Interview with Hua Li / Peggy Hogan: When Worlds Combine

Hua Li Hua Li

Peggy Hogan who is best known these days as Hua Li has a lot going on. Not only is she known by two names, but she teaches, performs, djs, runs Art Not Love record label with Charlie Twitch, and is doing a masters degree on musicology. Montreal’s fascinating trailblazer is forging her own path by embracing all parts of herself.

I ask Hogan if her current life path conflicted with or harmonized with the Chinese part of her identity, especially since Hua Li is her Chinese name. “It’s an interesting thing for me,” she says, “I really love being biracial and I think this is a great example of what happens in my life. My mother is an immigrant. She grew up during cultural revolution in China, which is an intense time to be Chinese in an already an intense country. She has certain values and economic values and expectations for her child that are stereotypical of immigrants in general, like for your child to have a stable career and a better life than you. So, my mother is profoundly disappointed, but also very proud.”

Hogan further explains that she was supposed to be born in China, but Tiananmen Square happened. “I was supposed to be born and raised in China, but my father, who was living in China at the time, was told by the Canadian embassy to get out. So I ended up growing up in Victoria BC in a liberal, nourishing creative place. My dad lives vicariously through me and he wanted to be a rockstar.”

The influence of both her parents may have led her into art. “I was put into piano lessons because my mother wanted to be a good Chinese mother.I did festivals and things growing up, which was a very chinese thing to do. What was not was how seriously took it. It backfired, because her white hippie husband was like ‘Fuck the man, do what you love.’ I’m going against the grain of what is expected of most first generation Chinese Canadians, but, I think I’ve been lucky to have this balance and cultural perspective.”

I want to know more why she made the switch from piano to voice. “At a certain point, I stopped enjoying classical world and was doing musical theatre and taking voice lessons,” Hogan explains. “I started playing jazz piano and was really bad at it. I was terrible, but my mentor at the time encouraged me to try singing as a means to break free of the chains of the classical music. I ended up going to Concordia for voice. I didn’t want to study classical music. I was listening to tons of rap secretly and already at that point, I drew a connection between jazz and rap music.”

Why was she listening to rap secretly? “In my early teens, I stopped listening to only classical music. Growing up, it was the only thing that played in my house. My mother loved it. One day, all of a sudden, I was listening to stuff she considered noise that would not be welcome in her home. I don’t mean the representations of poverty and violence. It was just the sound that sonically burned her.”

I want to know what rap singers were lighting her fire at that time. Hogan explains that she got into some “not cool” rap musicians, as well as Chicago rappers, Rhymefest in particular. “He’s a great lyricist and I got into him and he ghostwrote a lot for Kanye West and other famous people. I got into listening to other Chicago rappers. It was my introduction to the genre. I delved into artists that were jazz in their approach, like J Dilla, the Roots, and Guru. They are working around neo-soul and jazz, and are rap artists.”

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Hua Li, the musical project, has been an opportunity for Hogan to unite different parts of herself. She first released an “adult-contemporary” album as Peggy Hogan, but found it limiting. “When I first started Hua Li as a musical project, I had just released an album as Peggy Hogan and it was important process for me to get out some serious ideas and feel a part of the story about what happens when you finish jazz school. I finished it and I think that as I soon as I released it, I felt already kind of confined by that identity. I’ll probably re-release it in middle age.” When she realized she was neglecting parts of herself, she started Hua Li as a side project.

“I realized doing whatever you want is much more compelling than not doing that. Hua Li immediately overtook other project, and it’s been my main focus for three years.”

Most recently Hogan was involved with Za Zhong, an album released in June which features Hua Li singing, though the album was produced by Gloze da Most (Alex Thibault). “I’ve known Alex a long time, as long as I’ve lived in the city,” she says. “I knew we were going to do something great together. I always say he’s one of the coolest people I know. He gets on stage with me with all of his coolness.”

I want to know how they went from friends to collaborators. “I would skirt around the issue of trying to play music with him or getting him to produce my stuff for years. About a year and a half ago he moved into my neighbourhood and we started working on this stuff. It was supposed to be just one song and then we started vibing off each other a little more. Around that time, Harry Fraud and Action Bronson came out with a five-song EP and we were listening to it a lot and thought this is what happens when a lyricist and a producer work together. We wanted to make something in the spirit of that. How can we fit our two visions together and make something cohesive.”

Za Zhong is a change for Hua Li because she atypically remained hands-off on the production. However, she trusted Thibault. “I never trusted anyone as I trusted Alex,” she affirms, and notes some of the many positives. “It got me to focus more,” she says, “I’m a better rapper now.”

Hua Li’s other music, of course, is a fascinating blend of jazzy, juicy interludes mixed with rap. I asked her about how she crafts her lyrics. “I was thinking about this the other day,” she says. “I don’t think that hard about lyrics. I rehearse my set all the time. Sometimes, I’ll have these moments of ‘Wow, that came out of my mouth so nicely.’ I can have these moments. But, it’s a funny thing when I’m generating this material. I’m not thinking about how I’ve got to make this punchline or do it how you hear when rappers discuss the perspective of constructing their rhymes.”

Instead, for her, it is more about the feeling generated. “It’s almost a creative lull,” she says. “I took a billion creative writing classes through high school and undergrad and I’m a published poet. I’ve read tons and tons of poetry and spent time thinking about how to use language. I’m concerned with sensuality in language and how you use language to make people feel emotional and bring them into the atmosphere of the song. I think a lot more about how it feels and how it sounds than having those bars or those analogies of things that are indicative of rap.”

Hua Li has a lot coming up in the near future. I’ll let her explain for you where you can hear her play next. “I’ll tell you a bit more about my upcoming plans. I’m playing two shows on the 18th for POP Montreal. The first, the 9 p.m., is the Art Not Love showcase which I help run with its founder Charlie Twitch. I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before which is a stripped down interpretation of my newest material. Sort of like ‘This Chaos’ but with no beats. So, me with a Wurlitzer and back-up vocalist. I don’t know how it will turn out. I’m excited because it will be different. My back up vocalist won’t even call it rap. He’s like, ‘Peggy is going to do her singer-songwriter thing,’ but I’m like, ‘It’s still Hua Li.’ I thought it’s funny running a label and being on the label’s showcase. I wanted to give the other artists space to headline. It’s my label, so I can do what I want to. That’s at 9 p.m. And at 1 a.m., on the 19th technically, we’ll be doing the actual Hua Li set that people know and love. My back up vocalist will also join me for that. It’s for the AV event at Maison Sociale. I’ll be paired with visual artist Ariana Molly. She’s going to be doing live video stuff. And that’s the theme for whole night. Every one is paired with artist. So, I think I’m doing cool stuff at POP. Next day, I’m heading to DJ for Nuit Blanche in Ottawa on the 19th at an installation of a Finish Techno Sauna. The idea is the space is clothing-optional. It’s a space where you can party naked and I’ll be djing in the nude with extreme pleasure.”

Hua Li is playing at POP Montreal on Sept 18 at La Vitrola (4602 ST Laurent) with Saxsyndrum, Dirtyorgans, AE Bridger, and The Marquis at 9 p.m. $10; on Sept 18th at Maison Sociale (5386 St Laurent) with Prism House and Ariana Molly at midnight. free; and with other DJs at the Techno Sauna Party at Galerie Saw Gallery (67 Nicholas Street; Ottawa) on Sept 19 from 7 p.m.-4 a.m.

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