Artist To Watch: mui zyu

Celia Tang

Artist To Watch: mui zyu

Celia Tang

Eva Liu, the London singer-songwriter behind mui zyu, has been spending a lot of time with Stray lately — a video game where you play as an adorable cat trapped in a dystopian, abandoned city. She mentions it because that element of duality — the familiar and comforting clashing with the unknown and unnerving — is constantly present in her own work. “I don’t know why, but I always naturally gravitate towards sounds that don’t necessarily go together, and I think I reach for that aesthetically as well,” she says. “Playing with chords that aren’t necessarily part of the same key, things that sound unsettling but there’s a sweet undertone… I think I like a listener to be a bit confused and a bit unsettled.”

On Rotten Bun For An Eggless Century, Liu’s debut album as mui zyu (she also fronts the psychy art-rock trio Dama Scout), she mixes futuristic electronics with classical piano and traditional Chinese instruments. She constructs melodies that veer in an instant from lovely to sinister and back. Her lyrics pair the fantastical (sorcerers and witches, swords and potions) with the mundane (calling your friends to commiserate a heartbreak, nights out with bad vibes). Musically she’s heavily inspired by video game scores, and she intended for the album’s story to mirror a role-playing video game, featuring a semi-autobiographical protagonist who offers tenderness and escape in the face of pain.

“The protagonist overcomes certain demons, kinda like how I had to overcome my own demons and my own fears, identifying as a queer Chinese woman in Western society,” Liu says. “I wanted a character to [represent that], for a listener to follow with as they listen.”

Liu was born in Northern Ireland, where her parents and extended family moved from Hong Kong in the late ’70s. The family later moved to England, with Liu and her siblings growing up around Kent and Surrey. “We lived in the suburbs in a very non-diverse place, and I went through a lot as a child of Hong Kong heritage, not really understanding that I wasn’t the same as a lot of other kids,” Liu recounts. Her dad was an amateur guitar player who bought Liu her first guitar when she was five, though she wouldn’t pick it up for real until she was in her teens. Her parents’ shared vinyl collection was full of ’70s and ’80s Cantonese pop: “There’s a sort of longing that they have in their songs — a lot of ballads, and a lot of emotion. It’s something that I strive for with my own music.”

As she got older, she hit an “emo phase” and started going to concerts in London; she recalls Paramore, MGMT, and Death Cab For Cutie shows as particularly formative. Upon moving to the city for university, she formed Dama Scout with Danny Grant and Luciano Rossi (the latter of whom co-produced Rotten Bun For An Eggless Century). The band released their first tracks in 2016; they’re still together, having most recently put out the LP gen wo lai (come with me) last year. “The three of us really clicked together, something I’ve not really felt with other bandmates. I think being in that band [has been] very empowering and made me believe in myself a lot more,” she says.

Liu began writing solo music when the pandemic began and threw plans with Dama Scout into uncertainty. “It was around the time when a lot of East and South East Asian people were experiencing horrific racism, particularly in Europe and North America. It was a truly scary time, and I started writing a bit more [to process that],” she says. She chose the moniker “mui zyu” after a childhood nickname that means “little sister pig”; her debut EP with the project, a wonderful thing vomits, was released in 2021.

Around the time she was writing Rotten Bun For An Eggless Century, Liu began making a conscious effort to reconnect with her Chinese heritage. Her parents had moved back to Hong Kong, and her siblings were living in Singapore, leaving her feeling unmoored. She found that talking to her parents about their history and family, exploring Chinese folklore and music, and meeting new people with similar backgrounds helped her to regain a sense of identity.

“Growing up, I shied away from my heritage and sort of blended myself into the crowd and assimilated with everyone around me,” she says. “So that process was like an acceptance and also a celebration of that part of me that I used to reject.” An important form of community for Liu came in joining the ESEA Music collective, a group that celebrates and platforms work by East and South East Asian artists in Britain. “A big part of those last few years was meeting these amazing people who are very similar to me in terms of feeling both East Asian or South East Asian but British at the same time, and not feeling particularly one or the other. And it’s just so meaningful sharing such similar stories and speaking to someone who’s completely on the same page. Because I think all or most of us felt alone and didn’t realize that there’s a whole community who felt the same way. The coming together of it was for all of us quite emotional, and also empowering.”

This journey of discovery and acceptance became threaded throughout the album, both thematically and more literally. The interlude “Ho Bao Daan” features a voice note from her dad, a former chef and restaurant owner, in which he explains how to cook the titular Hong Kong fried egg dish. (He had initially sent this only for Liu’s benefit, but when she told him she was going to use it on the album he insisted on sending a more professional version.) “At school, people would always make fun of the things that my mum would make me for packed lunch, and food is a big part of Chinese culture. So I definitely wanted to celebrate that,” Liu says. Meanwhile, “Paw Paw,” a tribute to her late maternal grandfather, features a gorgeous performance on erhu, a Chinese two-string violin-like instrument that her grandfather had played.

“I definitely went through a lot of difficult stages with my family, in terms of how they perceived me and how I couldn’t open up to them in a lot of ways,” says Liu. “I really struggled with that, especially as a child and as a teenager. I sort of resented them because they never really empowered me or said, ‘You can do this.’ I definitely was angry. It’s been a very long process. And I felt like family had to be a part of this album.”

It’s most movingly and candidly approached on “Mother’s Tongue,” a ballad of empathy and understanding for Liu’s mother, on which she sings: “Don’t need to forgive you for something you don’t mean to do.” “It’s definitely a homage to my mum and what she’s had to go through, [things] I didn’t realize [when I was younger],” Liu says. At the end of the song, a voicemail from her mom is nestled underneath ambient noises, on which we can just make out, “Eva, I’m so proud of you.”

Beautiful moments like this are commonplace on this album; even when the lyrics are abstract, Liu’s melodies and swelling synth landscapes can pull you into reverie. Try the transcendent end section of “Hotel Mini Soap,” or the dreamy hook of “Rotten Bun” (“Rotten bun, scarred by everyone/ Just hold my hand, let’s break away from them”). Of course, there’s forever a dark side pulsing underneath, just as Liu likes it — you can feel that best on the nervy “Ghost With A Peach Skin” or the dread-infused “Eggless Century.” It’s an album that takes you into a world just a little left of our own, yet it’s also deeply rooted in humanity.

“It’s very cathartic for me,” says Liu. “It helped me process a lot of things that I held onto that I should have let go of a long time ago, and it made me [understand] a lot of things I went through, particularly as a child and as a young adult, that I’ve always blamed myself [for]. It’s been a process, but a much-needed process. I didn’t intend for this album to be so much about that — it was a lot more personal than I intended it to be. So it’s been — without sounding too cheesy — very healing.”

Rotten Bun For An Eggless Century is out 2/24 on Father Daughter.

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