For the chronically online, the bored-scrollers, and the sporadic users alike, an unofficial community guideline for TikTok is that judgment be suspended when you open the app. In a place with unpredictable content and an untrustworthy algorithm, one’s feed is not a fair representation of their character. And before you hold content creators to a different standard, please take into account those who live on the apps out of necessity. Specifically keep in mind PIAO, who’s posts on these platforms are meant for a specific audience. “I'm constantly telling my friends or the people that know me personally: no, don't look at my TikTok!” she pleads with me over Zoom, jetlagged yet persevering to assure she gets her message across. “Like, TikTok is for people who don't know me. Do not go on my TikTok!”
As much as she begs for those close to her to stay away, social media has been one of the only places to keep up with PIAO in the past year since the release of her debut EP, Tissues. The project was a landmark moment for the Shanghai-born, Canada-raised artist who made a strong impression in the 5 songs comprising the EP. Whether it was soaring vocals, snappy melodies, or heartfelt ballads, PIAO proved to be a talent that belonged in the pop space. After publishing the songs that encapsulated her experience throughout COVID and being a young songwriter, she deservedly took a break, and kindly kept fans in the loop with occasional posts to her social accounts. It’s still a work in progress, she admits, as the act of self-promotion doesn’t seem to hit the right note for the always-on-key singer. “You know how people recreate scenes (on TikTok) where it's like, they bump into a stranger, and then, ‘Oh my god, I think I listened to your music!’ I could not get myself to do that,” PIAO says, second-hand embarrassedly. Instead, her posts are candid looks into her personal interests, capsules from a time in her life, and kind reminders that, yes, new music is coming soon.
In a time where it has become popular and convenient to categorize periods of our lives as eras, PIAO is beginning a new one with her most recent releases. Returning in September with the raucous single “Cardcaptor,” she’s doubling-down on her new sound with “Neopet,” out today. The bombastic and brash production of “Neopet” sets the tone for the state of mind PIAO finds herself in creatively, to which she applies a very inconspicuous adjective. “After 'Tissues,' we were like, ‘what do we want to do next?’” she tells me. “I was like, I definitely don’t want to be in the Tissues era. I remember just saying, ‘I think I wanna make cursed music,’” she says with a laugh. What is cursed music, asked her team, preempting my curiosity as well. “I don’t know, just music that sounds kind of cursed,” PIAO answers, vaguely but acutely defined in the resulting music. “I’m feeling like fuck it, let’s just go.”
The genesis of these songs as cursed isn’t meant to imply they’re inherently evil; in fact, much of the inspiration for both “Cardcaptor” and “Neopet” come from a source of joy and innocence for PIAO. Following the release of Tissues, she was left to reflect on her life, on not only how far she had come but what had gotten her to this place. “I was thinking about the stuff that makes me really, truly happy. And Neopets was one of the things that made me truly happy. Watching Cardcaptor (Sakura, a Japanese manga series), I was so happy doing that as a child,” she reminisces, ripe with sentiment. But when you’re making cursed music, you inevitably end up asking yourself the ultimate question: “We were like, ‘how can we make this more cursed than it is?’” After some pitched vocals and production tricks, “Neopet” arrives fully-formed, not quite defining but solidifying an era PIAO is ready to embrace.
No matter how PIAO chooses to describe her music, “cursed” isn’t a satisfactory label for music to be released through. So, for both “Cardcaptor” and “Neopet,” PIAO chose to classify them as K-Pop, a genre she never thought she would have entertained. “I used to be a K-pop hater in high school,” she shares. “Probably because I wanted to be different, not because I actually hated it, I think. I must have had a phase.” As far as teenage rebellions go, PIAO’s was pretty mild, and certainly not irreversible. Growing her affinity for the genre as a fan of BLACKPINK, she suddenly felt entrenched in the “big world” of K-Pop, the “earcandy and eye candy” that fuels the music, which coincidentally became a muse for her own recordings. “I let myself fall into it and let it influence me creatively,” she says, as is evidenced by how free and comfortable she sounds in her recent contributions to the genre. But in the end, she tells me, the music is all the same, no matter whatever label is conveniently placed on a song’s packaging. Rather than being restrained to one genre, PIAO thinks of her songs as nondescript reflections of herself: “I think my music reflects how I am in real life, which is indecisive,” she laughs. There’s little intention when it comes to a song’s structure, instead placing priority on the emotion she’s trying to convey. One day, she hopes, she’ll be able to write for other artists. But for now, she’s finding her place in her own shoes, while making sarcastic promises that she’ll “have a normal song one day.”
While the allure of K-Pop didn’t fit her social status in high school, there was a budding sensation she couldn’t help but feel inspired by. “Somebody showed me a video of Rich Brian and I was just like, ‘what in the world is this Asian boy doing?’” she recalls, instantly curious and transfixed by the artist’s momentum. Further investigation unearthed the existence of 88rising, a hybrid management, record label, and marketing company that was showcasing the talent of Asian-Americans and Asian artists working in Western industries. Aside from her initial interest, PIAO didn’t invest much attention into the collective. She had other priorities – “I was actually a full-on business nerd in high school” – and had plans to attend a dream school of hers to study finance. In a moment of inspiration and with nothing to lose, she signed up for an audition at Berklee College of Music. Aside from her childhood dream of being a musician, there was one other clear draw for PIAO to attend Berklee: “they didn’t require an SAT score, and I’m Canadian and we don’t do SAT’s,” she admits. Fatefully enough, PIAO was offered a full-ride to attend Berklee, throwing a wrench into her plans to attend business school. Ultimately, it was an anecdote from her mother, who is also a singer, that pushed her towards attending Berklee. Since she was as young as seven years old, PIAO would sing in her room and dream of being an artist. Try as her mother could to temper PIAO’s expectations, often reminding her of the lack of Asian stars in music, PIAO couldn’t resist the allure of being an artist. “I’m not a religious person, but I feel like there was a big universal push for me (to pursue music). Literally everything in its power and its matter is pushing me to do this thing which I think I was just scared to do,” she says, recalling what compelled her to pursue music.
A few weeks after “Cardcaptor’s" release this year, PIAO signed a publishing deal with 88rising, a moment that feels as full-circle for PIAO as it does validating. “(When) I first heard about 88rising, (I was) almost fearful of how courageous their initial ambition was because I didn’t have that ambition myself. I was like, ‘Oh my God, how are they so certain that this will work?’...It feels like I’ve been accepted into this little community…It's been a long time coming.”
Near the end of our conversation, PIAO must apologize: her alarm just went off, one she set to wake her up from her aforementioned jetlagged haze. She’s just returned a few days ago from a month long trip to China and a stint in Japan, and is still trying to get back up to speed. “I definitely am experiencing, like, post-vacation sadness,” she confesses, longing for the place she just left and mournful of the rest she cannot get. She can appreciate the perspective gained from the trip, a pivotal experience for PIAO to reconnect with her community, culture, and family. “It definitely was not just like a woo-hoo trip, but I think it was needed,” she concludes. And it's not as if PIAO had nothing to return to: upon the week of her return to the States, “Neopet” is officially out today and she is scheduled to play her very own showcase at the Winston House in Los Angeles. While her performance at KCon in LA earlier in the year has her primed for her big night, she most looks forward to relishing the simple tenants of live music: “I’m looking forward to seeing people, taking my time, and having fun,” she says, as energized talking about the show as she has been in our entire meeting. After a month away and a showcase to return to, along with new music in tow, it must feel good to be back. Fans of PIAO can likely relate, as their anticipation is just as intense and even longer awaited. As if she ever could, PIAO surely won’t disappoint.