In Conversation: FiFi Zhang Talks Growing Up in Shanghai, Playing Shows in New York, and Her Excellent New EP So Beautiful So Lonely

My first question for FiFi Zhang, “what is your artistry of choice?” turned out to be less straightforward than I realized. While I knew she produced her own music, sang, and DJed, FiFi mentioned she had been in the middle of designing her own merch and social assets when we started the call. She then told me that even her Zoom background was a visual pattern she had created for her early music video “Travel Through the Milky Way,” a video which she also creative directed, styled, and did make up for. With each casually mentioned detail more and more hyphens were added to her title. Little did I realize it’d be that love of visual design that would bring FiFi back to music and not the other way around, though we should really start from the beginning of her story.

FiFi grew up singing at home from a young age in Shanghai. It was a passion born from her father’s love of karaoke and her mother’s love of seeing concerts which was further bred in the school choir. However, FiFi was in school for visual design at Parsons before the idea to make her own songs came to her in a sound design class. She recorded a series of self-given assignments experimenting with different styles of music. Her thesis project at Parson’s was the song and music video for the first dance track she ever made, “Butterfly”, whose sonic palette and visual aesthetics continue to be a blueprint for her work today. “Butterfly” is an airy and serene house track anchored by light keyboard touches and FiFi’s otherworldly vocals. The video sees FiFi singing interspersed on her laptop within layers of computer generated color patterns as time and various software programs warp her visage. 

After graduating Parsons FiFi continued to give herself musical “assignments” that materialized in the form of 2020’s I Just Don’t Know What to Do EP and 2021’s Moonshine EP. The former EP has some beautiful vocal takes from FiFi where her haunting voice reflects the tepid reality of early 2020, but she really came into her own as a musician with the Moonshine EP, which she said was a continuation on “Butterfly”’s dance music blueprint. “Travel Through the Milky Way” from Moonshine is among her most successful songs to date, an extremely light and bubbly dance track that is anchored by FiFi’s ethereal vocals that sing a seemingly never ending chorus. The song’s music video shows an evolved visual aesthetic from what we first saw in “Butterfly”, including an incredibly colorful intergalactic mission through the Milky Way where FiFi still makes time for a dance party with friends.

As music venues started to open up again FiFi leaned into the local NYC music scene for inspiration and found it readily available in the form of the Eldia music collective. Eldia was founded by Age and Optic Core, though collective members like Brooklyn’s Dazegxd, Bronx born and Brooklyn based Swami Sound and North Carolina born and Virginia based gum.mp3 have helped make a name for themselves and the collective the past few years. While FiFi is not an official Eldia member, Gum.mp3’s Gum Studios helped release her newest EP, So Beautiful So Lonely, showing that her music had their support and backing, a fact which was further substantiated when she played and sang some of her songs at Swami’s album release show a few weeks ago.

The titular track “So Beautiful So Lonely” was the last of the EP’s four to be written and recorded, and was FiFi’s first real experimentation with the drum and bass genre. She proved to be a natural for d&b, with the fast paced rhythm complimenting her whisper soft vocals. As she had for many of her earlier tracks, FiFi had a vivid picture in her head when recording “So Beautiful So Lonely”. For its music video she brought us into New York 200 years in the future, where she is on the run through the cleanest, sleekest, and most chrome-laden version of NYC possible. The EP’s second single “Nobody” is a laid back dance track where FiFi coos like a siren calling you out to sea. The video sees FiFi hanging out with the jellyfish as she contemplates her loneliness in the bottom of the ocean. Where the video for “So Beautiful So Lonely” catches the eye with its cinematic cuts and edits, “Nobody” feels like walking through a gallery of similarly themed paintings at a fine arts museum. These two videos represent a major step up in artistry from FiFi. While her early videos were impressive they had a DIY charm to them, where these two feel like big budget blockbusters. The four songs on SBSL similarly are without a doubt the best of FiFi’s early career, and only make me even more excited for the experiments she’ll come up with next. 

Scene from “Nobody”

I think the most remarkable thing about FiFi’s music, music videos, and general artistry is how high quality it has been right from those early collegiate experimentations. Much of that is due to her beautiful singing voice, though a great deal is without a doubt due to her twofold willingness to experiment in all aspects of her art while never getting rid of her meticulous attention to detail. The same design eye that made her see songs in Ableton like layers in a picture is the same design eye matching colors in her music videos to the colors of the moods the songs conjure up, all pushing a unified sonic, aesthetic, and artistic vision. I was lucky enough to first meet FiFi through our mutual friend Swami Sound, who recommended her to DJ a comedy show I co-hosted with Josh Ramos at Baby’s All Right back in January. Josh and I were shocked to find out after the show that it was the first show FiFi had ever DJ’d, as she couldn’t have had a better stage presence or sense of the crowd and what to play. I was similarly impressed when I saw her perform her own music at Swami Sound’s album release party last month at Elsewhere, and was particularly dazzled by her ability to juggle both DJing and singing at the same time. While FiFi did say that singing and DJing at the same time definitely wasn’t easy, it is exactly that ability to juggle several artistic ambitions at once that makes FiFi’s music so forward thinking and the universe she creates so unique. 

I connected with FiFi over Zoom where we talked about everything from her earliest musical memories all the way through to recording her most recent EP.

FiFi’s Single Artwork for “So Beautiful So Lonely”. Picture taken by BoYang.

GSC: What is your name, how do you identify, and what is your artistry of choice?

FiFi: My name is FiFi Zhang. I identify as she/her, or they/them. And my artistry of choice….I don’t know haha.

GSC: You’re a multi-hyphenate to say the least.

FiFi: I would say I’m a music producer, singer, songwriter, DJ, Creative Director, visual artist… a lot.

GSC: Whatever the day calls for. What are your earliest music memories? Who was playing music around the house and what were they playing?

FiFi: My earliest music memory came from my parents, they love music so much. My Dad loves singing. Early in my life they bought nice speakers and invited their friends to our place to sing karaoke at home. There are a lot of early memories of mine that are super noisy, I think my neighbors definitely hated us. 

GSC:Did they have any go-to karaoke songs?

FiFi: Mostly 90s Chinese karaoke songs. Those were also some of the first songs that I learned when I was very young. My favorite singer is called Teresa Teng, she was really popular in the 90s and the 80s and is also quite successful in Japan. She had a huge influence on a lot of female singers after her such as Faye Wong who is also my favorite. 

GSC: Did you go to any early shows that really made an impact? 

FiFi: I’m really grateful to my mom, she bought me my first concert ticket to see Jay Chou, the biggest pop star of our generation in China.

GSC: Were you performing at a young age? Or did that come later in life?

FiFi: There were a lot of opportunities to sing in the choir starting when I was in elementary school. In college, I joined our school choir and I sang soprano. It was really fun because we got to record our own album in a chapel and perform at some pretty legit venues in Shanghai.

GSC: When did you know you wanted to start making and recording music yourself? It sounds like you had been singing from a young age, but when did you start producing music and recording your own music?

FiFi: It started pretty randomly. After I moved to New York and went to Parsons, I took a sound design class which was intended to teach students to make sounds for animation. Like how to record sounds and mix them into space. But for me, it turned out to be the class where I made my very first song. It was called “Dream Within a Dream”. It’s still on SoundCloud!

GSC: I listened to it not realizing that it was your first song! There is a dance music blueprint for what you are doing now I heard in there somewhere.

FiFi: Many have told me that there’s been a progression with my music but still I have a certain consistency in terms of style. I think music production is basically sound design and it has a lot of similarities to visual design. Like with pop music now, generally you have the lead vocal clean and crisp at the center, that is like strokes and dots painted close to you. Then you have sounds with reverb and delay like the blurry and dreamy brushes far away in the background.

GSC: I am sure in Ableton you are seeing the song like an image there too. It must lend itself well to making music videos as well.

FiFi: True. A lot of times while I am writing a song, I already have the visuals in my head. Sometimes I’m inspired to make a song by a movie or scene. When I pitch ideas to my director and producer friends, I always bring a lot of visual references, such as sketches, color palettes, movie scenes, and pictures from the internet.

GSC: So then you graduated from Parsons, you have a couple songs under your belt, and you know that you want to continue making music. What was life like when you were putting together your first EP, the I Just Don’t Know What to Do EP? What were your intentions with that record and how do you look back on it?

FiFi: It was a lot of experiments. A learning process when I listen to literally everything, not just dance music, but also to a lot of alternative r&b, hip hop, and art pop. At school I first made “Butterfly” and then those three songs for the EP where I was experimenting in different genres every track. I realized maybe I have a distinct sound and style for dance music listening to “Butterfly” so that is why the Moonshine EP was all dance music.

GSC: Would Moonshine have been written and recorded during the pandemic? 

FiFi: Yes. 

GSC: What was that experience like?  I can imagine being from China in the United States was something, let alone the music.

FiFi: It’s very true. The song “Moonshine” actually touched on that. Part of the Chinese lyrics expressed the feeling that I’m trapped in this tiny space, in this dark room.The room took on this visual dimension with the music where I felt like I was in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean, floating by myself down there. 

GSC: I  love “Traveling Through The Milky Way” from that EP as well, how does that song sound when listening back on it?

FiFi: I think “Milky Way” is definitely one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. The visuals are so cute and all the extras are my friends which was really fun. We did styling together and I did a lot of animation for the music video too, like for those stars and abstract patterns. 

GSC: Moving on to the lead single and namesake for your new record, “So Beautiful So Lonely“. How did you know it was both the right song to lead off the album and to be the name of the album?

FiFi: It was the last song I wrote for the EP, and I knew it was gonna be the title because it was the best one. That was the first time I tried making a drum and bass style of song. Surprisingly, I found it’s a great style for me, so I’ll explore more drum and bass and jungle for my next project.

GSC: How did you come up with the name of the song?

FiFi: The title of the song actually came from a scene from Sex and the City. There was this episode, where Carrie met this gorgeous model at a club, and then she took him home. Then the guy said, can we just lie on the bed for a while not doing anything because I feel really lonely. Then Carrie was like **In her best Carrie Bradshaw voice** “I couldn’t help but wonder, how could a man so beautiful ever be so lonely?” Something like that.

GSC: I love that! I love Sex and The City.

FiFi: Later I think the meaning of the song extends to my observations of friends in the city and their struggles with urban loneliness despite how *fabulous* they look from the outside.

GSC: I really enjoy the “So Beautiful So Lonely” music video, the colors and the camera work especially. What was it like filming that? Who did you work with and what was the vision?

FiFi: I worked with my director Xiao Han and producer Kennie Zhou on both the “So Beautiful So Lonely” and “Nobody” music videos. “SBSL”‘s tempo is so fast that I imagined the visuals to be someone running and seeking something relentlessly, like Run, Runner, Run. Aesthetically it was inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angel. We spent a day walking around in New York looking for locations that are minimalistic and futuristic. I tried to avoid the most iconic New York locations, and looked for those places within the color palette of only red, silver, and white. We eventually shot many scenes at Hudson Yards subway station. 

GSC: It feels like New York 200 years from now or something.

FiFi: Yep, that’s the goal. 

GSC: “Nobody” might be my favorite song on the EP. What was the inspiration for that track? 

FiFi: I was in those COVID lonely feelings and I just wanted to make a house track. Something super groovy and similar to “Butterfly”. 

FiFi and Her Jellyfish from the “Nobody” video

GSC: Can you talk about your “ocean of tears” concept and how it plays into this track in particular?

FiFi: The “ocean of tears” came from the visual for “Nobody”. My image for the video was, you are at the bottom of the ocean and nobody can hear you, just floating by yourself in the bottom of the ocean. There is a scene where I’m a mermaid deep in the ocean, the sea creatures, my imaginary friends, all pop up from underneath me. It’s my version of turning tears into pearls, a productive solitary self-indulgence where my own creations make my world so colorful and beautiful. That’s the message of the music video.

GSC: The video for “Nobody” really does feel like a series of paintings, kudos to your director too because they did a phenomenal job. Do you have a favorite shot from that music video?

FiFi: There’s this Chinese line “为他而失眠的泪滴,还在掌心” , meaning “the teardrops of insomnia for him, still remaining in the palm of my hand” so I really wanted a scene where there’s a teardrop in the palm of my hand.  Danni Huang, who is the 3D animator, did a perfect job creating that. The DP for that video is called Eileen Yoon. She improvised the idea to have those spotlighted lights on my face first and then on my hand and then they took a wider shot. That transition and scene is one of my favorites, it’s just so cinematic. 

GSC: “Oriental Pearl ’19” is a song about homesickness. What made you homesick where you wanted to write the song, and what is the name in reference to?

FiFi: It’s a song about my hometown, Shanghai. Oriental Pearl is the name for the most iconic architecture there, The Oriental Pearl TV Tower, it’s a super bizarre and alien architecture. 2019 was the last time I was in Shanghai, and to this day I haven’t gone back to see my parents. It’s a song about homesickness and memories.

GSC: Maybe when you’re home in Shanghai next you can record a music video for that one! I also really love “Replay” . What inspired that track?

FiFi: It was inspired by two things. One is this Mondo Grasso song called “Labyrinth”. The music video takes place in Hong Kong and is all one shot. The whole scene where the girl was running and dancing alone in the streets in Hong Kong was fascinating to me. The song is one of the best songs in the world in my opinion. And even when I play it during DJ sets I get a little emotional. The other thing that inspired “Replay” was this anime Millennium Actress. It’s by the genius anime director Satoshi Kon, I’ve watched all his movies and he is the best. Throughout the movie this actress is seeking and chasing her lost lover who promised to come back. 

GSC: You also have some incredible remixes, your Mariah Carey “Fourth of July” Remix I really love. What is the art of a good remix?  Did you hear that song and immediately know what you were going to do with it? Or do you have to play around with it and figure it out?

FiFi: I honestly had no idea what that would turn out to be. It’s about trial and error. For this song I basically rewrote everything, like the synthesizer, the beats, and I sampled and resampled a lot of her elements and sounds.

GSC: You did some of your first shows recently, DJing a hilarious comedy show I co-hosted at Baby’s All Right and then singing your own songs at Swami’s release party at Elsewhere. What were those two experiences like?

FiFi: The main difference is that when I was performing at Elsewhere, there were people in the audience who actually knew my music, and sang along with my songs. That was an amazing experience! While at Baby’s All Right, for my first ever show it was actually a great thing that nobody knew me. I didn’t feel too stressed. So it was the perfect first show where I got to play some of my old songs and some of my old favorites and keep the crowd having fun without too much pressure.  

GSC: You knocked it out of the park. That was a fun one. What was it like playing and singing your own music at the Elsewhere show? I can imagine that being complicated. 

FiFi:It was complicated, I hope I don’t have to do that again. After that, I realized I probably shouldn’t DJ and sing at the same time haha. 

GSC: Who are artists that really impacted your work?

FiFi: Bjork is the most impactful artist on my work. Everything is so iconic. I also really love Ringo Sheena. I love how she brings traditional Japanese culture and visuals into her revolutionary work. She plays different characters in her music and gets experimental with her vocals, going from a girly girl to very deep. Her music can be a crazy combination of genres too, jazzy and dancy and a little bit of everything.

GSC: Who are some of your friends that make music that not enough people know about?
FiFi: The first people that come to mind are the big three Pokémon, Swami, Gum, and Dazegxd. Whenever these three get together, there’s so much energy. And I love Eldia as a whole community. Their music makes me inspired, it’s so playful and fun.



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