Vancouver musician Van Lefan, a.k.a. Lefan, has spent years processing the impact of immigrating to Canada.
Born in northern Taiwan, she moved with her family to Maple Ridge in 2006 as natural areas in her hometown were being converted into factories.
She was only 11 years old, and it was quite the culture shock to be uprooted from her predictable life and dropped into a mostly white and unfamiliar world.
“I think I carried around a lot of shame at being different,” Lefan recalls in a Zoom interview with the Straight. “Going from a Taiwanese farm town to Maple Ridge was like a weird experience. It took me a long time to find my sense of self and belonging.”
She chronicles this journey in a 40-page booklet, which is a companion piece to her recently released first full-length album, What Holds Us Together?. In 11 mostly autobiographical songs, Lefan explores the roots of her identity, ecological justice, ancestral knowledge, and nature’s medicines.
“It was very much inspired by a lot of the protests that have been happening in the past few years,” Lefan says. “So What Holds Us Together?, I think, is an invitation for people to reflect upon the things that we all have in common. To me, in this kind of globalized world, it’s ancestry. We all have a connection to our ancestors.”
Lefan wrote all the chord progressions and lyrics, then she collaborated with producer Thomas Hoeller on the arrangements. They worked with a large team of studio musicians to complete the album, with Lefan singing all the songs and playing almost all of the flute pieces and one guitar track.
She’s also a visual artist, with her expressive, nature-oriented pieces appearing in the booklet and on her website.
“Storytelling, I feel, is at the very forefront of my artmaking,” Lefan explains.
It’s represented in the opening track, “I am Le Fan”, in which the singer-songwriter thanks her ancestors for their hundreds of years of hard work leading up to her happy childhood in Taiwan. The spoken-word piece closes with an explanation of how a stream once full of fish, shrimp, and clams ended up lifeless due to industrialization.
For many years, she shied away from her name “Lefan”, preferring to go by “Vanessa” in school. Only recently has she reclaimed her original name.
The second track on the album, “The Lesson”, is a folk-oriented composition about asking an eagle for advice on how to spread one’s wings and take a leap of faith. It’s reminiscent of those change-the-world tunes by ’60s folk artists.
In various other songs, there are lyrics in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, reflecting Lefan’s heritage.
“I wanted to put my full self in it,” Lefan says. “My full self is all of these things.”
Lefan’s full self is also informed by her keen interest in psychedelics and plant medicines. Magic mushrooms have not only helped her process the trauma of immigration but also influenced her music.
“The last song on the album, ‘Medicine’, is an ode to psychedelic experiences,” she reveals.
Lefan is also a keen environmentalist. And last summer, she joined the antilogging protests in the Fairy Creek watershed.
“There were thousands of people involved, but what I personally got out of being on the frontlines is how powerful people can be when they are united by a single cause or an idea,” she says.
Lefan acknowledges that some of the things that occurred in Fairy Creek were “not great”. Police used heavy-handed methods, drawing the ire of a B.C. Supreme Court judge. But she remains impressed by how ingenious the protesters were in coming up with contraptions to prevent the logging of ancient trees.
“People were willing to put their bodies through so much—hike in with heavy things—just to take care of each other but also the trees and the place,” Lefan says. “We were all so driven to push past our regular limits in service to a community.”
To her, it was a humbling experience.
She also likes to bring that sense of service to her music. She describes art as a “sacred practice” that involves trying to plant seeds into people’s psyches and consciousnesses to bring about positive change. In this regard, she compares art to a “Trojan horse” that can win over people’s minds without them necessarily even being aware of what’s happening.
“Sometimes when you talk to them really logically—to their brains—it doesn’t work because they’ve already shut off,” she says. “With music and art, there’s a way that you can speak to hardened spirits and shift something that’s beyond the conscious mind.
“So definitely, the intention of mine is speaking to people’s inner children, speaking to people’s hearts of, ‘Maybe this will land and help you in some way and make the world a little bit of a better place.’ ”
Lefan credits her parents for nurturing her love of the arts.
“My mother was in choir her whole life and she would always sing around the house,” she says. “Karaoke is a huge part of my culture.”
Her father liked singing lullabies to her as a child before she went to sleep.
“So singing has been a way of expressing and communicating love and joy and sadness in my family ever since I can remember,” Lefan recalls. “I think that’s what they wanted for me because they saw that I loved it so much.”