love is not a battleground
for sin and purity
hold the darkness in the light
and this will set you free
-- "Mary Magdalene," Magdalen Hsu-Li
At age 16, Rochelle Hsu-Li, a Chinese-American growing up in rural Virginia, took the name "Magdalen" for its strength. Mary Magdalene had not yet been popularized through Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, with its controversial premise of the iconic biblical woman as the sexual and spiritual partner of Jesus. Hsu-Li wasn't aware of those associations until making her new CD, Smashing the Ceiling, with Tori Amos' backing band.
"I think the song ["Mary Magdalene"] speaks to my experience -- as much as our culture's -- of trying to integrate the profane with the spiritual. Mary Magdalene is a woman who pushed people's buttons," she said.
Hsu-Li's no stranger to pushing a few sticky buttons, either.
The singer-songwriter-pianist intends to shatter the "glass ceiling in the American music industry, so Asians become accepted as artistic forces in popular music.
"We'll emerge as powerhouses in the arts, bringing our spiritual depth and heritage to this culture."
The social obstacles that Hsu-Li will address during an April 8 concert, part of Colorado College's "Race Matters" week (see capsule), are present in her daily life: performance promoters asking whether she is an illegal alien, fans with Asian sex fetishes, and the opinion of industry executives that "Asians are a hard sell." There's also the "incredible hatred of women" that fills her spam box.
"In addition to the reality that women make less money than men, their work is burdened with the emphasis on body image. It disables you from focusing on the purity of making art," she said. "I'll forget about my race and my gender the day the world stops pointing it out to me."
At age 17, Hsu-Li left Virginia to pursue painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but another desire changed her direction. The vision of living as a musician in Seattle led her to study voice and classical and jazz piano at Cornish College of the Arts.
Hsu-Li admits that although she is obstinately compared to Ani DiFranco and Amos, she is influenced by British art rockers like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Coldplay.
"I've been experimenting with the Lydian mode for its universal sound," she says of the Indo-Asian flavor on Smashing the Ceiling's compelling opening song, "Change the World," which points to the spiritual revolution essential to political regeneration. Unfolding with strong percussive leads, the melody's "healing energy" threads its way through hopeful lyrics.
A trained pianist, Hsu-Li smashes her own musical ceilings by playing acoustic guitar on nearly every track. The purity of her voice, free "of messy vibrato" according to a singer friend of hers, and her avoidance of the predictability that dogs many alternative songwriters are impressive.
"Music's not just personal self-expression, but the vehicle I choose to create change, to help people 'look over the fence' into areas needing awareness," Hsu Li said. "We don't face our shadow."
-- Rebekah Shardy
"Smashing the Ceiling": Performance and lecture by Magdalen Hsu-Li as part of "Race Matters" week at Colorado College
Bemis Great Hall, 14 E. Cache La Poudre
Friday, April 8, 8:00 p.m., free