Editors' Note: We enjoyed reading James' answers so much that we thought it would be a shame not to share them in full. Eloquent and intelligent, let his answers remind you why you fell in love with his music all over again. Grab a cup of tea and take a seat-this one's a long one!
1. It’s been a while since we last heard your voice! You released your debut album about four years ago, and just released your second ‘Lost and Found’ recently. What have you been up to since we last saw you?
Yes, about four years – after releasing the previous album, a period of promotion followed, then I parted ways with that company. I then took a short period of rest, before beginning preparations for my new album, Lost & Found.
It took two years to write the material, then another 18 months to prepare arrangements, Chinese lyrics and record it. During that 18 month period, we also did everything else associated with an album release – designing and creating the physical album, photoshoots, liner notes, an acoustic session, and shot four music videos, all of which are now on YouTube.
Whilst that was going on, I tried out acting, so I’ve been in some movies, short films, and advertisements. I also got married and had a daughter, so it’s been quite a busy period.
2. ‘Lost and Found’ is the first album of yours that truly showcases your original songs as your first album was more cover-based. Could you share a little about the concept behind this record? Why the name ‘Lost and Found’?
Lost & Found has two songs that I wrote for my grandfather, one called Perfect Day, detailing the last day we got to spend together before he died, and Hold On. The outtro to Hold On contains the lyrics “All that is lost can be found”, that’s where the album name comes from. We shortlisted a fair few names, but felt Lost & Found really suited various concepts involved in the album.
There are many themes in the album, many of which overlap and interlink: the sea, the colour red, moving forward despite adversity, and understanding that our past helps to define our present and future, but one major concept is the idea of being oneself – Lost & Found is the first time I’ve been able to be myself on an album – the amount of creative input I’ve been given is quite surprising, not solely in terms of music, but also album design, track listings, personal styling, and the album title. Prior to signing with my current company, Cros Music, I had been pushed in directions I was not comfortable with, and that felt like a period of being lost. Creating Lost & Found with Cros feels like getting back on track: being myself, showing my own songs and personality. That’s a major reason why I’m so satisfied with it.
Despite being released for the C/Mando pop market, Lost & Found doesn’t have a Chinese title. I didn’t want to reduce or constrict the title to a single meaning by translating it, for example, ‘lost’ in English has many different meanings dependant on the situation it’s used in. Leaving it open means there’s more leeway for others to interpret what the album and songs mean to them. Everyone’s experiences are important, and they impact and influence how we see things – by leaving the definition of the album title open, I hope everyone can put themselves into the songs, and give them a personal meaning. It also means they can share their ideas of what the album means to them with me. I like feedback.
As an aside, I love the way the album looks. The cover of each album was hand-burned, so every copy is unique. The ash from burning the cover is left, so that it smudges on the inside cover. The concept behind links back to the past affecting our future. The CDs are designed to look like a Japanese method of repairing smashed bowls. Gold is heated, and used to fuse the parts of the utensil together – you take something broken and useless, and in repairing it, make it even more beautiful and valuable than it was before, reiterating the lost and found message.
The handwritten notes and lyrics are also worth mentioning – I used my grandfather’s fountain pen to write them. I thought the pen was lost, as I hadn’t seen it for 20 years, but my father came to Taiwan in September, and handed me a little box. Inside was the pen.
3. We also noticed that the album is fully bilingual, meaning there are English and Mandarin versions for every song (which we are very excited about). Do you usually write your songs in English?
I write in English, as that’s the only language I’m proficient in. My Chinese is improving, but is still not good enough to write nuanced lyrics. I have written some Chinese songs, but I’m not satisfied with them. I will release a Mandarin song I’ve written the lyrics to myself one day, but not yet.
The album has two CDs: one English, one Mandarin, but the Chinese versions are not mere translations of the English lyrics – we used some extremely experienced lyricists in the creation of the Chinese side, and I feel constraining them by asking for a pure translation would have led them to create an inferior product. They’re all supremely talented, so we gave them a vague direction as well as explaining in-depth what the English lyrics to each song meant, then gave them the freedom to put their own interpretations down.
Most albums are collaborations – a group of people coming together to write lyrics, to produce and arrange the songs etc. Each person in that collaborative process has great value, and by giving them the space to be themselves, everyone has the breathing room to add value to the final product. There’s no way Lost & Found would be as good as it is if I’d done it alone.
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4. Despite you being a singer in a predominantly Mandarin music market, why the decision to release English songs too?
5. We also noticed that the arrangements for the English and Chinese versions of the songs are different too. Was this a conscious choice?
When I write demos, I prefer to have complete songs, full lyrics, as well as the melody. As I mentioned above, I write in English. My management initially planned to release a single CD, but when they heard the English lyrics, they decided it would be a waste to not also release them. I think my management also realised that the personal nature of these songs meant that they should be released in the language in which they were originally written.
I use an old phone to record my demos, so the quality isn’t high enough to release. Despite that, we wanted to keep the feel of the demos, so we recorded the English side as acoustic tracks, each song in one-take, leaving in any mistakes (weird noises, vocal pops, bum notes etc) made during the recording, so the demo feel was retained. What you hear on the record is what you would have heard standing in the room on the day we recorded the songs.
It’s quite rare for an audience to be able to hear how a song progresses from conception to final album-version. By retaining the English versions on Lost & Found, especially in their stripped back manner, it allows the listener to compare what’s essentially an earlier, and later version of the same song, again, hopefully preserving that interaction I wish these songs have with my audience
The Chinese songs were given the full studio treatment, so they are more complex, and also interpreted by others. You can compare it to a photograph, where the raw image has been passed through filters that alter various aspects. The end product is wildly different, but the bones are the same.
6. Do you have any favourites on the record? Would you care to share a few of the stories behind some of your songs with us?
On the English side, I particularly like how Hold On, Rotting and Wind in the Pines sound, although I like all of the tracks. I short-listed 30 songs to give to my record company, from an initial batch of over 250. I felt the 10 final songs on Lost & Found sat together best as a group – I dislike albums that are one single, and 9 filler songs, I remember the feeling of being ripped off when I was small, buying an album, and realising there was only one good song on it – so whilst there were perhaps songs that were individually better in the shortlist, this group felt like an album.
On the Chinese side, 溫柔地，暴烈地 Silently, Violently and 狼 Wolves are my favourites. I think the production on both is particularly good, and also clearly demonstrate the point I mentioned earlier about how much can change from an original idea when others are involved, and add their value. 狼 manages to become really expansive in the Chinese album, whereas Wolves (the English original) is a very tight, individual, almost lonely song in the acoustic version. 溫柔地，暴烈地 feels like a weight sitting on you. Before we recorded the vocals, the arrangement alone sounds like the soundtrack to a Lars Von Trier or Terrence Malik film. It’s extremely beautiful, and transformed the simplicity of Silently, Violently (the English original) into something complex and heavy. Many people have mentioned how they can’t listen to it more than once, because the song upsets them to much, it’s too painful. That’s the power they injected into my simple song. On top of that, the music video for it is fantastic too. It’s my favourite track on the album.
My inspiration comes from various places, so some of the songs are from my life experience (Perfect Day, Translation, Rag and Bone World), whereas others are completely imaginary (Wolves, Silently Violently). Wind in the Pines is the latter – I wrote a song previously called Clarity, which takes place in a forest. I liked the mental image I created of that forest, so decided to revisit it. To my mind, the best songs tell stories, and just like any story, the reader discovers information as they go along:
Wind in the Pines opens with the protagonist trying to sleep on the forest floor in Winter, but the freezing winds howl through the trees, and keep him awake. You then find out the reason why he’s in this beautiful but horrible place at such an unsuitable time of year – he’s carrying the body of his loved one to be buried on a mountain peak, so that they have a place of beauty to look out on forever. It shows his love for the deceased that he is willing to go through this awful and dangerous trial for them. After completing his task, exhausted, he falls asleep next to the grave, despite it being even colder on the peak – showing it wasn’t the wind or cold, but the weight of the task that prevented him from doing so earlier. But on waking, the protagonist realises he’s alone there, and has to face life without the person he grew up with. The bridge lyrics returns the listener to their now empty house, where all that once meant something, (the marks they made measuring their height, old photographs etc) have begun to rot or fade away, with only the walls remembering what went before.
That idea gives me the same feeling as the sands stretching off in ‘Ozymandias’, or the verse standing, despite death’s hand in ‘Like as the maves make towards the pebbl’d shore’.
7. Your writing style is very unique, as far as Mandarin pop artists go. Can you tell us a little about your musical and lyrical influences?
I discussed this with my manager recently – My influences growing up were very non-Pop. I listened to Folk, Blues, Soul and Rock as a child, with very little of the Pop, Rhythm and Bass, Neo-Soul etc that now makes up the bulk of Asian mainstream music. As a result, even though I now write pop music, I do so from a non-pop angle, so my manner of approaching a song is different to many other Mandarin artists.
Another difference, of course, is that I grew up in England. My guitarist and I talked about it last week – he’s Taiwanese, but studied at the MI in Hollywood. He remarked how Asian artists sometimes write needlessly complex songs, whereas Western artists write in a more sparing manner. As a result, Western songs are often more touching than Eastern ones. While we were discussing it, I mentioned that one reason might be because of how music as a subject is approached in the West and East. Music, in England at least, is approached as a hobby, relaxation or playing, whereas in the East, it’s a challenge to be studied and overcome or graded. As such, Asian musicians are often far more proficient with their instrument than Western artists, and so have the ability to create a complex song. I can’t do that - I don’t know enough to do so, so I rely solely on the feeling and expressiveness of music instead.
8. The guitar seems to always have been a focal point of your works. When did you start playing, and what was it that encouraged you to continue incorporating it into your music?
I’ve had a guitar since I was small, but never really played it seriously for its own sake until I was in my late teens. Guitars feature heavily in all of my favourite music genres, so it was a natural progression for me to utilise them in my own work too. I enjoy writing lyrics first and foremost, and as a child, I wrote poems and stories, that then became lyrics when I set them to music – that’s probably to do with my background in Folk and Blues, which are, traditionally, primarily story-telling media, rather than being first and foremost music-led. The Folk and Blues influences come across fairly strongly in songs like Rag and Bone World, and Crumbling Bones. Both are in open tunings associated with those genres. Rock influences are more apparent in songs like Hold On and Translation.
9. Your latest album is really quite different in its content and presentation. What do you hope listeners will take away from your concept and your music?
The idea of being yourself, and how by not being, or having that ability taken away from you by others, a lot of damage can be done. Again, I would love to hear other peoples’ interpretation of the songs!
10. We understand that having grown up in the UK, English is your native tongue. Given this, why did you choose to enter the Mandarin music market to begin with? Do you have any plans or interest in bringing your music to more English speaking audiences in the
I’m half English, and grew up in London, but I’m also half-Chinese, a side which I neglected completely when I was young. I wanted to find out more about the other side of myself. I enjoy travelling and giving myself challenges, so this seemed a fun thing to try. If I’d stayed in England, it would have been much easier, but far less interesting or rewarding. Every so often I get intense feelings of missing England, everything in Asia is different, even the way the air smells, but Taiwan is now my home. In any case, if I went back to the UK now, I’d probably find it wasn’t the place I left.
My management and I have discussed some ideas on how to widen our audience, but we’re still in the ideas stage. Of course, I’d be very happy for more people to hear my music.
11. We hear that you used to be a practising lawyer before pursuing a career in music. Ultimately what is it that drives you to create? Do you have any advice for fellow creatives also pursuing their passions?
I read law at university, but didn’t practise. I initially planned to study car design at a small university, but my AS-level results were better than expected, so my teachers pushed me into choosing a more prestigious university, and a more enticing subject – it wasn’t really for my benefit, but rather to keep the school’s ranking, and attract other parents to send their children there too.
After graduating, I travelled, then went into corporate management for a financial services company. It wasn’t for me. I found it extremely constricting, and the people I was surrounded by had very different aims to me, so I stopped that and started making music professionally instead.
Regarding following one’s passion, I don’t believe it’s something that you can control. It’s a bit like trying to squash bread dough with your hands; no matter how hard you press, creativity always pops out from somewhere. So, if it is there, and you can’t control it, just let it flow out
Having said that, a caveat. I’m quite lucky, as I’m both logical and creative (the two don’t always come together), and that allowed me to critically analyse my output. If you are creative, and want to turn your hobby into a career, you have to be realistic, and brutally honest with yourself. Not all creations are marketable, or valuable in the estimation of others – when it’s a hobby, that doesn’t matter, because all creativity has merit, but once you start trying to sell it to others, it becomes vital. You need to measure yourself, and make a rational decision whether this is something you can put food on the table with. I wouldn’t ever want to discourage someone though – whilst this is not an easy life, it is really rewarding, and a far more interesting one than I would have otherwise had.
12. What’s next for you in terms of plans or projects?
I have a few things in the pipeline, but they’re all still in their fledgling stages. We’ve pretty much completed our Taiwan promotions, so are now starting promo in other areas: I’ll be adding more information on FB, IG and Weibo when I get it, so sub to those for up-to-date info.
‘Lost and Found’ is now out on all streaming platforms; don’t forget to check out James' YouTube for upcoming acoustic versions and music videos too.
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