A small-town girl with a deep love for music, Sijie Liu, currently the Vice President for Booking and Artist Development at the formidable Modern Sky USA has been at the peak of the trend bringing well-loved Asian indie artists to tour in the states over the last few years. From Korea’s Hyukoh to Taiwan’s Sunset Rollercoaster and Hong Kong heavyweight Edison Chen, Liu slowly opening the floodgates for Asian music to find a home and audiences in the West. In my experience, it often takes someone special to end up in a position like this, so I had to scratch my itch (as I do when finding like-minded people) by documenting her story in this Q&A.
Tell us a little about your background. Have you always been interested in Asian music and pop culture?
I was born in a small town in Sichuan, and came to the states for college when I was 17. I’m like most of the Chinese kids who studied piano and passed the highest level of the tests for amateurs. I started as listening to Mandarin pop music (I think I was the first one in my class to listen to Jay Chou actually), and after that, lots of pop and jazzy stuff in high school.
Because of the love in all these Asian pop music, I just wanted to learn more about music, I chose to minor in Music Studies for my undergrad. Also Indiana University has a really reputable Music School. That’s when I really started digging in lots of different genres of music.
The reason why I changed my path from studying Finance/Data at a later time was mainly because of all those classes I took for the music studies, and it just opened a new gate for me.
We hear you moved to the states to study Music Business at NYU. What was the reason behind this decision?
I actually studied Finance for my undergrad. Before I came to the states, I’ve never thought about studying music as a profession even I’ve always surrounded by music and enjoyed listening to music. Not until I was getting my first Master degree in Data Analytics, I thought I was going to be a consultant or working for a bank.
However, minoring in Music and getting exposed to all these different genres of music was the reason why I decided to change my path. I went straight to my first graduate degree. But during the first semester, I just had this feeling that I want to do something in the music industry, and something that I could also apply what I’ve learned in business school.
Your passion for helping Asian musicians achieve success in North America is amazing! Where do you think it stems from?
Aw thanks! I think it’s closely related to where I’m from and the kind of music I was exposed to when I grew up. I loved all the classes I took about Western rock, jazz, blues, and that’s how I started grew a real passion in the music industry. But all this just made me want to find about more about great Asian bands, singer-songwriters, etc.
You’ve brought the likes of Edison Chen, Song Dongye, Hyukoh, Sunset Rollercoaster and more to North America to share their music with the Western world. Could you share a little about the process of booking these artists and helping them achieve success?
Most of the artists I’ve worked with are Modern Sky signings and they’ve had great success in Asia. There are lots of factors that affect the booking process. Usually it starts with analysis of the current markets both in Asia and here in North America. Then it moved to availabilities of the artists, and we would check if that’s a suitable time for the market here. Then it comes to finding appropriate cities and venues and it usually takes lots of rounds of negotiations to confirm all the details.
We don’t just do booking, in most of the cases, we also take the role as Promoters. So it then requires working on the visa process, marketing, ticketing, advancing, tour managing, etc.
Has there been a most rewarding part of your journey (or memory) thus far in helping so many Asian artists to perform in North America?
I think same as all other staff who work for a tour or a festival, the most rewarding part is when I see the artist performing on the stage in front of their fans. I know this sounds very simple. After putting all the efforts to book and promote a tour, when you see the show is finally happening in front of you and all the audience enjoying it, that feeling is just…
Why do you think helping artists of Asian descent to tour and expand their prominence in the West is important?
Expanding new markets and to play in different cities is always appealing to artists. But another prominent side is the fans as well. I always use myself as an example of when I was in school here in the states. I was always wanting to see artists who I like from Asia to perform here. I still remembered the first time I attended Modern Sky Festival NYC in Central Park, I was still studying in school. And I saw bands like Queen Sea Big Shark, Omnipotent Youth Society, Dessert Zhang (Anpu). To see them here, that feeling was indescribable.
You’ve certainly come a long way, and on a path that not many have chosen. Do you see an increasing demand for people with an understanding of Eastern pop culture in the Western market?
We know that it is not easy to break into the Western world here.
But as I mentioned in the last question, there are lots of Asians/Asian Americans and growing number of international students also with increasing purchasing power to live/visit here. I think the market is promising. Just need to market it the right way. Also, I’m not giving up on marketing Eastern pop/artists to Western crowd here, I always want to find an effective way of promoting them here to the local crowd.
What advice would you give to those who are inspired to bring more Mandarin or Asian music to the rest of the world?
You must be aware of all the risks before signing on to this. Not just financially, but also risks with visa, marketing, etc.
What’s on your playlist right now? Are there any musicians or particularly influential figures who have inspired you on your journey?
I’ve been listening to Leah Dou for a while now. I really liked her latest album and I saw her at a festival in Beijing this year. She is incredible.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Event wise, we have Modern Sky Festival NYC (9.22), Toronto (9.23), and L.A. （11.10）coming up . Also we’ve announced tours for Tizzy T, Sunset Rollercoaster for September, and Crowd Lu tour in November. There are more tours to be announced for this Fall and next year. We are also having new projects with different artists too. Stay Tuned!!!
An inspiring story from a woman who’s got a strong head on her shoulders, Liu seems to have it all figured out. By thoroughly understanding every step of the process of bringing artists overseas to perform, she now has the skills to fully focus on a niche market that few have considered-and to maximise the potential of such a market. As always, the biggest philosophical struggle is to find acceptance of Eastern music by Western audiences, but I have no doubt that with her heart in the right place, Sijie will continue to contribute greatly to efforts that will encourage a truly universal music culture.
By Stella Soon
It’s never easy combining two different musical genres.
But fusing their R&B/soul and lyrical rock styles together in a joint showcase are Singaporean singer-songwriters Ariane Goh 伍芝儀 and Mary Wong 黃麗慧.
Pushing the boundaries of their musical styles, the good friends have also co-written a song and will be dueting each other’s tunes then.
Asian Pop Weekly writer Stella Soon caught up with the musicians about working together and what’s on their plates for the rest of 2018.
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. Kowen’s written interview will first be released on Asian Pop Weekly, followed by the video on Dena's YouTube soon after.
Author: Stella Soon
Editor: Jocelle Koh
Photos by: Anrong Xu
Kowen Ko (柯智棠)’s low, husky voice and guitar-clad figure tugs at the heartstrings of many. But few know that being a singer was never on the 28-year-old’s plans. Neither did he grow up listening to Taiwanese Mandopop.
So in our interview with the 2016 Golden Melody Awards Best Mandarin Male Singer and Best Newcomer nominee, it seems like he’s come a long way. And now that we have a better idea of the spontaneous, humble soul behind the voice, we’re here to share it with you.
About this feature series: ‘Profiles' is an all-new feature series where we dedicate an article to highlighting how certain Mandopop artists have changed the scene. These features promise a unique perspective and shine a new light on artists that we think deserve to be applauded for their contributions to the contemporary Mandopop scene.
By Matt Taylor
Editor: Jocelle Koh
Formatting: Raymond Hiew
"I am going to do something great today — it is one of the decisions I made for myself since I turned 30. I finally understand why people like to take selfies of themselves as you really want to take a picture of yourself when you have a high morale."
The world of Chinese language entertainment spun into mourning on Sunday (August 5) when it had been announced that Hong Kong musician and actress Ellen Loo盧凱彤 had under non-suspicious circumstances been found on the floor outside her residency building after falling from her apartment. Ellen was 32 years old.
Since that unfortunate day, there has been an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy and sadness from celebrities, politicians and fans alike. Choosing to premiere our Profiles feature series with an article on Ellen however, is not to lament this tragic loss, but rather to celebrate and pay homage to the understated talent, endearing spirit and lasting legacy of one of pop music’s brightest and alternatively influential stars.
Defying Societal Gender Expectations in Pop Music
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. Matzka's written interview will first be released on Asian Pop Weekly, followed by the video on Dena's YouTube soon after.
Squinting in the heat of the day as he stepped out of a cab, Matzka arrived at Chu Fang Café for our Cream of the C-pop interview, accompanied by his team. A slightly intimidating figure, I hastened to introduce myself, to which he merely replied with a slight nod of his head. We soon realised that Matzka was a man of few words…at least until he started talking about music.
The 29 year-old hailing from the Paiwan tribe in Taitung struck an interesting chord with us; declining to rest indoors before filming and instead chatting with his team or sitting patiently next to Dena in the wilting heat before filming began. Given his heritage, he declared flippantly that this was something he was very much used to.
Another thing he hilariously seemed very used to was propping his feet up against something, requesting a chair to prop his feet up on while the entire interview was ongoing. Whilst initially giving us the impression of being slightly intimidating, Matzka soon showed himself as someone who was full of quirks, and a treasure trove of information especially when it came to music, and the reggae genre.
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.
From getting distracted by cute kitties to waxing philosophical on her life journey, we went deep with the elusive Diana Wang in a sit-down interview the eve of her performance at the 2018 GMA Showcase. There’s been a flurry of excitement circulating the Netherlands born singer-songwriter since she unexpectedly announced signing with Khalil Fong’s new record label FU MUSIC last year, pushing out a new enticing Chinese Opera-meets-R&B sound.
Six or seven years after debuting as a fresh-faced artist, and basically a lifetime of chasing ambitions as a singer, Wang has reinvented herself countless times before. Yet the 27 year-old seems to have hit her stride after joining forces with FU last year, slowly but significantly revealing her song writing prowess and unique worldview.
Photos by Anrong Xu (IG: @anrizzy)
After a rollercoaster ride of sponsors dropping out last minute, a whirlwind Crowdfunding campaign on FlyingV and the announcement of a star-studded line up, New York's annual Taiwanese Waves showcase is powering through, and slated to have the run of the legendary Summerstage venue on the 7th of July (6PM-10PM). Despite all the obstacles, the Taiwanese Waves team has nevertheless outdone themselves, putting together a truly fantastic tasting platter of Taiwan's best and brightest.
This year, they've invited Math-rock youngsters Elephant Gym大象體操, critically acclaimed music activist legends Sheng Xiang Band 林生祥 and SoftLipa蛋堡, the rapper who revolutionised Taiwan's hip hop scene with his chill raps. The team put together a short Q&A to gather the artists' thoughts on New York, Taiwanese Waves and how they hope to cross cultural barriers. Although all acts received the same questions, comparing the three acts' answers side by side truly show how different yet equally creative and unique their perspectives are.
Q1:What is your impression of New York?
Elephant Gym (EG): We haven’t been to New York before. But recently, Tell and Chia-chin love the TV show “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, which takes place in New York. Since the show brought many laughs to us, we felt very connected to the scenes in the show that takes place on the street of New York, haha!
Sheng Xiang Band (SXB): It seems that one has to visit New York once in his lifetime.
Soft Lipa (SL): A place for all walks of life and also a place that also makes one feel at ease.
I’ve always been a fan of YouTube sensation Casey Breves. With his dulcet tones and masterful craft, he’s been making rounds on the internet with his collaborations with husband Sam Tsui and other influential YouTubers, creating original content and mashup covers that are seamless and of another breed altogether. Yet it had never occurred to me that my love for his music could intersect with my passion for Mandopop until he released a cover of Jay Chou’s ‘告白氣球Love Confession’ in early March with Kurt Hugo Schneider and Jasmine Clarke. With the exception of Asian American influencers such as Jason Chen who have hopped onto the Mandopop bandwagon, Breves’ and Schneiders’ involvement in this project came as a pleasant surprise for me, as they seem to be the first Western acts to show any interest in the Mandarin music scene.
My attention diverted to Breves in particular, as I soon realised that he was no beginner at speaking Mandarin. His crisp pronunciation encouraged me to dig deeper, until I found yet another cover he had done a few years back, of indie singer-songwriter Bai An白安’s breakout hit ‘What Led Me To You 是什麼讓我遇見這樣的你’ which he professed to be one of his favourite songs. As my excitement levels peaked, I immediately drafted an email to invite the talented artist to share a little about his lesser-known interest in Mandopop and bridging cultural gaps with us.
Interview With Yen-J 嚴爵 - Thanks For Your Greatness (Pt. 2): A Future Full Of Equal Egos & Good Music
Like I said, the party doesn’t stop here for Yen-j. Chatting with us about his latest album ‘Y7 Doesn’t Matter’ and his new fashion label Equal Ego, the future continues to be bright for the driven musician/entrepreneur and his upcoming endeavours. Audiences and wider press expressed their shock in a big way when he secretly released his final album Y7 Doesn’t Matter, but Yen-j reveals that the album’s sole purpose was to be an intimate way to say goodbye to loyal fans.
“Ya I didn’t really do any promotion for it (Y7), and only printed 423 copies. It’s for that niche I mentioned earlier; a close and personal way to say goodbye. We had two small venue concerts which I signed the CDs. That was that, this vinyl also marks the last of my “physical” music artworks. From now on everything will be online.”
A collaborative effort between Yen-j and his entire Song Design爵隊創作 team, Y7 Doesn’t Matter features a more avant-garde approach to Jazz fusion; drawing from the Hard-Bop genre popularized in the 1940s and incorporating elements of EDM. Focused on the concept of ‘thinking outside the box’ and bravely being yourself, the album hammers this point home through a consistent and oftentimes literal approach to the album’s music and visuals. Leaving his comfort zone and working closely with New York-based vocal act Bailen, he assures us that there is much more cross-cultural exploration to be done in his future musical exploits.
“Being back in the US, and in the center of the music industry mecca, I definitely am looking forward to collabs with talented new acts, and perhaps breaking into the DJ scene here.”
But other than the new album, what came as even more of a surprise was the reveal of Yen-j’s other big endeavour; the unveiling of his fashion brand Equal Ego. In fact, he shares that the calling was unexpected, even for him.
“Equal Ego was a calling. I’ve cared less for fashion and always depended on my personal stylist to dress my best over the years. And when I received this -for lack of a better description, message from heaven- I was actually terrified. I had no confidence that I could start a fashion line; I had zero experience with clothing design. Yet God lined up some of the best in the industry alongside me to help me out, miraculously. And I founded the company on faith, not on Ego. The purpose of this brand, is to let the blessed bless the poor. Let the people on the top of the pyramid overflow their blessings down to the very bottom of the social structure. Right now every season we give 50% of our earnings to orphanages in Taiwan. I will keep searching for areas of the society which could benefit from this brand.”
And for the fearless creative who would never be caught dead saying he regretted any of his musical endeavours, there is one thing he regrets not doing during his time in Taiwan’s entertainment industry:
“Well, if I knew anything about the birth of Equal Ego, I would’ve went back in time and asked my stylist what designer suits he was putting on me and for what reasons. Lol. ”
Now based back in the States and gearing up for the launch of his Equal Ego Taobao shop on the 23rd of April, Yen-j has been keeping himself busy with university courses while juggling projects for Equal Ego and Song Design, his music production company.
“I’m pretty swamped up having dived into the clothing industry. Currently I’m taking fashion design classes as well as switching to an international management business major, in order to keep things kinda under control. Music wise, Song Design (爵隊創作) is still running and producing for clients overseas.”
Yen-j also exclusively revealed that alongside the Taobao store unveiling for Equal Ego, the brand will also be releasing a new limited edition accessory which would give purchasers access to Equal Ego’s Summer Hip Hop party on the 7th of July.
But overall, fans should be glad to know that he’s doing well, and handling the change of direction smoothly. After all, Yen-j has met with many a hard decision in his pursuit of his dreams. In his first album Thanks For Your Greatness, he spoke extensively about quitting school and moving to Taipei alone, only to be met with doubt and uncertainty. Thus it would be more than fitting to get his advice on handling the inevitable crossroads of life.
“A crossroad is just your state of mind, it is temporary. The destination is everything. PURPOSE, get that first and you can take as many detours and crossroads and you will be fine. Like that old joke, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.’ Find your purpose above all. And for me, that really can’t be accomplished without knowing God.”
If not for that joke, I would almost have forgotten about Yen-j’s dark and oftentimes existential sense of humour. But this was just one of many reminders during our interview that the Yen-j we know and love is still the same. As he transitions towards a future in fashion design and new types of music, it’s good to know that some things never change.
In his capacity as an artist; Yen-j has influenced me and the scope of Asian Pop Weekly drastically. Be it his passion for creativity and innovation, his optimism or his big-picture approach to life; I strongly believe I am better for having been witness to his legacy. And if countless others feel the same way I do, then there is much to look forward to; both in terms of Yen-j’s future, and the future of the Mandarin pop scene. So in a sentiment that I know many others share; I’d like to say this to the artist whose music will stay with me for a long time to come: Thanks for your greatness, and here’s to much more greatness to come. [READ PART 1 OF YEN-J'S INTERVIEW HERE]
Yen-j’s new fashion brand ‘Equal Ego’ will open their Taobao store on the 23rd of April along with a limited edition new accessory item. Those who successfully purchase one of the 100 in stock will also qualify to attend Equal Ego’s Summer Hip-Hop Party in Taipei on the 7th of July.
Interview with Yen-J 嚴爵 - Thanks for your greatness (Pt. 1): Looking back on a Decade of innovative Work in Mandopop
As a longtime Mandopop enthusiast, it’s not always easy keeping track of everything that’s happening on the scene. Yet creative wunderkind Yen-j has always been a constant on my playlists, ever since his debut as a fresh-faced 22 year-old in 2010.
Upon learning of this new artist whom I shared a birthday with, I instinctively dove headfirst into his first album ‘Thanks for your Greatness謝謝你的美好’, and emerged with an entirely new worldview on the possibilities that existed for the Mandarin pop scene. Debuting with a fresh new sound that focused on unearthing a different side to mainstream Jazz and mixing it with elements of pop, Yen-J certainly made a splash with his first album, rendering it an instant classic. (I even have a theory that the success of his release inspired the resurgence of Jazz-inspired pop music within Taiwan in the few years that followed, but that’s for another article.)
Despite getting his start as a Jazz-pop artist, the affable singer-songwriter was determined not to allow himself to be defined by any one genre; instead relentlessly pursuing a plethora of different sounds throughout his seven-album discography. Be it Jazz, Pop, Hip Hop, Folk, Rock, R&B, EDM, or Gospel, Yen-J has expressed his voracious appetite for creating music through his willingness to experiment.
Get your fix of exclusive interviews with up-and-coming Asian artists, and special long-form content, all in English in our Features section.