Get Wang Leehom talking about music and it becomes apparent very quickly that this is not your typical, vapid pop star. – Photos from Sony Music TaiwanWhat do you get when you put an erudite author who loves music and an intelligent singer in love with language into a small room together for two hours? An intriguing pop literary analysis!
AND then there are the parallel minor seventh leaps, which I think are the most accessible to Asian ears … yes, absolutely, there’s a universality in aesthetics….”
He goes on eagerly, “Do you know Bernstein’s Norton Lectures? ... Oh, it is a challenge in Chinese because of the lack of the stressed and unstressed … but the eubonics of Mandarin….”
American-Taiwanese singer/songwriter Wang Leehom is really in his element now. After a slightly cautious start to our interview, he begins to open up, and we talk freely about a huge range of subjects about which he seems absolutely passionate: composer Leonard Bernstein’s famous lectures at Harvard in 1973, Chinese vs English linguistics, cultural dichotomies, his early hatred of German composer and music theorist Paul Hindemith.
It’s fascinating stuff, but as he hits his stride and the ideas start to flow thick and fast, I must admit to feeling just a little bit unsettled.
As a professional writer, I’m accustomed to long intellectual discussions – it’s almost as if that is what people expect from writers even if we would rather be talking about football or rom-coms.
But with Wang, it’s different. This guy is, after all, a bona fide pop star, one of the few pan-Asian pop icons around. Frankly, you don’t expect a major pop celebrity to toss Hindemith casually into the conversation (let’s face it, Hindemith isn’t exactly a household name!).
But then again, Wang is not your average celebrity.
Genesis of a conversation
For some time, I have been discussing possible subjects for an article for StarMag. As my entire existence seems in one way or another to be devoted to literature, I wanted to branch out and write about something or someone who was not directly related to books, but was in some way deeply involved in the creative process – a filmmaker, perhaps, or a playwright.
I was interested in people who are representative of contemporary Asian culture, whose work reflects the fascinating mix of cultures in a rapidly globalising world.
Although I had long been a fan of Wang’s music, it was his role as the idealistic young nationalist Kuang Yumin in Ang Lee’s 2007 masterpiece, Lust, Caution, that first made me sit up and think about Wang’s work as a whole – not merely as a singer, but as a creative performing artist.
In a world where artists are, like everyone else, falling victim to the pressures of spin and marketing, Wang’s ability to retain his artistic integrity fascinates me, as does his seemingly effortless capacity to translate his appeal across borders.
So on a recent visit to Taipei, I asked if I could speak to him about these and other things. He very kindly took a couple of hours out of his hectic schedule to chat with me. Here are some extracts from what turned out to be an entirely surprising and illuminating conversation.
It’s such a pleasure to meet you. There’s so much I want to ask you, and I’m not quite sure where to begin. All I know is that I don’t want to ask you questions like, “What’s your favourite colour?”
“Oh, really? (laughs – maybe nervously – and looks a bit worried?). I get asked that a lot!
I was thinking maybe we could just start by talking about your music. There are one or two of your songs that hold particular interest for me, but maybe you’d like to pick one first.
Hmm, okay. How about Kiss Goodbye (from Wang’s 2006 album, Heroes of the Earth)? There’s a symmetry in that song that comes from Leonard Bernstein, who’s one of my favourite composers. Are you familiar with his work?
Yes. I think he’s very under-rated nowadays. Many people tend to think of him as a light-classical composer, not up there with the greats, but in fact he’s a genius.
Absolutely. He’s a big influence on me. What he uses a lot, and what I used for Kiss Goodbye, were these parallel minor seventh leaps, which I think are very accessible to the Asian ear.
There are all kinds of subtle leaps – intervallic and tri tone leaps. I used small measures all the time in this song – in the very first phrase and then they continue throughout.
I find that interesting: the borrowing of Western classical composition techniques to construct a modern Chinese pop song.
Yes, but I prefer to see it as something universal. There’s a kind of universality of aesthetics, which Bernstein speaks about in his Norton Lectures. He was very concerned with language and the universality of sounds and gestures ...
... Meaning that certain sounds and words transcend cultural and temporal boundaries?
Absolutely. Some things are the same in any language, any culture. For example, the word for “Mother” is always a variant of “ma” – the sound, if you like, of a baby reaching for its mother’s breast. In terms of ideas, big is always better, small is negative.
It’s interesting that – musically, at least – you think in what seems to be a universal way. Do you think that this is partly an explanation for your success? I mean, you’ve just mentioned the universal concept of “Big is Better”, and certainly, there is a sense that your work is destined for a big audience. The scope and ambition is almost palpable.
Yes, I guess so. My early musical ambitions always involved big-scale music-making. I’ve always wanted to communicate with a large audience. I guess I’ve always believed that there’s something there in society, brewing, waiting to be tapped into. Music can be a very powerful tool – like writing.
Did you ever believe that things would turn out this way? I mean, that you were going to be a pop star?
(Laughs.) At some point I realised that I had to give in to my fate. I guess it was quite early. I thought: “This is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life”. And it felt natural.
I’m guessing that your musical education was pretty formal, very rigorous.
Yes, totally. I started conservatory very young – I grew up in Rochester, New York, where there’s one of the most famous music schools in the world, the Eastman School of Music.
Then at college I studied ethnomusicology and took a special interest in composers like (early 20th century classical music composers Bela) Bartok and (Claude) Debussy – people who changed the way we listen to music. By realising that ethnic music could define sound, they changed musical theory itself.
Of course, there’s a direct parallel between Bartok’s investigation of gypsy folk music and your own work. Could you talk a bit about this?
Absolutely! A number of years ago I travelled through Tibet and Mongolia recording the music and songs of ethnic minorities. It was a very rich experience. I wanted to incorporate those sounds into contemporary music to try and change the way we approach the contemporary form.
You used this to stunning effect, I think, in your 2005 album Heroes of the Earth. I remember being completely blown away the first time I heard Hua Tian Cuo (translated roughly – and unsatisfactorily – as Mistake in the Flower Field). To me, it seems to capture the spirit of East Asian pop culture today.
It was so musically innovative – the erhu (Chinese two-string violin) was totally unexpected, as was the vocal line making reference to Beijing opera. It’s really not what you’d expect in a Chinese pop song. It’s a breath of fresh air – even today. Did you set out to be consciously innovative with that album?
Very much so. It’s interesting that you picked up on the vocal line, because there’s a lot of melisma (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession, as heard in plainsong or the blues) in that song.
I wanted that melismatic line to refer to traditional Beijing opera and kunqu (traditional Chinese theatre) because language is something that’s really important to me. I like to explore the potential of the Chinese language, to see how it can offer a more satisfying experience than English.
With Hua Tian Cuo I asked to study with some of the greatest Beijing opera singers to study their technique, but these guys don’t teach in the formal Western sense. They just imitate their teachers at first, then develop their own style.
It’s very hard training, because it isn’t structured, and by the age of 50 their voices are gone! There’s a lot of pain involved, physical and emotional.
I’m interested to know how the music industry regards such innovation. I’m presuming that your name and reputation buy you quite a lot of leeway, but how do the marketing and PR people react when you go to them and say, “My next album is going to involve a load of traditional instruments”?
(Chuckles.) Yeah, that’s always tricky. I’ve just always had a resistance to marketing, to pigeon-holing. Human beings are eclectic, and music should be too.
I’ve always just wanted to be a pop guy who does what he wants, just like all the artists I admire – Prince, R. Kelly, Outkast, Missy Elliot. They’re people who make the music they want. They leave the marketing to others.
Okay, to be honest, I did feel the pressure when the market was healthy. But with the world’s economy as it is now, I feel very liberated. As long as I can get by, just making the kind of music I want to, I’ll be happy.
Look at R. Kelly. He’s always going to be around – maybe never as present as someone like Kanye West, but he’s always doing interesting stuff. Whether writing or producing or performing, he always just doing his own thing.
I guess there’s always going to be pressure on creative artists, not just from the marketing people but from within. It’s a balance between wanting to communicate with an audience, wanting to be heard or read and understood – and wanting to innovate. Creativity is essentially a personal thing, but we have to recognise that we live in modern times, driven by market forces. It’s hard.
I understand completely. I see myself as a writer too, whatever style I’m working with. When I write and compose, there’s a certain degree of ambiguity. My work is quite metaphoric, which is very common in Chinese culture, I think – but it’s also dangerous and exciting because it’s ambiguous.
Could you talk a little about innovation and language? Because there’s a really strong sense of the importance of language in all your work. You mentioned R. Kelly, who is playful with his lyrics, isn’t he?
Yes! He shows how you can mutate and mutilate words and language, but at the same time, everyone can understand what you’re saying. Think of Bump and Grind (1994), for example.
There used to be an obsession, in Chinese-speaking countries, with correct pronunciation – much less so now, which I find fascinating and exciting. It offers so many possibilities for rhymes and experimenting.
Chinese is evolving faster than we realise – every six months you’ll hear some new expression. Not slang, exactly, just a different way of saying things. In my new album, there’s a song called Ai de De Ti …
… Which, roughly, means The Primness or Correctness of Love? Or Love’s Chastity?
Yes, “de ti” meaning “prim and proper”. But “de ti”, also sounds like “dirty” in English, especially with your British accent! So there’s a play on words, with a more adult subtext. Everyone will know what it’s about. It changes and subverts the meaning of the lyrics. I think of it sometimes as the eubonics of Mandarin – I like the idea of an evolving language.
“Slang” often has negative connotations, but often these off-shoots of conventional language are essential to the vitality of the language itself. You can see this in Malaysia very clearly. Malay and English, and even Chinese have a very strong identity in their everyday spoken form. We identify through our own brand of spoken Malay or English. No one else in the world speaks these languages like we do.
It’s so fascinating. My bass player is British, a Cockney, and he was teaching me that slang … like, what do you call it?
You mean rhyming slang?
Yeah – it’s so weird! But also great. There are words for everything, like feet, what was it?
Plates of meat.
Plates of meat: feet.
(Laughs.) That’s so funny.
You were talking about subversion. Well, rhyming slang is a very good example of how rude things can be said in polite company, and how certain words are used by people all the time when, really, they mean something very, very crude.
Oh really? (Sits up attentively.) Such as?
Berk. You sometimes hear people say, “He’s a berk”, meaning he’s stupid. It sounds inoffensive but it’s actually rhyming slang for something rude. And now it has passed into ordinary language without anyone noticing it.
So what does it rhyme with?
Um, maybe we shouldn’t go there….
Well, if you say so ... but I think you should tell me!
(A brief explanation follows. I can’t actually bring myself to say the word to one of Asia’s biggest pop stars, and it wouldn’t be published in a mainstream newspaper anyway, but it’s pretty clear what it is!)
That’s funny! I didn’t know that.
Okay, moving swiftly on! Still on the subject of language, and since you mentioned eubonics, can you talk a bit about writing rap in Chinese? How big a challenge is it for you?
A huge challenge. I can make it work, but I have to try very hard. I have to push and train myself the whole time. I mean, a Mandarin freestyle rapper is not going to have a big career!
In English, the ability to rhyme multi-syllabically is such a huge advantage. Authority-majority-sorority. The rhythm is there. In Mandarin you have to work your ass off to get the same effect! But what I’ve done is to make dense rhyming schemes in Chinese, which is something you can’t do in English.
Away from rap, do these linguistic aspects constrain or affect your songwriting? I’m just curious to know if someone like you, trained essentially in the Western tradition, senses any need for adjustment.
Yes and no. I don’t feel limited by them, but I do have to recognise certain differences. For example, the lack of consonant endings in Mandarin. Every word ends with a vowel – it starts with an attack and ends with openness. In English you have the reverse, clearly seen in exclamations – “What!” or “F…!” (Laughs.)
These sounds are very important in recording. They effect volume and frequencies. The sibilants are much more pronounced in Mandarin, and you pick these up when recording.
Listening to your music, there’s a sense that you’ve come to grips with your voice over the years. I think you’re more assured on the higher notes now, and more relaxed on the lower. In 2007’s Xing Qi Liu De Shen Ye (rough translation: Saturday Midnight, from the album Change Me), for example, the really intimate style of recording allows us to hear the slight rough edges on certain notes, as if you deliberately left them in to give a sense of familiarity and loneliness.
Absolutely. I started training when I was a child, classically, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s fundamental. You’re right in that I think I know this voice very well now. I know what it can do and what it can’t, and I’m more comfortable with it than before.
The song you mentioned was something I just recorded late one night. I just went in the studio, composed, played and sang, just like that. On my own. I didn’t force my voice, I just sang.
In my latest single, however, my style is different. It’s punk rock, like almost screaming. It has divided opinion – some people love it, others really, really hate it. I want to break new territory with my voice – no one sings like that in Chinese, in an almost Kurt Cobain or Sid Vicious style.
(Later, I’m given a copy of the new single, “Yao Gun Zen Me Le?” – “What’s Up, Rock?” – and it’s a marked departure from his previous work. I won’t describe it here, but simply suggest you look up the brilliant video on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=bOhtGL_ayZ4.)
I’m fascinated to hear that you think your classical training enabled you to sing punk rock! And I agree entirely. With any creative art form, I believe that you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Exactly! I’m always seeing young guys in Asia who are all attitude and want to do their own thing – and that’s great too – but it often takes them a long time to find out that really suits them.
Speaking of pushing boundaries, was the experience of working with Ang Lee on Lust, Caution something that stretched you?
That was just amazing. It made me more ambitious and more courageous. Definitely. It made me want to experiment and look for new things.
There’s one scene in particular, when a fight ends with you and your compatriots stabbing another character repeatedly, and then you follow the dying man down some stairs and break his neck with your bare hands.
It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in modern cinema because of the starkness of its emotions – the camera never flinches and there’s no music. Incredibly powerful. How on earth do you prepare for a scene like that?
(Sighs and looks down at the table.) You don’t. You can’t. You can’t prepare because it’s not acting any more. I don’t know how he does it, but Ang Lee makes everything seem real. I mean, I was crying for a long time afterwards – a long time. It was incredibly powerful, even for the actors.
I was really taken aback by this loss of control. It was something else that the film taught me – that there were so many things that I didn’t know. Ang Lee changes things. He’s an idealist, and he keeps pushing. That’s what I learnt from making that movie. I’m a lot less scared of failure now.
That’s very interesting to hear, because a lot of people would be tempted to say that you’re someone who’s always been in control, who’s never known failure.
But I have! I experience failure all the time! As a writer, you must know this. Failure is part of the job if you’re an artist. People just don’t see it, that’s all. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re a respected and well-known artist, life becomes easy.
You have to keep on working. That’s the most important lesson you can learn. I’m going to keep on auditioning for films – some I’ll get, others I won’t. It’s not going to stop me.
And it’s the same for my music. People like Ang Lee inspire me. Idealistic, rabble-rousing people, like Stevie Wonder – the sun is brighter when he’s playing in my headphones! It’s this optimism and energy that I hope I can project too.
Do you think that talent competitions and reality TV shows are a good thing for young performers?
Well, on the one hand, they allow young people a way in, but the downside is that they make you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to sing, and that is based solely on the opinions of the judges. They can destroy your confidence, and that’s not a good thing. And they also focus on the celebrity aspect rather than the music.
Recently, in Britain, there was a survey of children aged seven to 14, who were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. A shocking percentage – I can’t remember how many exactly, but at least 50% - said “A Celebrity”. They didn’t say “actor” or “singer” or whatever, because that wasn’t important. The only important thing was to be famous.
(Laughs.) I shouldn’t laugh – that’s scary! And sad, too. If only they knew....
How bad is it, really? Is the celebrity thing just an annoyance, or does it profoundly affect your life?
(Shakes his head.) It’s terrible. I can’t tell you the number of times I wish I had that Harry Potter cloak, you know, the one you can just put over yourself and become invisible. It’s a nightmare.
I have to draw my blinds 24/7, and every time I go in and out of my building there are cameras and paparazzi waiting outside. And the rumours … they’re the worst. People just say stuff about you, as if they know you. They just make it all up.
Thanks very much for your time, Leehom. I look forward to your new album – oh, wait, one more question, please. The readers will want to know this.
What’s your favourite colour?
(Giggles, looks confused – too simple a question for this young man, obviously!) Um.…
Only joking! Shall I just make it up?
Fine by me.
Okay, Wang’s favourite colour is blue. Actually, I have no idea. But I do know that he didn’t like Hindemith when he was a child. But then again, which child does like Hindemith?