With nearly identical “24/7 chillax and study” playlists threatening to dilute the world of lo-fi, chillhop, or whatever you want to call this loosely defined, mostly instrumental hip hop scene, City Girl stands out as an artist with a vision. The name of the musical project, the fictional character depicted in its accompanying art and text, and the anonymous LA-based producer behind it, City Girl composes aural daydreams you can float into — supplying lush strings closer to The Cinematic Orchestra than the same old Nujabes-lite loops.
Sure, there’s lo-fi’s hallmark anime aesthetic and soothing melancholy, but City Girl songs aren’t just looping a mood; they’re unfurling into intricately structured mini-suites. And far from the usual mood board of desaturated Cowboy Bebop screenshots, the Steven Universe-esque art is all original – courtesy of artist vickisigh, who is also responsible for the bespoke physical releases.
Adding tracks of live guitar, keyboard, and the occasional ukelele over drums that alternately lope and stutter, City Girl conjures the mood of a bleary walk through the dusk or dawn. Her unique sonic palette matches the art’s mix of neon and pastel. It’s all there in “Nobody,” the first track from her third 2018 album Celestial Angel. A faraway vocal sample intones over shuffling drums, joined by watery piano and warm synth sub, then gives way to a call and response between two panned acoustic guitars.
On the cheerier side, “Ji-Eun’s Sunset” feels like exploring a video game hometown for the first time. If you seek a form of tranquility, City Girl has explored it over six albums dating back to her 2017 debut EP. For such a moody, instrumental genre, she offers a rare depth. The latest, Somnolent Nova, is a summation of everything before, though when it comes to walking home after a 1 am shift, Celestial Angel’s liminal dolors are hard to beat.
PoTW talked to City Girl over email about their approach to developing the intricate sounds and sights of the project, turning it into a stable career, and an ongoing struggle to balance the drive to create, pressures of audience reception, and a host of serious health issues. — Charlie Heller
With the art, sound, and writing, there’s clearly a real vision behind City Girl. So, “who is City Girl?” Is she a character? A world? You? And how do you approach creating the whole experience?
City Girl:She is a character in a fictional world. I try to reflect a lot of emotional experiences onto her. She is a vessel for creativity and storytelling. It was planned that the experience be exclusively fictional, and that City Girl be the star so to speak. But it wasn’t planned for it to grow so much and become so detailed. It just seemed like a fun Gorillaz type thing to do.
How did vickisigh’s become part of the project? Are you commissioning specific art, or working off her existing work, or a mix?
City Girl:We created City Girl together. It was very important to me to have her input and ideas incorporated into the whole thing. It is all original work we create together. City Girl would simply not exist without vicki. I would never do an album without her, it’s just not possible.
Were you releasing music under other aliases before City Girl?
City Girl:Very much so. I’ve had probably 4 or 5 other projects before this that just never took off. By the time the first City Girl album came out I had released 100’s of songs already, they just never took off.
What’s your music making process like? It seems like there’s a mix of live instruments, midi, and some sampling? Your sense of structure really stands out in the genre, are you thinking a lot about it as you’re working?
City Girl:It’s mostly live and MIDI. I use sampling for texture stuff like drums and background noises. The process is almost always laying down chords and sounds and getting a small loop going, and growing that slowly into an entire piece that feels alive and complex. I never have this grand idea or specific goal, just moods and impressions I build up with layers and ideas until they feel like a story. It can happen in just one three hour sitting, or it can take many sessions over months to finally create something that feels alive. There are hundreds of B-sides that just didn’t make the mark in that “alive”-ness department that I delete. I am very concerned with the structure of a song from start to finish. My favorite songs always feel like little masterpieces.
I read that the City Girl name is from a song by My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields and I was like, “AH HA!” While I don’t think the sound is that similar, you’re both turning emotions into a very particular, introspective sound. Is that something you were planning on channeling when conceiving City Girl?
City Girl:For a very long time I have been into that idea of exploring ennui and the sort of lost-ness we feel even when were amongst so many other people. I was always touched by movies and music that seemed to spark those emotions in me. Even though it was a long time ago when I first heard it, Shields’ ‘City Girl’ and the movie it’s from (Lost in Translation) both do a fantastic job of getting you to feel those specific emotions.
I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who makes lo fi who doesn’t love that movie. I really wanted to make art that transported you like that, but I wanted it to be for me, not for anyone else. I think using something very open like ‘City Girl’ allowed me to explore and expand the universe in any way I wanted. Even if I wanted to change up genres or something, City Girl is still perfect for that, as I can just change the story to fit it.
How has your career evolved since City Girl started? Are you making music full-time? Are you handling the whole business side yourself?
City Girl:I am making music full time. The shift career wise is huge. It’s a dream come true. Lifestyle wise I am still doing what I have been for a long time. Just playing video games and making music. Of course now I also answer emails and package orders and go to the post office, but it doesn’t feel like work. It just feels like I am doing what I always wanted. The control of running everything yourself is really demanding and confusing, but the personal freedom is incredible.
When did you make the shift to full time?
City Girl:Before I was making a living off music I switched. I had saved up a small amount of money and knew I could get by for a few months, so right around when [2017 album] was released I started working on music full time. I knew that it was my last chance to make my dream come true, so I worked really hard and made a lot of music. It wasn’t until a month or two after [2018 album] was released that I started making enough to support myself.
City Girl:I don’t want to spread any illusions though, I had friends and family that knew I loved music and wanted me to succeed. They motivated me to take those risks and roll the dice. Not to mention all the music friends I made around Snow Rose’s release. They gave me A LOT of helpful advice about how to navigate Spotify/Youtube etc. Also luck. You never know who is gonna hear you when. In the internet age it’s very important to get lucky as you grind.
The lo-fi/chillhop/instrumental hip-hop world has seen huge growth recently. Do you feel like you’re part of a particular scene? Did you try to seek one out, or did it more come to you?
City Girl:I was very aware of the need to be apart of the community when I first started. I knew that making friends would be really valuable and fun. I found a lot of cool people but the most valuable was meeting Chance Thrash, the jazz musician. He showed my music toIn Love with a Ghost and that felt like a huge step for City Girl. My friendship with Chance and now ILWAG have definitely given me a sense of identity within the genre, but I am not sure where that place is really. Surprisingly it’s something I don’t think about much.
While it’s easier to self-release and market today more than ever, it means a lot of extra non-music work. How do you approach the business side of music making? Is there anything you wish you had known going in?
City Girl:I have had friends give me advice. ILWAG has been the most helpful. My only advice would be, don’t sell yourself short. All the mistakes I’ve made have been good learning experiences, but selling yourself short can be a disease. You never learn to value yourself or your work and continually underprice your art. Luckily, I already learned that lesson before City Girl was created.
You’ve talked some about balancing the drive to create, the pressures of being a musician with an audience, and your health struggles with hearing, tinnitus, ear and sinus infections, vertigo, and severe TMJ pain. What is it like currently?
City Girl:It’s all pretty fucked up stuff. One day you feel great, the next day you wonder if anything you’re working on is good. The drive to make something ‘passable’ or ‘good enough’ can become heavy. If you don’t branch out and continue to have fun with your work you really get burnt out, and the music will reflect that. I’m always surprised at the levels of secrecy and pain with health issues people will go through silently. Like that dude from the Bee Gees whose back was in incredible pain whenever he sang. Or Brian Wilson with voices in his head telling him he was a failure the whole time he was making Beach Boys stuff.
Weakness is so hard for humans to deal with. I want to be open and let others know its ok if their ear won’t stop ringing, or if they have mad headaches, or wrist pain or whatever. You can still do it, you can still be satisfied with your art. Life is still here for you, you’re not alone. Having an audience is difficult, but to be honest I only make music for me. As time goes on I become less and less interested in showing people my work until its 100% finished. The criticism and acclaim don’t fuel me.
Do you feel like you’ve reached a good balance? Do you have any advice for people facing similar struggles?
City Girl:I don’t know where my balance is at, to be honest. I think my advice for myself and others would be to focus on accepting things as being split 50/50 between good and bad. Learning to accept that is more helpful than anything else. And if there is anyone in your life that you love, always reach out to them. Don’t ever be afraid to be honest.
And is there anything else you can say about future projects, either planned or that you hope to do one day? Do you want City Girl to produce for other artists?
City Girl:My biggest goal is to have a fully animated music video. It would cost a lot if I paid for it all alone, I have read estimates ranging from 2-10k$ a minute for animation. But I still need to write the story for that and meet the right people. Music-wise I am working on something VERY different right now, but I won’t share anything yet! I think after 6 albums of pretty consistent and ‘chill’ music a change is necessary in order to keep the music exciting.
The only artist I’m interested in producing for is [teenage Australian vocalist/guitarist and City Girl collaborator] tiffi. Tiffi will be a superstar in the future, there is no doubt in my mind. The two of us will tour the world one day, but she is stuck in the high school > college loop that parents demand of their children nowadays, so for now it will have to wait.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.