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.

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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!

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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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21 Replies to “Ember Swift Interview Part 1 – How China Changed Her Music”

  1. Ohhh I love Ember!
    And I totally agree her song Laowai is great. I use it to practice a bit key sentences, I find it funny, and the rythm is good, it has a lot of energy!!!!
    Plus makes me laugh!
    Ember you should make it come to the KTV´s ! It has a rocky rythm that makes you move! And is true that you can also feel the Chinese influence in her music.
    I think one of these days, in one of my metro trips in Shanghai metro I will finally sing that song, cause specially recently I turn more heads than before, and hear laowai more and more often!

  2. Ember is a woman of 21st century she communicates through music and walks the walk and the talk of the future. She is a peace maker!

  3. Love this! My country men in dreadlocks and jamming reggae, and beautiful 洋妞 singing funny songs in Mandarin. And check out that video of Ember’s baby dancing in the walker to reggae! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng1_XRJPYeA&feature=player_embedded

    What a long way China’s music scene has come. Check out these recordings by Cui Jian in 1985 of “Say Say Say” and “Talking in your sleep.” And Laura Fygi singing a classic tune in Chinese by Teresa Teng (邓丽君).
    http://www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=48962078&ac=now
    http://www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=48962078&ac=now

  4. What a cool way to learn mandarin! I am trying to learn it by watching chinese movies. I wonder if China has a collection of dramas too that one can watch with subtitles (no historical stuff, something light). Since I am in academia, another academic training seems more painful, so learning a language while watching funny/romatic dramas makes me feel like i am killing two birds with a stone. (Not to mention u get a better sense of spoken language, which is different from just learning grammar rules and constructing sentences.

    1. @SBC, there are tons of dramas out there to watch and they pretty much all have subtitles. I wrote a post referencing some of them. But you can check out this list of Taiwanese Idol Dramas (which has their English and Chinese names — the latter you can use to search for them to watch). You can also browse this top 10 list of recommended titles. Most are available online. My most favorite one still remains Meteor Garden, though I also enjoyed the Part II version of it. Down With Love is also a personal favorite.

      P.S.: As I wrote in this article published back in 2010, these dramas actually did help me learn Chinese!

    2. Here are some of my suggestions.

      For romantic series set in Modern China, I recommend 北京爱情故事 (Beijing Love Story), 爱情公寓 (IPartment,whose stories is based on the American Series How I met your Mother, but set in Shanghai),

      爱情公寓 (IPartment)
      http://www.viki.com/videos/223554v-ipartment-s1-e01-episode-1

      Men, A romance comedy from a Guy’s perspective.
      http://www.viki.com/videos/1001608v-men-episode-1#

      There is also a highly influential one called Beijing Love Story, 北京爱情故事. However, I can’t find videos with English sub on them. However, they were aired on ICN with English subs, so they exist somewhere.

      For something classic and influenced a generation, you should watch Romance in the Rain. Almost everyone in their 20s in China have watched it in their teen or pre-teen years. And it’s one of their first dramas about love and relationships.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romance_in_the_Rain

      Another series worth a while is Story of A Noble Family, which is essentially the classic story of Dream of The Red Chamber re-set in early 20th century China.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_a_Noble_Family
      I only found ep. 30 with english subs, but the rest is probably out there somewhere.

      Historical genre is still the most popular genre in China. However, these are more light and very very popular.
      Princess Pearl, A Chinese semi-historical romantic comedy of epic popularity. (ask any Chinese, they’ll probably have either seen the whole thing or a large part of it)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Pearl
      The classic 1999 version

      New version
      http://www.viki.com/videos/135052v-new-my-fair-princess-episode-1

      Scarlet Heart, the series that defined the time traveler romance genre.

      Empress in the Palace/The Legend of Zhen Huan, a slighly darker story
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zhen_Huan

  5. I exchanged few Emails with Ember after I visited her website and I can tell everyone that even though we don´t know each other she is so warm and nice always.

    Her emails are short, concise and with great ” !!! ” in the right place.

    I enjoy reading her pieces even more than reading books. Ember should write a book with her pieces, the kind of pocket book you can buy at airports.

    Ember! See this! What about Beijing, Shanghai airport and some airport in Canada?!!! I totally think you should do it.

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