Lucy Liyou against a fence and blue sky
Credit: Bianca Chun

It’s a rare delight to stumble upon a musician’s debut album and instantly recognize that they have a style all their own. This was the immediate reaction I had in 2020 to Welfare (Ijn Inc.), the first full-length by Philadelphia-based artist Lucy Liyou. It is, as with many other experimental records by emerging artists today, a confessional and curiosity-driven work. Inspired by the commanding storytelling of traditional Korean p’ansori, Liyou employs electroacoustic sound collages to meditate on psychotherapy, gender identity, and intergenerational family dynamics. The breadth of the topics that Liyou covers in these fearless compositions is matched only by the audaciousness of their sonic palette.

The overarching spirit of Welfare, consequently, is of deliberate searching, of using art to dive into murky territory and thoughtful reflection. The end result, one hopes, is some semblance of clarity. In the ten-minute, multipart “I’m Going to Therapy,” Liyou considers past experiences and present longings, and the radio-play-like structure viscerally captures the generational differences in displays of love and awareness of mental health among the Korean diaspora in the States. Though “Unnie” is shorter, it’s just as potent, allowing simple piano chords to buoy the desires and concessions they proclaim regarding gendered honorifics. The album uses Liyou’s regular voice and text-to-speech throughout, and the latter acts to distance Liyou as well as the listener from the personal experiences they share, even as it adds further textural dimension. The result is whiplash between the impressively tender and the aggressively abstract. 

On their sophomore album, 2021’s Practice (Full Spectrum), Liyou makes greater use of their classical piano training and crafts ambient pieces that dive deeper into family matters. Written in a two-week period during COVID, the album documents the feelings and thoughts they had while their mother traveled to Korea to tend to their sick grandmother. The electronic detritus of “Patron” embodies the frustrations of a conversation Liyou had with their mom, while the metallic drone of “Hail Mary” addresses the uneasy aftermath, with Liyou confessing, “I think I’m just a little overwhelmed right now.” On album closer “September 5,” Liyou uses the most hushed tones as they reflect on memories with their grandmother—eating strawberries, watching Korean dramas, and practicing piano as a way to show how much they love her. This sense of honesty courses through much of Liyou’s music, depicting life in a way that highlights its complexities and confusions and its immense emotional spectrum. Chicago-based American Dreams Records is reissuing these two albums together. At this album release Liyou will collaborate with producer and musician Nick Zanca. They are set to perform new tracks too, and one can expect them to be in line with the themes of their previous work—an intimate and ongoing exploration of knotty relationships.

Lucy Liyou, Fri 6/10, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+