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the DIY-minded star who wants to make shoegaze fans proud

May 6th, 2024

There was something otherworldly about ‘Your Face’, the debut single by an artist known only as Wisp that started to appear across TikTok late last year. The soaring guitars, cascading drums, in underwater slow-motion; the breathy, barely intelligible vocals that peeked from underneath like a message waiting to be unearthed. It came out of nowhere, and then it was everywhere – millions of TikTok views and streams, within a matter of days.

Wisp on The Cover of NME. Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

The track was an example of an old formula, refined to undeniable perfection. Shoegaze, the genre kickstarted by ‘90s British and Irish bands like Slowdive, Ride and My Bloody Valentine – marked by walls of guitars and ethereal, yearning vocals – is seeing a renaissance among Gen Z listeners and artists. Interestingly, it’s the heavier, American side of the genre, blueprinted by metallic romantics Deftones and developed by contemporary bands like Philadelphia’s Nothing and NorCal’s Whirr, that has turned out the most influential. Young artists such as Quannnic and Sign Crushes Motorist have already found viral fame out of the genre. But with the gates open, the faceless, nameless Wisp immediately blasted straight into the upper echelons of modern shoegaze: currently, ‘Your Face’ has 50million Spotify streams.

On the other end of a Zoom call with NME, days after dropping her debut EP ‘Pandora’, is Natalie Lu, the 19-year-old from San Francisco who’s behind the Wisp name. She sports glasses, a septum ring and faded blue hair; she’s in the apartment in LA that she started renting recently, her first time living away from her parents. “It wasn’t really intentional,” she says of the anonymity she’s slowly been shedding over the last year. “After signing with my label they liked the whole mysterious vibe that I had, even though I never planned for it to be my image. But I’ve been getting a lot more comfortable with putting myself out there and showing people who I am as a person too.”

Wisp (2024), photo by Kristen Jan Wong
Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

When ‘Your Face’ dropped, Lu was a Computer Science student at San Francisco State University, who learned guitar in her bedroom and obsessively curated shoegaze playlists on Spotify. The genesis of the song was an instrumental by an anonymous producer, Grayskies, who has hundreds of alt-rock tracks of various flavours for sale online. For fun, Lu sometimes wrote lyrics and recorded her vocals over tracks like this using her phone and a pair of AirPods. This time, when she posted the results to TikTok, she hit 100,000 views overnight. She watched in disbelief as that ticked up to a million in less than a week.

Before long, she started getting calls from record labels. She went in with a sense of caution, initially wanting to go with one of the indies mostly because of a sense of protectiveness over her identity as a shoegaze artist. “I feel like shoegaze as a genre deserves to feel really genuine,” she says. “I don’t wanna feel like a cash grab, I don’t wanna feel like I’m being marketed as a popstar.” In the end, she signed to Interscope [Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo], feeling like a major would offer her the best resources with which to quit her college course and go on tour; but she’s still adamant that any success as Wisp will come alongside championing the shoegaze name.

“I don’t want to be part of any other genre or sway away from [shoegaze],” she says. “Even if my music becomes something else in the future, I wanna make it known that all of this fame was because of the shoegaze genre, and because I grew up listening to all of these local bands and all of these staple acts like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine.”

“Shoegaze as a genre deserves to feel really genuine”

That said, the way Lu and her peers are doing shoegaze is decidedly non-traditional. They’re mostly solo, bedroom artists as opposed to bands; they’ll co-write with each other and with various different producers in a way more native to, say, hip-hop than to rock music. Even the fact that Lu’s biggest hit came from a pre-packaged instrumental track, rather than one she wrote herself, is anathema to some of the genre’s more old-school fans.

On Reddit, where she posts semi-regularly in the subreddit r/shoegaze, Lu has had conversations with some of those sceptics, and her position is surprisingly non-defensive. “I understand where everyone is coming from, and I do stress a lot about me and Wisp contributing to that factor of shoegaze losing its genuine footing [that it had] in the beginning,” she says now. “The most that I could do about it is just make it known that I could not have done this without all of my friends and all of the producers that I work with. I owe it to everyone, including Grayskies mostly, that I’m able to do this. But I definitely wanna explore my sound and make the older shoegaze fans proud too.”

Wisp (2024), photo by Kristen Jan Wong
Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

‘Pandora’ is Lu’s first opportunity to make a complete statement as Wisp. Its five tracks continue in the vein of ‘Your Face’, flooding the space with guitars, and nailing tension and release down to a science. ‘Enough For You’ and ‘See You Soon’ also started as Grayskies beats, but for the remaining three tracks, Lu headed into a studio for the first time. She worked mostly with Max Epstein (aka Photographic Memory), the in-demand producer for the current wave of shoegaze artists, as well as LA producer Elliott Kozel who’s worked with Lizzo and Finneas.

The producers were at the helm of the instrumental songwriting at first, but throughout the process Lu started to come out of her shell. “For a couple months, people didn’t actually know that I play guitar, just because I was too scared to pick one up,” she laughs. “I’ve always just played guitar in my own room, so I was pretty shy. But since I’ve been getting a lot closer with [her collaborators], I’ve been a lot more comfortable writing my own guitar parts and playing around with different tunings.”

“The most important part [of playing live] is making the guitars as loud as possible”

The EP’s most compelling track is the one which she representers getting most involved in, ‘Luna’ – it’s pretty rather than stormy, its simple but arresting lead hook offers a well-crafted change of pace. Opener ‘Pandora’ is another highlight for the opposite reason, with the guitars at their most biting.

“I want my guitars to feel really full and alive. I try to do as many guitar layers, with as many details and elements, as possible,” Lu says. Experimenting with guitar, bass and synth sounds has been a freeing experience, she says, contrasting it with her adolescent experiences of learning violin. “I would have a practice sheet that I had to get signed by my parents every night to make sure that I practiced at least 30 minutes. So it’s been a really cool experience getting to just play around with instruments [in the studio] and not take it as seriously.”

When we speak, Lu is gearing up to begin her first tour, having played her first ever headline gig at LA’s Genghis Cohen club back in December. It went down a treat, for Lu and her fans. “It was so rewarding, getting on that stage and feeling all of the support but in person this time; it was so, so surreal,” she says. She met some of the listeners who had been sending her online messages, telling her that her music had meant something to them; this time, they got to have these conversations in person.

Wisp (2024), photo by Kristen Jan Wong
Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

“It touches me a lot because I used to be a diehard fangirl for music that made me feel that way,” she says – having given bands like Whirr and Title Fight credit for helping her through her own hard times. “Seeing people feel that way about my music is super cool. And that made me realise like, ‘Wow, people actually like my music, and it’s something that I wanna continue doing.’”

While she may have been catapulted into viral fame quicker than she expected, the thing Lu is most excited for now is simply continuing to learn and grow as an artist. “I wanna be more hands-on in my future work, [like] playing all the parts, or even learning how to play drums,” she says. “I think just being able to look back at it and feel really proud that it’s my work and I was able to put my thoughts into my music would mean a lot to me.”

And when it comes to putting on a live show, her ambitions are those of a true shoegaze diehard: “The most important part is just having good sound people and making the guitars as loud as possible!”

Wisp’s EP ‘Pandora’ is out now via Interscope Records

Listen to Wisp’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Writer: Mia Hughes
Photography: Kristen Jan Wong
Glam: Arielle Park
Label: Interscope Records

This content was originally sourced and posted at NME »
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