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Where Punk Meets High Fashion: Inside the ‘Mind’s Eye’ of Karen Culi

By Charlie Maybee

It is not uncommon to hear about artists who wear multiple professional hats, and Karen Culi personifies the perennial jack-of-all-trades archetype when it comes to her involvement with the D.C. music scene. A Filipino-American musician, producer, model, actor, executive producer who wields complete control over her every aspect of her artistry with a millennial flare.

Growing up, Culi played a plethora of different instruments before landing on guitar as her home base. “I started with playing piano when I was 8 and quit by the time I was 12 because I wanted to play guitar, and Yellowcard released their album [Ocean Avenue].”

Alongside the guitar, she spent a few years as a band geek, picking up experience playing trumpet and upright bass. “I grew up loving classical music at like 5 years old” she recalls, “and I think that helped a lot when it came to writing more epic sounding music as opposed to the more straight-forward hard rock.”

Karen Culi-AAPI Heritage Month
Karen Culi – Maeva Komenan

Taking a note from the angst-soaked vibrations of pop-punk and early emo bands like Silverstein, Underoath, and old Taking Back Sunday, she turned to music that was a more rambunctious in nature and found a home in the DIY rock scene of D.C., where she spent many of her formative years developing her grit and sound. In describing some of the common threads between her songs, she notes, “I’m interested in talking about the things that people don’t want to talk about.”

Among the things that Culi has written songs about include a debilitating accident that left her partially bedridden for a year of her life. “That’s when modeling and acting came in” she recalled. As she honed these new mediums, she took a break from guitar until she was physically able to pick it up again after her recovery. “Here We Are,” a song she released in 2021 (which I had the pleasure of covering for Alchemical Records), documents a moment of arrival. She had not only survived but was able to start picking up and rearranging the pieces of her expressive identity again.

Karen Culi-AAPI Heritage Month
Karen Culi – Maeva Komenan

It’s clear that there’s a large umbrella of sound that has helped to shape Culi’s unique approach to songwriting because all her releases to-date vary vastly in feel and content. The aforementioned “Here We Are” takes a more subtle approach that harkens to rock and roll’s roots in the R&B and blues while her most recent track, “Mind’s Eye,” is straight-up face-melting rock.

When she’s not busy writing her own songs, she is often collaborating with rappers and musicians in the D.C. music scene as a producer, pulling inspiration from hip-hop and go-go music as well. Looking back on these collaborations, she confirms that, “it helped to diversify my understanding of how fusion happens in the scene.”

“I often start with a melody before developing a rhythm,” she says about her songwriting process, but here she is referring to the guitar rather than to the vocals. In fact, vocals often come last for Culi in her creative process. “That comes when I’m in the actual studio with producers. The home recording is specifically for instrumentals.” Though she still likes songwriting over a longer period, much of her recent work has stemmed from impromptu sessions at home, where she brainstorms scratch tracks despite the lack of a fully fleshed out plan before sending them off to be more fully produced.

Karen Culi-AAPI Heritage Month
Karen Culi – Maeva Komenan

When asked about her perception of the rock scene as a Filipino woman, she optimistically responded, “There are some stereotypes about what instruments people expect me to play, but it isn’t something that comes up too often – not in a bad way.” In her time navigating the D.C. music scene, Culi has taken pride in her ability to craft an environment where she doesn’t experience as much negativity regarding her racial/ethnic identity, which is refreshing in the pandemic era when so much vitriol and violence (i.e., the “China virus” rhetoric) has been raised against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the last couple of years.

Speaking about her current projects, Alchemical Records was pleasantly surprised to find out that Culi has big plans for the remainder of 2022 starting with the release of her brand-new music video for “Mind’s Eye.” Sharing an exclusive preview look, we were allowed an early-access viewing and can say with certainty it embraces the paradoxically polished, yet wild feel of the song from start to finish.

Culi stars as the personification of collaborator Nivan Teng’s inner voice (his mind’s eye), as he wrestles with himself in clear distress. Seemingly lost inside a garden maze, Culi is often seen on the periphery dressed to the nines in in exquisite outfits that combine DIY punk aesthetics with high fashion. She yells and ridicules Teng as he nervously fidgets with a red bandana, leading to a violent clash.

Mind's Eye Screenshot
Karen Culi and Nivan Teng in upcoming video for new single, “Mind’s Eye”

It’s a cool culmination of Culi’s work with her various personas as a musician, actress, and model all meshing cohesively. While I was watching, I remember her saying, “I’m a badass punk girl!” during our interview, adding “I have always been working to make that more high fashion.” Undeniably, both characters sport knockout looks as they navigate the high-octane noise of their fight.

Speaking further about the future, Culi revealed that she has plans to release music videos for each of the singles she’s released over the past year and is actively working on material for an EP or full album release in 2023. She seems to be leaning toward the heavier side of her musical tastes as she teases the possibility of new tunes in the coming months.

Karen Culi’s story to-date is one of resilience and collaboration, and she reflects her strength through music by pushing messages of love and perseverance forward at time when it is desperately needed. As we wait in eager anticipation for all the incredible new releases she has planned for this year, be sure to save this link for the official release of the “Mind’s Eye” music video on YouTube on Friday, May 27, and check out her diverse collection of singles on Spotify. For more information, you can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Charlie Maybee

Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Winchester, Virginia who currently teaches in the Dance Division of the Shenandoah Conservatory. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression. He also currently fronts local hard rock band, The Aftershakes, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.

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