Mia LJ, aka Mia Louis Jeune, is a New York-based singer songwriter who plays six instruments and proudly produces her own music. When we talked on the phone, I was struck not only by Mia’s passion but also by the warmth she radiated over the phone: only 19 years old, Jeune is down-to-earth, thoughtful and sure of herself, using music as a medium through which to express her expanding sense of self.
Ms. talked to Jeune about labels, telling the whole story and the end of times.
First off, congratulations on “Ambiguous” and your whole debut album “This Livin.” It’s really exciting to see a young woman independently create the work she envisions!
Thank you! It’s just the first of many visuals I’ve put together so I’m so stoked to release a bunch more within the next couple of months.
Where did you grow up? What were your childhood and early teen years like?
I grew up in Orange County, the Hudson Valley region of New York and my childhood was very different, for lack of a better word. I started playing music when I was five years old, taught myself six instruments since then, and started singing and song-writing too. I made the choice very early on to dedicate my life—but at that point my childhood—to music. I’ve always said music is like a drug in the way it affects my emotions and I felt immediately addicted to it. Growing up, my attention and focus was on this thing I found a very pure love for. So, it took my mindset away from the traditional one I might have growing up: I didn’t want to go on playdates or play the town’s league sports, instead I wanted to be home schooled [and play music]. That is all to say, I’m very blessed. This new album is 15 years of working hard on my music and I’m just getting started.
You bring up addiction and music being like a drug and in your most recent music video for “Ambiguous” you feature your drug use somewhat prominently. The entire video has a hazy, dream-like feeling. What is your relationship with drugs like? For you, how are substances and sex related?
I wanted to stay away from depicting drug use and how it exactly relates to my life. I’m open to talking about it, but struggled with how to portray my use [of painkillers] in a productive visual way. So, I definitely limited my representation of pill use because it is such a controversial topic. Still though, my visuals—drinking underage, for example—imply that I’ve experienced a relationship between painkillers and love; specifically, the similar affects they have on me.
The video also reflects the fluidity of your sexuality. What has grappling with your sexual identity been like for you? When was queerness first brought into your consciousness?
I went to college at 16 years old and that was an adventure. Going to a university at any age—whether you’re 27, 21, or 16 like I was—always exposes you to things you probably never knew existed, including what sexual orientation means to you. I was in a very experimental stage, I was not straight edge and I was not straight. Life took a whole 180 and it often does that. Once I was in college I became very good friends with a woman, we synched up (that’s what we use to always say) on a mental and emotional level and then one thing led to another and I really became very open to being with her—and with women much more often than men in general. I found with women there was much more of a sensual impulse, rather than a sexual one. I was focused on how I felt not just feeling something. So, experimenting with my sexuality was very easy, actually.
Labels have never been—and I hope never will be—a big thing with me, because they limit me in what I can do and who I can be. I can make so analogies; for example, how do you label a person poor? There are so many different levels of poor: you could be literally sleeping on the concrete or you could not be able to pay your bills this month. Both are called “poor” but are very different situations and experiences in life. The same goes for being bisexual, whether they are male or female doesn’t come to my mind, it’s more about whether I’m attracted to this one person at this one time. Labels have always been tricky—and now that I’m talking to the press and being public about it that remains true.
While watching your video it’s difficult to miss how the themes you deal with—sexuality, femininity, substance use, carelessness and “partying”—are so often controlled by, and created for, men. Your visual choices work to flip a common narrative we’re told; instead of men being the carefree consumers you put yourself in front of the camera as a woman who is consuming. You’re the captain of your own ship. As a viewer, it is certainly empowering to see a black woman in charge of her own representation. When choosing your visual approach, how did you think about representation and the male gaze?
In general, pop culture and the mainstream audience is so used to seeing that. Imagine Travis Scott in “Pick up the Phone”—there’s a bunch of naked women rolling around but he’s the person in power and the one putting himself out there. It’s so popular, to have these “video girls” being so sexual on camera. You’ll see Future do it… I’ve never seen a female do that really. The guys are able to go so far with it and there’s not too much of a whiplash for it but even when I would release previews—just pictures, screenshots from the visuals—and I would get paragraphs of hate.
There’s this incredibly high double standard: men can treat women this way (be dominant and aggressive and take up space), but women can’t do that on-screen when delivering certain parts of their art. I wanted to push that boundary and establish a certain concept. And, more generally, I wanted to push [against the labels given to] LGBTQ and black communities. For example, me being a black woman, there’s a lot of preconceived ideas about the music I make. But, at the end of the day, when I started out I was playing instruments and singing-songwriting. Producing and mixing and mastering is something that came to me over the past couple of years, mainly this year 2017. I get a lot of preconceived judgments based on “oh, you’re a black woman you must do R&B.” There are so many cliché artist and ideas that people bring to my music. There is so much that goes into my music so I have to be upfront and strong about my stand point, from visuals to audio, to ensure that these preconceived ideas don’t stand by the time you’re finished listening to the song or watching the video.
Yeah, absolutely. Take it into your own hands and change initial assumptions.
Exactly. I mean, people will have their ideas either way. You’ll try to convince but you have to keep pushing and focus on the people who do gravitate towards what you’re creating. Push forward with them and you hope that the others will catch on eventually but, in the meantime, you have to ignore it so you don’t lose confidence in what you’re delivering.
What’s next for you? Any inklings of future work you hope to create?
Yes! So, what you show to the public is years in the making. That title track of my album, This Livin’, I wrote when I was 14 years old and I’m 19 now. It represents me. All my projects are based in evolution and are gap projects that show my growth from when I started writing music at a certain level to where I stand now. So, moving forward I’m working with a major artist on a collaboration—almost the Future/Drake approach where they did that whole “What a Time to be Alive” mixtape. I’m also doing a Docu-series and am venturing on to a North America and Europe tour in the coming year. I’m focusing on showing fans my side of life: losing friends to drug addictions and losing myself to those things, my sexuality, having access to so many experiences at such a young age, being in the industry. I can’t wait for fans to see me creating everything: in business meetings, sitting in front of my laptop for hours drafting,…there’s so much that goes into this that gets overlooked and it’s time for fans to see it all. I’m really excited for the collaborations going on and some upcoming visuals, and to show fans a more personal side and behind the scenes of this all.
We’re not in the easiest of times and it seems this [world] is all coming to an end soon, so I’m trying to throw things out there on the last legs of humanity. I’m going to spread my messages and ignore the outside world for the better of my mental state. I unfortunately don’t see much to live for in this society—the way that people are hurting each other, killing each other. I’m so disturbed by how society is functioning, what we see on the news. The media incentives fear over society and I want to incentivize truth for society. So, I’m determined to put my all into delivering my message, to wake people up.
And I really respect that with themes that are often pushed under the table—suicide, drug addiction, queerness—you’re vocal and visually vocal and don’t shy away from talking about these important, yet somehow sensitive and taboo, topics.
I hope we all keep pushing!