Musicians can do everything themselves these days from recording to promotions. They are essentially entrepreneurs, but in order to thrive, they must market themselves well in addition to being talented. Lilian Bui, AKA Lily Bee, has no problem doing either. With over 2,000 YouTube subscribers and half a million post views, this Jazz influenced Anaheim native has been progressively gaining the attention of the crowd with her charming songwriting and ukulele skills. What’s more impressive is that she’s done all of this in a single year.
When did you first start playing music?
I started playing music when I was little. My mom signed me up for piano lessons when I was five, and she dragged me every week kicking and screaming. I played classical piano for a good chunk of my childhood, and then around 14 I picked up the guitar. It was my mom’s old classical guitar and I taught myself how to play Louie Louie. I started just kind of playing around with more chords, and I got to writing those teenage songs about boys. Recently I got a ukulele as a gift from a friend who went to Hawaii, and I taught myself how to play that because when you play guitar it’s kind of easy to pick up chords on the ukulele because they’re simplified versions.
Music has always been part of my life. My mom actually taught piano in Vietnam before she came over to the states, and she kind of passed that on to me.
Do you have a weapon of choice when it comes to instruments?
Usually I’ll play the ukulele now because it’s more, but also because people aren’t used to seeing that. Usually it’s a guitar, so I like using the ukulele for its element of surprise. But I like to trade off between the two, ukulele and guitar, when I play live.
How long have you been performing under the name Lily Bee. Did it start with your YouTube channel?
It happened sometime last year when I kind of made the decision to go forward with music as something that I actually wanted to pursue rather than something I wanted to do on the side. I remembered this one diary entry that I wrote to myself when I was 14 saying, “If I ever have a stage name, I think Lily Bee would be cute”. So I just kind of put the two together and started performing with that on YouTube as well as live in DC, which where I first started really performing and going around.
You recently moved from Maryland, so were you working in DC and commuting from Maryland each day?
Yeah, it’s actually not as far as it sounds. DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia are all connected by the metro, but I was over there serving in AmeriCorps. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the program?
Only vaguely, but what kind of program is it?
It’s like a version of the Peace Corps, except instead of going abroad you stay in the states. And instead of serving two years, you serve one year. I decided after college that I would go to DC/Maryland. I had an Internship over the summer at Loretta Sanchez’s office, so I worked on Capitol Hill for a little bit, and then directly after that I moved to Maryland and served with a legal non-profit that worked within the underserved Asian American community in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
What kind of work did you do with Loretta Sanchez as an intern?
[I did] lots of filing, lots of organizing. But I did tours of the capitol, and that was really interesting. I learned a lot about how things function within the legislature. I got to sit in on some votes and also rode the tram between the senate and representative side. It was a really interesting experience. It was kind of rooted in my idea of going to law school after going to college, and I was kind of exploring that and seeing whether or not I wanted to pursue it. Music just kind of took over when I was over there. It was unexpected, but it was a pleasant surprise.
Was law something that you were interested in initially? Was your heart in it?
I don’t think I ever felt obligated to. My heart definetly was exploring the idea of doing public service law, and after I worked with the organization that I worked with I realized that it wasn’t something that I was cut out for, or at least right away.
So what made you decide to move from Maryland to Cypress?
I am originally from here. I grew up here, so after my term ended I decided to come back home, because I got a job offer here. I’m currently working for a ghostwriter in Irvine, so that’s my day job, and now I’m doing music and that gig. It’s nice to be closer to home as well.
Where is your home town originally?
I was born in Anaheim, and then we moved to Cypress when I was about 15. I’ve been around here all my life.
You’ve played at some pretty prestigious places like the Kennedy Center and the White House Department of Interior. Who do I have to bribe to get a gig at a place like that?
When I started playing music in DC it was a snowball effect and I don’t really know why. I started putting myself out there and through the community I got those gigs. It happened to be February or March was Asian Heritage Month, and so I did tons of events. I did the Smithsonian Hope Life Festival as well, and it was all these events booked along those themes. It was like luck, hard work, and just going out there and meeting all the right people by chance.
What Jazz musicians are you influenced by?
I am very influenced by Jazz vocalists like Diana Washington, Etta James, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and tons of Jazz musicians like Keith Jarred. I could go on all day. I’m kind of a Jazz nerd, but the style has always appealed to me ever since I was little, and I don’t know why. Nobody in my family really listens to Jazz. It was kind of just something that stuck out to me when I was watching TV or listening to something. It was always jazz. I could always trace it back to that. Especially in writing this last album I was drawing from that influence, and trying to recreate that feeling in a different way to put my interpretation into it. Going forward, I’m kind of hoping to write even Jazzier material, since we’ve got kind of a trio going on.
Who is your trio? I know you’ve got Felipe Constanza as your bass player.
We have a trumpet player and his name is Kael C. Sharp, and he’s very talented. Felipe is from DC and he moved out here shortly after I did, and Kyle we met playing randomly at a festival. We kind of just said, “Hey you’re our trumpet player”, and it just worked out.
Is Kyle from around here?
He’s from San Pedro.
You mentioned Victoria Vox as a huge ukulele influence when you played the First Annual Lake and Ukulele Festival. Are there other influences that inspired you to pick up the ukulele?
I think so, yeah. She’s a big one, but also Zee Avi. She’s an indie artist. I listen to her album and I really like the feel of it. She has the ukulele in a lot of her tracks, so I learned her songs, but also played around with old jazz standards on the ukulele. Somebody told me about Victoria Vox along the way, and I really liked her songs. I went to see her live, and I met her. We’re actually Facebook friends. It’s really cool.
It’s funny how people can make ad-hoc connections with people these days through Facebook and Twitter. What’s the next step, since the release of your album, Daydream At Midnight?
Hmm. That’s a big question. We just wrapped up a ten show tour, so that was a big goal that we just accomplished. We played shows in LA, Orange County, and Long Beach. I think the next step would probably be to get tighter as a band, because we just added a percussionist at the end of the tour. Hopefully I’ll be writing more material and finding a place to record our next album out here. This last album was recorded back east in Maryland. Our main network for recording is over there, so we have to start over in a sense over here for recording. Getting the music out there and probably sending out the album to A&R and maybe getting signed. We’re kind of exploring that idea.
You’ve done a really good job of marketing yourself through YouTube and your web page. Do you feel that artists need to sign up with big labels as much as they might have needed to in the past in order to be successful?
That’s a great question, and I do not think it’s necessary to get signed. It’s something we’re exploring, but you can definitely make your own career out of getting recording equipment, marketing yourself, and being smart about how you spread the word. Social media tools are huge like YouTube, cloud based music, Twitter, Facebook, and all those resources out there now. I think it’s very possible to build your career from the ground up, and with such a huge indie music movement throughout the world I don’t think it’s necessary to get signed, but it is something we’re exploring.
Come see Lily Bee live at Commonwealth Lounge on May 15th
Performing with: The Shivers, The Janks, and Su Blah Nu
112 E. Commonwealth Ave.
21+. Starts at 8 PM
Photography Credit: Vu Nguyen