By Kelly Liu
In the LA music scene, Lexi Vega started out as a drummer. Now, a sunburst electric guitar hangs on the wall of her bedroom. “I’m always scared of those things falling off,” she laughs, when I compliment the gear. Mini Trees, the moniker of Lexi Vega, recently released a string of intimate tracks on her sophomore EP Slip Away — basked in rolling synths, vocal harmonic stacks, and earthy drum beats. On video chat, Vega looks casual and comfortable in a blue-and-white shirt. We begin by talking about her background in drums, then to the start of Mini Trees as a songwriting project.
“I think probably sometime in high school was when I actually started writing music, and I had a friend at the time who had his own little studio setup in his room and would let me come over and record my music. And so that was kind of where I dipped my toes in it,” Vega explains. She speaks thoughtfully, without rush, occasionally drifting into particular memories. “But it was a long time between that and actually starting this project. I think I just had a lot of, sort of insecurities about releasing my own music in general, and it took me a while to feel comfortable.”
“Part of that too I think is finding my friend who produces my music, Jon. Jon Joseph. I think partnering with him kind of helped me to really see this as being like, something that could really turn into a project, and something that I’ll actually enjoy.” Drumming, Vega explains, was how she met Joseph as well as the musicians that end up playing in Mini Trees. The name — as she later explains, showing me a vacuum the size of a hand with glee, surprised at not being able to find other examples of miniature things by her desk — comes from her obsession with miniature version of things.
In the same way that Vega is not restricted to one aspect of performing and making music, she allows for flexibilities and transformations in the course of Mini Trees as a project. While hesitant at first, “I think I’m kind of becoming more and more open … more open-minded about what Mini Trees can sound like.” Vega attributes part of that openness to Joseph, who continually pushes her to experiment beyond what comes naturally. “With the last record there were some surprising chord progression changes and stuff that I think I would’ve been too resistant to try on the first EP.”
I’m trying, to let you in and To unwrap feelings I’ve kept all tangled up within my chest But something about it is scary as hell And yet all I’ve really wanted is to be known by someone else - “Steady Me”
Unlike her debut EP, Steady Me, Slip Away engages in emotional intimacy and identity in a more nuanced manner. More than confessional vulnerability, the record grapples explicitly with the ways in which emotions can be masked, disguised, hidden; the transformations they undergo in coming to contact with others. The structure and form of title track “Slip Away” capture this dynamic perfectly – just as the lyrics deal with “[keeping] a straight face,” the music sounds pop and bright if you looked only to the surface. “In ‘Slip Away,’ which is like a very bubbly and upbeat song, but the message of it is definitely more melancholy, I feel like if you paid no attention to the lyrics you might not pick up on that except that the background vocals in the harmonies sort of give it away, in my opinion.”
“I think a lot of what this last EP cycle, writing it, sort of showed me, was how easy it is for me to go about my life with a certain exterior. Kind of a façade, I guess. And it’s not even intentional. I think I would be with people, friends who are really close to me, who I could totally open up to and share anything with, but it was more natural for me to just kind of act happy and normal like there’s nothing wrong. So it took a long time for me to start, like, sifting through all those layers and figuring out that there’s more going on than I think was even visible to myself on the surface.”
Mini Trees’ music is, in this sense, carefully coded. Layers of emotions and identity are inscribed in a way that might not be immediately obvious. While Vega never directly speaks about topics such as race in her songs, “There are definitely things there. I think more so with Steady Me, there were a couple songs I wrote that were sort of more specifically related to my identity, not really feeling like I fit in anywhere, sort of that sentiment. For sure the song ‘Thinking Of’ in Steady Me.”
Being Japanese and Cuban, Vega grew up in predominantly white communities. “I never thought about it other than I was always the butt-end of the jokes because there was no one else to make jokes about. And it was never anything super horrible or offensive — it was stuff mild enough to sort of write off but I think over time really got to me, and I realized that, oh, I am super different,” she laughs. “And realizing that there were certain things I couldn’t do with my hair, or certain things that were not really super apparent on the surface… And also realizing, because I’m not really in touch with my Japanese side or my Cuban side, I don’t know those cultures either. I don’t know anything about myself. So I think there was kind of this period of time where I was like, I don’t really know who I am, I don’t really know who I used to be, I don’t know who I relate to,” Vega says.
“There’s also a whole other layer of identity with becoming more familiar with and comfortable with my own sexuality. And so those are kind of all layered too,” she explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever used pronouns, any sort of gender-identifying pronouns or anything. Part of that too is because it’s all me-and-you language.” In doing so, Vega’s lyrics address rather than refer, in an almost epistolary way that creates a unique sense of intimacy and understanding, bridging the distance between singer and listener. This is perhaps another reason why her tracks have the ability to create not just emotional depth, but emotional immediacy.
“Even though I’m somewhat vague in my songwriting … I’ve also hoped that people with similar experiences could take that away from it. Yeah, it’s been cool, there’s been a couple people who’ve reached out over the course of the last few months and shared their personal stories and how the music has spoken to them, and that’s all I could ever hope for with it. It’s kind of like I walk this weird line between still being sort of vague but then also wanting it to still be relatable, if that makes sense.”
Tell me you want me to stay And I’ll let my heart turn over each day - “Want Me To Stay”
To some extent, Vega’s songs are about relationality itself — how listeners relate to the tracks, how one relates to others and the world in which they live. The visual representation of hands on the EP and singles covers — works by the artist Alice Henry — illustrates this idea well. “The songs aren’t just about me and one other person. I think a lot of the subject matter is about interpersonal issues.”
Vega describes drawing a lot of inspiration from one particular experience: “Sort of the first person I ever realized I had feelings for, who was a friend of mine, and kind of just made everything fall apart in my world.” But the experience signifies something beyond the people involved. “It’s become so much more than just an individual, but the whole realization about myself that came with that… My background is in evangelical Christianity, and so it’s like realizing that and having those beliefs that directly went against that. What I draw from it now is that it’s not like I’m not over a particular person, it’s just it’s such an important time in my life.”
One gets the sense, from listening to the music of Mini Trees, that it is earnest and meaningful, laced with significance somehow, even if the specificities are sometimes hard to pin down. Her lyrics are deliberate, aware of how it negotiates boundaries and layers. “It’s funny because, especially with this last set of songs for this last EP, I really found myself forgetting that when I was writing that anyone will hear it. I had no issues being really really transparent and vulnerable when I was writing it, then I took it to the studio and started recording it and I was like oh, that’s right, other people will hear this.” And maybe for those exact reasons, Vega is able to cultivate a widened, immersive space for intimacy, relatability, and possibility — one that includes rather than excludes. It is as though her songs held a world of their own, and we are lucky enough to be invited in.