Before my interview with Ellisa Sun, I found it unique that she was born in LA but her music career started in San Francisco. Plenty of musicians have gotten their start by placing themselves in Los Angeles, arguably the musical mecca of the world. For Ellisa Sun, she found her musical start in San Francisco. Now having just released her new EP Just a Little More, she and her partner and percussionist Ken Michienzi are on a road trip touring across America in their recent 30 Foot RV purchase.
I got the chance to talk to Ellisa Sun over the phone for the first out of four interviews as we follow her on The Dreamboat Tour. We discuss topics about being a late bloomer in the music game, her personal journey as a teenager, and her thoughts as a Asian-American performer.
It’s interesting that you didn’t get your musical career started in LA even though you were from there.
So I grew up in LA and went to UC Santa Cruz. After college, I moved to San Francisco. I've never really lived in LA like as an independent adult and I also didn't really chase my dream until after I graduated college. Living in San Francisco is when I started to come out of my shell and when I started going to open mic nights, like the one at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. It’s an amazing venue and one of the few old-school venues in San Francisco.
In 2017, you released a self-produced debut album Moon & Sun. Can you walk me through that journey?
It was quite a journey for sure. I actually recorded an EP like years ago when I was first starting out.
Tommy P is another musician in the San Francisco scene. He's really talented, great guy and he actually recorded my very, very, very first thing back in 2012. That was was a good EP but I just really wanted to record something.
Fast forward to last year: I had taken a few years to do some traveling and I worked different jobs. I didn’t put music as a priority. After a big breakup, I decided I wanted to make a really good album that sounded professional. I got a full band and ended up doing a Kickstarter. I was like, “I'm gonna do this.” I made this commitment. I was lucky enough to have a really awesome band that got involved. It was one decision but the whole thing, the whole process, was very stressful. But it was worth it.
You were a late bloomer with starting your music career. How’s it feel chasing a dream after your 20’s?
Oh my gosh, yeah. I came into this a lot later than I think for some people who were born into the world of entertainment or they're born into a family that supports their artistic passions and I wasn't. I was also just really scared of failure and performing. I didn't admit to myself that this is what I want to do until I was like 23 or 24. Even though I'm 30 now, it still feels like I’m just getting started in a lot of ways. I definitely have that inner critic that's like, “I'm too old to do this.” When you look at like these pop stars that are 20 and you just feel like, “What am I doing?” So I try to look up to other artists that started late too. You know Santigold was 32 when she released her first debut album? Or Portugal. The Man are in their 30s or maybe even 40s and they just had their first like big hit. Now that hit song is everywhere. I think it's never too late you know because everybody changes careers, even at older ages.
Are there any advantages of being older as a musician?
I definitely feel like I can see through the BS a bit more now because I've lived a little bit longer. I just kind of know myself a little bit more, but that's easy for me to say. I can sound a lot more sure of myself than actually am. But I think that there's a certain wisdom that comes with age: you kind of learn who you are and and you can be more sure of yourself and I think that's definitely an advantage.
There is a lot to celebrate for Asian American artist and performers this year. Do you think your career will be impacted in a post-"Crazy Rich Asians" world?
I watched it on my birthday and I cried the whole time. I just was so happy to see people that were playing main characters on the screen. They weren't just sidekicks, nerds or just the usual stereotypes you see associated with Asian-Americans.
I haven't thought about representation as much until recently. I am half Chinese and half white so I grew up very Americanized. My mom doesn't speak Chinese but my grandparents are from China and they speak Chinese.
I think I grew up in a world where I didn't really think about how I look different from a lot of people or I just never really thought it was a thing until more recently. Then I just started to notice how there's so few Asians in mainstream music. When you put on the radio or you put on a Spotify playlist source, you don't see Asians unless it's a special playlist dedicated to Asian American performers.
It's something I've been thinking about for sure, especially since I'm on this tour. We've been going across America and around middle America. I feel like San Francisco is pretty diverse and the Bay Area's very woke. But it's only been a month that we've been on the roads and I very much noticed how the only Asian person in the room.
What made you decide to tour for this EP release?
I've been in the Bay for all my adult life and I was just hustling like several different jobs like teaching voice lessons and teaching yoga. I was doing amazing work and I love teaching, but I was just working constantly to make rent on top of rehearsals, playing gigs, and trying to write music. I was ready to get out, to play at new places, and meet new people. I felt like I was kind of just playing the same places and seeing the same people all the time to the point where I wasn't really growing as an artist. I was lucky enough to meet my partner Ken who was working at Tesla when we first started dating. He too was also just working his ass off and was ready for a change. It was always his dream to do a road trip and it’s always been on my to-do list to do a cross-country road trip. This EP is also kind of the last project between me and my band, so it really felt like it was coming together as a final tour.
What’s one keepsake that you brought on tour that reminds you of your past and what you've accomplished?
My journals. They are in storage and I can't let them go because I feel they're time capsules of where I've been. There's a lot of song material in there too.
When was the last time you read them?
A while ago when we moved, I leafed through them. It's crazy to look back. I even have one from when I was like 16. I’ve mentioned it before but I really want to write a book someday because it was important to me even before I started writing songs and performing. I love to write and I've always wanted to write a book but I don't know necessarily what it would be about. I have ideas so I think I’ll just keep my journals and use them as material to write a book.
Skimming through the journals, did you find any continuing themes or patterns?
This is kind of personal but I've always struggled with my mental health and my own issues around self-care, body image and eating. It's crazy to look back at when I was 20 and read a little bit of my journal then and realize that I still have these difficult thoughts sometimes. However I've definitely come a very long way since I was 20. We all have our story and those voices in our heads that can follow us and lead us to anything from addiction to depression. I think we all struggle with it in one way or another, so I think it's always been my passion to be a positive voice and try to help people that have the same struggles. Because it's been so taboo to talk about mental health, we get uncomfortable around it. That's kind of where I'm I think the direction of the book would go.
What are your thoughts on tour so far?
We're actually only thirty days into the tour and we're planning on doing a whole year. I am very much excited to release the EP. I really don't know where I'm going to be by the end of this and it's like I said this is only day 30. So I think honestly there's one of three things that is going to happen: I'm either going to go back to the Bay and and just kind of pick up where I left off or I'll move to LA which where my family lives and that's where I'm from. But I have a love-hate relationship with LA because I've always wanted to move there and I think I do I see myself living there, but at the same time I don't and I'm uncertain because of all the history I have with it. Then the third thing that might happen is that we'll keep touring or maybe I'll move to like Chicago or New Orleans! I don't really know what's gonna happen but I do know that I'm gonna keep making music and totally write some good stuff while I'm on the road to start conceptualizing my next project. I'm not sure if it'll be in psychism like an album or or an EP or something but I know I'm going to keep making music.
Stream her new EP Just a Little More