“I write songs on the piano and I sing them. My songs are my feelings - my struggles and longings. I use music to shed light and shed shame. I write to explore relationships, power dynamics, and to make sense of my own psyche.” - Lan Miao
Lan Miao (pronounced lawn meow) is a singer-songwriter based in San Francisco Bay Area, California. Born in and named after Lansing, MI, her musical journey began at age 7, learning Western classical music and theory. She grew up in Taiwan listening to Mandarin Pop and soon took to writing songs of her own. In the 90’s her family moved back to the States, this time settling in Los Angeles, where she discovered alternative rock radio, which filled her with new ideas of musical and lyrical expressions. At 16, her parents divorced. The subsequent familial fallout plunged her into a deep depression, and in trying to make sense of her grief, she started writing songs again.
In college, dissuaded from studying music, she performed music sporadically while attempting to record a few songs on her own. After college, she took a job in retail, with a goal of building a home recording studio, writing songs, and making music. Instead, she experienced a terrible case of writer's block. Sensing that a future in music may not be in the cards, she decided to enroll in grad school.
After receiving her masters, Lan moved to San Francisco Bay Area for a new career in information science. On the weekends she tried to keep up the music practice, reworking old materials over and over again. During the week she struggled with work and home life. Being at a new job in a new city was challenging, and it brought on memories and feelings she hadn’t fully processed.
Lan started writing again in 2015 just as she was losing her job. She worked on music steadily in the following years, going into a recording studio and even getting a song placement on the Women of Substance Radio Podcast! She also began performing at open mics throughout the Bay Area, and, in 2019, decided to give her full attention to music.
Lan’s latest project is her debut EP, titled “The Keep” (releases on June 24th, 2022). Twenty years in the making, it collects six songs that were first written throughout her late-teens and early 20’s. The songs explore her relationship with each of her parents: unspoken yearnings, sadness and anger at their fallout, fear of disloyalty and abandonment. They are deeply mournful songs, all set in minor keys. Often during practice, she would have a hard time singing through the lyrics.
At first, Lan wasn’t sure about releasing these songs. It has been two decades since she first wrote them; her compositional style and emotional state have evolved. In the end, she thought the songs serve as a good documentation of where she started on her songwriting journey, and, more importantly, that these are stories that could possibly help someone else through a similar predicament, the way listening to bands and artists like Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos has brought her solace through the years.
During the past two years while in quarantine, Lan recorded and produced the songs in a make-shift home studio set up in the bedroom she shared with her husband. It was the right time: the pandemic had cost her her day job but freed up time for more creative work; mentally, she felt ready to tackle the darker themes in the songs. “My relationship with these songs have changed, because my relationship with the grief that initially sparked them has changed,” she explains.
Over the years the songs have been reworked, with musical elements added or lyrics taken away; a few songs saw their final form taking shape right before recording. Producing the songs came together organically: Lan would record the piano track, map the drums to it, then “listen” for sounds to emerge and add in synths, guitars or other arrangements accordingly. This was her first time producing as well, but having been with these songs for most of her life, she felt she knew them intimately. Still she wrangled with a few tracks: particular the “mom” tracks: Pale Mother, Favorite Things, Prayer. “It’s easy to record the other songs because I know how I feel towards my dad; it’s more complicated with my mom,” she says.
“The Keep” Track by Track
Originally, it was going to be Western orchestral strings only. Then one night as I listened back, I kept hearing the erhu (a Chinese two-string violin). It sounds like crying to me, which is what the climax of the song conveys for me.
The chords - I wrote this one night at home while still in high school. My mom had turned to religion for comfort and would often leave me alone by myself at night. I was so hurt by it. The chord just repeats in C minor, barely peaking at F, G. I didn’t understand this until just a few years ago that the chord “progression” really ultimately reflected an emotional numbness. Things were so overwhelming that I couldn’t feel anything at all. But there were all these underlying conflicting emotions waiting to burst through in the chorus.
This Old Man
A variation of the children’s song.. I heard Tori Amos cover it and wanted to do something with it too. I wrote it after a night of binge drinking in college. This song came together really quickly in the studio because I always knew it had an attitude!
This song went through so many version.. there was so much I wanted to say. In the end, less was more, so I stuck to a traditional song structure of verse/chorus/bridge. I didn’t actually write the bridge until a few days before finally recording it. My husband heard a demo of it and singled it out as the one song that most represented me as an artist and me as a daughter. I knew in that moment I wanted to treat it with some warm synths.
The is the last song I recorded for this project. The piano and vocal were recorded in the same take, making it the closest to a live performance. You can hear the noise of the keyboard but the emotions were perfectly captured I decided to use the takes anyway.
This is the one track without piano - it’s replaced by organ - the same organ sound in different octaves playing different parts. This songs still brings me a lot of comfort. I listen to it and feel redeemed and safe. It’s the perfect closer.