By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Singer-songwriter Brenda Xu (pronounced “shoo”) lived in Torrance, Calif. and San Diego, before making her way to Seattle. But “I always knew I would move away” from California, she commented, “because I’m not a huge fan of sunny weather.”
Xu, who played the Fremont Abbey on Feb. 24 for a record release party for her new album “Overflow,” lives in Wallingford now, not terribly far from the Abbey itself. But she’s logged time in Magnolia, Capitol Hill, and Shoreline.
“Each neighborhood has its charm,” she mused. “One of my favorite things about the city is the gorgeous parks right in the city in every neighborhood. You don’t feel so removed from nature in this city.”
Xu grew up speaking Mandarin at home, and English at school. She also spent a year in college abroad in Germany, where she picked up fairly fluent German.
She uses Chinese, English, German, French, and occasionally other languages in her songs. But she confided, “In my songs, the truth of what I’m trying to convey is more in the melody than the lyrics.”
“I often improvise a melody and lyrics at the same time,” Xu elaborated, “and sometimes I won’t know exactly what a song means until I’ve been playing it for a while. When I write, what comes out does not go through an analytical language filter. Instead, I try to turn off the analytical side of my brain, and channel pure emotive energy … Some of those sounds end up being parts that other instruments play, or words that have a similar cadence and rhythm as the original sounds which fit with the melody.”
She learned a few different instruments over time, but started out with a cheap guitar. She loved the Smashing Pumpkins (including Japanese American guitarist James Iha) for their combination of rock songs and epic ballads, a vulnerable yet assertive approach.
Tori Amos, especially her song “Silent All These Years,” was another crucial influence. Xu remembers “being completely transfixed” by that song when it came on the radio. “It was a powerful feminine voice that really resonated with how I experienced the world,” she explained. “There was something magical and inexplicable about it that took me out of reality for a while. I guess you could say it was a spiritual experience.”
She met record producer Don Farwell, who produced “Overflow,” through fellow Seattle musician Julia Massey. He also worked on the song arrangements, and collaborated with Xu on the album mixing. Musicians included Xu’s regular band members — Ben Kent on drums, Timothy Van Buren on electric guitar and bass, and Yun-En Liu on violin — plus violist Andrew Van Kampen, cellist Colin Isler, and Farwell himself on trombone.
Future plans after the album’s release in March include her first European tour in April and May, plus a trip through Alaska in the summer and an East Coast tour in the fall.
“I’m also working to get more of my music in TV, film, and other visual platforms,” she affirmed. “I feel like this is the year to really get my music out there. I’m at a point where I truly believe in what I’m putting forth and feel like I have something different to offer.”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.