Melissa Li & The Barely Theirs (MLBT) aren’t just breaking ground as a pop and rock band fronted by an Asian American woman. Singer-songwriter Melissa Li (also guitarist) is breaking barriers as an openly gay musician, leading the band with her girlfriend Ashley Baier (drums), Chris Takita (lead guitar) and Darren Lipper (bass).
Originally from Hong Kong, Li got her start with the music and poetry duo Good Asian Drivers. Since then, the band has played nationwide, from San Francisco to Boston, and is currently recording their album, The Beginning, while on tour. MLBT is also hosting their very first showcase “Women on the Loose: Winter Rock Festival” on Tuesday, December 21, 2010, at the Union Hall in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Take a listen:
Audrey Magazine sat down with the spunky quartet recently for an an electrifying interview.
Audrey Magazine: Sara Bareilles and Maroon 5 are a few of your band’s influences, but as a child, what kind of music were you into?
Melissa Li: Actually, Sara Bareilles and Maroon 5, being relatively new artists, are not our band’s influences. They’re just what we kind of sound like in terms of songwriting and performing style. Growing up in an immigrant household, I actually started listening to Cantonese pop music when I was a kid. So at an early age, I was exposed to traditional pop structures, even though a lot of it was a bit predictable and cheesy. Later on, I was exposed to a lot of the music my mother enjoyed, like The Carpenters, Simon & Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul, & Mary, so I also developed a love for folk music — essentially, music for the American people. But ultimately, my thinking on songwriting, particularly lyric-writing, evolved when I started listening to Ani DiFranco. I would say she’s my biggest influence.
Ashley Baier: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Led Zeppelin, and musicals.
Chris Takita: Green Day, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer.
Darren Lipper: Nirvana.
AM: Being born in Hong Kong, how has that played a role in your identity? How do you define yourself?
ML: I am a Chinese American who has a strong connection with my cultural history. I grew up primarily influenced by American identity and values, and I’m very proud to be American, but I grew up facing a lot of racism and isolation because of my background, so I’m very passionate about positive representation in society for other Asian Americans, specifically dispelling negative stereotypes and creating our own place in this country.
AM: In your bio it says, “juggling both the personal and professional is not without its challenges.” Can you give us a few of those challenges?
ML: Our drummer Ashley Baier is my girlfriend and we live together and play music together in our home. She’s been playing music since she was 7 or 8, so she and I both have decades of experience with music. We both care a lot about what we do, we’re passionate about the band, and we have strong opinions. That’s where sometimes it can be challenging, for example, disagreeing about musical ideas, what sounds better, who should play what parts, or where the song should go in the bridge.
AB: We are both opinionated about the music, and we’ll argue passionately about it, and get angry at each other.
ML: But then we take it out of the band room and into the bedroom.
AM: If you were to sell your band in one word, what word would that be? Also, what sets MLBT apart from other bands?
DL: What sets us apart is that the bass player is the hairiest bass player that ever existed.
ML: And you have an Asian American female lead singer singing rock music. That doesn’t happen very often.
AB: Also, we’re not bound to any one style. We play some country, some rock, some blues, some jazz, some jam-band music. But ultimately, we have a lot of fun and the tunes are catchy and addictive.
AM: Do you have a favorite quote or poem that you live by?
ML: I do. I actually have it on my Facebook under my profile pic. “Words are vitamins and life is short.” It’s an Ani DiFranco quote, and as a songwriter I do think being able to express yourself accurately, poignantly, and positively is important. No matter who is judging.
AM: If you could go on tour with any musician or performer, who would you choose?
AB: Rolling stones.
ML: Probably Sara Bareilles. We would be good on the same bill.
AM: On the topic of figures, who are your icons?
ML: Again, Ani DiFranco is a huge icon for me, not only because she was outspoken about being queer, but also because she was able to take her music and art, have confidence in her work, and build her own empire by herself. She is one of the very few musicians who, especially at the time, was able to have a successful independent career outside of the mainstream music industry. She’s a visionary artist with unparalleled determination, which is what I aspire to become.
AM: How would you describe a day in the life of MLBT members?
AB: Full of laughter.
DL: A day of music, apps, dirty jokes, and chicken.
ML: Darren and Chris show up to our house around 7 every week for rehearsal and we work on new songs and maybe even start a jam together. The boys like heavy metal, so once in a while we’ll break out in a metal jam just for fun.
AB: I’m not sure the neighbors like that though.
ML: Probably not. The other day we did a choreographed dance. AB: And afterwards we drink beer and hang out. All of us really love each other.
AM: Where do you plan to take MLBT?
ML: Everywhere! We want to travel and tour and play music and make albums and inspire people around the world. Ultimately we want to make this our only job someday, because we love what we do and we want other Asian Americans to be proud to have positive representation like us in the arts.
CT: And Mount Fuji. Then the Vatican.
To find out more about Melissa Li & The Barely Theirs, including where they’ll be playing next, go to their official website.