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Lilium breaks Asian pop mold by integrating Taiwanese lyrics and traditional instruments with indie rock

Lilium lead singer and songwriter Lin I-Shuo (centre) hopes that his band can create a new musical genre.

The term Lilium refers to a class of plants—lilies—famous for their prominent flowers. It’s a Latin word meaning “truth”.

But Lilium has an entirely different connotation to music lovers in Taiwan. In the island nation, Lilium (百合花) is a highly original indie rock band that integrates many musical genres into its clever songs. This includes traditional Taiwanese music, such as Nanguan and Beiguan, which complement hard-driving guitar, bass, and drums.

The guitarist and lead vocalist, Lin I-Shuo (林奕碩), tells Pancouver over Zoom that as a kid, he liked listening to English-language pop and rock. In those days, he noticed that AC/DC riffed on Scottish bagpipes in its 1975 hit, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”. The lead singer at the time, Bon Scott, and AC/DC’s Young brothers were born in Scotland.

As a result, I-Shuo wondered if he could bring Asian instruments—such as the erhu and moon lute—into his songs. That prompted him to study with old musical masters in Taiwan.

“I find it so interesting because there are so many elements that nobody tried to put into a rock band,” the Taipei musician says. “So that’s what I did.”

In 2013, I-Shuo released two demonstration tracks on YouTube. Six years later, he and bandmates Wei-Zuo (bass and backup vocals) and I-Hsin (drums, percussion, and backup vocals) released their acclaimed first full-length album, Burnana. It captured Best Rock Album and Best Newcomer at the Golden Indie Awards and was nominated for a Golden Melody Award as Best Taiwanese Album.

The 2021 follow-up, Road to…, won Best Taiwanese Album and Best Album Design at the Golden Melody Awards.

Lilium drummer I-Hsin, guitarist I-Shuo, and bassist Wei-Zuo played the Jade Music Fest in Asia.

Lilium will perform in Toronto

In April, Lilium performed at the inaugural Jade Music Fest in Asia. It was held at Huashan 1914 Creative Park in I-Shuo’s hometown. There, he met indie musicians of Asian ancestry from Canada, such as Daniel Lew, Aiko Tomi, Darling Sparrow/Ginalina, Jacq Teh, and Tennyson King. Some performed songs in Chinese languages.

“They are all interested in where their parents came from—and they wanted to try to do something with the culture,” I-Shuo says. “But they actually grew up in Canada. It’s pretty interesting to listen to their works.”

Lilium will make their Canadian debut at TAIWANfest Toronto, which is at Harbourfront Centre from August 23 to 25. The band will also play Vancouver TAIWANfest, which takes place on the Labour Day weekend.

Lilium’s thoughtful lyrics are in Taiwanese Hokkien. This is unusual where many pop and rock musicians write in Mandarin to reach large fan bases in China or Southeast Asia.

I-Shuo says that he initially tried to write songs in English. However, he didn’t feel any connection to the lyrics.

As a result of watching many interviews with musicians from the West, I-Shuo had an epiphany. Over the years, he had noticed that that they were often asked what they listened to as kids. He recalls John Mayer saying that he loved B.B. King. Michael Jackson talked about his admiration for James Brown.

I-Shuo, however, didn’t have the same cultural references as contemporary American musicians. And he wondered if this might explain why his English-language songwriting wasn’t resonating with him.

“I thought that maybe I should look back at my culture,” I-Shuo says.

That’s when things started to click.

Watch Lilium’s video for “Doctor” (醫生).

Creating characters for “Doctor” (醫生)

A major influence was the Taiwanese rocker Wu-Bai, who gained fame in the 1990s.

“He really inspired me because he also started to write Taiwanese Hokkien songs in the early days,” I-Shuo says. “I know in the early times, when Taiwanese people started to play rock music, they were mostly cover bands.”

One single on Burnana, “Doctor”, features him singing in falsetto. It’s normally associated with Taiwanese opera.

“The first time I learned that technique, I said ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ ” I-Shuo says.

He points out that songwriters often express thoughts from their point of view. He modestly suggests that maybe he’s not that special, nor is his own story that special. So, I-Shuo decided to build a tale around two characters, one sung as his regular voice and the other in falsetto.

In “Doctor”, I-Shuo added a modern twist to the stereotype of female opera characters who are always sad as they stay at home waiting for their husbands to return. In this song, the male voice is that of the doctor, who’s actually a psychologist. And the female voice, represented by the falsetto, is a woman seeking his professional help.

“Doctor” also features a Nanguan orchestra and an a cappella interpretation of an old Taiwanese song.

Another song on Burnana, “I Shouldn’t Have Reincarnated” (早知莫投胎), includes a chord progression that I-Shuo created with only one hand near the base of his guitar. There’s also traditional instrumentation in this single.

“I recorded the whole thing and tried to put lyrics into it, and then it just came out really sad,” I-Shuo says. “It’s like ‘depressed in a lazy way’. But it’s not like ‘really strong depressed’—it’s just ‘lazy depressed’.”

Watch the video for “Saturday” (拜六)

Taiwanese music in a nightclub

This is the type of everyday concern that he likes writing about. An example on the follow-up album, Road to…, is the popular “Saturday (拜六)”. The video for the bouncy dance number is set in a nightclub, with a good-looking male DJ spinning tracks.

Last year, I-Shuo told Taiwan Beats that when he goes to a party, he wonders why DJs never play Taiwanese funeral music. This led him to he put a DJ in this video.

“When [he] started playing ‘Quan Shi Diao’ (Taiwanese folk), people started to leave. Everyone looked disappointed,” I-Shuo told the publication.

However, a young woman at the bar approaches the DJ, conveying the impression that she appreciates his music.

Another track on Road to…, “Monkey-catching Song” (掠猴之歌), comes with traditional music and some bizarre, contemporary lyrics about envy. In one stanza, the singer complains about another person wearing his shirt and trousers. There’s another line about neighbours clutching their pearls.

In the video, this is paired with imaginative imagery from ancient times, elaborate costumes, and animation. Then it closes with a bald guy sitting in his car.

Watch the video for “Monkey-catching Song” (掠猴之歌).

A world where every culture is equal

According to I-Shuo, Road to… goes beyond Lilium’s approach on the first album of inserting traditional music in one part of the song and then playing contemporary or rock music in another section. Instead, traditional and modern sounds come together, sometimes in the midst of other genres.

“The first album would be more rock ‘n’ roll,” I-Shuo says. “On the second one, you can hear bossa nova. You can hear this reggae and rap. I was trying to think about what genres I personally like.”

Lilium also layered Taiwanese elements into the songs. This creates a sound that nobody had ever heard before.

“In Lilium’s music, we are trying to imagine a world in that every culture is actually equal—which means every musician would just think, ‘Why not put my music with this neo-soul or with this punk rock?’ ” I-Shuo says.

He maintains that great genres in the past century were created by musicians who mixed different styles together. Punk and bossa nova are two examples.

However, he doesn’t think that any new genres have been developed in Taiwan or China in the last century. According to him, Mandopop is not a genre.

“Maybe one day, I could invent a new one,” I-Shuo says with a smile. “Or maybe I can inspire other people who have this Taiwanese DNA mixed with something else. And then we can have this new genre because there are not many.”

Watch this TaiwanPlus News story on Lilium.

Lilium will perform at TAIWANfest Toronto, which takes place at Harbourfront Centre from August 23 to 25. For more information, visit the festival website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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