“Who here is single?” Katherine Li asks. The audience cheers. She smiles. “I’ve found my people.” 

The 19-year-old rising artist has just finished playing “Miss Me Too,” the closing song off her debut EP, Crush(ed). It’s the evening of January 30, and she’s the third artist of the night to take the stage at the Drake Underground, an intimate live music venue on Queen Street. The free-entry show she’s playing was organized by School Night, a monthly music industry showcase with a past roster that includes Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Dua Lipa, and Hozier.  

Katherine tells the School Night crowd that this year’s Valentine’s Day marks a year since the release of her first song. Her music isn’t about love so much as it is about longing, though. 

Over the course of six songs, Crush(ed) follows the emotions of unrequited romantic interest through several stages. There’s the giddy first stage of falling, followed by loneliness and anger, all topped off with the bittersweet, lingering longing that comes with fresh acceptance that this particular love won’t work out. The songs’ lyrics are clearly melancholy, but Katherine’s voice brings a brightness to even the saddest of the EP’s tracks. 

In true TikTok musician fashion — Katherine has just over 440,000 followers on the platform — there are moments on the EP that capture a sense of Katherine as an average teenager. Before the recording stops on “Wish You the Worst,” a voice that might be her mother’s calls Katherine’s name, muted as if from another room. “Miss Me Too” opens with a spoken admission: “I just woke up, so it might be a little rough,” Katherine says. The song proceeds to be anything but. 

So it’s no surprise that Katherine is a natural in front of the Monday evening crowd, delivering one of the more polished sets of the evening despite being the only musician to take the stage solo that night. Katherine’s mom, Maggie Li, watches from the left side of the stage, wearing her daughter’s merch: a hoodie that reads “CRUSHED” in a colourful, candy-like font. After the show, Katherine greets at least a dozen audience members with hugs and excited conversations. She blows a kiss to one of them before ducking behind the green velvet backstage curtain with her mom. 

The night feels like one of those sparkling, precious moments from the early days of an artist’s accelerating career. In 2022, American Eagle paid Katherine over a hundred thousand dollars to take part in a back-to-school advertising campaign, accompanied by a TikTok challenge that garnered over three billion views. In December, she was the central character in a New Yorker feature exploring the collision between TikTok and the music industry. The night of the concert, a documentary crew is there to take footage of her, and not long after the show, a song of hers will air on BBC Radio One alongside tunes from Maisie Peters and Alexander 23.

Katherine Li may have only given her first live performance in August 2022, but she seems to be on the cusp of something bigger and better, just around the corner. 

Katherine opens her set with an acoustic guitar rendition of “Happening Again,” the first song off her 2022 EP. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Katherine addresses the audience in between songs: “I want to get to know you guys a bit better,” she says. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

After playing the first few songs of her set on the guitar, Katherine moves to the keyboard. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Katherine beams after playing the closing notes of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” — the only cover included in her set. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Katherine looks out into the crowd while playing “We Didn’t Even Date,” a song exploring the emotions of getting too attached to someone that you’re not in a relationship with — but wish you were. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

“This next song is very special to me. It’s about the person you never had a chance with,” Katherine says before closing her set with her most popular release to date, “Never Had a Chance.” JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

After the show, fan and second-year U of T student Hanson Liu presents Katherine with a poster and bouquet of flowers. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY