship in music. I’m like, “Holy hell. That would have never happened, ever.” And my parents were as strict as they come. Like, I wasn’t allowed to talk to girls until I was 18. You know what I mean? …
But they see what it’s like now. They understand online media; they see that people can make a living from what they want to do, whether through a company or independently. And now I’m both. They know that I can manage my time, and I’ve made them happy. So, now, more than anything, they want me to be happy.