Wang Lee Hom Talkasia Transcript
LH: Lorraine Hahn
LH: Hello and welcome to Talk Asia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. My guest today is Taiwanese pop star, Wang Lee Hom.
Born in New York in 1976, Wang grew up in the United States. Blessed with a mix of brains and talent, he spent his youth performing in local musicals, then pursued a degree in music at Williams College, followed by a masters degree from the prestigious Berkley School of Music.
While in university, Wang landed a recording contract in Taiwan. His breakthrough album, Revolution, garnered rave reviews and firmly established him as a rising star in the Asian music scene.
In addition to writing and producing his own music, Wang has also dabbled in movie projects around Asia.
Lee Hom, it's so good to see you! Thank you. (WL: It's great to see you again.) Thanks for coming in. Your music, a blending of east west. You also sort of embody this mix. How would you describe your style?
WL: Um, actually I call my style -- and I hope I don't offend any of the viewers -- but I call it "chinked out."
LH: I'm glad you said it and I didn't.
WL: Well, the "chinked out" style is a school of hip hop - that's the way I like to think of it - that incorporates Chinese elements and sounds. Uh, I started it off in my last album called Shangrila. And this album incorporated the music of ethnic minorities, in China, in Tibet, in Mongolia, Shenzhen. There's 50 some odd --some people say 54, 55 different ethnic minorities -- tribal music. It's a -- beautiful and original to Chinese culture. And this new album called Heroes of Earth incorporates Peking Opera and Quen-chu which are thousand year old traditions that are also unique to Chinese culture. Very unique instrumentation, costumes, singing styles. And it invigorates hip hop music. I don't think anyone has ever done this before in hip hop, in the hip hop world.
LH: Now when you use this so-called "derogatory" racial slur (WL: Yeah) Did you not think you would offend some people?
WL: Well, I mean this is this is music. (LH: laughs) I'm an artist. I think I'd rather make people think, and coin new terms, and coin new sounds. You know, I think that saying this music is chinked out. I don't want to offend anybody. I want to repossess the word, and this is a word I heard growing up in New York. It was derogatory at the time. And you know, I hope I can make it cool.
LH: Right. So you don't mean it in a bad way then.
WL: Definitely not.
LH: Right. Your main influences when you're writing music. What are they?
WL: Well, I've got so many influences. As far as um popular music is concerned, there'd be people like Stevie Wonder and Prince. Um, Alisha Keys and Outkast. Missy Elliot. R Kelly. The Neptunes, people like that. And um, in classical music Leonard Bernstein, Bartok, Stravinsky, you know 20th century great composers. In Jazz there's the great Jazz pianists -- because I studied jazz piano as well- like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kris Tiner, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans.
LH: Now I've heard that you carry a PDA all the time with you.
WL: Well, I carry my computer with me everywhere I go.
LH: And you write on it, right away?
WL: Yeah, I write and do all my arrangements on my Mac. And um, I use Logic Pro, which is a great software program. It's got all these synthesizers, software since... it's got a whole orchestra inside. (LH: wow.) And actually I did this whole album, I'd say 90% of it, all the programming, at least, in my laptop.
LH: Really? (WL: Yeah) On the road?
WL: On the road. On the airplane, in hotels.
LH: So technology is pretty important for somebody like you?
WL: Oh absolutely. Um, I think it makes the music more natural to be able to incorporate the production just in your every day life. You get an idea, and you just pull out your computer on the bus, or on the car, or wherever, and say , "Oh, I'm going to lay down another track," you know. It's just painless.
LH: Your mother tongues isn't Mandarin, right? (WL: no it's not) You had to learn it as an adult?
WL: Well, I learned it growing up in a Chinese household. But that was in the States so it was, by far, not fluent at all.
LH: So is it difficult for you to sing and write in mandarin initially?
WL: Initially. But I really I think paid my dues. You know, I studied it. And I'm still studying it because, colloquially for me, it's not a problem now, but when you go back and work with Peking Opera and you're looking at the scripts from, thousand year old scripts, and the way the Chinese language is, the ancient Chinese is so different than contemporary Chinese. I mean it would be very hard for your typical Chinese, native speaker, to understand that either.
LH: Right. But so far, of all you albums, none of them have been sold in English yet.
WL: I've never really had the urge to make an English album. (LH: Any plans?) I've done plenty of English singles though... are collaborations with artists from the States or other countries. I've just had a wonderful time doing Chinese music, and it's been so rewarding for me. I feel like there's so much potential in mandarin music, and there's so much, you know, ground left to be broken.
LH: So that's on the back burner -- an English album -- for the time being.
WL: Yeah. It is, it is. I mean, I love singing in English. And it's a wonderful language to sing in. Yeah.
LH: But not your preference at the moment.
WL: Not now. I mean, Chinese music is -- I hope everyone gets a chance to hear what's going on in Chinese music because it's, it is new. And everyone knows that the Chinese world is exploding and you can watch CNN. You can see all these news broadcast about the economy, etc. But as far as the music is concerned, it's the same way. Pop world, pop music, or movies, or etc, you know. Um, so there's a lot of interesting stuff going on.
LH: Right. You've won a number of awards the sort of Chinese Grammy Awards. (WL: Right) What do these awards mean to you? Are they important? Are they a validation of to what you do?
WL: Well. The first time I won, uh like you just said, when I was 22, it meant a lot to me. It was like...I didn't know I could make this happen, I didn't know I could get this kind of recognition. So back then, it was a huge boost of confidence. And I don't want to say ego, but confidence. I think every artist needs confidence.
LH: Speaking of awards now, you recently, co-hosted the MTV Asia Awards with Kelly Rowland. (WL: Yeah.) Who was here as well, as I mentioned earlier. (WL: Yeah, she's such a sweetheart.) I mean any funny, anything happen interesting, during that time?
WL: That was my first time hosting. And well, I know what pressures a host has so I really appreciate your job. (LH: Thank you.) Cause, I mean, I'm a musician because I'm just not a good speaker. You know, ever since I was a kid, I didn't want to talk to anybody, I just wanted to play my piano or the violin. So this really forced me to, you know, work on it. And to be able to read the cues and to read the teleprompter even though I'm not used to doing that. But Kelly was fantastic. Kelly was so sweet and she's really smart. Great timing. So she made my job easy.
LH: Lee Hom, we're going to take a very short break. When Talk Asia returns, we'll talk to Wang Lee Hom about being born in the USA, and life before fame. Stay with us!
LH: Hello again, you're watching Talk Asia, and my guest is Taiwanese singer and songwriter Wang Lee Hom. Leehom, you started singing at 3. You started playing the violin. (WL: I don't know if that was called singing, but yeah.) Okay. The violin at 6. (WL: Right, right.) Was this something your parents did to put you through the motions or was it something you really enjoyed doing?
WL: Actually I always feel like, in retrospect, I was tricked into it. Most kids are forced into it but I was tricked into it because my older brother...he's two years older than me, he was kind of forced into playing the violin. Um, he didn't really want to do it and I didn't understand the forced element, I just went with my older brother to his lessons. And I would sit there and be like, "Ah, well..." My older brother to me, still, is a hero figure for me. But back then, he was my idol. Anything that he would do, I wanted to do. So I asked my parent, "Why can Leo play the violin and I can't play the violin?" "Lee Hom, you're too young. You're going to have to wait until you're six." I was like, "that's not fair. You guys don't let me do anything." (LH: laughs) So um, finally when I was six years old and I got to play the violin, I was like, "Ah, I've been waiting for so long" so it was love at first sight for me.
LH: What about other instruments? You picked up other instruments along the way, haven't you?
WL: Yeah, then well the drums... I think every kid, you know, every kid wants to play the drums. Just bang away. (LH: any male kid) Yeah, any male kid. So that to me was an immediate, this real passion as well. And the piano... I always loved the piano as well. But it wasn't until college that I really got into jazz. Other instruments, like guitar, base, and all the keyboards... those just came along the way, as I started playing in bands.
LH: You have an English name I read -- Alexander.
WL: Yeah. You know, I've never ever used it though.
LH: Yeah, I was going to ask you, who called you that?
WL: Nobody. Nobody except for um.. customs people. (LH: laughs) Cause it's in my passport. But, um I remember when I went to kindergarten, my parents asked me "So do you want to go by Alex or Lee Hom" and they're like "well keep in mind if they say Alex, there might be another Alex, but if you're Lee Hom, you're probably going to be the only Lee Hom." Well I want to be Lee Hom then. (LH: Right, and you are probably still the only Lee Hom.) I think I am. (LH: laughs)
LH: I heard you were a very good student in school. Did you enjoy it?
WL: I wasn't a good two shoes... I broke a lot of rules and I skipped a lot of classes and I did a lot of great things as well. But um, you know, I always knew what the consequences were going to be and I wasn't, um, you know, I wasn't difficult about it.
LH: What do you enjoy about school? What was it? I mean, the exercise, the games, the learning, the clubs, the friends?
WL: Well, I love most about my school is the friends... and the interpersonal relationships between, you know, whether it was hanging out with the baseball team... I loved to play baseball... or hanging out with the school band or doing musicals. You know, I loved to be able to hang out with different cliques. And I think that's who I always have been. I've been somebody that's been bridging over different... you know musical genres as well.
LH: Was music always your ambition even back then or...
WL: It was always my ambition deep in my heart. But music, especially I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is where the Eastman School of Music is in and at was always surrounded by professional musicians, and I always knew the outlook was bleak. You know, for any musician. (LH: It's tough.) It's tough.
LH: And your parents, they didn't sort of like push you like typical parents do? You know, get good grades, you know?
WL: They did. They did. That's why... um there was some tension going on as far as my parents wanted me to be a doctor, like my older brother is. And that would have been great, if I had, you know, the heart for it. But I just didn't. That was the hardest part of growing up. I think that was the hardest part of my life... was right during uh applying for colleges and "What do you want to major in?" and everything, every bone in my body is saying music, "I want to do music." And I'm writing down Biology, you know. (LH: laughs.) That was rough. Yeah.
LH: How did you convince them? I mean what did they think when you said, "I really want to do this." I mean that must have been difficult.
WL: Well, I owe so much to Taiwan... and the fans in Taiwan because I released my first album when I was 19. So that was... that was right at that um crossroads.
LH: While you were in university?
WL: Yeah, freshman year. So there was still enough time for me to change my major to music. After the first album, it was actually after the second album came out... cause the first album didn't do so well. So after the second album came out and um, there was, you know, a lot more response and I started to think, "This is it. Like this is who I am. Dad, mom, this is like... I'm a fish in water now. I'm happy. And this is what I've always wanted to do." Um, so I finally got their blessings.
LH: Great. How did you juggle university studies and then I presume flying to Taiwan?
WL: Yeah, that was tough. That was tough. Like I was on a plane at the drop of a hat. If it was Spring Break, even like Thanksgiving break, you got a 5 day break, I'd be back in Taiwan. And I'd record one song. So that was... you got to pay your dues. If you want to become a musician, you really, really have to commit your life to it.
LH: Right, and now your family still based in the United States. Right? (WL: Yeah, they're still there in Rochester.) I mean, was the transition difficult? Rochester to Taipei, for example. Taipei, Rochester, Rochester, Taipei. (LH: laughs)
WL: It was really difficult for me at the beginning to adapt. You know, I was 19, well I was 18 when I was recording the album. And I didn't really speak mandarin very well. I didn't know anybody in Taiwan. And I was really, really lonely. And uh, you know, it was hard to... hard to just express myself. So that was a tough time, but um like I said, I paid my dues. (LH: And it's all behind you now.) Yeah. Well, every time I go to a new country though... for example, when I went to Japan and did my Japanese album and movies and um, concert tours, and you know, I felt like, I'm a new artist all over again. (LH: laughs) That's one of the great things about the Asian market, is that you can go from country to country and you know, become a new artist all over again.
LH: Right. Great. Lee Hom, we're going to take another very, ry short break. When we return, we'll get Wang Lee Hom to share his thoughts on the Asian pop scenes up and coming stars. Stay with us.
LH: Welcome back to Talk Asia. My guest is Wang Lee Hom. Lee Hom, you're not just, I mean, singing, yeah right, (laughs) you write, you produce. You've got your own studios -- Home Boys Studios. (WL: That's right.) I mean, what gave you the idea to start that in the first place... the studios?
WL: Um, just the bulk of work that I have to come up with. I produce for other artists as well and compose for them as well. Um, I just produced for some Korean artists. And there's a lot of crossovers going on right now in Asia. And it's really exciting so I decided that I'm going to need a studio in New York. I'm going to need a studio in Taipei. And maybe the rest I can get by with just my laptop.
LH: Yes. I was just going to say... so there is a business man inside there somewhere.
WL: No. It's actually.. it's not open for public, so that's probably the lack of a business man inside of me. If there was one, I'd probably open it up and charge people for it. But I'm not going to do that.
LH: You mentioned earlier, briefly, about acting. What is it about acting that's so attractive?
WL: Well I started doing musical theatre. And I loved it so much from the age of 13, you know, growing up in New York, Rod was a huge influence as well. So just the singing, the acting, the dancing... they're all my passions. So when that... I wasn't really able to do acting for so many years, just doing these pop albums and uh, you know, the opportunity presented itself. Actually in 2000, I did my first movie and ever since then I've been enjoying doing movies.
LH: Could you focus on one given the choice?
WL: I can definitely focus on music. (LH: laughs) I don't think I'm much of an actor. But I just love being surrounded by creative people and a lot of times, doing music is a lonely struggle, especially composing, and arranging, producing my own albums. Acting, everyday you get called and you're surrounded by other actors and creative people.
LH: Right. Right. Fame. Obviously. Has that made life difficult for you? Has it changed your life a lot?
WL: Well I think um, it's changed my life tremendously. And uh, for better and for worse, just like anything.
LH: How do you deal with this loss of privacy and intrusion? How do you do it?
WL: Well it can be a real pain in the neck and um, you know, I feel lucky that I can go back to New York and not be recognized and not be followed by paparazzi and be... that at times can be really, really annoying, um but you know, in today's day and age, anybody with a cellphone that has a camera on it... and a blog. I mean, there's... I don't know about other parts of the world, but in the Chinese entertainment news, there's this recent trend of journalists or media, present company excluded, just going on to the Internet and seeing a blog and saying "Oh, so and so saw so and so." You know, it's completely irresponsible but in the blog he says this and that can become the title of the newspaper article.
LH: No way! (WL: Yeah.) So during your time off, do you hide away somewhere then? Or just go back to... (laughs)
WL: I spend a lot of time in the studio. So it's great. Music is my best and healthiest escape.
LH: Now that you've been in the business or in any business for a few years, do you think that's changed you as a person?
WL: Deep down inside, no. Um, but as far as having better interpersonal skills, I think it has, yeah, and being more mature... (LH: Right. Good, good.) Dealing with different people. Yeah.
LH: Any advice you would give, and I'm talking to you like you've been a veteran (WL: I am a veteran.) I wouldn't even dare use that word... to younger people thinking of going into the business.
WL: Yeah. I think that artists, you have to be true to yourself and because there are so many record company executives, so many fossils, that tell you, "Trust me, I know what I'm doing. You can be the next, um, U2, or you could be the next Stevie Wonder, or you could be the next Wang Lee Hom or whatever." And I hear that so much and every time I hear that it makes me so upset because you're depriving this new artist of being the first themselves. (LH: Right.) And I always tell new artists to put your time and energy into finding that unique quality which makes you a star or which makes your music, you know, worth listening to.
LH: Rather than just being a copy cat. (WL: Yeah.)
LH: The new comers. Any new comers you've seen, I mean, there's so many when you open the pages of a magazine.
WL: Yeah. Sometimes it gets, it gets confusing. New comers, I love artists with great voices like um, ah Daniel Powter, he was at the MTV Asia Awards. And I was so happy to see him there. You know the guy who sings, "Bad Day." Everybody knows "Bad Day" now. But not everybody knows Daniel Powter yet. I love his album, I think it's great. Chinese artists. Um, new artists like Chau Gu. You know, he's from Malaysia. Gary, he's worked hard. He's really making it happening, he's got a great voice and a great attitude. JJ Lim, from Singapore. (LH: Wow.) These are artists that I really support.
LH: Wow. Great, great. What's next for you?
WL: Next for me? I'm writing a musical right now. Like I said, (LH: Wonderful) I'm coming back to square one because these are my roots and uh music theatre to me is something that lacks presence, especially in pop culture out here in Asia. So I want to write a Chinese musical, and that's uh in the works right now. It's going to be completely original, completely new piece.
LH: Oh, Lee Hom, I'm very happy for you. Congratulations. (WL: Thank you.) Thank you so much.
WL: Thank you Lorraine. It's great to be back. (LH: Really appreciate it. Okay.)
LH: You've been watching Talk Asia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again, next week.
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