Ember Swift Interview Part 1 – How China Changed Her Music

Ember Swift
Ember Swift, performing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. (photo by Frederick Ellert)

She’s an independent Canadian musician and singer-songwriter with her own label and 11 albums to her name (including one in English and Mandarin Chinese), whose eclectic style defies categorization. She writes for Herizons, Beijing Kids and China.org, and also publishes stories about her intercultural relationship and Chinese family life in her smartly written blogs. And did I mention she’s married to Guo Jian, the lead singer/bassist of Long Shen Dao, China’s hottest reggae band?

Meet Ember Swift, a talented artist — and outstanding yangxifu — that I’m proud to introduce to you. You can purchase her music at iTunes and her website, check out her must-read blogs, and also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Sina Weibo.

In Part 1 of our interview, I asked Ember about her career — from how China transformed her sound to what’s next for her as a musician and a writer.


You wrote that “China truly changed my life.” It seems that you could also say, in some respects, China truly changed your music as well, as your two most recent albums include songs in English and Mandarin, and even make use of traditional Chinese instruments and the Chinese 5-note scale. What is the most important thing you’ve learned or gained as a musician as a result of coming to China?

(photo by Sof Courtney)

The first thing that I learned and gained by coming to China was a greater sensitivity to the subtleties of language within music. As most of my work was previously in English (a few in French too), I was only really communicating with English speakers, lyrically. When I came to China and performed early on in my adventures here (2007, 2008), I found that I wasn’t really connecting with the audience, at least not in my usual way that I’d grown accustomed to after years of performing. I was humbled by my “English-will-reach-the-world” assumption. What followed was my decision to take a large amount of time off the stage (in China) to get my Mandarin skills up to par. I started writing songs with some Chinese elements as well as lyrics and then only started performing again in 2010 with the more culturally-appropriate material. I simply realized that demonstrating respect for Chinese culture required singing in the language of the land. Music is a form of communication; I just needed the right tools.

Secondly, taking the time off to stop, take a breath, listen, step back and learn was… vital. I did a lot of research and went to see a lot of bands and performances. I also explored the various Eastern instrumentation and fell in love with so many of the sounds. After nine albums, I had established a style and an approach to songwriting that had created a bit of a “signature sound” for me and my band. In one way, that’s a great thing because fans look for it and seek it out and you’re then known for a certain kind of songwriting and performance style. In another way, however, it can become a rut that you don’t realize you’ve built for yourself until you’re bored by your own art. By the time I went to China for the first time, I already felt like I was in a rut, musically, and so China gave me a chance to shake things up. My 2009 album was a “folktronic” release and then, as you know, my 11:11 album from 2011 (my 11th) is a dual language effort and features the erhu as a regular instrument in the band.

Your husband is a very accomplished musical artist himself, and you’ve written that you and Guo Jian work together well as a couple precisely because you support each other off-stage. Could you give some examples of how he supports you today in your musical endeavors? Likewise, could you talk about how you support him and his music?

Guo Jian and Ember Swift (photo by Luna Zhang)

Actually, it was Guo Jian who suggested that I take time away from performing to build a new body of work in Mandarin. He was adamant that I would always be an outsider (a literal 外国人 [wàiguórén, foreigner]) if I didn’t engage with people in Chinese both between songs and lyrically, within them. Now that I have this new material (and am continuing to write in this vein), he is also really helpful regarding the music industry in China. It’s a market that I’m not familiar with (or wasn’t) and he’s helped me make great contacts and opened many performance doors to me that may never have opened without his pre-established, ten-year 关系 [guānxì, connections]. After all, it’s “who you know” in this business and, when in China, it’s “who you know” in every business! Likewise, he’s hopefully going to be performing in Canada this summer and I’ve helped navigate that for his band. I’m also his steady translator for any foreign interest they receive and particularly with their agent in Europe. I also often help them with their marketing materials or applications in English.

Your song “Laowai” — which captures the experience of being a foreigner in China with humor, honesty and a lot of heart — has become a favorite among foreigners and Chinese alike (and could easily be the ultimate anthem for any foreigner living in China). Could you share some other songs that are popular with audiences in China?

(photo by Sof Courtney)

Thank you so much for saying that. I hope to make a video of that song this year! These days, video is the key to getting people to hear independent music! The other song that gets a lot of attention in China is “羡慕嫉妒恨 [xiànmù jídù hèn – Admiration, Jealousy, Hate].” Chinese audiences laugh and sing along to that one. It’s also one of my favourites to perform.

Given that your most recent album 11:11 has an English and Chinese version, I imagine it could be perfect for anyone studying Chinese or English. In the past, I’ve certainly recommended English/Chinese albums for this purpose. Have you ever heard of any fans using your music to supplement their Mandarin or English studies?

You are totally reading my mind. I had visions of pitching the album to language learning companies but don’t have the first clue where to begin on that path. I admit that I’m not much of a publicist and prefer to just make the art. I haven’t heard of anyone using my album to do that–and it’s probably not the best tool seeing as some of the translations aren’t exact in order to fit meter and measure and rhythm–but I’d still love to suggest it as a learning tool. After all, translation is rarely exact! It’s good to encounter variations on how to say things that still convey the same overall meaning!

Could you talk about what’s next for you in your music?

Ember Swift with two of her Beijing band members, Australia’s Zac Courtney on the drums and Burundi’s (East Africa) Paplus Ntahombaye on the bass. (photo by Sof Courtney)

This year, I have written a record LOW number of songs. I only have 3 new ones, two of which were written during late pregnancy. I think something shifted for me after giving birth to my daughter that has resulted in no longer feeling a sense of urgency about songwriting that I used to have. Or, it may just be lack of sleep! LOL! I have transferred some of that creative energy into prose-writing projects, though, and have really been enjoying building a body of creative writing work–something I’ve dreamed of having the TIME and SPACE to do for years. Since I’m not on the road, I finally can focus on it. Again, when the baby is sleeping, that is! That being said, I will continue to write songs and may release singles next year rather than a full album. After 11 full-length records, I don’t really have the drive to do another full album project. 11 already felt like a complete and perfect number. My band continues to perform at least once a month when I’m in China and we did 3 major festivals this fall. We’re still active, just not manic! That pace suits me just fine.

I actually first met you through your writing. You’ve written for other publications such as Herizons and Beijing Kids, and I consider your blog posts as smart and thoughtful reflections on your experience in China (from your marriage to Guo Jian to your pregnancy and raising your child). Could you tell us about any aspirations or goals you have for your writing?

(photo by Ted Buck)

Well, I had always dreamed of being a published author and then Herizons published my first academic article in 2008 and it made me realize that my real dream is to write something moving, beautiful, engaging and entertaining that would make people want to read more of my writing. The blogging I’ve been doing these past two years, particularly, has been my way of getting myself in shape as a writer. When I read my Gadling posts from 2007 and 2008, a time when blogging was new for me, I can see that I’ve already improved a lot as a writer. I’m proud of the improvement too. I see it as a craft that takes time to refine. This year, I gave myself a goal to submit at least one piece of writing per month to a writing contest or a publisher. I gave myself that goal in November and I’ve already submitted three pieces. While it may be an arbitrary goal, it forces me to really edit and polish a piece or a story and this is a great challenge. Furthermore, I’ll continue to write for Beijing Kids (freelance reporting and as a columnist), China.org (as an opinion writer), and Herizons (as a freelance reporter). I also write for a Chinese magazine Mami (about pregnancy and motherhood, blog-style, but they translate it from English) and this is great for my Chinese language skills as well. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to actually use Chinese to write!


Next Friday, I’ll run Part 2 of this interview, which covers how China changed Ember Swift’s personal life — from how she met Guo Jian to raising a child in a Chinese family. Stay tuned!

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