By Jocelle Koh
Indie chanteuse Ann Bai is best known for her enchanting representations of the human condition; our insignificance, and of course the meaning of life. In her first hit single back in 2013 ‘What Led Me To You 是什麼讓我遇見這樣的你’, she wrote of being inspired by her time in Beijing, of feeling so small and miniscule in the big picture; while encapsulating the beauty of that.
Thus it seemed only fitting that my first night in Shanghai was spent watching the elfin wonder perform for the first time at the legendary MAO Livehouse. Taking to the stage in a ethereal black chiffon dress, she launched straight into a mini medley of songs both old and new, including redone versions of old favourites ‘Not Listening不聽’ and ‘What’s Next’接下來是什麼’; rendering the delicate electronica folk more robust and earthy.
Having never seen her perform live before, the 27 year-old singer-songwriter was much different from what I’d expected. Despite her hipster Cheer Chen/Anpu vibe, the creative was effortlessly warm and chatty, telling stories about everything from the number of cats she owned (five) to gently ribbing audiences over their purported love of Mayday.
Near the beginning of her set, Ann shared that she hoped this night would be one shared just between herself and the crowd; and though this sounds cliché on paper, I strangely believed her. Establishing an atmosphere of reverence and mutual respect between herself and fellow concertgoers, Ann’s quiet charm and dynamic, unique vocals quickly cast a spell over the crowd.
While other artists often convey their stage presence through exaggerated, external actions and words; the petite artist was strikingly unique in the way she composed herself onstage, and her interactions with her audience. One of my favourite moments was when she encouraged the crowd to participate in a singalong of her new song ‘Our Era我們的時代’.
While such singalongs are common in concert settings, I found it particularly powerful given that the song was written for and from the perspective of 90’s kids. Singing along to the refrains of her emphatic bridge over and over; building on the power not only from her vocals but ours too; it was a beautiful moment that comforted the anxieties of a generation at least in that moment.
“只要有你 什么都足够 As long as I have you anything is enough/只要有你 陪我到最后 As long as I have you to accompany me til the end/只要有你 记得我 就不害怕 As long as you remember me I won’t be scared/Our dreams will never die”
Despite the focus of the concert being on songs from her latest album ‘1990s’, I appreciate the effort that went into re-arranging and updating some older favourites, especially the stripped-down version of ‘Bird’ and the folksy, live band rendition of ‘Catcher In The Rye麥田浦手’ which grounded the listening experience further.
However, although on the whole the experience was heightened by Ann’s quiet exuberance and sincere vocals, I felt that certain parts of the performance; especially the visuals and sound detracted from the show. At times the visuals onscreen experienced interference, and with the visuals that didn’t; to me they were a little tacky and didn’t quite embody the Ann aesthetic I had envisioned. Sometimes using off-brand animations, photos and colours; especially when you’re in a position where it’s hard to get eyes on the performer throughout the performance; these visuals are integral in setting the scene and enhancing the atmosphere.
Other than this, the sound was another element that was slightly underwhelming. During Ann’s otherwise sweetly comforting rendition of ‘Comfort安慰’, the backing track seemed to have issues; coming off as dissonant and overpowering Ann’s vocals. At other times; although it was clear that the live band were cream of the crop performers; I couldn’t help but wonder if these sessionists were if not a little too pop for Ann’s sound. Extending her musical variety towards pop and unadulterated rock, these upbeat arrangements somewhat detracted from the intimate feeling the venue and Ann’s words had conveyed.
Nevertheless, no artist’s performance has ever added to the value of their original sound recordings in the particular way Ann had for me. Being in that live intimate space and hearing her share her endearingly longwinded and sincere stories behind each and every one of her songs internalised my understanding of her songs in truly transformative ways. In the two hour performance which ended with rousing renditions of ‘Escaping the Mediocre Life讓我逃離平庸的生活’ and her hit single ‘What Leads Me To You是什麼讓我遇見這樣的你’, Ann’s unique perspectives planted seeds of inspiration in her audiences minds just as artists from past generations have inspired her.
Through her set she espoused the importance of happiness, of family, of letting go, of loving yourself, and of course of being loved. To me, what is so special about Ann is not her unique voice, or her enchanting songwriting, or the particular genre of music that she writes in. It is this air of worldly calm she exudes from within, and this overarching theme of comfort that comes through in her music which is truly one in a million.
Ann’s music is like a precious stone. Not necessarily the kind you show off to others, but the kind you sew into your sleeves or tuck into a safe place, because its value lies in keeping them close to your heart; so that it provides a semblance of comfort and warmth in this crazy, confusing, conflicted world we live in. As such, the experience of seeing her perform live; marked by the milestone of reviewing my first ever live showcase in Shanghai will be remembered for a long time to come.