The Process: The Expanding Universe of Luna Li

A Q&A with Hannah Bussiere on existing in a world of her own creation.

Photographer: Halle Hirota @hallehirota

Styling: Cat Calica @yungguava

Assisted by: Olivia Mokrzycki @sink.bug & Antoni James @antonijames

Floral Arrangement by: Jaime McCuaig @j_aime


 

Whether she’s harmonizing centre stage or jamming live from her bedroom, Toronto-based musician Luna Li curates an immersive experience beyond our wildest dreams.


We sat down (virtually) with Hannah Bussiere, the fairy-like songstress behind Luna Li to learn more about the girl who could play melodies with mermaids and sing lullabies to the moon. We discuss experimenting with her identity and the many puzzle pieces that form her current project.


Moving through the industry as a woman is no easy feat, but Bussiere’s talent makes it appear almost effortless. It’s clear this is what she was meant to do.



What does your “workbench” typically look like? What is part of the “essential toolkit” of a Luna Li song?


My essential tool kit would be having logic open — I really like to be recording all of my ideas as I go. As a multi-instrumentalist, I obviously can’t play everything at the same time, so it’s nice to just be able to build things and record as I go.


A really essential tool for me is a full MIDI keyboard. With that there are so many sound packs that you can use to create so many different kinds of sounds with just the one keyboard, so that really allows for a lot of variety. Also, just having all my instruments around me is really helpful. But, I usually start off with the keyboard. It was my first instrument and it feels like the most versatile for me because I'm the most comfortable with it. One really necessary tool for being creative for me, is exploring new sounds and finding something new every time — otherwise it just doesn’t work if i’m doing the same thing over and over again. I need to push myself and go somewhere new every time.


And when did that start? You and music?


I grew up in a very musical household. As a kid my mom was always just singing with me around the house. I asked for piano lessons at age five. And then my mom joined her partner in running a music school when I was just a little bit older. So I was just really lucky to be able to grow up in a musical community with students and teachers and just be surrounded by all that all the time.


When did you start getting experimental with your sound?


I think I would say that when I first started learning the guitar is really when I branched off. I was really focused on classical music before then. And then I turned twelve and thought “I’m going to rock out on the guitar.”


I don’t know if that was the time that I really started finding my sound yet, but it was a stepping stone to get there. That’s when I started learning covers and started writing my own songs for the first time — those will never see the light of day, thank God.


I think a really big turning point for me was after I left high school, I went to McGill to study violin. I ended dropping out after a year and moving back to Toronto to start my project. I realized what I really loved was being creative and so I knew I wanted to start building something from the ground on my own. I felt like I wasn't getting that in music school.


What is the magic touch that you feel a song is complete? Are songs ever complete? How do you know when to move forward? How do you know what to keep or to discard?


I think about building songs like a puzzle. Arrangement feels kind of like you're fitting all the little pieces together to create this one big picture. I would say that there's a moment where you just know that it's done, where it's like, I have used all the pieces here and I know sometimes I go overboard and then I have to take things out. Usually it's just a lot of experimenting until you feel like it's good.


A really key thing for me is to leave it and come back to it the next day. Have a break and come back and be like, “Okay, am I still liking this? Does it still feel like it's done?”


The [Instagram Live] jams were a really good exercise in songwriting and production because I had to create something with the intention that it was going to be heard [as it is]. I was going to post it on Instagram and people were going to listen to it.


Whereas usually when I'm making a song, I'll create a demo first. And then I'll be like, “I know I'm going to take this to the studio so I know it's going to change before the world hears it”. I build it as much as I can by myself, but I know that's not going to be the final form. I feel like I've also been able to learn a lot about production in the past year, just experimenting and being on my own and having to do everything myself.



Does that feel different to release music that is just you playing instrumentally, versus a complete lyrical song where you're using your voice as an instrument as well? How does that feel different, when you get that out into the world,


It definitely is different. I had never created something from start to finish completely on my own and released it into the world. So that was new for me and exciting. Um, I would say that instrumental music feels easier to create because I find lyrics tough sometimes and also, it can be really vulnerable and feels a lot more personal to me. So I would say that the instrumentals have this kind of easier and more chill feeling to them where it's maybe a little bit less scary.






Do you first start thinking about lyrics for a song or do you first start thinking about music? What does that process you described as vulnerable look like?


I think it's changed for me over the years. Recently I've been doing the music first. You know, sitting in my studio, making a little loop, kind of seeing what comes out of that. And then if I have something and I really like the way it sounds, then I'll sing over top of it and try and find a melody. Sometimes words end up flowing out and I can start refining the lyrics from there. Usually that's my process, but I also sometimes like to just sit down on the piano and just write a full song with lyrics melody at the same time without really building a track.



So it kind of changes every time. And that's what I love about it too, is that it doesn't have to be the same every time.



How do you feel when you revisit an old song or something from your past? What is your relationship like with your younger self as a musician?


That's a good question. I don't actually listen to my old music ever.


I think I am really, really focused on what's happening in the moment, where I'm going and who

I’m evolving into. Okay, I would say that the rare moment I do listen to my old music is interesting. I'm kind of a perfectionist, so a lot of the time I go back and I listen and I'm like, “Oh, I should've done this. I could've done this better.”


But sometimes I go back and my past self surprises me and I can appreciate at least one thing about it and be like, oh, I forgot I did that cool thing in this song or whatever


. It's a little bit of mixed feelings going back. But yeah, I don't think I would change anything about how I got here. I'm here now and I'm still growing, so it's all good.



You built Luna Li, this whole identity and concept around yourself so well that I didn't even know your name which is wild. I'd love to know how it was that you built this identity for yourself.


I decided to create this name so that I would have an alter ego to step into when I was performing. I created [Luna Li] pretty early on in the game and I was still learning about, you know, being confident on stage and learning your state prejudice presence and everything like that.


It really helps me to push forward and step into that more confident role on stage. That's kind of where it originated. I've always been really inspired by nature and the magic of the universe and so I was using moon imagery and stuff like that in my previous project and I decided to use the name Luna because it just felt really fitting. I would say that now, like the lines between Hannah and Luna becoming constantly more blurred because of social media and, you know, I'm just filming myself in my room — it's very personal now.


I think Luna Li has become more than just my artist name basically. It’s become a lot closer to who I really am in the past little while.


How has that changed you as a performer? Not really having this ability to step into this, you know, alter ego on a stage. You have to essentially create your own stage and use your own platform. How is it different to perform virtually versus on stage?


I think performing virtually feels like a completely separate thing to me. It's definitely something that I've been exploring a lot more since COVID happened. I think it felt exciting to me to be able to open up and be a little bit more personal with my audience, bring them into my room and show them what I'm doing in my little creative safe space and everything like that.


I do like the fact that it does feel more personal because it feels just closer to me and more meaningful. That said, I really do miss playing live and having the energy in the room with actual human beings.



Where do you keep any drafts?


I usually like to do a voice memo or I'll write lyrics in my notes app. Sometimes I'm just having a conversation with someone and one of us will say something interesting or poetic, and I'm like, “I have to write that down and use it in [a song]”. I have so many embarrassing voice notes of me going for a walk. And I'm kind of out of breath from walking and trying to like sing this little thing that it's coming to me in the moment.


How do you use music as a tool of reflection?


Writing music can be really therapeutic as everyone knows. And sometimes I'll write something or something will come out and I didn’t realize that's how I was feeling. It just kind of comes up because a lot of time I'm doing a bit of a stream of consciousness where I’m setting up the microphone and singing along to whatever I made.


So it's kind of interesting to be like, “Oh, I didn't realize I was feeling this way, but I was subconsciously able to articulate this through, through a song.” It definitely feels like something that can provide clarity and help with self reflection in a way that I don't think anything else really can.


What do you wish for your music to transcend?


I think I really want Luna Li to be a full experience and not just a typical, “this is the music” and that's it. I'm still exploring what that means. I think creating a live show that feels really personal and something that an audience can really participate in is really powerful to me.


I did plan one show with my friend Hallie a couple years back where we really got to delve in and make it as creative as possible. We had dancers at the show, we had a haikus station and a photo booth and a glitter booth. It was really cool to me to get to think outside the box and do things that don't normally happen at a regular live show.


I want to keep going further with visuals and making sure the visual story is really a big component of the project. I love working with other women I’m inspired by, especially for this whole project, I've been kind of making sure to highlight the female gaze work with other women on the film and photo side.




Who are some of those women who inspire you?


I would say someone in Toronto who is doing a really cool stuff that I really admire is Maylee Todd. She did this virtual womb show, which was like an interactive, crazy experience. She also plays the harp and I was inspired to pick up the harp after seeing her play.


I also love and am really inspired by other Asian American artists who feel like they're breaking boundaries right now, like Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som and Mitski, I love them.


I'm also just such a big fan of Solange and I think that I just cry every time I watch her videos. I really want to see her live one day because she’s just so incredible.



You spoke about how you like to create this immersive universe Luna Li. How do you consciously build this experience around your art?


I think making sure that I really spend time thinking about more than just the music and thinking of ways that I can think outside the box and reach for new ideas that I haven't done before visually and musically. I've been working with my new team who has been so awesome with helping to create those visuals.


Collaboration is a really big thing for me, in terms of expanding the universe of Luna Li, because I don't feel like it's something that I can do myself. I think that there are so many people out there who are specialized in all these different areas and putting our heads together, you can really kind of create something even more special. I would say that I'm so lucky though, to be able to work with other people who are so good at what they do. And it's kind of just like, I see your work and I'm like, “yeah, we're good here. I trust you.”


What is your favourite song, piece, or body of work that you've ever made? Describe if you can, the space that you were in where and when that initial idea came to you. Most times we see the final result, but it’s cool to hear about the first ideation of that result.


I think the thing I'm most proud of is always changing interestingly. But lately, my favourite thing that I made is Cherry Pit, which is the last single that I recently released. What was really cool about it is that it did go through so many forms and so much change to kind of get to where it got.


I started the song at this lookout point on a hike with my family. I had a notebook with me and I passed it around to all of them and everyone wrote a haiku in the notebook. We were at this cottage that my family rented every year in Muskoka. My family had been going there for so long — since my mom was a little baby.


That year we found out that it was going to be sold which was really sad. We have so many memories there and it's the most beautiful, magical place. So it was kind of like I was in this headspace of “this is our last time here and I really want to like take it all in just really appreciate it.” And so that was kind of where I was at. After we sat down and wrote those haikus, I went home to Toronto and started writing the song from there.


It was also a really hard song to write. I think I had the riff and I had the verses and it took me so long to write the chorus. I just didn't know where I wanted to go with it. It was this really big thing that it took me so long — It was so frustrating. At a certain point when you've tried so many you don't even know what's good anymore. I remember at one point I think I was just hanging out on my bed with my boyfriend and suddenly I was like, “I have this melody idea and I think it's going to be perfect for the song.”


It was definitely a tough one to put together, but from there, I took it to the studio and I jammed it out with my producer, which was like also a new experience. Usually I like to create a demo first so I can kind of decide what I want it to be, but we created it together, which was really cool.


There's so many stories about that song. Like we did so much in the production and like me and my producer just this weekend, filmed the breakdown of it. So I'm excited to put that together.


What inspired the visuals for the music video?


Because I wrote the song at this beautiful summer cottage place, I really wanted the video to have a summery vibe. It was January in Toronto and we had to shoot the video and I was like, “uh, I don't know how we're going to do this.” We ended up getting this video grant, which was amazing and it covered us and our flights down to California! So, um, yeah, so me and [Yanran Zhu] who directed it and Adam who shot it all flew down. We ended up going to San Diego because that was a cheaper flight than to LA and we kinda just ran around for the whole weekend. It was really, really fun. Yan's, super into shooting on film so we shot it on film, which was perfect because it really reflected the nostalgic vibe of the song. We were really inspired by Wes Anderson type films and Moonrise Kingdom and wanted to make a video that felt like a little wholesome adventure quest.



Can you recommend a book or movie or TV show that you really love right now? If a friend were to ask you “What should I watch”...you’d respond with… “This. Watch this.”


Yes!I think over the past year, — I really want to recommend the coolest thing right now, but — I'd say over the past year I've really been diving into nostalgia as an escape from the craziness of the world. I've been going back and rewatching and rereading things from my childhood — which are not necessarily the most interesting things, but that's kind of where I'm at.


One really nice thing to watch right now is just like Studio Ghibli films, because it's a nice escape into this magical world where the nature is so beautiful — I love that about it. It’s so wholesome and nice. Like Kiki's delivery service — It's like a slice of life and it feels like a really comforting thing. I honestly can’t handle anything more than that right now.


Our next print issue is about cycles and how we can think about how we can approach life in less of a linear way. We’re thinking about how we can break cycles — knowing what to take with us from the past and what to leave behind. Do you resonate at all with any of these themes?


Yes! I think those themes definitely feel relevant to me in this moment right now. As I was saying, I’ve been diving back into things from my childhood and using that as something that provides comfort. I think it's interesting to feel like you can be inspired by little things from your past that you took for granted in the moment when you were creating it. I think that a lot of the time I really think about what's coming next and how am I going to move forward and how am I going to go to the next place? But that’s so important, you know? Being able to look back and learn from your past self.



When do you feel like the most connected to yourself?


I think probably when I'm alone and just in my creative space. I find that I'm more of an introvert, so I find it tough sometimes to really get creative when other people are there. Not that I don't like doing that, I think that just feels like a different thing. Collaborating feels really special in its own kind of space, but I really like to be alone when I'm writing and just kind of chill with myself. I want to feel like I'm in a really safe zone.


No one else in the world can hear me. I’m free to explore.



 

Experience her dreamy tunes for yourself with her latest single, Cherry Pit.