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Milo Van Giap

Becoming auntie: Lucinda Chua on how music helped her find a community

In becoming the artist she didn’t see growing up, Lucinda is finally finding her voice.

12 Oct 2022

Next year I’m releasing my debut solo album. I’m 36 years old. It’s strange to be at a life stage when most people are deep in the rhythm of who they are, yet I’m still finding my groove. Sometimes I feel a pressure to be younger than my age, to match the expectations and image of an artist who is ‘up-and-coming’, ‘emerging’ and ‘on the rise’. Other times I feel an urge to catch up, like I’ve fallen far behind. But the truth is I have been here making music this whole time, and life doesn’t always follow a straight line.

My record opens with ‘Golden’, a song I wrote from the perspective of my younger self; someone in search of a role model, trying to make sense of their multi-ethnic identity. Music often feels like my mother tongue; it’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started piano lessons before my fourth birthday and I was so small my feet didn’t even touch the ground. Sharing music with others was a large part of my upbringing. I’d play for my family when they came to visit, in group lessons with other students and at the Christmas concert my teacher held each year. It was never my intention to be a musician, music was just something I did. It was part of my morning ritual – 15 minutes of practice every day before breakfast whether I wanted to or not. 

I started learning cello at age 10. Moving out of London to Milton Keynes, I was awarded a scholarship extending my lessons to evenings and weekends. I joined an orchestra, jazz band, string quartet, baroque ensemble, rock school and choir. As a teenager, music got me through some really hard times. Music became my escape from school, where my nickname was Chow mein, and an escape from the small village I lived in, where my nicknames were even worse. My true self felt silenced, so I turned to music to express all the things I couldn’t say in words.

“I didn’t want to re-enact something old; I wanted to author something new. I wanted to be an artist.”

I didn’t study music at university, didn’t go to the conservatoire or the academy. I struggled to read sheet music, never passed a grade or took an exam. In the eyes of the classical world I was illiterate, uneducated, even though I could play their repertoire which I learned by ear. Music was my way to connect with people and an outlet for my emotions. I didn’t want to re-enact something old; I wanted to author something new. I wanted to be an artist. I ended up going to university to study photography, a creative but vocational degree. Leaving home, I took my cello with me. 

At university I started writing and recording songs on an old 4-track tape recorder,  drawing inspiration from artists I looked up to (PJ Harvey, Cat Power) with the voices I’d grown up with (Otis Redding, Nina Simone) layering lo-fi cello and piano over my vocals. Forming a band, I played regular support gigs in Nottingham, my student town, and later all around the Midlands. Uploading my demos to Myspace, my band Felix signed a two-album deal with a small indie label in the US. Our first record came out on my birthday in 2009, the second in 2012. Not long after, the band broke up and I felt like it was time to do something on my own.

“As a solo artist, there was no one like me – there was no roadmap, no case study, no proven market.”

It would be easy to cherry pick highlights from my 20s and early 30s, but I’d be omitting so much of my life which has seen many ups and downs. Over the years I have worked numerous jobs, using any annual leave to do session work, rehearse and gig. I burned out multiple times, taking on too much with no professional infrastructure or support. I was painfully aware I didn’t fit the industry mould, my ‘story’ was too messy and not singular enough to market. Stuck between binaries, I was at the intersection of everything but at the centre of nothing. As a solo artist, there was no one like me – there was no roadmap, no case study, no proven market. 

I spent the best part of a decade working for various artists alongside my day job; visual artists, music artists, film directors. At times I felt like a passenger in my own life, the sidekick to their main-character energy. I thought that if I spent enough time around artists, maybe one day I’d get to be one. I saw the inner workings of their world, how their teams were put together, when their teams fell apart, where the money came from and how it was invested. I witnessed first hand the enormous pressures they were under, how they coped, how they didn’t. I was part of their vision, witnessing all the steps they took to achieve it, the sacrifices and the celebrations, but always quietly, in the background. I have so many learnings from this period of my life. It wasn’t always easy, but I was forged by fire. 

In the midst of the global lockdown in the summer of 2020, aged 34, I signed a record deal as a solo artist with 4AD. At this moment, I realised I had been an artist all along, I was just afraid to claim it. Representation isn’t only about diversity, it’s also the ability to see yourself outside of yourself, the encouragement to dream and desire. I understand I am part of this change and I feel the weight of responsibility. I feel empowered and sometimes overwhelmed by the agency and autonomy I finally have. It’s the first time I have been able to choose rather than waiting to be chosen. Being in the spotlight hasn’t come naturally to me, but the visibility has helped me find the community and sense of belonging I yearned for growing up.

“Being in the spotlight hasn’t come naturally to me, but the visibility has helped me find the community and sense of belonging I yearned for growing up.”

I co-wrote a short film for ‘Golden’ with director Tash Tung. It’s our second project together and another chapter in our friendship. Since we met three years ago, our careers have been on parallel journeys:, Tash signed with Blink and I signed with 4AD; We are the only East and South East Asian talent on the roster. We are part of the ‘new generation’, not by age or life experience, but by era. Working with Tash and a cast and crew of predominantly ESEA talent was the first time in my professional life where I was not the minority. 

In recent times, I have found so much inspiration in the UK’s growing ESEA music community. I feel hopeful for the younger generation of artists coming up. Social media means they are seen; they are an industry unto themselves. I didn’t have role models who looked like me growing up, and it gives me so much hope knowing there will be an abundance of role models for generations to come. I see them rising, thriving, demanding, shining and my heart swells with the pride of an auntie.

‘Golden’ will be released on 19 October. Lucinda is performing as part of the Purcell Sessions at the Southbank Centre on 13 October and has curated Joyride: A Night of Revelry with ESEA Sisters at the Southbank Centre on 15 October. 

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