Lucinda Chua is remembering when she first fell in love with music. ‘I was five or six years old and watching a string quartet of buskers in Covent Gardens,’ she says on Zoom, from her home in South London. ‘I instantly fell in love with the cello and was so desperate to stop playing the piano!’
Lucinda has been playing music since she was three, when her parents first put her into piano lessons. At age 10, she moved to Milton Keynes and began learning the cello, the instrument that she has come to be associated with throughout her career, incorporating its sounds into her own solo music as well as in her collaborations with other artists like FKA Twigs. Despite diligently training – ‘I had to practise the piano for 15 minutes before breakfast every weekday since I was three; it was like brushing my teeth’ – as a teenager, Lucinda knew a career as a classically trained musician wasn’t in her future.
‘I learned to play via the Suzuki Method which is a lot of learning by ear with an emphasis on playing in a group,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t really very good at reading sheet music. Even though I could play the repertoire, my way of getting there was quite unconventional. I knew I didn’t fit in the classical world and the only other musical world I could see was being a pop musician and I thought I wouldn’t fit into that world either. I never thought playing music could be a career.’
Lucinda left Milton Keynes to study photography at Nottingham Trent University. There she played gigs in bands, and although she played shows regularly often as a support act for visiting artists like Bat for Lashes and Martha Wainwright, Lucinda never saw her playing as a job. ‘It was like music was separate,’ she says. ‘It didn’t cross over with business or work. It was just something I did.’
‘I was always writing and composing even when the audience was just me and six friends. I had so much music that just existed on private SoundCloud links.’
While at university, Lucinda needed to take an elective course to finish her photography degree, and she opted for lo-fi music production. This was before GarageBand was available on any laptop and it was the first time Lucinda self-produced her own music, using programmes like Cubase and techniques like tape splicing, multitracking and manipulation. By the end of the course, she had a CD with seven songs. ‘I started burning the CD and selling it to my friends and in the bar I worked in, just to have a bit of a side hustle.’ Lucinda handed one of the CDs to a music promoter who booked her for Dot To Dot Festival. ‘I just said yes. And then I realised I would need to figure out how to play the piano and the cello and sing at the same time live!’
For over a decade, this became Lucinda’s musical ethos. ‘I said yes to opportunities and then figured out how to do it later,’ she says with a laugh. When a friend asked if Lucinda could fill in as a cellist, she said yes; and when her bandmate asked if he could put them forward to support a North American tour, she said yes; and when David Pajo of the band Slint suggested Lucinda open their reunion tour, she said yes; and when a friend said FKA Twigs needed a cellist, she said yes. ‘It sounds impressive when I say it in a sentence, but this is over a really long period of time. I guess it was like signing up for that music production course at uni. I said yes to things and relied on having a positive mindset and good energy to pull it off.’
Of course, Lucinda’s multi-instrument-spanning talent also built her career. While she was collaborating and supporting other musicians in her 20s, Lucinda never stopped creating her own music. ‘I was always writing and composing even when the audience was just me and six friends. I had so much music that just existed on private SoundCloud links.’
And then, the pandemic happened and tours stopped. In the midst of the first lockdown in 2020, after turning 34, Lucinda signed a record deal with 4AD for her debut solo album. ‘I don’t think it was like I woke up one day and I had the confidence to be a solo artist,’ she explains. ‘I think it was more like the opportunities for me to flourish as a solo artist didn’t arrive until my mid 30s. Or the investment, like someone investing in you, means that you have to invest in yourself as a solo artist.’
The 4AD team were working from home, so Lucinda got a key to their basement studio, where, alone and below ground, she began to find what would eventually become her first album, YIAN. ‘The ideas are so tender at the early stages of synthesising a record and even just them being witnessed by someone can crush them,’ says Lucinda about working alone. ‘I wanted to shelter the project from other energies. It was important to protect it to keep it pure for me.’
Lucinda was also trying to protect the energy of the record, because, at the same time as being in the studio, she was working through difficult feelings around her Chinese-Malaysian heritage. ‘I was thinking about my Asian identity, and that in relation to sound,’ Lucinda says. ‘I was trying to carve out space for that identity to flourish, almost in the absence of whiteness and trying to decolonise my mind. I was trying to unlearn a lot of learned behaviours that aren’t intuitive to me. I had to protect the energy of the record so that I could find a voice within me that felt true to me.’
The insular nature of Lucinda’s writing process forms the musical texture of YIAN, which is both delicate and powerful, inward-facing and far-reaching. On songs like An Ocean and Golden, her voice – which is often so close to the surface of the mix, she could be whispering in your ear – is buoyed by her spacious, searching, self-produced instrumentation. ‘Who do I turn to, when I don’t look like you?’ she sings on Golden.
'When East and Southeast Asian people come to watch my shows... I’m sharing part of myself and I see it moves them but I know it moves them because I’m a mirror to their experience.'
Yian is Lucinda’s Chinese name. She was called for the swallow bird, a name that took on new poetic resonance while she worked on the album. ‘I thought about the migrating swallow while also thinking about being mixed race and migrating between two cultures and two homes. The inbetweenness really resonated with me and the swallow being a songbird that migrates between two places felt really fitting.’
There are no easy answers to Lucinda’s searching questions on YIAN. But what she has certainly found through her music is connection and community. ‘It’s such an affirming feeling when the feelings that felt so niche and difficult for me resonate with someone else who has those feelings too,’ Lucinda explains with a small content smile. ‘Especially when East and Southeast Asian people come to watch my shows. I’m sharing part of myself and I see it moves them but I know it moves them because I’m a mirror to their experience. It’s like this communication between the two of us when we don’t need to say anything but we both feel seen in that moment. For me, that’s the best part of being an artist.’