A classical pianist, a contestant on Australia’s X-Factor, a budding K-pop star…these are all descriptors that in the past have been used to describe Julia Wu. Yet now, the 24 year-old Asian Australian stands tall as one of the Mandopop industry’s most popular and sought-after R&B acts. When quizzed about how all these bizarrely different career trajectories led her to her current path, Wu’s answer revealed even more of her down-to-earth nature.
“I think when I took up all these challenges and opportunities, to me it’s always been learning opportunities, everything I did. I didn’t think too much going into it, I thought … I love singing, there’s an opportunity to go into that industry, I’m gonna take it.”
Debuting just two years ago in 2017 with her first album 1:28, Wu saw niche interest in her music accumulate with several lo-fi R&B tracks such as Under the Taipei Night Sky台北夜空下 and 你是不是有點動心 , before collaborations with some of the Taiwanese hip-hop community’s hottest tracks of the year (Walk Until We Fly走到飛, Mybong買榜) saw her visibility skyrocket exponentially in 2018.
“Being an artist at first, I didn’t even know what kind of artist position I was going to have. And neither did my company. They were like ‘Julia do you want to be a cool girl or do you want to go the sweet route?’ … I was like ‘I don’t know, how am I supposed to know?’ And that was at the point where no one was listening to my music, I was very new. But as I went along, people really related to my music, Under the Taipei Night Sky 台北夜空下，Do You Feel It Too 你是不是有點動心，and that kind of got the word spread out … because I’m not packaged I just came out and said hello to everybody (laughs). And I’m just grateful they like what they see and what they hear.”
Best known for her breathtakingly unique voice and quirky performance of her original song ‘野子The Wild Child’, Sue aka Su Su is a cartoon character come to life. As a long-time fan of her whimsical, eclectic personality and innovative musical offerings, upon starting our conversation I professed my love for her music, and “Got it, I feel it!” was her chirpy reply.
The 27 year-old singer-songwriter who hails from the island of Hainan recently released her second album 幻 Fantasy, promising more of the same Sue we know and love, but with new, increasingly electronic insights gleaned from her experiences over the last two years.
“The second album will have lots of different genres and vocal deliveries. Of course in these two years I’ve begun to have different feelings and thoughts about life and this naturally became part of my music. Some about love, and also some which are slightly sad…and also some that are meant to encourage everyone. Actually this album’s songs are quite diverse and versatile.”
Written by Jocelle Koh
Illustration by Allison Sun
If Eric Chou is the new-gen prince of Mandopop ballads, then Taiwanese-Canadian singer-songwriter Ariel Tsai might just be the next princess. Topping the charts consistently with her selection of original and cover songs over the last two years, the 23 year-old who made a name for herself with weekly music livestreams has been one to watch as she effortlessly charms the thousands of fans who follow her with her soothing voice and graceful piano playing.
Born in Taiwan but having spent half her life in Canada, where she eventually settled to finish high school and university; the singer shared her experiences as a third-culture kid and the difficulties she faced in gaining a sense of belonging while growing up.
“For a while I had this identity confusion. ‘Cos you feel like you don’t truly belong to one place. but I guess a lot us we long for a sense of belonging deep down. And at the end of the day I realised I can be both Canadian and Taiwanese; I don’t have to be just one and this is what makes me ME. Because they both have a very special place in my heart.”
Now based in Taiwan and settling in for the long haul, Ariel tells us the story of how she managed to navigate the landscape of the Asian music industry while based in Vancouver over the last two years; a feat that few have ever tried, let alone succeeded in.
“It was the start of livestreaming on their (台灣達人秀TTSHOW.TW) Facebook so they randomly called anyone they could think of (to invite them to livestream on their platform) and I was one of the people they called. And I thought I would just give it a shot, just once because it required me waking up at 5am. And for some reason …the livestream had higher viewers than others and the boss kept calling me saying, ‘you have potential in you therefore you should do the livestream like three times a week’…it takes a lot of determination to say yes to waking up at 5am 3 times a week (laughs).”
Despite the arduous process, Tsai kept at this for over two years, despite juggling the pressures of finishing pharmacy school and trying her best to advance her musical career amidst timezone differences.
“It was actually very tiring because pharmacy was very busy... I remember waking up, doing my livestreams and then I would pass out for like ten minutes on the ground…and after ten minutes I had to wake up, go to school for exams” she says, all without a hint of negativity in her voice.
Indeed, even in times of duress or when she’s at existential crossroads, Tsai faces each situation with serenity and grace and a smile on her face; always believing in the light at the end of the tunnel.
Harbouring a passion for music since she was young (her parents tell her she started humming and creating original melodies at the age of 3!), Tsai wrote her first song at the age of 14. Drawn to the ballads that she loved during her adolescence in Taiwan by the likes of S.H.E and Jay Chou, these influences have shaped her music and philosophy even during her time overseas; allowing them to morph into something beautifully unique yet familiar at the same time.
Generally, Mandopop ballads are hit-or-miss for me. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just that they're done a little too often for my liking. Yet there is still something so relatable and intimately touching about ballads that is timeless and irresistible when done right, and this is the magic that Ariel’s had her heart set on from the start. You'll find that much of her repertoire including original singles 'Blessings禮物' and '每一次想你 Every Time I Think Of You' have those similar magical feels you'd get from listening to Mandopop ballads in the early 2000s.
“I like ballads because I feel like they can really enhance the lyrics and bring out the lyrics. Because I feel like nowadays if we look at other pop songs in the world, its more about the feeling of it, they have such strong beats and grooves but you can’t really feel the lyrics sometimes. That’s why I like the ballads because they go hand in hand with the lyrics and it really brings out the emotion.”
And yet, while Ariel finds herself particularly influenced by these Taiwanese ballads, her dream is in fact one that we at Asian Pop Weekly too hold close to our hearts-bringing Mandopop to the world! While based in Canada, Ariel drew attention for her passion for Mandarin music and turned it into a productive experience of sharing her music wholeheartedly with her friends and peers.
“A lot of times my friends would be like ‘oh I like this song you’re singing even though I can’t understand’ and I’m like ‘You know what? Yeah, this is Mandarin music, this is awesome music, more people should appreciate it and should listen to this’…If Mandopop could be more widely appreciated around the world I think it would be an amazing thing…”
Over the course of our chat, Ariel expressed her gratefulness for the support of her friends and family multiple times. And it is through her valuing of community that have shaped her vision for a more harmonious and diverse world through pop culture.
“My dream is to make Mandarin pop music more international. And as a female too, I feel usually it’s the males dominating music. If you even look at world pop music it’s always more males so I hope, I hope (I can make it). I’m really inspired by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande!”
Although the road ahead for Tsai is long, she knows what it’s going to take and is prepared to give it her all. Working hard and always with that sweet smile on her face, it’s hard for anyone to not wholeheartedly wish for the best for her as an artist and musician. Having accomplished so much in the short space of two years, Ariel still remains as humble and grounded as ever. And these are precisely the qualities that I know will help this pop princess in the making achieve her dreams.
Check out Ariel's latest single 'Every Time I Think Of You每一次想你' out on all major streaming platforms now, and don't forget to check out one of her upcoming livestreams on Facebook or YouTube!
A playlist from the Mandopop princess in the making just for Asian Pop Weekly & YOU!
Bold, talented and fiercely passionate about connecting cultures through her music, Sabrina ‘Baer’ Chang is one of few new-gen pop artists who has dedicated her music towards bridging gaps between the East and the West in a unique and personal way. Having spent her childhood experiencing cultures both in Canada and Taiwan, her lack of complete identification with any one of them has spurred her passion for connecting and promoting global harmony.
Intrigued by her personalised unpacking of the ‘East-meets-West’ concept and how she aligns it to the bigger picture both sonically and visually, we HAD to ask her a few burning questions about how she creates and what is it about creating cultural dialogue that drives her creating process.
1. You’ve lived both in Taiwan and in Canada. Why choose to be based in LA?
LA was always an obvious choice for me because it’s the center of the pop music scene that I want to be in. After my years in Boston during my college years, the next step was Los Angeles - to be immersed and integrated amongst the creatives that are shaping the music we hear on Pop radio.
2. You’re a multicultural singer who wishes to connect cultures. Why has this philosophy been such a big part of your music?
I think that philosophy has been solidified and strengthened as I have embarked on my own creative and spiritual journey.
Musically, when I first even decided I wanted to pursue music - it was really as simple as that; a burning desire to make a living doing music, whatever it was. As my journey progressed, I realized that the reason I want to make music is because I want to MOVE people with my voice and my art. I want to make people feel the way I did when Kanye dropped 808 and Heartbreaks. Or when Jay Chou dropped November’s Chopin. I was purely swept away with emotion; sometimes I was dripping in subzero coolness, sometimes I felt crazy adrenaline, and other times I would bathe in sadness (and I LOVED it). Music and art influence the attitude and minds of people; and artists become icons and role models that people can look towards.
On a macroscopic level, when you influence a large audience you start to move culture as a whole.
This connects with some of my own spiritual realizations as a human being. As someone who comes from multiple cultures - it can be a struggle to identify with any single one of them completely. I feel like this lack of identification has shaped my own growth from childhood subconsciously, and I realize it now reflecting back. I want my music and my art to be a representation of a connection of unique cultures and be able to move and inspire people to live their own truths.
As this year slowly but surely comes to an end, in reflecting upon the trends and changes I’ve seen, it is clear that we are now living in the age of authenticity. While everyone strives to achieve this so-called authenticity; marketers and advertisers instead use this as a ploy against us. They encourage us to consume their products under the façade of owning a slice of something real to tether us to some form of reality in this confusing and ever-changing world. And the more we see this happening, the more disoriented we become; drifting aimlessly through spaces and time hoping to feel something. In the midst of this bleak circumstance, Chinese singer Xu Jun’s work is a rare grounding force.
The 30 year-old who found prominence in the second season of reality show ‘Song of China’ is not particularly emotive when he speaks in the traditional sense. Save for when he gets excited and his voice raises a semitone or so, Xu gives off a pragmatic, steady vibe, emitting a simple confidence that is not flighty nor intense. Rather, all misconceptions of how he might be as a person due to his background or affiliations disappear and are replaced with a human conversation with someone passionate about filtering authenticity through their music.
“I feel that in music or art, honesty is authenticity. That is, how you are as a person and what you put out in your music are very much interconnected. If I am this certain type of person, I would let my music and my life to be at the same pace.“
Article by Matt Taylor
Cover Art by Allison Sun
Music, politics and protest in Taiwan are intrinsically linked. From the rumblings of Taiwanese identity in the campus folk music of the 1960s to the emotionally charged Island Sunrise 島嶼天光 written for the 2014 Sunflower Movement and even the long-running environmental conservation efforts instigated on the island, a rich and diverse musical history has always provided support; spreading the story of the underprivileged, and documenting their hopes and struggles.
Similarly, there is a wealth of music that has been produced to support LGBT people that for many years has bolstered the island's image as one that is progressive and supportive of same-sex love. The canon of music representing the Taiwanese LGBT movement is as diverse as those who create it; spanning genre, gender and sexual orientation.
On 24 November 2018 however, Taiwan citizens rallied together to support several referendums spearheaded by conservative Christian groups. Up to 75% of Taiwanese voters not only voted to maintain the traditional definition of marriage, but also expressed desire to roll-back LGBT education in schools.
The LGBT community has been reeling from the realisation that Taiwan is not the beacon of progressiveness that they thought it was. In light of this, how can we now view the previously mentioned musical canon which has bolstered this image both at home and abroad?
This article is not a commentary on the referendum results. Instead, we aim to take a look at the diverse collection of Taiwanese music which was created to support the LGBT movement and take a look at how these songs' meanings are re-framed or deepened in a changing social and political climate.
In collaboration with Taiwanese YouTuber/singer-songwriter Dena Chang, Asian Pop Weekly is launching an all-new video & print interview series called ‘Cream of the C-pop’ where we go deep with our favourite Mandopop artists to create effortlessly engaging content accessible for both Eastern and Western audiences. Each episode will comprise of a video interview and tailored game segment hosted by Dena aired on her YouTube channel, released with the feature right here on Asian Pop Weekly.
“I’m always for wonderful niches.”
Those choice words were how Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter Joanna Wang ended one of many passionate rambles educating us on the fascinating Australian cosplay wrestler Ladybeard and how he had chanced onto his niche in the Japanese market. In hindsight, it seemed that such rambles occurred frequently (and were very much fuelled by us) during our interview with the artist, where we discussed everything under the sun from Wang’s latest album ‘Modern Tragedy’ and her musical process, to her celebrity crush on Alan Rickman and love for Harry Potter (she's a certified Slytherin).
But all these seemed like logical progressions for the affable artist, who has come into her own with eclectic musical offerings which span all kinds of genres, aesthetics and sentiments with seemingly no rhyme or rhythm; bar one. The fact that they are all niche offerings, satisfying Wang’s love for what she calls ‘wonderful niches’. Indeed, Joanna herself has created a ‘wonderful niche’ for her own musical offerings; an eclectic snowball of musical gems, comedy and storytelling, injected haphazardly into the Mandopop and wider internet landscape for fellow pop culture enthusiasts to dig deep and discover.
And although her more recent works are far from mainstream Top 100 fare, Joanna has never intended for her music to be a mystery to anyone-it’s just that it’s probably best appreciated by people who share her unique jumble of sentiments and interests.
“I’m not writing it to be an enigma or anything…if I were an audience I would write stuff that I think I could get or appreciate, or things that make me happy and I want to express it to people.. It’s a pretty straightforward process. I have feelings and sentiments that I want to share with people, and it might give them something nice, just like how pop culture has given me many many wonderful feelings.”
Even the backstories behind the creation of her songs and concepts showcase a musicality, humour and aesthetic that is uniquely Joanna-geeky, awkward and humorous; but with an aura of confidence and sweetness that endears her greatly to her fans. She let us in on the conception of the ‘Modern Tragedy’ title and the inspiration behind a few other tracks on the record:
“So I’m really close friends with Lara Liang and her sister Esther. I remember I posted this picture on Facebook… I was working in Finland at the time and I was trying to buy a pizza. I guess I couldn’t really understand the subtleties of the variations of pizza in Europe so what I ended up getting was a calzone…when I opened the box … it was just like a round, strange configuration of dough and filling… I took a picture of it and I posted on Facebook in all caps ‘I JUST WANT A PIZZA’. Esther, she commented and just wrote ‘your life is a modern tragedy’. And I was like ‘ooo, modern tragedy’… Cos it was kind of like the perfect sentiment like…life is all these kind of like, underwhelming moments... But it’s also quite sweet.
Sabrina Don’t Get Married Again
“I had a dream this one time that I was in a 90s cover band, but it was kind of like a crappy garage band… I remember I was singing in a carnival that was super reminiscent to the carnival from Final Fantasy X-2. Not in the same universe whatsoever. But in my dream I was covering a song called ‘Sabrina Don’t Get Married Again”, in my dream that was an actual hit from the nineties…and then I woke up and to the best of my abilities tried to write it down...“
The Motorized Scooter Edo
“This song I’d written in high school and it was written because I had a massive crush on my band teacher…Basically what happened was my band teacher, he like got in like some kind of accident on a ski holiday over winter break, he broke his leg and had to wear this massive cast to school. And he couldn’t walk … so he rode a motorized scooter… There was this one day it was during lunchtime…and I just remember Mr Edo was riding on his scooter. He knows he’s funny so he was being a goofball, riding on his scooter with his one leg propped up…and he has his arm out …and it was just like, ‘this guy, somethin’ else’. And I had a massive crush on him for two weeks…and I wrote a song sometime in those two weeks.”
Often when you ask an artist about what inspires their music, they tell you something generic like ‘life’, or –lo and behold-a romantic relationship. So it’s refreshing to see an artist like Wang who shares such detail-oriented stories about the inspiration behind each of her songs, effortlessly using lesser-mentioned parts of the human experience to create immersive worlds of art and storytelling. Indeed, her concept of ‘Modern Tragedy’ is an apt reconstruction of this worldview.
“I really like narratives or stories where the protagonist is kind of a loser or an underdog. But there’s a lot of sweetness and humour and humanity in that kind of story.”
Be it a line of friendly banter, a wacky dream, or a schoolgirl crush, we’ve all had those moments that brighten our day just a little. And seeing them enlarged and transformed into fleshed-out narratives through the lens of Wang’s music is a heartening step towards a healthier palate of musical food for thought, especially in a relatively conservative music scene such as Taiwan’s. Despite penning all her work in English and having audiences all around the world, we were curious to know why she continues to concentrate her efforts here.
“It’s just where my life is. And I haven’t really sought elsewhere...If there’s any kind of expanding beyond borders, I just feel like, it’s all in the internet. That reaches further, so. I don’t know, I’m happy just…I feel like I’ve found myself to be in a really like peculiar position that is working very well for what I want to do which is just to make albums.”
.After over a decade of experience in the industry, Joanna seems to be in a position where she truly knows what she wants and how she wishes to get there. Just like how she’s dug for musical and cultural treasures in the past and found so much fulfilment from doing so, maybe Wang hopes to recreate that feeling in her listeners when they chance upon her music, just as I did.
“I feel like the best way to enjoy music is when you can’t really find or don’t really know who that person is; it's just this strange, abstract thing that exists in the ethers of the world. I always really like it when I can’t find who’s done the music. It’s like this little treasure box. That’s the thing I love about finding pop culture, or any kind of thing… When you have to dig for something, I think that’s the most magical part. The world is like big enough that there’s all this exciting unknown.”
Given her extensive discography and significantly different starting point in this scene, many may know OF Joanna Wang, but whether they really know her is another question altogether. But if you dig deeper; brushing away blistered and cracking layers of decade-old misrepresentations, you’ll find a sparkling gem nestled not that far from your reach. An artist so passionate about exploring the unknown in ways that supersede the arbitrary structures of pop music is hard to find in any industry; but I’m glad Wang has found her place here; in a space which just so happens to be MY niche. Thank you for always inspiring me to explore the unknown, and all the wonderful niches it holds.
Joanna Wang's latest album 'Modern Tragedy' is out now on all streaming platforms. Check out her Facebook or YouTube to join her wonderful niche!
By Stella Soon
“If I can ... write music or play music as my career, I’d be very fortunate and very lucky.” Marcus Chang 張立昂 told me.
It may be surprising that these words are coming from the actor who’s snagged top roles in hit movies like Cafe.Waiting.Love 等一個人咖啡 and most recently, the drama Between 三明治女孩的逆襲.
But digging deeper into the 35-year-old’s life proves otherwise.
“[Music has] always been my interest and hobby,” said the University of Auckland performance arts graduate, who picked up the guitar at 15.
In August this year, he released his first EP, ±1 正负1, which marked his first step into a musical career.
All four tracks in the EP are movie and drama theme songs, including three from the 2018 drama, ‘Between’, where he played the lead role.
Including only original soundtracks (OSTs) in this EP was, too, a strategic choice.
Interview with Haneri (a.k.a Daphne’s Khoo) - Bridging cultural and musical gaps with optimism and (real) love
One of my best childhood memories while living in Singapore was watching the very first season of ‘Singapore Idol’, a spin-off of the then-wildly popular American reality singing series. Every episode, we would tune in and I would root for my favourite contestant Daphne Khoo. I was particularly enamoured with her rendition of Des’ree’s ‘You Gotta Be’, significantly marking my first forage into pop territory and the R&B genre.
I’m not sure if it was because of her sweet personality, or the fact that she was one of few female artists amidst a male-dominated batch, but I had all the faith that she would go somewhere with that voice. Although I’m sure Daphne wouldn’t like to be defined solely by her performance in a show that aired over a decade ago, it seems that I wasn’t too far off the mark about her career trajectory, which has consistently gone from strength to strength since her debut in 2008.
Khoo has gone on to become a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter in the Singaporean and the western music scene, dabbling in a wide range of genres while keeping things consistent with the addition of her sweet, soulful vocals and empowering lyrics. Re-debuting last year under the moniker of Haneri, the talented all-rounder is making her mark in a unique way, simultaneously paving the path for local creatives to take their collaborations to a more global level, while establishing her own unique, upbeat sound. While promoting her new single ‘Real Love’, we took the opportunity to speak with her about working through this shift, and her intriguing creative philosophy.
In collaboration with Taiwanese YouTuber/singer-songwriter Dena Chang, Asian Pop Weekly is launching an all-new video & print interview series called ‘Cream of the C-pop’ where we go deep with our favourite Mandopop artists to create effortlessly engaging content accessible for both Eastern and Western audiences. Each episode will comprise of a video interview and tailored game segment hosted by Dena aired on her YouTube channel, released simultaneously with the feature right here on Asian Pop Weekly.
Kurt Hugo Schneider is all about the grind. For all his millions of subscribers all over the world, the down-to-earth YouTuber is still used to wearing all the hats-from recording and producing his own tracks to filming and editing the videos. Known for his innovative and tasteful mashups and medleys of pop songs, the 30 year-old rose to fame when his Michael Jackson medley with Sam Tsui went viral. Since then, the multi-talented creative has continued to expend his influence by pumping out new, never-before-seen methods of transforming well-known songs. Be it sonically or visually, KHS is truly a pioneer of the remix culture as we know it today.
From Billboard hits to Bollywood, the gregarious personality seems to have done it all, contributing greatly to bridging gaps between cultures through music. As Kurt succinctly puts it, “Music, universal language. Even if you don’t speak the language, everyone kinda gets music". He shared with us how he comes up with his inventive ideas for mashups.
“Usually it’s just listening either on the charts or radio and seeing something that I like and also something I think I can do something different and cool with. Sometimes it’ll be a song that I like but I actually don’t have a super cool idea for how to make it different so I might not do something with that.”
One of his covers which piqued our interest in particular was KHS’s collaboration with Casey Breves and Jasmine Clarke on a cover of Mandopop favourite ‘Love Confession’ by Jay Chou, where he reinvented the song as a duet with an uplifting, atmospheric arrangement. After hearing from Breves himself, we thought it would only be fitting to hear from Kurt himself how the collaboration came together.
“I did it with a friend Casey who is incredibly enough-I don’t know if he would say fluent because he talks with people all the time in Chinese… (but) he’s also just really good with languages and a very smart guy. (Jasmine Clarke) just hit me up, I thought that this would be the perfect song and I said ‘let’s do it’ and it all went from there.”
Despite calling several big-time artists including Sam Tsui, Lindsey Stirling and Rebecca Black past collaborators, Schneider sees his channel as a platform for collaborations with anyone to come to life; as long as their music is up to scratch.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who have absolutely no following but they’re good. I think if something’s gonna be fun and interesting I’m down… It’s my pleasure that I can work with so many talented people all the time.”
But out of all his past collaborations, there is one notable collaborator who has been a seminal influence and part of his works since the very beginning-singer-songwriter Sam Tsui. Kurt spoke a little about his friendship with Tsui, which started when they were in middle school.
“The person I’ve collaborated with the most is my friend Sam. He’s an amazingly talented singer and an all around great musician too… It’s been a long time. Obviously there’s some people who I’ve just known for so much longer and collaborating with them is still easy. Not only did we go to the same middle school we also met when we were on the same bus.”
Kurt also let us in on how he manages to keep those brain juices flowing to keep up with YouTube audiences’ ever-growing appetite for new and interesting content, even when his inspiration has reached its breaking point.
“Go out and eat some food and come back. Sleep on it and wake up the next day. I guess try to get your mind off it and do something else. I wear many different hats doing the music side and post production on music, like the more technical…but the nice thing about doing things like that and also video is that if you can’t come up with an idea on some piece of music, you do that and come back (and) you have some idea you didn’t have before. Sometimes I feel like working in a different area recharges the brain a little bit.”
From hiding a mattress in Yale University’s multimedia centres so he could create content day and night to becoming one of YouTube’s most prominent personalities, Schneider has come a long way. Along the way, he’s learnt several important lessons; about the importance of maintaining personal non-work relationships, and navigating the YouTube landscape. But most importantly, he gave some choice advice about creative control in an industry where authenticity is key.
“Creative people tend to be control freaks about their stuff. If it’s something creative that you care about, yes you want to have a lot of say in how that turns out. But at the same time there’s only one of you, so gotta learn how to let go of some of that stuff.”
From our interview with Kurt, it seems that in working your way to the top, the goal should not always be just about the end destination. Instead, it’s about not letting external validation consume you, finding a way to make things work that works for you and always remembering why you do what you do.
Watch Video Interview With Dena Here