LA-based singer-songwriter Isabella Tang is poised for induction into the illustrious modern female singer-songwriter pantheon alongside the likes of Ingrid Michaelson,  Norah Jones, et al. Although she’s just beginning her journey, she’s eager to win the hearts of women (and maybe even some men) everywhere with her Broadway-ready vocals and knack for poetically cerebral yet quirky lyrics.

I recently had a chance to chat with Isabella as she was putting the finishing touches on her forthcoming debut EP, If I Could Tell You.

Describe the Isabella Tang mantra in three words.

Frolics: While keeping in mind compassion and a sense of obligation to make your world a better place for everyone else in it, I believe life should always be fun and exuberant. I think that may be why I like dresses so much. They seem naturally suited for frolics.

Puns: I’ve loved words ever since my mom bought me a book of poetry when I was eight. I think words are magical, and puns are the best. That includes pun-intentional ones and dirty ones.

Photosynthesis: Maybe this is a bit of my nerd side coming out. A huge reason I live in LA is the weather. I like being outdoors, like a plant, soaking in the sun. It’s also the title of one of my songs on the EP.

Speaking of, congrats on the first EP! How was that experience for you?

Thanks! It was such a fun and challenging process. I learned so much, both about the recording process and about myself. As a singer-songwriter and pianist, I’m naturally used to creating the whole product myself, from lyrics to arrangement, and working in the studio with Daniel Krieger (Konscious Studios) was a great way to open up to collaborative possibilities. It challenged my sense of structure and control, definitely for the better. Danny is really talented as a producer, engineer, musician. He has a great ear and is also such a genuine, fun guy.

Isabella Tang

Were the songs you had in mind going into the recording sessions drastically different from the finished products?

I think half and half. I knew I wanted to add violin instrumentation to “Everything At Once” and a natural drum arrangement and that “If I Could Tell You” should be very strings-centric. I vaguely knew that I wanted “Photosynthesis” to be an electronic departure from my normal “singer-songwriter” style and that I wanted a synthetic sound to provide ironic contrast to the title of the song, but I wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out. The addition of the guitars in “Many Waters” was unexpected, but I love the texture the guitars provide. I also knew I wanted trumpets in “Passenger” to add a jazzy, swingy feel and to mimic the sound of car beeps when singing about traffic jams. And finally, I thought I wanted light brushes for “We Can Sleep on the Plane,” but we ended up going with a very bare arrangement — just vocals and piano.

A lot of your song lyrics include subtle references to poetry and literature. How do you go about folding those into your own lyrics?

I started writing poetry when I was eight, and my first song was about the birds and the bees (literally — we had just learned about tree ecosystems in 3rd grade science class). Poetry is my first love. I think the inspirations are always there, right below the surface, and they come to me subconsciously. I’m not necessarily actively working them into the lyrics, but rather I am simultaneously inspired and realizing the poetic source, if that makes sense.

In the songs on my EP, you might pick out references to works by T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Song of Solomon, which I should add is a very beautiful, surprisingly erotic poetry collection found in your very own family Bible (that’s right). Other songs not in my EP include references to Shakespeare, James Baldwin, and even some movies, such as The Dark Knight Rises and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Do you have a songwriting process you go through?

My songwriting process starts when I feel the urge to write something. I feel things very strongly, and when I was younger, I used to feel that if I didn’t write them down in time, they would be pent up in my chest and eventually my rib cage would rip open and it would come roaring out. I usually start with lyrics and then from there I sit at the piano and start experimenting with singing them to different melodies and seeing what feels right.

My inspirations are mostly two-fold. The two buckets of inspirations are either from my relationship experiences or from my personal journey as I try to answer the question of “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, poet). I like to say I write “songs for the thoughts that keep you up at night.” At the heart of any song is a love song — not necessarily romantic love, but it’s a kernel of something that you feel very strongly about, whether it’s a place, a person, a memory, a political belief, or a joke.

Are any of the songs on the EP particularly meaningful to you on a personal level?

Yes. I wrote “Everything At Once” when I was frolicking around the Paris countryside and recorded a rough version a few years ago. It was about my first love, so it’s special to me in that way. I posted it to YouTube, and a stranger somehow found it and messaged me on Facebook to ask me for sheet music. He said he wanted to learn it so he could sing it to his girlfriend for their two-year anniversary, so I had to go make the sheet music first, then I sent it to him. Then it was my turn to go lurk on his Facebook profile maybe a year or two later. I saw that they had actually gotten married! It may have had absolutely nothing to do with me, but one of the lyrics in that song is “let’s get married,” so I like to think I played a small role.

A second song on the EP that has a cool personal connection is “We Can Sleep on the Plane.” One of my best friends from high school asked me to sing it at her wedding. The song is about a long-distance relationship, and it really spoke to her because it’s what she and her fiancé have done for the last few years. That’s the beautiful contradiction of a song — the details may be very personal, but the overall message is universal.

Isabella Tang

I had an interesting chat with Tokimonsta a couple months back about being a minority in the music scene. Any thoughts of your own on the subject?

A few tangentially related thoughts on this…

I’ve been told by a few folks in the industry that I have a certain “look” they think would sell well, and when I ask for clarification, that reference is in part related to my being Asian. I haven’t encountered anything outright creepy yet (knock on wood), but it’s definitely difficult for Asian Americans in the music scene. I’ve thought about whether it would help if I had a stage name that obscured my ethnicity more — that is a move that seems to have worked well for a lot of artists, whether intentionally or unintentionally…Norah Jones, Ben Kingsley, Clara C (not to mention they are all very, very talented).

But if there is one beautiful thing about this very competitive industry, it’s that I’ve found so many fellow artists who are incredibly generous and helpful. We’re all in this together, and to me, it’s kind of like the “pay it forward” mentality. They’ve gotten support and help from others before them, now they’re giving back, and I have the same mindset as well.

Dream collaborations, living and/or dead?

Oh, good question. First one that comes to mind is Ingrid Michaelson because she’s fricking hilarious in concert. Beautiful voice, lyrical craftsmanship, and we’re quite similar in that we are both piano-driven singer-songwriters.

Stepping outside that box a little bit, The 1975. For a while I played “Chocolate” about 20 times a day. I want to gravitate towards some rock sounds in a future album. Oh, and maybe CAKE or Macklemore. I wrote a rap song last year that’s got a similar vibe to “Same Love,” but I’ve only performed it once. I think need to work on my street cred first before I can pull it off.

Isabella Tang

Great job on your recent show at the Voodoo Lounge! How’d that go for you? Nerve-wracking? Exhilarating?

Given I had a backing singer (Madlyn), a violinist (Sarah Ho), and a drummer (Don Houston), it was the most complex to rehearse for. Aside from rehearsal, I also tried to prepare in case of technical difficulties. I brought some props like my giant Mickey Mouse gloves to stall for time, which I actually got to put on and wave around for two seconds while waiting for the PA system to get fixed, but I was really happy to see a bunch of my friends from various walks of my life — high school, Stanford, LA peeps, musicians, colleagues.

Any future shows on the horizon?

I’m performing at the 1010 Wilshire rooftop for a private gig on September 20th!

Last question: what’s next for Isabella Tang?

So many ways to approach this…

Immediately, book my Thanksgiving flight to my parents’ in Ohio before prices surge. Tactically, produce a music video for one of the songs on the EP (probably “Photosynthesis” but TBD) and have an EP release event. Overall, keep frolicking and trying to answer Mary Oliver’s question, “What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?”

For more info:

Isabella Tang