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Gone Gold: Lexie Liu On Her New Musical Direction and Having “the Courage to Reshape the Future”

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It’s been two and half years since RADII first interviewed Lexie Liu. Back then she was a 19-year-old contestant on The Rap of China. Today, she’s an established star. And while her new EP is entitled Gone Gold for other reasons (more on those below), it’s a name that fits well with her ascent to the upper echelons of Mandopop.

Rap of China, where she made the final four, may have helped propel her towards stardom, but she’s never really been a rapper. Even backstage at the show she told us, “Rap is not my main thing to do. I’m more focused on the R&B side,” before listing Rihanna, Michael Jackson, Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga as her main stylistic references.

After a stream of sleek R&B tracks, Liu’s latest single — “ALGTR,” which dropped on January 11 — saw another change of direction. Gone was the sultry, slow-burn swagger of her 2019 album Meta Ego. In its place was high-energy electro-pop.

“When it came to making this EP, I was already dissatisfied with what I’d done before,” she says. “I was tired of singing those songs. With ‘ALGTR,’ I gave myself really high requirements and was in the studio for four days; I switched up my timbre and broke out of my own vocal range.

lexie liu gone gold algtr

“Whenever my creation enters a new stage, I will inevitably experience a bottleneck period where there’s a lack of inspiration,” she continues. “And then I’ll reluctantly leap out of the comfort zone, leave the warmth and familiarity of what used to be, and maybe even smash through it in order to prevent myself from looking back — in order to re-explore the world like a newborn baby.”

Lots of pop stars will tell you they wanted to get out of their comfort zone and try something new in the build-up to their latest release — “We just did what we always do,” generally isn’t quite as inspiring or likely to generate streams. But Liu certainly cites an intriguing range of genres that she’s played with for this EP: “In addition to ‘old friends’ like R&B and trap, there are also some ‘new friends,’ like synth-pop, baroque pop, trip hop, EDM, new wave rock, nu disco, classical,” she says. “There’s even a Gregorian chant.”

Liu already has something of a proven track record for forging her own path. Following her journey to the final stages of Rap of China, she’s not completely eschewed the variety show model that brought her initial fame — she notably made jaws drop on Singer in 2020 and is slated to appear in new iQIYI venture Stage Boom later this year.

Yet after signing a short-term deal with 88rising for her debut EP 2030, she’s mostly gone independent, producing and releasing her own music and working with the likes of Club Media, as well as director Jeremy Z. Qin, to create a series of spectacular videos to accompany her most recent songs.

“The great thing about Qin is that he never restricts my expression when we are working together, and he even expands this space through the language of his lens and the plot design [of the music videos],” she says. “At the same time, there’s a deep understanding of me from the video, but there’s also enough space for each viewer to draw their own meaning.”

While big business and talent contest TV shows may dominate the music landscape in China, Liu — who spent a semester studying global business in New York before getting into pop music — has used these to her advantage while retaining a sense of control. She’s been able to carve out her own creative space, yet still pick up corporate cheques (with Kappa and Sprite for example), and has even joined the ranks of League of Legends virtual idol group K/DA.

There’s a gaming link to Gone Gold too. “The term ‘Gone Gold’ is jargon from the gaming industry, which means that after the game has been produced, it enters the factory and is ready for release,” Liu explains. “If you look at the meaning of ‘Gone Gold,’ there’s kind of this feeling of beautiful loss. Later, we decided that the Chinese name [for the record] should be Online [上线了]. It echoes the production of a game, and also points out the contemporary theme of this EP.”

That “contemporary theme” has naturally been impacted by the ongoing pandemic. “[‘ALGTR’] was written in the spring and summer of 2020, when the epidemic just started to break out globally,” says Liu of the EP’s lead single. “The rules of the entire world were restarted, and everyone had to stay at home and could only grasp what was happening in the world through a screen. At that time, I felt that if I turned off the screen, I could just live in my own room without thinking about what was happening in the outside world. Does this world still exist for us? How do I know what is true? I wanted to record such doubts in my own way.”

Over time, the track took on a broader meaning. “Looking back now, I feel that the core of the whole song is still looking at the impact of technology and the information age on human life. There’s no conclusive evidence or opinions anymore, only constant doubts. […] We are gradually becoming numb to the feeling of time and our desire for everything to happen faster [so] I also wanted to use this song as a reminder to my numb self: This world doesn’t just consist of self-paralysis — it’s also full of desire for something real, and of the courage to reshape the future.”

The reminder appears to have worked — Liu is very much shaping her own future right now. And while the past year has made a mockery of many a prediction, given her trajectory to date, we wouldn’t want to bet against 2021 being a big year for Lexie Liu.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.