Anson Li is a singer-songwriter who grew up in New York City and has only recently made the move to Los Angeles. I became aware of him, as I tend to do, through Twitter and finally had the chance to meet up with him in person at the JerseyStock festival earlier this summer. This interview was conducted there before Anson completed his tour, so I edited a couple of questions to reflect that … because I just couldn’t bring myself to cut out all the nice things he said about his tour manager.
Anthony: So let’s start out with a basic question: when did you start performing? When did you realize that this was what you wanted to do?
Anson: Oh, wow. I’ve been playing guitar since I was five, and it’s kind of been my third arm ever since. I realized I wanted to become a performer when I played a lot of talent shows when I was in middle school, and it just hit me when I was maybe ten or twelve that I wanted to do this for a living. I always feel like I belong on the stage. You feel very connected with everything and it feels nice.
Anthony: And you’re how old now?
Anson: I just turned twenty.
Anthony: I always forget that. I know it, and then I forget. Because you have a much younger face.
Anson: Yeah, I look … I have the youth genes. I like it.
Anthony: So your new EP (“This Is Love”) came out how long ago?
Anson: It came out in May.
Anthony: How’s the response been?
Anson: Oh, it’s been fantastic. I think the first four days we sold 1,000 copies of it which is ridiculous. And thank you guys, if you’re reading this, for grabbing it, it means a lot. It’s been going good. I love the new songs, I think they’re definitely more mature and definitely going in a direction I want them to go in, so over time… I’m actually writing the next record right now, trying to figure out everything.
Anthony: Let’s talk a little bit about your songwriting process. How do you approach writing new songs? I hate to ask the question “where do your ideas come from,” because as a writer, that one really annoys me.
Anson: Yeah. It kind of just comes. Honestly, I don’t just sit down and say “I’m gonna write a song today.” I could be in the subway or the grocery and just walking around and I have to just run home and write it. It does depend on the room in my house. I’ve actually noticed this, it depends on the space I write in. For a smaller room, I write sadder songs and in a bigger room I write poppier songs. And it also depends on how well-lit they are. I have this thing that I think rooms have their own aura, and I write my songs based on that. I don’t really sit down “Oh, I’m gonna write a song.” It just comes.
Anthony: The earlier EP, “Go My Way,” which is I think the first time I heard your music, (and man, “I Swear” still pops into my head unexpectedly and I find myself bopping along to it), was a bit more pop-oriented.
Anson: Yeah, well, on the new EP there’s still some pop songs like “My Leading Lady,” “All Night,” they’re pop-py. I grew up listening to bands like punk-rock like Yellowcard and I’ve been into that scene, and I always wanted to be in a band, but I just never found the right people. I left a band to do my solo stuff, and I was like “I’m just gonna do what makes me happy, I’m gonna do it myself” because I had the ideas and I knew where I was going to go. I’m not saying I don’t like my pop stuff. I love my pop stuff. But I think over time, it will get darker, but I think there’s always going to be gem of pop stuff coming in there.
Anthony: I think the terminology, I’m kind of melding it a little bit, it’s not that your newer stuff isn’t pop, or popular, it’s that your lyrics are taking a darker sense. I get that My Chemical Romance sense, The Black Parade, all about death and yet it’s a great popular song, people love it.
Anson: Exactly! I just wanted to write some stuff that was a little more to the heart, like last time it was like “First Kiss” and they’re cool songs, but they’re on the surface of things. They’re about things that happened in my life, but they’re a little more like when I was on the fourteen or fifteen side of things, and I just wanted to … you look at songs like “Press and Release,” and I wanted to talk about things that I haven’t talked about before. Because people have given me the criticism of “you write all songs about girls,” and I’m like “It’s true, but that’s been what my life’s been …” I mean, not like I’m a player or anything, but you go through relationships and you write about them. It’s all about relationships in life. Even “Every Time” is about my parents’ relationship with me. It’s … it’s about life and what you go through. I write about what happens in my life.
Anthony: Do you, and I’ve asked other artists this who have gone through changes in their style, do you feel or fear that you’re going to lose some of your older fans because they’re used to you being the “Sing About Girls” Anson and now we’re getting the “Sing About Life” Anson?
Anson: I don’t think so, to be honest. There’s still some ‘hit’ pop songs on the record. So I’m not really discouraged about that, and my live set is usually a mix between both of them. I kinda want to do what Bruno Mars does. If you listen to Bruno Mars, he does all those hit songs but if you listen to his actual records, it’s like gospel. It’s not “God,” I don’t know really how to put it…
Anthony: It is. He’s very gospel-inflected, but does cover more serious subjects than “The Lazy Song.”
Anson: Exactly, and it has such a fantastic vibe to it, so I like that kind of idea. Having those hit pop songs that everyone sings along to, and then there’s other life songs.
Anthony: Okay, Devin wanted me to ask you…
Anson: Hello, Devin!
Anthony: Devin from Abnormal Interviews, for those who don’t know her. She wanted me to ask you … I love her questions … “If you were to be a penguin for an entire day, what would you do with your day?”
Anson: I’d eat so much fish. I’d eat SO much fish. And I’d go swimming. Honestly, I wonder what it would feel like to go swimming as a penguin, you’d probably go so quick because of like the flubber and all that stuff.
Anthony: I’d have a problem with the seafood side of things, because I don’t eat it. So I don’t think I could be a penguin.
Anson: I love sushi, so no problem there.
Anthony: So you just finished a cross-country tour.
Anson: I ended in Los Angeles.
Anthony: Just you and your guitar…
Anson: And my tour manager!
Anthony: Who has been posting pics to your Facebook page.
Anson: Yeah, He’s been fantastic, he’s a cool dude. I wanted to bring him along because .. he doesn’t listen to the same music as me, he listens to more punk music, but we both have such a passion for music, it’s one of those things where it doesn’t really matter what music we listen to, it’s just the vibe and the creativity. I really enjoy working with him.
Anthony: It’s great to have someone on tour with you that you can share that sensibility with.
Anson: Exactly. He talks an earful to me about punk music, I talk to him about pop. We’re just intrigued with each other and it’s fantastic. Lots to talk about on tour.
Anthony: Since you mentioned pop music and punk, who are your biggest influences, and has that changed at all?
Anson: Yellowcard. Mayday Parade. Taylor Swift. Paramour. Suzanne Vega, which a random one, 1980’s folk-pop. I actually hung out with her, she played a free show at Madison Square Park, thousands of people, ridiculous. She’s kind of what I want to be later in my life because she’s been doing this for over 35 years, she has a kid, I’m friends with her kid, and she has a very stable life. And that’s what I want, I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. So she’s a huge inspiration. Yellowcard was the very first CD I purchased and the sad thing is I only purchased it because it was so shiny. That was actually my reason. And then they turned out to be my favorite music.
Anthony: Sometimes you discover great music just by going to the store and saying “well, that cover looks cool.”
Anson: Those are the bands I grew up with, but everything’s inspirational. It doesn’t matter, because you take things from any genre, from any performance, and learn something.
Anthony: I find the same thing with writing. I write mostly science fiction and fantasy, but I read all over because it all influences.
Anson: I love science fiction and fantasy.
Anthony: And that’s probably as good a lead-in as I’ve ever had with a musician for the last question I always ask, which is: What’s your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
Anson: Since we mentioned science fiction, I’m going to pick a science fiction book. Ender’s Game, which is coming out as a movie soon. It’s by Orson Scott Card. He’s a little kooky, but I like his writing. It’s about a boy named Ender Wiggin and he fights these aliens called the Buggers. It’s a great book. You have to read it.
Since I mentioned it earlier, here’s Anson’s “I Swear,” from his first EP: