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Nine Songs
Simu Liu

From his star turn as Shang-Chi in the MCU to his role as a rival Ken in Greta Gerwig’s record-breaking Barbie, Canadian actor Simu Liu is on a major winning streak. Making a surprise pivot to music, he talks Alan Pedder through the songs that have shaped his life.

25 January 2024, 16:30 | Words by Alan Pedder

It’s Oscars season, which means another round of blazing Barbie discourse and the growing speculation that Ryan Gosling might actually perform the nominated “I’m Just Ken” at Hollywood’s biggest night out.

What you might not know is that Simu Liu, his co-star and rival Ken, has already beaten him to it. The Canadian actor made a strong case as a more than adequate stand-in for Gosling when launching his debut EP ANXIOUS–AVOIDANT at Hollywood’s Hotel Café in December, stripping off his leather jacket mid-performance to intensify the Kenergy.

Chatting to Best Fit from a hotel room in Chicago, Liu reveals that he and some of the other Kens are actually uncredited performers on the Golden Globe-winning song. “It was a really surreal moment for me being in a recording studio with Mark Ronson directing and producing us,” he says. “Not that you can really hear me in the end product, as the vocals are so well blended in the background. But still, for a moment in time, I was Mark Ronson’s artist.”


Having “weaselled” his way onto the soundtrack for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as a featured artist on 88rising’s “Hot Soup”, Liu began to seriously consider his lifelong, if somewhat woolly dream of making his own music as a real possibility. After all, the former accountant had already achieved one incredible reinvention. Why not another?

Being invited to return as host of Canada’s annual music awards, the Junos, for a second time last spring gave him the opportunity to show a new side to his talent. Expanding on his short “Complicated” parody from the previous year, Liu performed an entire medley in serenade to Avril Lavigne, complete with a backflip-starring dance break.

“I think repetition is really the only way to get better, so I knew I had to a musical number,” he says, “and that ended up being the best possible thing because the stakes were kinda low. No one was expecting me to knock it out of the park, but at the same time it was something that I could take seriously as well.”

Simu Liu Warm video still

Liu says he’s always been the type of person to seek out situations where he’s uncomfortable, convincing himself that the experience would be good for him, but the doubts can’t always be squashed completely. “There’s still a part of me that’s like, ‘Yeah, but you’re still about to put yourself out there in a very new and scary way,’” he says, laughing. “You know, just because you want to do something, it doesn’t mean that everybody else doesn’t have the right to laugh at you and call you out on it if it’s not good.”

As it turns out, Liu is a much better songwriter than anyone might have guessed. While ANXIOUS–AVOIDANT (named after his relationship style, he says) isn’t going to win any awards for innovation, it’s a solid four-track introduction to an unexpectedly mature and pop-savvy voice. If there are people laughing at Liu, they’re not really paying attention.

“I was definitely nervous leading up the EP coming out, but I’ve felt relieved by a lot of the feedback,” he says. “Maybe it’s just because I haven’t seen the negative stuff, but people have been really supportive. I think that’s a sign that maybe I can just keep playing in this music space, which is all I really wanted from it. I’m just grateful to have this opportunity to be able to express more of who I am.”


Having emigrated from China to Canada as a young child, Liu knows full well the importance of music as a means to form a connection with the culture that surround us. Before we dive into his Nine Songs picks, he admits that he has always been insecure about his taste in music and where and how it developed.

“My parents weren’t exposed to Western culture in any meaningful way until they were in their thirties, so there was nothing for them to pass down,” he explains. “I didn’t grow up listening to Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles or Stevie Wonder, for example. I grew up listening to tapes of old songs from China from my parents’ childhood, so I was even one generation removed from what was happening over there on a contemporary level.”

Western popular culture first filtered through to Liu via a mishmash of CDs that his parents, who were keen thrifters, would pick up at yard sales. “My dad was a huge Celine Dion fan so we had all of her albums,” he says with a hint of Canadian pride. “We had a lot of the well-known pop stuff, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Carpenters, Michael Bolton and other great singers of the time. But as much as I thought that a lot of that music was great, I didn’t know if it was really all that representative of me and who I was. It was a lot harder to come by music that really spoke to me.”

Liu had a similarly meandering route into finding the music that spoke to him as a performer. He says the story of being made by his parents to learn piano as a child is something that “almost any Asian kid reading this will instantly relate to” as something that immigrant families just did. Taught by a strict Chinese woman called Mary, “who would make kids cry every single week for not practicing enough,” he laments that the goal was not to instill a love of playing piano but to “blast through the Royal Conservatory syllabus, learning the bare minimum classical pieces we needed to take the exam, get the grades, and compete against the other kids.”

“There’s not a lot of joy in that. God forbid you might actually want to make it a career, because your parents would be like, ‘Why would you do that?’” he says, rolling his eyes. “But I do credit those lessons in building a foundation for music in my life. At one time I played tenor saxophone in the school orchestra before moving on to drums, and by the time I graduated I could play a lot of instruments at a very mediocre level. When college came around, I was like every 18-year-old guy who learned that playing four chords on a guitar would help them get a girl. I’m so glad that we make fun of that in the Barbie movie [with the campfire scene], but, yeah, I learned the four chords that would let me play ‘Wonderwall’ and taught myself how to sing, and that’s how it started.”

Later, having been swept up in the dance craze that had American youth in a chokehold at the end of the 2000s – think Step Up, America’s Best Dance Crew and Stop the Yard, “an amazing movie that I watched, like, 20 times” – Liu broke out of whatever shell still surrounded him and started down the detour away from the life his parents wanted for their son. Liu’s Nine Songs picks reflect each of these formative periods, as well as some songs that relate specifically to a much more recent time in his life.

“I tried to be as elevated as I could with my picks without lying about their impact,” he says, tugging at the thin chain around his neck. “Because if I was asking myself which songs I played most growing up they would probably be songs like Usher’s “Yeah” or something by Flo Rida and Pitbull. But if I ask myself what are the songs that really planted something in me, I think about all of the songs on this list.”

"Fix You" by Coldplay

SIMU LIU: This song, to me, is about embracing flaws and about saying it’s okay to not be perfect. I mean, I’m of the belief that Coldplay have written probably four of the 10 greatest songs ever written, but “Fix You” is my favourite.

As a child of immigrants, I grew up quite emotionally malnourished. My parents never talked to me about feelings, never told me that it was okay to fail, and I feel like “Fix You” is the perfect antithesis of that. It still makes me want to cry every time I listen to it. It’s a lot to do with the lyrics, of course, but I love the music too. I love an instrumental bridge in songs, and the bridge in “Fix You” is the greatest. The way the guitar rolls and just washes over you.

It’s a song that I played a lot as a kid, and listening to it now reminds me of the 14-year-old version of me who was trying so hard to fit in at school and be popular. You know, I wanted to be the guy that everybody wants to be in high school, but at the same time I was carrying this burden of my parents’ expectations of me and the intergenerational trauma that was passed down to them and down the family. “Fix You” was one of the first songs to make me feel emotional on that level, and sort of showed me the power of music and the power of a really good song.

"Wish You the Best" by Lewis Capaldi

SIMU LIU: I’m aware that Lewis is quite a bit younger than me, but he’s been such an inspiration for me on my journey into music. The first song I ever recorded in a studio was “Warm” from the EP, and that was way back in 2021. That was when we were really just experimenting, the label and I, trying to find songs that felt like they were my sound, even though we didn’t know what my sound necessarily was. There was a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot of joy and discovery.

I’m a natural baritone, and that’s something that I’ve always been a bit insecure about because a lot of the greatest singers are tenors. That’s just the way it is. If you want to hit the high notes and really convey a full range of emotions, it helps to be a tenor. I wanted to include Lewis here because he’s also a natural baritone.

He’s able to hit some incredible high notes, but there’s a wonderfully bassy quality to his voice. He can affect such soulfulness and contemplativeness when he’s deep in his baritone register, so it’s been very inspiring to sort of study his songs, from a musicality and voice perspective, and see what he’s been able to accomplish and the songs that he’s able to write.

“Wish You the Best” is probably my favourite across his two albums so far. Like “Bruises”, which came out some years before, it just a maturity and timelessness to it that I really love. It's important for me, since I’m in my 30s now, that the songs that I write need to reflect a sense of maturity. Specifically with ballads, I feel like, for me, there’s such a fine line between a song that feels right and one that sort of falls into sounding like an 18-year-old who has experienced heartbreak for the first time and doesn’t really know how to process it. I don’t want to write something that’s too angry or too pathetic.

I think Lewis gets it just right with “Wish You the Best”. You can tell that he has this wisdom beyond his years, and in a lot of ways he has been a north star for me in terms of what I can do with my voice and the types of things I can sing about and not look like an idiot at 34 [laughs].

I haven't met him yet, but I hope I will at some point. As I’ve studied his music more and more, I’ve just become a bigger and bigger fan of him. I watched his documentary on Netflix and he's somebody who's been on an incredible journey with himself and the way that he struggles with Tourette's and his mental health. I would love the opportunity to tell him how inspirational he has been for me.

"The Great War" by Taylor Swift

BEST FIT: You've said before that your partner was the one who turned you into a Swiftie. Out of Taylor’s hundreds of songs, what makes this bonus track from Midnights especially important to you?

SIMU LIU: Well, I wanted to choose a song from Midnights because that’s when I was captured… not exactly against my will, but I was definitely grandfathered into the Swiftie fandom [laughs].

What I think really struck me about listening to Taylor’s music – and it doesn’t take long to realise this – is that she is genuinely one of the most talented songwriters of her generation. And the deeper you get into the fandom, the more you realise that some of her best music never charts. Everyone knows the big ones like “Shake It Off” and “Cruel Summer”, and those are great songs. They are absolute hits and they’re written beautifully. But there’s this whole other dimensionality to what she’s able to convey in some of her other songs.

“The Great War” is a song about a grown-ass relationship. To me, it’s a song about trusting someone. It's about having your guard up and fighting the battles that will ultimately dictate whether or not that relationship moves forward. It's funny, Allison and I talk about a lot of periods of our lives now through different Taylor songs, and there’s a period for us that we refer to as The Great War, so this song has a very, very significant meaning for us.

I knew I had to include a Taylor song as one of my nine because of what her music means to Allison. She's such a storyteller, in the way that she’s able to paint this whole tapestry for you with her words, and “The Great War” is a reminder to me that it’s possible to write a beautiful song about almost anything.

"Don’t You Worry Child" by Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin

SIMU LIU: I had to include a song here that’s EDM-related, because that music represents so much of my college experience. That was the time when I started coming out of my shell and hitting the clubs of London, Ontario, which is a much smaller city than London, UK. I wouldn’t say I was a party animal by any means, but, yeah, I was out dancing a lot, and Swedish House Mafia were one of those whose music you’d hear every single night.

I still think that “Don’t You Worry Child” is one of the greatest EDM songs ever made. It’s one of those songs that instantly returns you to, like, your seven year old self, and I always love it when music is able to do that. I have so many memories of being out in the clubs and screaming out the chorus to this song at two in the morning, completely wasted. That whole period was an extremely formative time for me, and I consider this song here to also be a placeholder for all the other amazing dance music tracks that I could have included from that very, very fun few years of my life.

BEST FIT: This song came out in 2012, which was a big year for you in terms of making the changes in your life that led to your acting career. Was the song’s message something that resonated with you?

Yeah, definitely. That was the year that I was laid off and decided, for whatever reason, to give the old acting thing a try. In a way it was very similar to the way I feel now with my music, which is that I don’t know what I am doing but I’m having so much fun in the process of discovery. It’s almost like I’m enjoying it too much to stop, but ultimately I don’t know if it’s anything and that’s a really anxious place to be.

Deciding to try acting was exciting, of course, but there was always this voice in the back of my head asking me what I was doing. Even though I’ve spent so much of my life rebelling against my parents and their high expectations, they’ve influenced me so much in my head that I’m always like, ‘So, what is my ultimate plan?’

“Don’t You Worry Child” reminds me of that time in my life, and that's probably why the lyrics affected me so much when I heard them, because I was going through so much. There’s just something about hearing a man singing about staring into his father’s eyes and being told that everything will be okay. I don’t want to say that it was reassuring, but the song definitely has that quality, even though the beat hits really hard when it drops.

"Don’t Sweat the Technique" by Eric B. & Rakim

BEST FIT: Your next choice is a classic song from the golden age of hip hop. What connects you with this gem?

SIMU LIU: Alright, so bear with me here. When I was 13 years old, I went to my very first school dance and saw someone breakdancing for the very first time. I had no idea that people could move like that. I had never really moved in my life at that point. I think I was shocked by so many things at that age, but I definitely remember being shocked at how amazing this guy was at breakdancing. He was only a few years older than I was, and probably wasn’t even technically that good, but at the time it completely blew my mind.

Up to that point, I thought that my purpose for my entire childhood was just to study well and get really good grades to put myself in the best possible position for the future. I honestly believed that. It was like there was this whole other part of me that had not been awakened until I saw this guy move. It’s the first time I remember that I started to deviate from the path I’d been shown, and I loved it.

I joined the breakdancing club at school and started to move. Of course I had no idea what I was doing at the start, but I first learned how to do a six step and then the coffee grinder and the helicopter – I don’t know if these terms mean anything to you – and then graduated to starting to add more stylistic elements like a top rock and eventually learned how to windmill.

Later I started to mix acrobatics in there, too, but for me, it was all about self-expression and, in a lot of ways, it was about being seen. I'd spent so much of my life feeling very invisible. But, you know, that guy who tore up on the dancefloor, people would always watch him. Whenever I saw a circle form around him, I knew in that moment that I never wanted to just be one of the people watching. I wanted to be the guy in the circle.

You can extrapolate that forwards to my decision to become an actor, too. There was definitely a part of me that was desperate to feel seen and validated in some way, because, again, that just wasn’t my experience growing up. And this song is what planted the seed that eventually became what all of this is.

“Come What May” by Nicole Kidman & Ewan McGregor

SIMU LIU: This is obviously a very different song to “Don’t Sweat the Technique”, but actually it’s quite similar in terms of its role in my life.

I don’t want to repeat myself over and over again here, but my parents never gave me any sort of advice on love other than not to fall in it because it was just a distraction. But of course, a young guy going through puberty is gonna be developing all these feelings and crushes, only I found I didn’t have any natural ability to talk to girls and the whole process was just incredibly awkward. My parents didn’t have any meaningful advice to give me, so I was just stuck in this place asking myself things like ‘What is love?’ and ‘What is this thing I am feeling right now?’

“Come What May” is obviously a song about unconditional love. I think it's one of the greatest love songs ever written, and the theatricality of the way that Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor performed it was just so unabashedly earnest and campy. Watching Moulin Rouge and hearing this song was exactly what I needed to process those questions I had. It was right after that experience that I became a self-described romantic. Honestly, it was like, ‘Okay, I am now a romantic. I identify now as a romantic person,’ and that got me into lots of trouble. And by trouble, I mean that I definitely became someone who fell in love with the idea of love more than I probably actually loved people.

It was this song that really kickstarted my journey in learning about love and got me asking questions like, ‘What do I want in a girlfriend or a wife, or in a partner and a mother to my children?’ It’s rare that I can pinpoint something in my life to a single song, but with “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and with “Come What May”, I feel like they really do represent the beginnings of these very important pieces of my life.

And of course, Baz Luhrmann is such an incredible filmmaker. I would love to work on a movie with him, even now. He has such a distinct visual language, and I think he really challenges his actors to create something that’s somehow both hyper realistic and different. What I love about Ewan and Nicole’s characters is that they represent duelling ideals about love. One is cynical and the other is unabashedly romantic, and the whole of Moulin Rouge sort of plays out like an argument between them about what love is and how it can work. It’s a really, really beautiful film.

"I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5

BEST FIT: This is the oldest of the songs you’ve chosen, and one of the most sampled songs of all time. What do you love about this one?

SIMU LIU: Okay, so around the time that puberty was happening to me and I was figuring out how to talk to girls, there was this one girl in particular that I had a huge crush on who really loved boy bands. She loved the Jackson 5, she loved *NSYNC, she loved Backstreet Boys. I wasn’t gonna put an *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys song on the list [laughs]. Jackson 5, though? Absolutely, yeah.

For me, “I Want You Back” is a song that represents Michael Jackson at his best, as a pure entertainer who was so incredibly talented even at such a young age. There’s such an energy to this song, and listening to it as a kid, I think, really opened me up to the world of entertainment. It was like, ‘Oh, people like this exist!’ This song is just so unencumbered and unafraid, so free and uplifting. It’s entertainment distilled into its purest form. And it was one of the songs that led me to start singing in the shower, which is something I never did before. Partly because I wanted to be the kind of performer that Michael was, but also because I wanted to date Jacqueline Dobson [laughs]. I remember that vividly!

I’d love to say that I went out and bought all these boyband CDs, but I think I probably downloaded them from Napster, unfortunately. *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Jackson 5, Westlife, 98 Degrees – I listened to them all. The thing about them was not just that they could sing well but they had incredible dance moves too. I’m not being articulate at all here, but, honestly, if I return my mind to being 13 years old, these bands were just the coolest fucking guys and I had no skills in that arena. So I decided to start singing in the shower every day until I could carry a tune, and maybe then Jacqueline Dobson would like me back.

Very sweet. And now, here you are, with your own dance routines and writing with Joe Jonas.

Yeah, that was a pretty incredible experience. The Jonas Brothers came after my time of boyband-ness, but I do think that they, and maybe One Direction, have managed to kind of transcend the whole boyband thing. They have songs that have aged extremely well because they’re just incredible songs. “Waffle House” is played all the time in our car. “Rollercoasters” and “Lovebug” are played all the time too. I also think “Steal My Girl” by One Direction is a fantastic song. So, yeah, I do feel like those two groups really raised the bar for what boybands can be, similar, I guess, to the way the Jackson 5 did back in the day.

"Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine

SIMU LIU: This song is connected to a very specific time when I began to rebel against my parents who, as I've said before, were very strict when I was growing up. They did not hesitate to use discipline, and they were physically and verbally abusive at many points.

I know that they weren’t doing that out of anything more than wanting me to follow a path that they thought would allow me to have a stable future. But, at the same time, they were very much set in their ways, culturally, and it was normal in that context to beat your kids for all kinds of things. You’d beat them if they didn’t listen to you, if they weren’t paying attention in school, if their grades weren’t high enough.

My parents’ expectations of me were always really high, and entering my teenage period, that’s when things got really bad between us. I had gotten into this private school that was, you know, supposedly for the academically gifted, and the thing about that was that it was in downtown Toronto, which was about an hour-long commute each way from our home. So getting there and back really allowed me to be left to my own devices for the first time.

My parents lost a lot of their control over me and they weren’t sure that I was doing what they thought I should be doing, like staying after school and studying harder for my classes. I was staying after school but I wasn’t studying. I tried out for every sports team, I joined the school orchestra, and basically just having a blast. But that sense of my parents losing control created a lot of conflict in the household.

It was a really acrimonious time, and “Killing in the Name” really spoke to me then. This was before I learned that the song is about police brutality and the Rodney King murder, and finding that out definitely added an extra dimension to it. But, at the time, I just relished it for being this anti-establishment, anti-authority, really, really angry song. I was into that whole pop-punk and alternative rock scene of the time. I listened to bands like Good Charlotte, Blink-182 and Sum 41. All the songs about being a delinquent teenager that I really, really loved and secretly wanted to be.

"It’s Raining" by Rain (비)

SIMU LIU: I lived in China before moving to Canada as a kid, and my parents used to take me back there during the summers to visit family, for maybe four or five weeks at a time. I remember one trip, when I was around 15 or 16 years old, and my cousins were obsessed with this guy Rain. They showed me the music video for “It’s Raining” and I was really blown away.

My reaction made me wonder why I it was so surprising to me, and I think what it came down to was that I had consumed so much Western media and, through that, had really accepted a very Western-centric worldview of entertainment and music. It never occurred to me that there existed a world where people who looked like me could be popstars and idols. That just didn’t feel anything like a possibility. But then there was Rain, this six-feet-tall guy, shredded like all hell, who was a talented singer and a great dancer, basically doing what Justin Timberlake was doing in the US, and he was one of the first solo K-pop artists that really broke internationally.

I haven't really talked about representation that much with you, but obviously it's a very big part of my life and the journey that I've chosen for myself. I do think representation in film has been quickly changing and evolving, especially in the last five years, when you specifically talk about Asian American and diasporic Asian representation. But the music industry, I think, is still very, very far behind. Obviously K-pop has ballooned into this massive commercial juggernaut, which is awesome, but as somebody who grew up in the West, it’s still a very different lived experience and a very different perspective.

Being back in China as a teenager was like looking through a window into what my life would have been like if we had never left, and what was really cool about that is that representation wasn’t an issue. People who looked like me were doing everything. Yes, we were doctors, lawyers and all those things, but we were also musicians and actors and idols. And I think that this song, and Rain specifically as an artist, really planted in me the idea that anything was possible. Otherwise, I don’t think I would necessarily have had the courage or motivation to really take those first few steps as an actor. I would have had no blueprint.

Rain did actually attempt to break into Hollywood at one point, but he wasn’t a native English speaker so there was something of a language barrier. But he played the lead role in a movie called Ninja Assassin, which was really cool, and he was in the Wachowskis’ movie Speed Racer before that, so, to my mind, he was really the epitome of Asian representation for a time.

He was definitely a blueprint for me in terms of figuring out who I wanted to be and how I wanted to express myself. He was really confident and swaggy. He wasn’t afraid to show his abs and flaunt his sexuality a little, and he was cheeky with it too. So, on some subconscious level, for me it was like, ‘Oh, Asian men are allowed to be sexy. That’s cool to know.’ Because, in the Western world, I don’t think Asian men necessarily saw ourselves portrayed in that kind of way.

It has been amazing to see artists like Japanese Breakfast and Mitski become so successful in recent years, though no doubt the music industry does need to up its game. There’s so much talent out there.

For sure, those people are so good to see. Also, people like Rina Sawayama, beabadoobee and Eric Nam, who is doing so well.

It seems like there are a lot of people coming out of the K-pop system who are deciding to make music in America and be a part of that community, and that’s been really incredible to see. But I do think it’s still very much an uphill battle. Asian artists being up for Best New Artist at the Grammys and things like that are still very few and far between.

ANXIOUS–AVOIDANT is out now via 88Rising.

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