Toronto’s best music 2021: Luna Li’s unexpected path to breakout success

After the pandemic derailed her big plans, the Toronto singer/songwriter blew up from her bedroom


Luna Li didn’t expect her music to take off while she was sitting at home. 

Hannah Bussiere Kim, the mid-20s Toronto singer/songwriter behind the spritely musical project, was all set to fly down to Austin for SXSW in March 2020 when the pandemic put everything – including her planned release and touring schedule – on hold. 

“But I ended up on this amazing path because of how everything unfolded,” she says from the NOW office, where she’s having her photo taken for the cover. “I don’t know where I would be if it happened differently.”

Stuck inside her apartment like everyone else at the height of the pandemic, Luna Li did what she had done a few times before. She got out her instruments – her guitars and keys, violins and harp – and began making one-minute jam videos. She wasn’t jamming with anyone else, but looping and layering each sound and playing off her own performances piece by piece. The videos are mesmerizing and spellbinding, each a one-minute burst of domestic sunshine shared at a time when we all needed it. 

If you’ve listened to her studio singles – like Afterglow, Cherry Pit and Flower, which she’s been trickling out throughout the pandemic – you can hear there’s some serious musicianship behind the dreamy melodies. But seeing her play each part really makes you appreciate the craft of the songs and hear them in a new way.

Luna Li didn’t have any grand ambitions for the clips, which she posted on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, but they struck a major chord. After they got shared around and around, people started asking why they weren’t available to stream or buy. They were never meant to be an album – just a little project she did for fun in her bedroom – but she heard the fans and released it early this year as the jams EP

“That was not my plan at all,” she says. “Watching them [go viral] was very trippy, especially when I was just hanging out at home during a global pandemic.”

The relatable charisma that shines through her smiling solos is also there in conversation. Even after hours of hair, makeup, costume changes and flashbulbs, she speaks with the same casual charisma that emanates from her fretboard.

You can tell she’s still getting used to the fact that people are paying more attention, and she speaks with a wide-eyed wonder about her new superfans – some of whom have painted portraits of her, put her into memes and turned her into a fairy princess. The word “trippy” comes up a lot.

“It’s trippy to see how my creativity is inspiring other people’s creativity,” she says.

Photo: Nick Lachance; Stylng: Bulia Puteeva; Hair & makeup: Lacey Day

Her biggest surprise came when one of her jams caught the attention of Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, another breakout psychedelic indie rock project that just so happened to be one of Luna Li’s biggest inspirations. 

“She followed me on Instagram and we started talking online, then she reached out when she needed openers for her tour,” she says. “I was in the studio recording when I got the call. My manager gave me the news and I was just screaming. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

So Bussiere Kim and her Luna Li band did get to do the American tour she had once planned for, even if it wasn’t how they thought it would go. For six weeks in September and October, they toured throughout the U.S. with heavy COVID precautions, limiting themselves to the van, the hotel room, backstage and onstage. The band pretty much only kept to each other, spending almost all of their time together. Luna Li and Japanese Breakfast were in separate bubbles with separate travel parties and separate green rooms at shows, so she didn’t get to spend much quality time with Zauner or her band. (They still had a lot of fun, as evidenced by their infectious tour videos on TikTok.) 

“But one night we all got together outside in the parking lot behind a venue because it was pretty much the only place we could hang out, and my bandmate Char taught everyone how to line dance,” she remembers. “That was so wholesome and fun.”

Even if they didn’t get to hang out a lot, playing with Japanese Breakfast was a big deal for Luna Li. Growing up in the Toronto all-ages scene while also undergoing classical music training (her mother ran a music school), she rarely saw other young Asian rock musicians. Seeing Japanese Breakfast play the Phoenix Concert Theatre in 2018 – another half-Korean artist even playing the same kind of guitar she does – was one of the first times she really felt represented.

“That’s one of the main reasons I do what I do,” she says, “getting to work with other Asian artists and create communities with other Asian artists and, hopefully, inspire more young Asian artists who are watching.”

Expanding for the first time beyond the one-minute jam clips during the stay-at-home era, Luna Li did a full livestream bedroom set as part of Asian-American music platform 88rising’s Asia Rising virtual festival in May 2020. And she got to take that into the real world in last month at 88rising’s Head In The Clouds festival in Los Angeles. 

Even though she was only playing for a camera at the time, doing the jam videos has made her a more confident performer. When she was deep in a jam before, she had a tendency to look very serious, but realizing people were watching her face made her get out of her head and enjoy herself. Her smiling solos are now one of her signatures.

“I learned how to reflect how I’m feeling on the inside on the outside.” 

She’s been slowly stacking singles during the pandemic, like the perfect-for-the-times mantra song Alone But Not Lonely. Luna Li describes her sound as “magical” or “alien” but with a bit of darkness lurking beneath. And she’s starting to play more with production, which is broadening her psychedelic indie rock sound, exploring hip-hop and electronic techniques and sampling – a bit like her other major inspiration, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. 

Now she’s got a label, AWAL in Canada and In Real Life everywhere else, and a manager, and she’s starting to make plans again – including some collaborations with artists like Jay Som and an eventual debut album in the new year. And she’ll play her first big headlining show at Axis Club on February 24, which in its old incarnation as Mod Club was always a venue she wanted to play. But she’s not getting ahead of herself.

“I’m going to trust in the universe.”

More of Toronto’s best music 2021 here.

@trapunski

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