Musician and producer Xiaolin recounts her transitional growth from classical music training to self-expression, whilst tapping into her creativity and spirituality in the midst of tour and gig cancellations and pandemic blues.
A lot of DJs are trained in musical theory, but how many are Juilliard-certified classical violinists? Xiaolin is a rarity—graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School prior to obtaining a double master’s degree in jazz and music technology at the Berklee College of Music, she has spent the past decade conquering the many different spheres within music, from classical to techno, from practice to production, and from the learning of theory to the unlearning of discipline. Ahead of her new EP's release later this summer, we sit down for a chat with the musician for more insight into her journey and essence.
What inspires you? What drives your music?
Energy, feeling, and emotion.
I’m also driven by nostalgia. I feel that music is a way of capturing moments in time. When I listen to music, I find myself associating certain tracks with certain moments of my life, and I go back to those tracks just to relive those moments. I like to think of music that way, just as you would about photography or art. It’s the same thing, really, just trying to encapsulate specific moments or feelings.
I take a lot of inspiration from the early 90’s, such as acid house sounds. It’s what got me into this music in the first place.
You went to Juilliard, right? You weren’t doing electronic music before.
I did classical music—the violin, which I’ve enjoyed since I was six years old. It introduced me to the world of music, but I was on autopilot and operating on what I thought was the only way to do music. I didn’t know there were other possibilities.
However, if I didn’t have the experience of learning all that music theory, I definitely wouldn’t be able to express myself as easily as I do now. I don't think it’s necessary to have theoretical training to make music, but it helps speed up the process for sure.
Though, at times, it can be a hindrance. When you overthink on the technicalities, you can fall into what I like to call “analysis paralysis”, where you only focus on the minor details and forego the feeling of it. My journey in the last two years has been to unlearn the rules to break them.
Sounds like you had an interesting transition from classical music to electronic music. What was it like?
In my second year of Music Conservatory, I began to realise that classical music wasn’t for me. I have a lot of love and respect for classical music, but a classical musician’s expression is limited to their interpretation of the notes, which were already written. I didn’t feel as if I could achieve the full range of my creative expression. Ultimately, it just wasn’t fulfilling enough.
I started to play with jazz musicians at my school and did a half-jazz-half-classical recital for my final at Juilliard. After that, I went to Berklee for contemporary performance, which is jazz, world music, and everything that isn’t classical. In a way, that was my natural and gradual transition into music with more freedom.
Let’s fast forward to more recent years. You used to live in London—when did you come back to Hong Kong, and how has it been for you?
I worked as a music director at an international hotel in Hong Kong, got transferred to the London branch, and came back in 2020 because of the pandemic. I started going to Mihn (a techno club in Sheung Wan) and made some friends that I ended up collaborating with. I realised for the first time that there is a music scene in Hong Kong of like-minded people.
I went on a China tour last November and got some offers to go back, but due to the situation right now, I just felt it wasn’t meant to be. Meanwhile, it’s a time for me to focus more on music, to really focus on production and finding my sound, instead of DJing.
Tell us more about your new EP coming out.
Tower Moment is my second EP, and my first one to come out on vinyl—which I’m really excited about. The idea is based on the first oracle deck that I own, called “Work Your Light”. It is dreamy, very light, and techno.
In the first half of last year, I had a creative block where I couldn’t write a single track for months. To clear the blockages, I meditated, read a lot, and tried to understand myself more, which is how I got into tarot and oracle cards, metaphysical healing, and esoteric philosophies. I drew four cards from the oracle deck in my stump. Each of them inspired a song in my EP. They are different stages of healing, coming together to form a transformation and a journey of the mind.
It’s not magic. I see the cards as something that’s just projecting what you feel, what you want to feel, and the things that you don’t want to admit. Especially in the time of pandemic blues, you have nowhere to go but inwards.
My biggest takeaway from the last two years is, “Change is the only constant.” My sound is constantly evolving. I used to get upset with myself for being “indecisive”, but then I realised it’s actually normal for an artist’s style to change over time. Now, I’m just embracing that change and surrendering to it.