Emily Vu is 19 and living the good life. Packing 1.4 million TikTok followers and several songs that have broken one million streams, she is on the verge of a popstar blow-out. When it comes to her new EP, Found, the companion piece to Lost & from earlier this fall, it’s obvious why she has connected on such a broad level. Her confessional songwriting drapes across funky R&B and hip-hop, and her youthful exuberance is downright contagious.
“My hair, my smile / My body and my style / Don’t waste your time trynna criticize / Cutting me down / Put away your knives,” she spits on the hook of “Self Love.” She spends very little time worrying about what others think, even as her social following continues to explode.
“It’s one of the truest tracks I’ve ever made. I’ve always been a confident person. Especially for my height ─ I’m 5’1 ─ I feel like I’ve always been intimidated by people who towered over me. So I had to make up for that with my confidence and energy,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. Written with Simon Wilcox, and co-producers Sir Nolan and Simon Says, “Self Love” lies at the heart of her second EP.
She quickly adds, “I was literally talking about my life while Simon was helping me come up with lyrics. It’s all based on a story about how I grew up.”
Originally from Garden Grove, 30 miles or so west of Los Angeles, her precocious nature and early interest in music led her parents enrolling her in piano lessons at four years old. Later, she would pick up the guitar, and if you listen to any of her music, you’ll see her fixation on the acoustic instrument informs all of the work. Her brand of guitar-laden pop music, greatly inspired by Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran, keeps her feet firmly rooted to the ground, as her feathered voice soars overhead.
“I was always really into guitar. A lot of people tell me, ‘It’s not an Emily song if there’s not a guitar.’ I love guitars, and if there’s a guitar riff, I’ll instantly fall in love with it,” she says. “I actually want to get into more synth music.”
It’s hard to imagine Vu is only one year into her burgeoning pop career. She hit the recording studio for the first time last summer (August, to be exact), and it’s a day that she’ll never soon forget. Not only was it a super creative session with singer, songwriter, and producer Andy Schmidt (Gavin Haley), but their collaboration, “What Happened, Happened,” became a viral smash. “Everyone really connects with that song. I feel like I’ve learned so much from those sessions,” she offers. “Andy was super nice to me, and I think he could tell I was super nervous.”
In those early days, she was naturally “intimidated at first by people who’d been in this industry for so long,” she says. “It wasn’t challenging really, though. I’m a pretty open-minded person” in collaboration. Signed to White Rabbit Records, an independent collective of managers, she has since worked with countless industry songwriters and forged her own corner in the pop space.
“I realized that if I ever wanted to sign with a bigger label one day, then I’m getting all the help I can right now ─ instead of signing with a big label where they wouldn’t care as much about me,” she says of the opportunity. Admittedly, she hadn’t thought about singing a record deal, but the promise of joint creative control was enticing. “I didn’t understand how the music industry worked before, and I didn’t understand labels and what they do,” she says. “But everyone there explained it all to me.”
What’s most exciting about Vu’s work is her knack of sticky, caramel-smooth choruses. From “Self Love” to the ripe-tide flow of “Screen 2 Screen,” she leaves a mark right on the skin. “I think writing hooks comes naturally, but I think it also comes naturally from listening to music my whole life,” she says. “It’s a learned trait.”
“I love everything about you / But your ex,” she confides to the listener. Another record highlight, “Your Ex” flickers with all the frustration over a very real experience. Her girlfriend, who’d just moved to Los Angeles, found her ex texting her over and over again, and the emotional spiral was inevitable. “Everyone’s dating someone who has a crazy ex or someone in their past that tries to pop up again. My girlfriend had moved out here, and her ex was texting her like crazy. It was taking a toll on both of us. It’s not even really a diss to her ex or her ─ it’s just how I felt inside. It definitely isn’t a problem anymore.”
“Changes” is another superb example of her craft, an evocative performance that ebbs and flows with new-found emotional maturity. “I’ve got to move on / My story is not over yet / Cause I’m so ready for whatevers coming next,” she sings. She’s hopeful, but there’s a visceral heaviness to her statement. Written before she moved out of her parents’ house, she knew one day it would be a message they needed to hear.
“I made this song about me moving into my new apartment in LA and starting this brand new life none of us really saw coming,” she explains. “I know in the song I say I’m not the same. I wanted to tell them that I’m their daughter, but I have to go on this journey alone and figure myself out.”
Of course, as a 19-year-old, the world is at her feet, and she definitely loves her new freedom. “I used to have a 10pm curfew. I get to do what I want to do now. I still tell them where I am so they don’t worry. It makes it easier on them and they can trust me a lot more.”
“My parents from the start have always been super supportive. When I wanted to start making music, they were a little skeptical. But they’ve come around. My mom texted me this morning to tell me she’s streaming the EP,” she says with a laugh. When Vu first blew-up on TikTok, it took her parents a while to understand what was happening there, as well. “They didn’t really believe me. I showed them a video with almost a million likes. They said, ‘Are those real? Are those people just replaying it over and over again?’ At first, they thought it was kind of silly.”
As a defining body of work, Lost & Found completes Vu’s transformation from influencer to music star. It’s a first step, but it demonstrates she has more than what it takes for a long-lasting career. One year can feel like a lifetime, and she has come to learn most that “it’s 100 percent OK to be who you are and to trust your heart. Only you know what you’re capable of doing. A lot of this year I was second-guessing, and I was just also really stressed. I think everything happens for a reason, and you have to keep pushing forward.”
The past year marks an important moment in her life for an entirely different reason: she came out in a very public way. With her “Just Wait” video (above), directed by Juliana Carpino, she celebrates her queerness and womanhood through tender embraces and simply existing as she is. “It took me a long time to fully come out and be comfortable. A lot of my friends knew I was gay, and I had them to confide in. My parents knew, and not gonna lie, they weren’t always supportive at first. They are now, which is amazing, and I thank them so much for it. Everyone I’ve told has been supportive, and no one has really shunned me or shut me out.”
Photo by NIGHT