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Confessions of the dreamer behind ‘I Know I’m Only Dreaming’

By LIANNA VILLARAZA VANICELLI Published Jan 08, 2022 5:00 am

I am proudly half-Filipina and I finally feel like the world is ready for me. I am a non-fluent Tagalog speaker but what I am fluent in is song lyrics, (and English). All of my life I have secretly felt like an outsider, never enough of one thing to really feel like I had a community that understood me. Music was the only way I could express myself and my life experiences.

For more than half of my life I sang and created music in various bands and projects in Detroit, Michigan, until 2017, when I made the epic move to Los Angeles with my former band. Things were going quite well for us, but when my band mate decided to abruptly end the project, I was faced with a crossroads: move back home and fall back into the comfort of what I had been building my entire life, or stay in Los Angeles and find my own way in this gargantuan city.

Xelli Island writes, produces, performs and releases original music.

I had never been a solo artist before nor did I think I wanted to be one, but the Filipina in me was screaming louder than ever to stay and fight and build something of my own.

I decided to stay knowing it wasn’t easy and I would have to start from scratch.

Fortunately, after a year of hardships and adjustment, I started my own artist project, which I named Xelli Island, and I write, produce, perform, and release original music under that moniker today. It falls into the realm of indie art-pop.

Tracing my roots

Filipino people are special people. They are warm, inviting, funny, creative, resilient, and blunt. They live life passionately but don’t take themselves too seriously, which I relate to so much.

On location for her EP cover shoot, a secret trail in LA

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, but my mother is Filipina and most of her very large family lives in the Philippines around Manila, so I grew up visiting every few years throughout my life. Not as frequently as I would have liked, but frequent enough that I was blessed with a life-shifting perspective on the world from a very young age.

Last year, during one of the peaks of COVID in LA, I decided to finally do something I had been wanting to do for years — write and release a song where I sing in Tagalog.

The contrast between the two countries is jarring. To this day, I am still in disbelief at how many Americans have no idea what life is like on the other side of the planet and will probably never see it the way I have, so I feel immense amounts of gratitude for the knowledge I inherited through traveling and visiting family in the Philippines. I don’t think they really know how much of an impact they have made on my existence.

Last year during one of the peaks of COVID here in LA, I decided to finally do something I had been wanting to do for years — write and release a song where I sing in Tagalog. My mother spoke to me in Tagalog growing up and still does, but I never learned to fully speak it and that frustrates me. I exist in this strange zone of being able to effortlessly understand it but then struggling to put sentences together and speak it myself.

At that time last year, the pandemic was raging across the world and we were all scared in a way that felt unknown. It was hard to navigate those emotions.

Every day I spent time looking at statistics, like the number of deaths and hospitalizations in various cities around the world. I would check Manila regularly and then read articles about how overwhelmed, exhausted, and disorganized the hospitals were. Every city was the same, but different. Only one thing was certain: death and grief were happening everywhere in amounts that were paralyzing us as a species.

Around that same time, I received the news that one of mytitas had passed away in the Philippines. It was devastating news in the midst of a devastating year. She was a life partner to my Tito for longer than I have even been alive. She was a kind, gentle soul who I felt I never got the time to really know. She was a mother to four beautiful people and a beloved lola.

I remember feeling so much helplessness the moment I got the news. My family there felt so incredibly far away. And for the first time, hopping on a plane and flying there wasn’t even an option.

I read many painful messages on the WhatsApp group with my cousins (some of whom are her children) as they figured out how to organize a service for her and make their way to the Philippines. Some of them live in Europe and it was an immense struggle to travel during that time. It added so much extra anxiety to their grief and pain.

After reading my Tito’s somber reply to the condolence email I sent, I began writing a song about the pain of losing a loved one. I was unemployed at the time because all restaurants were closed and my job as a waitress ceased to exist, so I had more time to create and work on music and therefore attempt to write a song in Tagalog. I decided that because I am half-Filipina, the song would be, too. I think bilingual songs are great because it gives listeners from both languages a chance to discover something new.

The song is about loss, but it’s also about how our loved ones truly do live forever in us when they are gone. It’s inspired by devotion and partnership and the incredibly strong bond we form as humans.

The song isn’t a cheerful, easy listen. It’s fully about death and the moment you realize life will never be the same without that person around anymore. It felt right to make it at that exact time, when death was happening in such large amounts on a global level. I wanted to make the type of song that could help people during their time of grief, even if for just a few minutes. The lyrics lean on the poetic side and I asked my mom and her four sisters to help proofread and make sure it made sense.

It took me forever to write melodies inside of a language I’m not fluent in, but it was a beautiful challenge that brought me closer to Tagalog. The first line is “Kung ako’y luha sa iyong mukha, ako’y kasama mo,” which roughly translates to, “So long as you are alive and there are tears on your face, I will be by your side.”

The song is about loss, but it’s also about how our loved ones truly do live forever in us when they are gone. It’s inspired by devotion and partnership and the incredibly strong bond we form as humans. It’s a bond that transcends realms. I hope listeners can find solace in those moments.

One of my closest friends here in LA, who is also half-Filipina, just very recently lost her inaang. She sweetly let me know this song helped her in her grieving process. Hearing that struck me in a way incomparable to any type of recognition as an artist. It reinforced my philosophy that art is nothing except a form of expression that helps other human beings feel understood and seen. In our most vulnerable moments, our darkest moments, our best moments, our happiest moments. There are songs for all of them.

It’s only one minute and 58 seconds long, but it’s done and it’s out there existing in the world. I released it as part of my debut EP, “Meet Me At The Waterfall” in October of 2020. It’s on Spotify, Bandcamp, Apple Music, and Soundcloud. I titled it I Know I’m Only Dreaming (Nag-iisa).And I hope it finds its way to anyone who needs or wants to hear it.