.Lunar Noon: Exploring the inner world during the pandemic

Michelle Zheng, the woman who fronts Lunar Noon, has written and composed music since she was in high school. “I spent most of my life dreaming about being a composer,” Zheng said. “I was in the school band in junior high. I had friends who switched to choir, so I went with them. I was blown away by the sound of so many people singing together. My high school choir teacher introduced me to composition and gave me the chance to have my music performed. The night after the first performance, I wrote in my journal: ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!’ I was hooked from then on.”

“I took classical piano for 10 years and sang in choirs for nine years,” she added. “I spent a long time trying to find out how to express my emotions through classical composition, before I started writing music that was self-performed. Having a large group of people singing about my internal emotions would be a strange experience, a case of the form not matching function.”

The songs Zheng wrote for Symbolic Creature, her debut under the Lunar Noon name, are full of complex melodies, blending elements of classical, jazz, pop, rock, folk, electronica and Latin music into lush soundscapes. Her lyrics combine poetry and plainspoken language to honestly explore her inner world. Zheng wrote, composed, recorded and produced the album in her San Francisco apartment, during the pandemic lockdown.

“I started jazz piano lessons just before Covid. That teacher told me I should learn production, if I was serious about writing music. I couldn’t play with anyone, and had all the time in the world as the lockdown started,” she said. “I figured, if I didn’t record an album then, I’d never do it. There was a lot of learning I had to do to set up a home studio. I had to know what an audio interface was, the difference between a billion kinds of cables, how to record vocals … the amount I didn’t know seemed endless. For the next half-year, I consistently spent 20 to 40 hours a week, on top of my day job, working on this project, often late into the night.”

The album was produced remotely, with contributions from other local and internationally based musicians, including some Zheng had never met. “I met the drummer and bassist through the magic of the internet, despite them living in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro,” she said. “The rest of the parts were recorded by me, or my friends, from wherever they happened to be, from the Bay to Norway. The string parts were precisely scored, but the bass, drum and guitar parts evolved more collaboratively over email exchanges. It was like collaboratively painting: I described the missing colors to others, who knew how to paint with them, layering everything together until the image was complete.”

“The Rain” opens with hand claps that suggest flamenco dancers, thrumming chords from a Celtic harp and Zheng’s soft vocals. Midway through, stand-up bass, layers of percussion and Zheng’s melodica playing add a jazzy, Latin flavor to the tune. Ambient strings support Zheng’s piano on “Provenance.” Her lithe vocals describe a longing for love and connection, as she describes the random passing of the yearly cycle of seasons. The rest of the album is just as expansive, balancing Zheng’s heartfelt vocals with the inventive arrangements she created. 

Now that the pandemic is winding down, Zheng is venturing out in the world and putting together a band that can bring the album to life. She’ll be adding a string quartet to the piano, guitar, bass and drums of a usual rock band.

“The album was done during the lockdown, but as soon as I got vaxxed and finished the mixing and mastering, I started going out to seek that creative community I’d been missing,” Zheng said. “I’d show up at parties and say, ‘Hey, do you or anyone you know play any instruments and want to join a band?’ I wanted to support others in their creative endeavors and get help for mine.”

“All of the photography for this project was done by a friend who lives a few blocks away,” she added. “The keyboard player in my new band is a visual artist who sells prints, and one of our violinists is a photographer. Another friend who is a graphic designer and generally crafty person is helping me brainstorm costumes and stage decor. Making art is a great excuse to meet interesting, inspiring people. I love being around other artists and figuring out ways we can support each other and have fun doing it. Especially coming out of the pandemic.”

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