In 2018, Bolis Pupul began writing a letter to his late mother. He was in Hong Kong for the first time staying on the street where his mother was born, and while surrounded by the noise of traffic, sent of incense, and chanting of monks, he was hit with an overwhelming feeling. Growing up in Belgium, being Chinese wasn’t something he was very proud of, yet feeling his mothers presence around him in her home country made him feel more connected to her and her culture than ever before. Struck with gratitude and regret, his words formed his debut solo album, Letter to Yu.
Bolis Pupul is an indie electronic artist from Belgium, and he’s most known for his collaborations with artist Charlotte Adigéry. Together, their album Topical Dancer became a hit of upbeat, wonky, and techno dance music. However, Pupul also has a unique sound of his own that is influenced by his half European, half Chinese roots. Although he explains that he didn’t grow up very proud of his Chinese culture, his music includes distinctive melodies that are a testament to his Asian heritage. Now, he’s releasing his first solo album, Letter to Yu, on March 8, and the story behind it is incredibly emotional and moving.
Bolis Pupuls’ mother lived in Hong Kong until she was seven years old before moving to Belgium. Since she passed in 2008, Pupul has been weighted down with a regret over not being in touch with his Chinese side and never visiting the country with his mother. So in 2018, Pupul decided to take his first trip to Hong Kong. It was a long time coming when Pupul began writing songs on his trip to express his mixed emotions of gratitude and regret over being in Hong Kong. For example, Ma Tau Wai Road is about his stay on the street where his mother was born, Completely Half is about feeling like an outsider in the city, and Letter to Yu is the centrepiece of the album where he recounts the letter he wrote to his mother. Against the colourful backdrop of Hong Kong, the sounds and images of the city are cinematically displayed across the eleven tracks on the album, the accompanying music videos, and the photo booklets. The album is an emotional work of art, yet each song is also playful and upbeat with techno and house melodies that make you want to get up and dance. Listening to the songs transports you to the echos of the city and the feelings of Pupul as he navigated the streets, seeing his mother’s face in everyone he passes. We had the chance to ask him some questions about his album and the incredible story behind it.
Bolis, I have to say that I really love the songs on your upcoming debut album Letter to Yu, and the story behind it is just as moving and sentimental. From your 2018 trip to Hong Kong to now, how did this album come to fruition? 
Yeah so I went to Hong Kong in 2018, and as it was for me my first time in Hong Kong, in China, I was a bit overwhelmed by all those feelings that I had and it felt like the perfect moment to write music. Maybe it's a way to control the moment or control what you want to experience, and it's also something that makes you more aware of things that are happening, although the way that I write is very intuitive. I didn’t want to censor myself and I just wanted to write whatever was coming out of my spirit, and I think that because Hong Kong is such an emotional place for me that it was very important for me to write music there. I wrote almost every day on that first trip, and I think I went back to Belgium and I had like maybe eight or ten songs, not finished just like sketches of songs or sometimes it was just a melody or loop that I made. So they weren’t fully constructed songs, but that's what I tried to do, I tried to start something new everyday. But then I had a meeting with Steph and Dave at DEEWEE studios and we went through all of the music that I had made, and they were very positive about the process and they encouraged me to go back a second time and do it all over and make more. Just write everyday, make something. So I did. I went back, I wrote more music and then the same process, I went back to the studio, talked to Steph and Dave about my experiences and I would listen to my demos and then they gave me some advice for structure and for what kinds of sounds that I could use. Good feedback. I think we did that once a month and back and forth and sometimes through emails and sometimes we did it at the DEEWEE studio. And it's a process that started in 2018 and we finished the whole [album] in 2023. So that's a long time, that's like five years of working on an album.
So, the album is at once very deep and thoughtful but also includes a layering of upbeat techno dance music which makes it very playful. How do these contrasting themes add to the meaning behind the music?
I think they kind of resemble the way I felt at that time. I had a lot of melancholy feelings inside of me, but at the same time, I was also very happy. I spent a lot of time discovering new things and being intrigued by this other culture. And there's also a fun side to Hong Kong that I wanted to portray. I do like to make upbeat dance music, it's what makes me happy as well, to see people dance and at the same time I have this other side inside of me that's sometimes a bit more sad or a bit more blue. And to me they resemble how I felt at that time. I can feel sad and happy at the same time.
Speaking of your sound, I would say that it is very unique because it includes a fusion of different sounds and influences, including a mix of melodies that demonstrate a combination of your Western and Eastern heritage. Can you talk about how you’ve cultivated this techno-fusion style?
I don’t really know if I can cultivate it, to me it was just something that happened. It just happened, and I wasn’t even aware of it. It was Steph and Dave from Soulwax who were co-producing the record who already told me when I released my first EP Moon Theme, that there were a lot of oriental melodies on it. And I had to laugh but when I listened back to it I was like, oh yeah you're actually right. And I don’t know where it comes from, I think it's part of my DNA. I’ve never listened to like a lot of Asian music but at the same time, I remember my mum used to play tapes of Chinese music and it's been around in the house, so in a way I think it's maybe just a part of my DNA, and when I don’t think too much this is what comes out and it's a very genuine combination of western and eastern melodies. I think that's beautiful because it's something that happened effortlessly.
Your personal identity and heritage is something you’ve mentioned that you struggled with a bit growing up. How has your self-identity changed or grown across your musical journey?
I think working with Charlotte made me kind of open up my eyes when I heard her talk about stories she experienced based on her race, based on being a woman. And sometimes I had these thoughts, like oh yeah, I completely understand what you mean. And those were feelings that I looked away from and I never really gave them a lot of attention, but at the same it was something that I had never forgotten. And it's something that is part of who I am, I think. But at the same time it's something that I was maybe minimising for way too long. I think it was something that happened when I was a child and all those micro-aggressions or sometimes bigger aggressions never made me feel like I could be proud of being half Asian. I didn’t have any role models in my world that I looked up to, Asian men. With growing older and being 38 right now I think I’ve learned a lot about myself, and those things eventually find their way in[to] your music. I think I’m more aware of my good sides and my bad sides, and that's something that doesn’t necessarily have to do anything with my race, but it's more my identity. Who I am, and the things that I do unconsciously, and the things I know I’m good at, and then the things I know I’m bad at. That's very important and I learn everyday, I think it's very important for me to have people around me who I can trust that can be like a mirror if they see that you are acting in a way that is inappropriate or that you're saying things that don’t make any sense, that they just can say it to you without your need to be defensive. And if you really respect your friends, then you'll take it into consideration what they're saying. That’s how I think my identity has grown or changed during my musical journey.
Your breakout as a musical artist came with your collaboration alongside singer Charlotte Adigéry, however Letter to Yu will be your first solo album. What was that experience like working with Charlotte and how did you come to the decision to release your own album?
I always compare it to a musical soulmate, the way that we met and how we hit off in the studio was pure magic I think. It's something that I hadn’t experienced before and we just happened to make music very fast together. It was something that was a lot of fun, and a lot of things came effortlessly and it's also something that we did besides other projects that we were running. So yeah, working with Charlotte has been very fun and we seem to get along very well, also outside of the studio, and I still enjoy working with her. We spend a lot of time in the studio and when we haven’t seen each-other in a few weeks it's like we need to talk so much, there's always so much happening and we love to pick each other's brains to know what is going on in each other's life. But then the decision to make my own album is something that– the whole process already started before I was working on the album with Charlotte, and before I met Charlotte I was already making music as a solo artist, so it's not something that I decided from now on that I want to be a solo artist. It's more the other way, I was already a solo artist and then I started working with Charlotte and to me that's just a very logical thing. But I can imagine that to the outside world it seems like I’m profiling myself as a solo artist, but in reality I’ve always been a solo artist before I was working with Charlotte.
This debut album seems pretty important for you as a solo artist in establishing your brand, so what do you want people to know about you and your music from this album?
I don’t look at my music as my brand, but the album is very important to me personally because it's a personal story and it's something that I’ve been working on for a long time. But, what do I want people to know about me and my music? That's basically what's on the record I think, the reactions that I like the most are sometimes reactions that I didn’t see coming. For instance, Completely Half, when people tell me they can relate to that song and they have been through similar feelings, that's something I didn’t expect because I think that some things that I write aren’t that important, but then there's Steph and Dave from Soulwax who can say that, “no no, it's really good,” and “you're doing this, and it's an important story to tell.” Sometimes I’m surprised when I get those reactions from people, and I love it when it's something that has this kind of impact on people's lives or people’s minds.
Something I noticed about your new songs is that they are very cinematic sounding, and your music video for the single Completely Half and the photographs from the trip really add to that feeling. What was the process of filming that video while you were in Hong Kong and how did these beautiful shots and videos come to be part of the album concept?
Thank you for sharing that and I’m really glad to hear that. So I went to Hong Kong for a third time with Bieke Depoorter, she's my girlfriend but also the director [of the video] and she's a very talented photographer and a music video director. Her pictures are very cinematic as well, and I thought that her style really could fit my style. And also I knew that Hong Kong is very photogenic. It has a lot of neon lights, it's very welcoming for a photographer to make something there. But there's also pitfalls that you can make very cliche shots and we wanted to stay away from those shots. My first idea was, the general mood was more In The Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai, and to play with the idea that I could see my mother in other women that were on the street. That's like the moment that you think, “hey I think I saw her! Oh no no, it's not her,” like a split second that you're convinced that you see your mum who has passed away. I had it the first time and the second time that I was in Hong Kong, I had it several times and I wanted it to have that feeling in the video. And because [Bieke Depoorter] is somebody who is very respectful but also very strong and knowing what kind of picture she wants to portray and what she doesn’t want to portray as well, it was very challenging to work with my girlfriend at the same time. But I think we managed to do something really special and I'm so happy with the result and everything that we took back from that trip, the whole artwork of the vinyl and the city booklet is just so beautiful and I get so many beautiful reactions from people who have seen it already and that makes me really happy because I think the visual side of music is something that can really lift it up or it can take it down as well if it's not done in the right way, it's something that can diminish your music in a way. So it's very strong if it's well connected, but it can also be a bit negative if it doesn’t match the music.
You also have a collection of your own footage you filmed while on the trip which you have named Social Assets and will be used to illustrate the album. Can you talk about your own experience documenting the trip and the reasons behind including the assets in your album?
Well as we all know, we need a lot of visual content as well these days and I thought it would be good to have some kind of documentation about how I was walking around the city and what I was seeing. And so when I went back the third time and the fourth time I had a handy cam with me, an old Sony camera, and I just filmed everyday life and things I saw on the street. But it also made me feel very– I had mixed feelings with it because I don’t like to film people without their consent, but at the same time you're doing it before you know it. You see something you want to film but then it's like okay, I didn’t ask that person for consent and I’ve had it that people saw me filming them and they asked me to stop filming. So in a way it's something you want to do, but in a respectful way and I completely understand that it's something that's a struggle for a photographer, for people who make movies or documentaries.
In writing this album, you mentioned that it explores your feelings of “gratitude and regret” that you felt while in Hong Kong. How have these themes manifested themselves into your songs?
I think regret is very dominant in Letter To Yu, the opening track of the album. Why did it take me so long / I feel so lost being here without you / and, / I’m feeling very sorry that we are not doing this together. So that's a song that's very strong in regret and that was something that was also very dominant in the moment when I was writing the letter. The moment that I was writing the letter was the first day that I arrived, I went to the street where she was born and it was a very busy street with lots of buses and cars passing by and I felt all these emotions and I felt like I had to write down something or make a connection to my mum in a way, and writing a letter felt appropriate to talk to her and, yeah those were my main feelings. I was very upset and sad about being there without her and wishing that she was still there and we could have done this together. On the gratitude side of the story, I would say Ma Tau Wai Road, the song with Salah Pupul, my sister, it's a song that I wrote when I was staying very near to the street where she was born and I was staying in a hotel room and that is where I wrote this song. The first line, What's inside of me came from you / The sounds of China, they belong to you, I think kind of says it, the kind of gratitude that we feel, or I feel for what our mother gave us. And we are very thankful that she was our mother and for how she raised us and how she prepared us to live.
Have you visited Hong Kong since 2018? If so, how did it feel to return for a second time?
Oh yes, I’ve been there four times since 2018. So I went the first time in 2018, a second time to write more music, then a third time for Completely Half and the artwork for the album, and then a fourth time to go with my sister to record a video for Ma Tau Wai Road. And the more that I return, the more it kind of feels like home. I meet friends that I made the previous time, I go back to places that I went to before, and the more I go there, the more it grows on me. It just always has the feeling that I have to go there once a year, just like to be there. It feels important to me to be there and to spend some time in Hong kong.
Now that you have travelled to Hong Kong and written this album that is so personal to you and your journey, what can you say about how you are feeling and your connection to your mum?
Well, she passed away so I can’t really talk to her anymore but I think the whole album once again made me stand still by the fact that she's no longer here, and what she meant to me or means to me. And then there's those feelings of gratitude and regret that come up, and I still miss her everyday. There's not a day, not a single day that I don’t think of her and that I don’t miss her, it's something that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and at the same time I wouldn’t want it to disappear, those feelings. I want those feelings to stay as well.
Finally, with your first solo album now under your belt, where do you see yourself going from here? Any plans or ideas in the works for your music?
Well I’m already working on new music with Charlotte, and for my solo work I still have a lot of songs that I was working on before Letter to Yu and I think it would be a waste to throw them away, so they're still in the back of my head to maybe to do something with those songs as well. I think I’m always interested in finding new methods of recording music, learning new instruments, and just pushing my own limits. And I’m not done yet. I think I still have a lot of things that I can do, musically.