Voices in the Sound Part 1: Wu Zhuoling, singer songwriter and more
Wu Zhuoling (吴卓玲) is a Chengdu native finding her own way in China's emerging indie music scene. As a singer-songwriter she performs her electro-folk styled songs on tours both abroad and to local audiences eager for an alternative to the syrupy love songs that dominate China's popular music business. She recently signed a record label deal and released her new CD on Beijing's Tree Music label. On the side, she also fronts the band Wednesday's Trip (星期三旅行). Independent and thoughtful, she is perfectly suited to be the first interviewee for this column.
You moved to Beijing recently. How does your life there differ from in Chengdu?
My life in Beijing is more hectic and busy because the whole city's mood here is more hectic; people here even speak and talk faster. In Beijing I'll go see more concerts—there's practically performances every day of the week. There are more opportunities for musicians to get together and exchange ideas, so I feel more pressure to improve and push forward. I feel more tired and stressed. I often miss Chengdu's slower pace of life and the familiar food of Sichuan.
How does being from Chengdu influence your music?
I think Chengdu is indeed the "land of plenty": The climate is comfortable, and everywhere there is wonderful food. The people's attitude and speech are all relaxed and casual. Being born in Chengdu, the music I produce can't help but be more independent and calm in character, not emotionally heavy, nor political. The songs I write in Chengdu tend to be melodic and relaxed in nature.
How would you describe your music? How has it changed over the years?
My musical style has changed a lot. I've tried trip hop, folk, and acoustic/electronic. Now I'm working with two other musicians on dubstep-styled music. Even though I've gone through a variety of musical styles, they've all carried the essential qualities of being: melodic musically, narrative lyrically, and balanced emotionally.
How do you feel about the use of language in music, and specifically the use of Mandarin versus Sichuanese?
I think if Sichuanese is used, there's a feeling closer to popular traditional art. The content of the songs will probably be used to satirize current affairs or be about ordinary daily life because Sichuanese is not the official national language. Using Mandarin in songs is more formal, and I can use it to address any topic. Using English is more convenient because English is unlike Chinese where every word has a set tone, so it's easier to fit to music. I think no matter what language I use to sing, the voice is still the most expressive part of the song, conveying the humanity to the listener. The voice is the soul of a song.
Why do you feel the limitation in singing in Sichuanese? For example, it is hard to imagine someone in the West regarding Spanish as suited for just a certain kind of music or topic.
Spanish is a formal language, just like Chinese. Sichuanese is also Chinese, only differing in tones and some vocabulary. It's a different concept with Spanish. I don't feel Sichuan dialect, as an oral custom, is a proper way to sing [about] some formal, serious or elegant topics, unless it's just for fun. My mother tongue is Chinese, and I think Chinese is suitable for all styles and topics.
You went to Europe on tour last year. What was that experience like? How does it compare to touring in China?
The feeling was like arriving for the first time at a genuinely clean, orderly, beautiful world. It was the first time I'd seen such magnificent churches, the first time seeing a musical festival with more than ten thousand young foreigners having a crazy good time. I absorbed a lot of new information, ate a lot of cheese and drank amazing beer (Chinese beer in comparison tastes like water). The distance between cities is very short compared with China. In China we have to spend a lot of time on the road which is tiring. Also, the venues in Europe are very professional; sound checks are fast; the performances were rather good as a result. In China it's hard to get good sound.
What's exciting in China's music scene now?
I think the most exciting thing isn't that there are more music festivals. Of course for musicians this an improvement, but I think what is more exciting is the increasing development of the Internet and new tools to create music and communicate. I think there will be more and more young people who want to do independent music. This is the most energetic and hopeful thing.
What's your view on your own position in China's music industry?
I'm one of the first wave of musicians creating music for small audiences. This kind of musician doesn't have much economic value, but that doesn't mean it's not a form of rebellion.
How does your family feel about your chosen path?
When I graduated, my parents were extremely worried and upset when I decided to go to Beijing to make music. But slowly three to four years afterwards they saw my life was fine. Now, as long as I'm happy, they are fine. They even approve of my lifestyle sometimes.
This article by Elliott Chen was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 49 ("boardgame"). Photo courtesy of Wu Zhuoling