A fantastical throw-back to old-school action movies with references to traditional Chinese folklore, the music video to “Airplane Mode” shows off 9m88’s performative streak and impressive stylings (see qipao crop top). It’s just a small peek into the playful and imaginative mind of the international artist fresh off her debut album Beyond Mediocrity, released this past summer.
Over smoked salmon and Sorachi Aces, we discuss 9m88’s background in fashion, her beginnings as a featured and cover artist, and how it all led to Beyond Mediocrity.
While working as an intern for fashion designer Jason Wu, she became drawn to NYC’s vibrant DIY music scene. At the intersection of fashion and music, 9m88 found herself having to make a decision between the two worlds.
“At that moment, I was still figuring it out. I didn’t think I would ‘make it,’” she explains. “I liked to sing but never had professional training but when I finished college for fashion, I decided to try to become more educated as a professional musician.”
After her first year studying jazz vocals at the New School, she began reaching out to fellow artists she wanted to collaborate with. Made possible through the power of the internet and mutual friends, she connected with Taiwanese rapper, Leo Wang (Leo 王).
Looking back, she realizes that her DM to Wang, along with her Soundcloud page, was considerably bolder than she’d known at the time. “There’s nothing on [it]. There’s only one cover that I did of a jazz standard — but he liked it!”
A playful narrative of a couple’s quarrel became “Weekends With You,” which seamlessly weaves Wang’s raps with 9m88’s brassy vocals. They shared the music video (shot in Brooklyn) online to resounding support.
With an overnight success on her hands (the video has since accumulated eight million views) and more importantly, the permission only she could give herself, 9m88 forged ahead.
“That was the moment I finally felt that I could pursue music — like people actually kind of cared about what I was doing,” she says. “I felt uplifted through them.”
A chameleon in action, 9m88 has carved out the luxury of being able to experiment and evolve in front of a mass audience.
Put her videos side-by-side and you’ll see the range. From bubbly and flirty in “Plastic Love” to ‘90s glam (equipped with skyscrapers as backup dancers) in “Love Rain,” 9m88’s perspective is multifaceted and daring. Her bold retro-cool style and ability to pull off any pattern have also made her into a fashion “it girl,” working closely with Chanel and appearing in Marie Claire Taiwan and Elle Taiwan.
But even with the robust following in Asia, there are challenges for the artist looking to venture outside of her current market. In another instance of feeling pulled in separate directions, 9m88 explains how it’s generally expected to have an English name for American palettes. Her own name is a direct sound translation from Mandarin to English.
“9m88” breaks down in Mandarin as “9m” (“jiu” 九 “em”) which sounds like “Joanne” (her English name), and “88” (“ba ba”) which comes from her childhood nickname “Xiaoba.”
Her manager, Mia Min Yen, helps her straddle these two worlds, making sure it never gets in the way of the bigger picture. In the business of putting Asian artists on the radar, she helped bring 9m88 to this year’s Taiwanese Waves at New York City’s SummerStage, which saw its highest attendance of the season.
“One of the most [frequent] comments we would get when pitching new artists to the Western world is that ‘I never expected that the music from Asia, Taiwan would sound like this,’” Yen elaborates. “This is really rewarding because we surprised them.”
As for 9m88, a self-admitted Scorpio with high ambitions, she’s ultimately looking to surprise herself. In the last year alone, she’s played on global stages like Summer Sonic, successfully debuted an album, and (spoiler alert) defeated the One-Eyed Eagle King. Always at the ready, she’s looking to tackle the next thing standing in her way.
9m88’s latest album “Beyond Mediocrity” — out now via Level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.