Rachel Lime spent the early years of her life listening to church hymns and reading fantasy novels, which became a primary source of inspiration for the first songs she ever wrote. A Korean-American adoptee who was born in Seoul and grew up amidst the cornfields of Minnesota, the musician and producer was always interested in combining her various influences – from 80s synthpop to contemporary R&B – to create imaginative worlds that evoke very real yet elusive feelings of deep yearning, alienation, and transcendence. Though they take different forms on her recently released debut album, A.U., these emotional states permeate every corner of it: the playful, enchanting ‘Silla’ is a loose interpretation of the story of Queen Seondeok and her determination to compete for the throne, but Lime fixates on her longing for the stars (“When I was a child/ The stars made me cry/ They were so far away”).
That kind of sentimentality is vital to Lime’s ethereal and transportive music, even when the spaces it occupies are more mundane and down to earth: a bedroom (‘The Other’), the city at dusk (‘A.U.’). Whether walking, driving, or simply lost in thought, her protagonists are always searching for something that’s hard to pin down: “Whose shape would I call forth from the night, if I had such a moonly power?” she asks on the spoken-word piece ‘(The Sounds of Earth)’, and the answer – insofar as there is one – is more ordinary than one might expect, yet all the more beautiful for it.
We caught up with Rachel Lime for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, her musical journey, the making of her debut album, and more.
What was it like growing up in the cornfields of Minnesota?
I had a great childhood where I got to take piano lessons and do all these activities, but it was also very isolating. It was a place where I kind of knew I had to be alone, and I didn’t have friends, actually, till I was probably like 10. [laughs] I had friends, but like, friends. I was pretty awkward. Maybe I would have spent as much time alone as I did even if I did have a bunch of friends, but I mostly spent my time reading – like, 90% of the time I would be at the grocery store with a book, just reading. I remember we went to Disney World once, and I don’t remember this but my mom said I brought a book with and read it in line at this amusement park. So that was like who I was. I remember doing little creative things ever since I learned how to play the piano – I think I started when I was seven or eight.
I was one of maybe 10 Asian people in our town of like 10,000 growing up, and one of them was my brother. [laughs] And I think that’s still in my music; it’s hard to pull apart like social awkwardness and being alone from that and then the other stuff where it’s partly because I think I felt really different. I don’t think that’s universal – my brother had a whole different experience.
You mentioned reading books, and I read that the first songs you wrote were settings of poems from fantasy books. What did you like about fantasy?
I think I’ve always been drawn to things like that. I really like the imaginative part of it where I was always in my head imagining things, and it kind of provided a place to go to. It’s not like I was at a grocery store or at school, trying to go to this place – it wasn’t that intense. But I remember in summer, I would just be on my bed reading and it was my favorite thing. No school, and just this beautiful sunlight coming in my room. That’s one of my strongest memories from being a kid.
I think it’s about this longing, and there’s this German word for it: Sehnsucht. Longing sickness is what it means. And I’ve always really connected with that feeling before I knew what that word was. There’s something about fantasy worlds that is kind of fundamentally based on that, I think, because it’s a writer who’s imagining this whole other place that they desire and long for. There’s something out there that we think if we find it, we’ll find some type of home. And for a lot of people I think that’s a romantic relationship, where you feel like you’ll find that person that finally understands you. And in the album, I was trying to push the boundaries of that and bring up these other kinds of longings that are rooted in the same place, but it’s really not about a person, exactly – it’s about this other place that we think this other thing will give us access to.
Your Bandcamp bio, too, reads “music in search of other worlds,” so obviously that escapism is still integral to your work.
I think it does go back to being a kid, and it was escapism, because it was like, “My life is boring. There’s not things going on in my life that are really engaging me, so I’m going to jump into this other place.” And I guess things were hard for me in that sense, and that was an escape. Not that I actually suffered anything that traumatic, it wasn’t like that, but just feeling out of sync with what was around me. I’m lucky to have a really amazing community of people that I don’t feel that sense of disconnect anymore, but it’s still there. It’s almost instinctual, even when I’m having a great time with my friends, I do think there’s something where my default is to go to this other thing where I’m like… I’m walking down the street or in the woods and I’m just thinking about something magical about it, or maybe even gratitude, a sense of transcendence, because I’m seeing something beyond the ordinary. And you know, it’s not just in the woods – like, having like a beautiful dinner party outside with friends, which happened last night, where it’s just like, “This is a moment,” you know? It’s like a sublime moment, and I like to seek out those moments.
Could you talk about your musical journey up until this point?
As I said, I’ve written songs ever since I can remember, and the first ones I wrote were these settings of poems from fantasy books. [There were] these ancient, mythic dimensions to what I wrote, very much based in nature and this feeling of transcendence. And then as I got older, I started listening to these seminal albums of that era, like Fleet Foxes’ debut album, Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, Arcade Fire’s Funeral. It was just like, music can be different than what I was listening to up till that point, which was like Panic! at the Disco and Dashboard Confessional and stuff like that. I started writing a lot of singer-songwriter stuff, I learned the guitar and wrote songs that were in that vein, like really emo, kind of Bright Eyes/Bon Iver attempt. And then in college I discovered synth pop, this band DOM that I got really into. I was doing all this in GarageBand before then, and then when I got to college I was exploring the synths on GarageBand. I was like, “How do I make these sounds, how do I add all this reverb and distortion?”
And then I was listening to alternative R&B and trying to make beats, but there was something else that was always coming out when I was doing this stuff – I was trying to make songs in a certain genre, but then weird moments would pop out, you know, adding these orchestral or very transcendent moments. Now I think there’s much more of an acceptance of these fusions, like FKA twigs’ latest album, Moses Sumney, lots of other artists that are adding in these more acoustic elements and very beautiful choral arrangements. But back then I don’t know if I knew of any music like that, and so I was very uncomfortable with this. I’m like, “I failed at doing this,” and now I’ve since discovered that those little moments peeking through is actually what I want to make.
I was in grad school for the past two years, and I had, weirdly, more space to really think about music. And I was trying to put together an EP and was writing a bunch over fall to like, January, February, from 2019 to 2020. Then the pandemic happened, of course, and I had this spring break trip planned and it was canceled. I had like a week to just do nothing, and then I started working on – I don’t know if it was ‘Voyager 3’ or this other song that I haven’t released – and then I posted a draft, and my friend Bobby Granfelt was like, “I’m starting a little record label with my friends, do you want to release something on it?” I was like, “Yeah, this is exactly what I need.” And I wrote those songs on GarageBand, and I discovered the GarageBand sampler, which is very janky, but I like that it is because if I’m thinking about music I can produce, I’m not going to attempt to do really technologically advanced things, because I don’t have those skills. I like working around limitations and maybe going in the opposite direction and seeing what happens. I eventually got Logic and was learning how to do more sophisticated things, but the sampler was really fun and I use it in a lot of the songs. I was very low tech, and I liked it too because a huge influence of mine is Kate Bush – there was a time where I was pretty obsessed, and I learned a lot about her and her process. But she used the Fairlight synthesizer – she was one of the first people to do that, and it’s sample-based, which sounds very distinct and what we would think of maybe as not super sophisticated now.
What was it like learning these things while in the process of making the album?
It was very cool. I wouldn’t have grown as much as a producer if I hadn’t done this. The process of working with a mixing engineer was very educational for me – I had no idea really what to expect. So, going back to Kate Bush – not to be too obsessive, but it really did shape this album and me finding my voice. I was looking at a bunch of albums that I like and looking at their credits, and I found Brian Tench, who mixed Hounds of Love. And I Googled his name, and he had this freelance profile, and I was like, “Oh my god, I could work with Brian!” And I sent him a message, like, “Hey, I probably don’t have a budget to afford you – I’m releasing on a label, but it’s not like there’s any money for it, so it’s basically very indie and DIY.” And he has a special rate for that, and he listened and was like, “This is cool, I can definitely hear the Kate Bush influence and I would love to work with you.” And I feel so grateful that he did and was really patient with me during the process. I think it’s normal to have a lot of back and forth, and it’s hard because it’s remote. It’s like a whole thing where I have to send like a book’s worth of notes even just to try something, and then I’m like, “No, I don’t want it,” and I felt really guilty.
I also think as who I am – which is, you know, very anxious and people-pleasing and feeling like I’m being annoying – it really came out in this process. I felt really bad each time I sent an email, but he was really patient. And I think part of that is like… I’ve talked with other friends who make music who are men, and I think it’s very different, because as a woman in music and probably all spheres of life, I feel like there’s a lot of guilt for being assertive, guilt for saying “This is what I want.” And that’s been a learning process, too, of how to maintain my vision while being cognizant of these other factors. But working with Brian taught me a lot about writing and producing, and I have him in the credits – I have this long list of thank yous – and he’s in there as someone who really indirectly taught me a lot about writing and producing, and to have confidence in what I’m doing. So I learned a lot, and mostly my feeling is gratitude for all the people who facilitated that learning.
In terms of the themes, there’s a lot of, as you mentioned, longing, but also references to loneliness. What was your headspace like when you were writing the album?
It’s hard to remember because it feels so long ago now. I guess it was a year ago that I was really in the thick of it, and it was this pandemic time – I don’t think it’s a pandemic album, because all the feelings I’ve been feeling for my whole life. So it’s not like it was this year I was like, “Now I feel lonely for the first time.” It wasn’t even worse than before, honestly, because I had just started grad school and that was very lonely, in a way, so it was kind of just a continuation, possibly even better, because I didn’t have to deal with social anxiety as much; I could just do what I wanted alone. It definitely took a toll, but it was kind of nice and freeing, and so maybe the album comes from that space, and maybe being more comfortable returning to being a kid, almost, in my head. Some of the songs are very not that space, but like, ‘Voyager’ is really playful, ‘Silla’ is very playful, ‘Bitter, Sweet’ has that kind of youthful spirit.
When you were tapping into that spirit and reflecting back on your childhood, was there anything that struck you that you hadn’t thought about before?
Yeah, I think a lot of the themes I’ve been talking about, I didn’t exactly put them all together before I wrote this. It’s almost like journaling, where you go back and you see themes that you didn’t realize at the time. I journal probably once a month, and I think it’s really similar in that sense, where it’s like, I’m recording this moment and how I’m feeling it now, and then in hindsight it’s transformed, because I’m not in it in the same way. So all these reflections about childhood… I have this very long Instagram post about it that I might have archived because I was embarrassed, and it was me reflecting after the new year about what I want this year to be. And as I’ve grown older, I think I’ve slowly lost the sense of wonder and feeling of playfulness and of like, “Things are possible, things can change.” Part of that is obviously depression, but I think it’s gotten… I don’t know if worse is the word, but just taken on this specific character for me. For me, depression is defined as things not feeling possible, like things never feel like they’re going to change. And so being in a good mood for me is thinking that things are changeable.
I definitely feel like I’m reaching kind of this weird turning point where it’s like, “What matters to me?” I realized all the things that I really cared about were creative, and I’ve been kind of pushing myself towards this other path. And it was really freeing to realize that what I want to really work on is music, and I couldn’t have realized that without the album and without all the support I’ve gotten and now the feedback I’m getting from people. All of that stuff means the world because it’s affirming that this is what I want to do. You know, in school, if I got a good grade on a paper, that pales in comparison to a random person finding my music and saying something really thoughtful and nice about it. That’s a very profound shift in my life, and I think I’m moving towards a lot more possibility and alignment with what I want to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Rachel Lime’s A.U. is out now via Inside Voices Records.