Meet Emei: the "Late To The Party" Singer Talks Ex-Best Friends, Fan Tattoos, Her Time on Chinese Idol, and Why We All Feel Behind in Life

While Emei got her start performing at age 9 around her home state of New Jersey and nearby New York, it wasn't until she competed on Chinese Idol as a young teen that she discovered that she wanted to pick up the pen herself and direct her career through songwriting. Since then, Emei has graduated from Yale with a degree in cognitive sciences and released two songs, one of which became a certified TikTok hit with "Late to the Party" garnering over 1.5 million streams to date. Now ready to move to LA from the East Coast, Emei is soaking up the fact that she's only just starting out in her career and has so many new doors opening in front of her. 

Even though Emei, born Emily Li, didn't grow up with musical parents she was lucky enough to have what she calls a "musically supportive family." Piano and violin lessons first peaked her love of music followed by voice lessons as her interests expanded. Things really began to take off, though, when she signed up for Chinese Idol while spending a summer with extended family in China. She'd entered smaller competitions in past summers and found they had helped her grow as a performer, so she figured she'd join the competition as a summer activity. 

It quickly turned into more as she placed in the top 250 by the end of the summer and had to make a tough choice between seeing the competition through or going back to New Jersey to continue high school. With the expectation that the then 15-year-old would return to the states after a year, Emei stayed in China and in the competition where she ultimately placed third and spent the rest of the year working in television and performing in China. The experience was an eye-opening one for Emei as she found herself "creatively exhausted" by the chorus of voices her telling her what she should say and who she should be. 

Though she'd never written a song before her gap year, the experience pushed her to start writing when she returned to the states as a way to take control over her career and her message. Drawn immediately to lyrics, Emei first took inspiration from songwriters like Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson and other "acoustic sad girl music" as she started writing in her bedroom with her guitar. Since then, her sound has undergone a massive evolution now pulling more from acts like Melanie Martinez and Emmeline than the original acoustic sad girls, but they still leave a lasting mark in her focus on clarity in her storytelling. "I just love to be able to tell stories really clearly and say everything I want and not have to be vague about it," she says of her approach to songwriting.

Another major change to her writing? Emei has found joy in writing with others in sessions. "I haven't written alone in a while, and I'm kinda digging it. I've really enjoyed meeting new people and making music in that way," she says. Now, most of her songs take shape out of total collaboration where Emei will bring a line or a concept brought about by her daily object writing into a session. There, she'll work with different producers and writers to find a beat or chords and patch together a melody to guide the song as the lyrics unfold. Most of her collaborators she's met online, whether it was through a DM like with her "Late to the Party" producer, Lucas Sim, or the college music app, Quadio, where she met her other "Late to the Party" collaborator, Jamie Gelman, who lived all the way across the country. While Sim first helped shape the sound that's become Emei, she's been enjoying writing with tons of different musicians and has taken advantage of all the new doors "Late to the Party" has opened. 

That honesty and specificity in the lyrics is what connected with TikTok users who were served "Late to the Party" on the platform and followed her bio link all the way to Spotify. "21 without a Grammy or degree / Too bad, that's sad, maybe at 23 / Don't wanna care how people look at me / But I still feel late to the party," she admits on the track talking about the FOMO and imposter syndrome that follows nearly everyone around in the digital age. In the verses, she sings about everyone from Instagram models to engaged friends from high school making her feel left behind by life. At the end of the day, she comes to the conclusion that a music career is really all she's after, and her age won't change that. "What's the rush for?" she ends the song with. 

When asked about why this feeling is so chronically relatable, Emei points to social media and it's ability to deliver us a 24/7 feed of everyone's best accomplishments and the highlight reel. "Don't get me wrong," she starts, "it's great to talk about your accomplishments, and it's natural. All of us do it. But when you're surrounded by everyone putting out their best selves, you think you're just not good enough." She muses about how we all have a tendency to find the outlier child prodigy and compare our worth against a metric far from most's realities. 

As for combating that insecurity? It's an everyday battle. "I don't think I'm gonna be able to truly shake that feeling of being in a rush, but at the same time, I try to sit back and be like, 'Woah, what have I accomplished in 'blank' amount of months,'" she says. One of those accomplishments Emei paused for a minute to appreciate was hitting her first million streams. Later on, numbers like that won't hold the same sort of magic, so she's trying to take time to celebrate those wins, even when they might seem small. "Even if it's like, I'm going to go get myself a chai latte. I think that's been helpful," she concludes. 

Getting to that first million was due in large part to her sharing the song on TikTok, which has become the main hub for music discovery during the pandemic. While Emei describes her experience with the app as "pretty magical," the song didn't take off on its own. For nearly a month, she diligently posted the same chorus of "Late to the Party" 2-3 times a day featuring slightly different visual variations until finally the song started to hit. "There are definitely not great thing about it, but at the end of the day, it kind of evens the playing field. Anybody can post something and have it do really well, and I think that's really cool," she says. 

Still, those downsides are a large part of the reality of being an artist in 2022 and a conversation that is moving more to the forefront with Chelsea Cutler's Instagram post opening up a new dialogue around the social media pressures on artists. "It's frustrating as an independent musician right now because you need to be posting a ridiculous amount, like every single day. It's definitely leading to burnout for everybody," Emei admits when asked about the latest industry conversations. "I think it's frustrating that as a musician you also have to be an influencer, but it just feels like part of the game. There's so many people making music right now that you have to kind of stick out to get some amount of attention... It doesn't feel right," she adds. When artists spend so much time writing songs, the music should be able to speak for itself and garner its own attention, but at the end of the day, she admits, music is a business and right now the business is TikTok. With such an emphasis on TikTok stats within the industry and the finicky nature of the platform, that can bring plenty of stress and a rollercoaster of being on top of the world one day and feeling like your career is doomed the next. 

Being able to ride those waves, though, is what dictates which artists are able to thrive, and Emei is ready to stay through the rough parts, including the weirdness that comes with even newer fame. Her upcoming release, "Better People to Leave on Read," tells the highly specific story of getting a message from her ex-best friend after "Late to the Party" started to blow up around last Thanksgiving. Though she had other songs from earlier sessions that were originally slated to come out first, "Better People to Leave on Read" quickly surpassed them all. With the basis of the song written in the heat of the moment when she received the text, an LA writing session in December smoothed out the edges to get it ready for its eminent release. 

Despite its whirlwind creation and a strong belief in the music, Emei briefly wavered on releasing the song. "I was debating not releasing it for a while because of how dramatic and angry and specific it is," she says. Though she knows she's asking for drama, she also feels a duty to be totally real as a writer and vulnerable as an artist. "I feel like it's honest and realistic and people will relate, so that is all I have to say about it," she shares, holding back a laugh. Just based on lyrics she's already share on TikTok like, "Did you happen to forget the little details / Like texting my boyfriend in the middle of the night / Did you happen to forget all the pictures that you sent him / Recognized you by the tattoo on your thigh," Emei is definitely not holding back or sparing feelings with this track. That always leaves room for the art that hits the hardest. 

But for all the stressful and frustrating moments that might come with getting a song heard, the tangible connection with fans makes it well worth it. Recently, Emei received a DM from a listener who got one of her lyrics tattoo'd on her arm. "It's really, really incredible," she said, her voice filling with joy as she remembers first seeing it. "I kind of wanted to frame it," she admits before wondering if it would be weird to frame a photo of another person's arm. "I think that's my biggest goal. To just be able to make a song people relate to so much that they think it's that important." Whether it's screaming her song out the window of your car, finding new friends through her music, or simply feeling seen, all of those small moments build Emei's dream for her music. 

As Emei stands on the edge of the precipice of the rest of her career, she holds close what music has done for her—both shifting and amplifying her moods and offering much needed comfort—when shaping her goals for what happens next, and it will surely be an adventure worth watching. 

Listen to "Late to the Party"

Presave "Better People to Leave on Read"

See Emei Live at Softer Sounds LA

Connect with Emei On: Instagram Twitter TikTok Spotify

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