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.
Equipped with a clean, hard-hitting set of vocals and a versatility that takes her easily across folk, jazz, funk and of course the rock genre, Taiwanese singer-songwriter YM Chen’s voice and musical style reveal a maturity and depth beyond her young years. Influenced by a classy selection of vintage folk and rock, Chen’s debut EP ‘She’s Blue Again藍色星期五’ traverses a plethora of social and philosophical ideas. Against the backdrop of a well-oiled blend of folk and rock, the 22 year-old discusses the concept of ‘Blue’ from all angles; be it musical, or cultural. Perhaps it would be best to start this discussion by finding out what the passionate individual defines as ‘Blue’:
“Sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes it’s harmful” was her cryptic answer.
redefining 'blue' musically
While other female artists in her age bracket are singing love songs, it is already clear to me that Chen is unafraid to take her music down the unbeaten path, delving deep into ideas that are truly important to her.
Even from young, Chen has always attached a cultural significance to her music; perhaps as a result of her influence from rock and folk from the 60s and 70s, which tended to touch on important social issues.
“Before kindergarten, my mom played a lot of Carpenters, Paul Simon, The Animal, Elvis Presley…etc. to me. Their songwriting composed a big part of my writing style…”
inEdgy, retro and with a name that nobody knows how to pronounce correctly, 9m88 is every hipster’s dream. Exploding onto the indie scene late 2016 after her duet with Leo Wang ‘Weekends with You’ made its way across the interwebs, the creative sprite has already established herself as one of the scene’s freshest and most anticipated acts. To date, the Jazz/R&B singer-songwriter has only released a handful of tracks including a two-track vinyl, but already has a strong following who are enthralled by her 90’s-inspired wardrobe, mop of permed hair and uniquely retro/tongue-in-cheek musical style.
For such an interesting singer, it is no surprise that she also has a unique musical taste that sets her apart from the usual aspiring-artist candidates.
“I started listening to Hip-Hop, R&B when I was in middle school, and I started dancing afterwards. That’s the moment I got to listen to music in these categories. But as I always said, after knowing Erykah Badu’s music, I really feel I can make music like that. Jazz came afterwards, and my journey is still going on.”
Upon listening to Japan-based folk duo Nature Airliner’s music for the first time, their sound feels like a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air all in one go. Never did I think that those two phrases would ever work in tandem, but the husband-and-wife duo’s soothing discography has certainly proved me wrong. With a sound inspired by 60s and 70s folk giants such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; and vocals that draw from the likes of Freddie Mercury and Stevie Nicks, the easygoing duo composed of Laurier and Eiko are here to prove that simplicity and authenticity can speak louder than the grandest arrangements.
Q: As a husband-and-wife duo, you guys have an offering that is quite unique. How did you meet and decide to start this band?
Eiko: I decided to post a personal ad because I was fed up with meeting guys in bars. Laurier was hooked by my ad. Two years after we got married, Laurier begged me to sing for a new folk duo he wanted to start.
Q: Laurier, you've often said that you are enamoured with Eiko's voice. What is it about it that you love so much?
Laurier: To quote a Leonard Cohen lyric, from the first time I heard her sing, it was, “A voice that sounds like God to me…”. To my ears, heart and soul, she has the clearest, strongest and warmest voice I have ever heard. It’s like the Archangel Gabriel. Haha.
Q: Your music is very much rooted in the folk genre with simple arrangements and warm melodies. Given the ever-changing and updating music scene in Japan, was it tough to stay true to your own style?
Laurier: J-pop and K-pop seem to dominate the charts in Japan, and most people are used to hearing music that is built up on forty-eight or ninety-six tracks or whatever, so it is sometimes shocking for people to hear us make music that is intentionally simple. Many people actually have tried to get us to add more members and more instruments, but I think that when the overwhelming majority of musical acts are drowning in complicated arrangements, our staunch simplicity can be a welcome relief to many people who would prefer an alternative.
By Jocelle Koh & Matt Taylor
In an overwhelmingly positive and progressive move, Taiwan announced in February 2018 that it would be moving full speed towards a blanket ban on single-use plastic drinking straws, takeaway beverage cups, plastic bags and disposable utensils by 2030, one of the farthest reaching bans on plastic in the world. Originally promoted by the government since the early 1990s due to worries about diseases and cross-contamination, single use utensils and plastic bags soon became a huge problem, producing over 160,000 tonnes plastic waste annually. As a result, there have been consistent efforts by the government to become more environmentally conscious since 2000. Although this may seem an unwieldy task for residents outside Taiwan, locals have already had a culture of environmental friendliness going for years; something which has been reflected in their music scene in a big way.
And when we say ‘big’, we don’t mean a huge gaggle of artists releasing songs about loving the earth in one spurt because it was trendy before petering off to a dying trickle. We mean a consistent and encouraging history of artists within the Taiwanese independent and mainstream scenes who have expressed their concern at the state of the environment, and used their influence and visibility to keep the cause going. From Luo Ta-Yu in 1984 to Wang Leehom in 2007, and the aptly titled ‘Quit Plastic Poison’ by the Sheng Xiang band in 2016, here’s a crash course on how Taiwanese music’s authenticity and outspoken nature has lent itself perfectly to the island’s journey to greater environmental wellbeing.
Luo Ta-yu - Super Citizen 超級市民 (1984
It’s impossible to overstate how influential veteran singer Luo Ta-yu 羅大佑 has been on the development of popular Chinese language music. Since his initial contribution to the campus folk movement (校園民歌運動) of the 1970s, Luo has deservedly been credited with not only broadening the horizons of Chinese music sonically, but also setting a new model for lyricism in Mandarin.
Up-and-coming Mandopop artist Eric Chou seems to be something of an anomaly. Debuting at the young age of 19, his first single 'Let’s not be friends anymore' was a breakout hit, amassing over 121 million views and capturing hearts across the region. Since then, he’s made a name for himself as the new-gen prince of ballads, known for his soulful vocals and earworm-y love songs that have gained him quite a mainstream following. Yet despite his overwhelming mainstream success with love songs, other parts of his repertoire continue to be praised by industry professionals for his experimentation with the EDM genre, with his compositions even being praised by the likes of Eve Ai and Starr Chen. While the tastes of the Taiwanese mainstream and the industry are often at odds, it seems that an exception has been made in both parties’ mutual appreciation for Chou’s works.
Although Eric is not the first to rock the boat with his musical fare, he IS one of few new-gen mainstream artists who has his sights securely set on bringing updated EDM music to Chinese pop. This is a message that has become increasingly prevalent in his music, most significantly in his third and latest album, ‘The Chaos After You’.
“‘The Chaos After You’ is my third album and I think the third album for any artist establishes ground for where I want to head towards in the future. So for this album you’ll hear a lot of different elements rather than normal ballads. You’ll hear EDM, and the reason for EDM is these past two years I started listening to a lot of …Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix… I think these kinds of EDM music influenced me, ‘cus I feel like the old EDM style is more from clubs and for (a) hyper vibe but now it’s on the top charts, it’s turning into pop culture and it can be like a ballad song but with the (EDM) music arrangement and mix.”
If I had previously thought that there was no one else who had the same passion for bringing Taiwanese music to Western audiences, after meeting Mia Yen, I had to concede that I had met my match. The driven show curator, booking agent and all-round creative, who comes from a family of entertainment professionals has been shaking up the overseas market recently, helping all kinds of amazing indie Taiwanese acts to have their sounds heard live throughout North America. From cult R&B darling 9m88 to the legendary Anpu (formerly known as Deserts Xuan), independent music heroes FIRE EX. to Sunset Rollercoaster, Mia has her finger in almost every independent Taiwanese music pie that lands on US soil.
On top of this, Yen is also the brains behind the Taiwanese Waves showcase held in Central Park, New York annually for the last two years. The event which happens in July annually is amongst the venue Summerstage’s most popular free shows; an amazing feat given that 100% of their acts perform in a language other than English. But none of this came easy for her, as she overcame uncertainty, ethnocentrism, funding issues while making it sound like it was nothing more than a walk in Central Park. Influenced by her family’s roots in the media industry, Mia first discovered her love for live shows while in high school.
“I have a huge passion for music, I don’t play but I enjoy music a lot and in high school I started going to a lot of concerts in Taiwan to see bands and concerts… I think the best way to meet or know a band or singer better is through live performance. Because through recording everyone can do a really well-done job but to me like live shows are very special in the way that you and the artist and the people around you are experiencing the same thing at the same time in a very specific space. So to me it’s really powerful, that’s why I really like it…That’s why I’m more passionate about concerts, live performances.”
And in 2008, going to New York, the mecca of live music and performances to complete her undergrad degree afforded her a chance to pursue this love for live shows, and to discover where it could take her.
“In New York I quickly learned that everybody on tour was stopping in New York. So I dreamed of working in a music venue to be a part of these concerts. And finally in senior year of my Undergrad I did an internship with a music venue in New York called The Living Room…and… learned more about not only the music venue and concert business but also how to run a club. Because you learn more about how to set up ticket prices, what drinks to sell, at what price for audiences and so it was a really interesting experience and I really enjoyed it.”
When you think ‘Taiwanese indie music’, those of you in the know might associate the term with kitschy groups dressed in colourful, mismatched outfits, or with distressed bands which always happen to have a female lead singer singing somewhat eerily. But no matter what popped up for you, I doubt ‘East-meets-West music’ was the first thing to spring to mind. A niche theme popularised by the likes of pop stars Wang Leehom, David Tao, Khalil Fong and more, it is surprising to see such influences creep into the underbelly of the Taiwanese music scene.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Calvin Jordan and Anna Pan set out to do when they started their band Violet Lens in 2015, a five-piece indie/alternative pop/ punk and indie rock outfit that proffers an organic blend of Eastern and Western musical influences while performing in English, Mandarin and sometimes Taiwanese. The band, composed of Calvin (Songwriter, Backup Vocals), Anna (Songwriter, Vocals), Stan (Lead guitar), Howl (Bass, Backup Vocals) and Kulou (Drums) started in a way as Taiwanese and as indie as one could get; through the use of Taiwanese independent music sharing platform Streetvoice. Calvin recalls:
“Violet Lens started when I found a few of Anna’s songs on StreetVoice.com. I immediately felt a connection to her voice, which sounded special even when recorded on a smartphone and paired with a beat-up old guitar. At the time I was living in Taichung, so I reached out to Anna and asked if she was open to collaborating and possibly meeting up in Taipei to play together. She was a bit reserved, but said she was interested. Shortly after that we met up and started sending snippets of song ideas to one another.”
Get your fix of exclusive interviews with up-and-coming Asian artists, and special long-form content, all in English in our Features section.