West Meets East
Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and movie star Wang Leehom '99 has become a cultural icon for a generation of Asian youth.
Among the many fantastic careers of Berklee alumni, that of singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and movie star Wang Leehom '99 stands out for its artistic depth and breadth and its impact on millions throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Leehom's name and face are so instantly recognizable in Asia that a simple trip to the grocery store quickly becomes a tabloid event. He has had numerous radio hits and million-selling records, and his acting talents have led to silver-screen collaborations with major figures in the film world. He is also ubiquitous in Asian ad campaigns for McDonald's, Coke, Suzuki motorcycles, Elite Shoes, and many more.
Raised in Rochester, New York, the second of three sons born to Chinese immigrants, Leehom grew up fully immersed in American culture and English was his primary language. In addition to undertaking serious classical studies in violin and orchestral percussion at Eastman School of Music, he also played electric guitar and sang classic-rock songs with his garage band. His diverse musical interests and talents have provided experiences ranging from rocking out before tens of thousands at huge stadium concerts to an appearance as a guest conductor and violin soloist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic performing music by Leonard Bernstein, Aram Khachaturian, and of course, Wang Leehom.
After finishing high school, Leehom enrolled at Williams College in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, where he pursued music and Asian studies. His explorations of Mandarin Chinese and jazz piano illuminated his career path. His music professor, Andy Jaffe '74, pointed him toward Berklee after graduation for further musical rounding [see "Out into the World" on page 25]. Throughout high school, Leehom had been recording his songs, and BMG Taiwan started issuing his records. It didn't take long for his style of rock, pop ballads, and hip-hop (with Chinese lyrics) to catch on. He was named the best new artist for 1996 by People's Daily newspaper in Taiwan and a steady stream of awards, accolades, platinum album sales, and roles in six feature films has followed. Leehom's latest movie role finds him costarring with Jackie Chan in the upcoming film Big Soldier. Previously, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee tapped Leehom for a major role in his 2007 film Lust, Caution.
In a phone call from his home in northern Taiwan in late August, Leehom mentioned his involvement in relief efforts for victims of the late-summer typhoons that devastated southern Taiwan. He lent his celebrity to telethons and a 30-hour fundraising concert organized by the Christian charity World Vision. When he returned to work the next week, he headlined with his band at a 45,000-seat stadium in Beijing. Leehom told me that massive mainland China has more than 300 cities with populations of more than a million people, so he has many places to play. While Leehom is not as well known among Western music fans, his stature throughout Asia is such that he was chosen to bear the Olympic torch for one leg of its trek to Beijing in 2008 and was among the celebrities who performed at the closing ceremonies of the games.
His musical output blends cutting-edge Western popular music styles and beats with folkloric Chinese elements and instrumentation. Leehom refers to his blend as "chinked out" music, a term his Chinese fans don't consider a slur but an accurate descriptor. His American roots and serious approach to Chinese language and culture have yielded a winning combination, making Leehom a cultural icon for a rising generation of Asian youth.
You have a huge following in Asia. In what country do you have the largest concentration of fans?
My music's in Chinese, and there are a lot of Chinese-speaking regions throughout Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. China is probably where I have the largest following.
Is it true that you didn't speak Chinese at home but learned it later?
I grew up speaking English. My brothers and I were the first generation in my family born in the States. My parents would speak Chinese to each other when they didn't want us to know what they were saying. But we'd pick up some of the words.
What kind of music did you listen to?
In elementary school, I guess it was mostly classical. I was always going between violin, the drums, piano, and guitar. I also sang. Later I got into the Beastie Boys pretty hard core. Their music kind of changed my life.
Did you play songs by the Beastie Boys?
I had a band, and we played classic-rock stuff. We didn't have a DJ or do scratching, so we couldn't sound like the Beastie Boys. I probably wouldn't be able to sound like the Beastie Boys today, either, if I tried. I started writing songs back then. I think I wrote my first song in junior high about my first girlfriend.
Did you study music formally then, or were you self-taught?
Living in Rochester, New York, was great because that's where the Eastman School of Music is. I think I was about six or so when I started formally studying violin and orchestral percussion. I took voice lessons after my voice changed.
When it came time for college, you attended Williams College.
That's right. I studied Chinese and jazz there. In my first year, I sought out the head of the jazz department, Andy Jaffe. He had actually taught at Berklee for four years before he came to Williams. That was really the beginning of a wonderful friendship and the best musical education that I've ever had. I studied jazz piano with Andy for four years at Williams.
He wrote the book Jazz Harmony that is a pretty definitive text. It was extremely helpful for jazz theory. I recently got him to teach for the spring  semester here at the [Tainan National University of the Arts]. He took a sabbatical from Williams. He took the kids from zero to 100 percent in one semester. It was amazing.
After you graduated from Williams, what prompted you to come to Berklee?
Andy suggested that I check it out. At Berklee I had great [voice] lessons with Cheryl Bentyne from the Manhattan Transfer. I was very fortunate that she was on the faculty then. I also worked with Rich Mendelson [MP&E faculty member] on a couple of singles, and both turned out to be big hits in Asia. One is called "Descendants of the Dragon," which was a huge hit in 1999 and a very important song for the direction that pop music took in Asia. It was one of the first songs that had the vibe that I call "chinked out." It's basically hip-hop with a lot of Chinese elements and Chinese instrumentation, pentatonic melodies, and rap in English. It was a real blend of East and West.
When you attended Berklee, were you just launching your music career?
No. I actually recorded my first album when I was a freshman in high school. So I was already doing it when I came to Berklee.
Where did your career begin to take off?
Everything began in Rochester, New York. I didn't go to Taiwan until after high school. My interest in recording started when I was 13 or 14 years old. I bought my first four-track tape recorder and just locked myself in the basement to write and arrange songs. The first album came out in my sophomore year on the BMG label.
How did you connect with BMG at such a young age?
It was through a talent competition that I got my first contract through BMG Taiwan. After that, everything just kind of happened. I entered this competition on a whim the summer before my senior year of high school. That was when I made my first trip to Taiwan. I saw a poster on the wall of a restaurant advertising a talent competition. It was the type of thing that I would do just for fun and to meet the other kids there. It turned out to be kind of a scouting program for BMG.
One thing led to another, and during high school and college I was making albums during summer vacation or winter vacation. I didn't really think of it as the beginning of a career; it was more like a summer job. I was getting paid, but I wasn't a professional. I didn't really have any chops as a producer, and I didn't know my way around the studio at all. It took me a few albums to actually understand the studio. After that, I had the career launched in my mind.
Was it your plan to develop your career in Asia rather than America?
I never really had plans to launch an American career. I think I'm lucky that things started in Asia, because I was able to develop as a pure musician, to be known for my music and let the music speak for itself. In America, I'd rather be known for my music than as the "Chinese artist." In Asia it's easier to let my music speak for itself.
Out into the World
Andy Jaffe '74, a Berklee alumnus and a former Berklee faculty member, has taught at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for 22 years. During the 1990s, he worked with Wang Leehom '99 on jazz theory and piano. "He started playing jazz piano at Williams," Jaffe recalls. "His jazz piano playing is quite good now. In addition to everything else he does, Leehom is a fantastic violinist. He was the best violinist at Williams the moment he got there and won the concerto competition his first year. I was cleaning up my office recently, and I found a copy of his senior thesis. It was a musical titled The Bite That Burns . . . about Dracula. Leehom is a very versatile musician and a bona fide intellectual."
In the spring of 2009, Jaffe taught at Tainan National University of the Arts in Taiwan and in concerts with his famous student, revisited material they played years before. "These were major Leehom concert events," Jaffe says. "At one, we played jazz and Leehom sang the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross version of 'Cottontail.' We did it with three voices at Williams, but for this concert, Leehom learned the highlights of each of the three parts and sang them-even Annie Ross's parts. It was pretty impressive. He also played vibes on a tune he'd written when he was at Berklee. The other concert featured his band and I just sat in when he sang 'I Feel Good' by James Brown. It was a switch for me to be thronged by autograph seekers as I left the stage. I'm used to jazz gigs where there are more people in the band than in the audience! I appreciated Leehom walking me to the train station when I left because I know it can be a nuisance for him to go out in public. All these people were coming up to him [and] wanting to get a picture with him."
After Leehom graduated from Williams, Jaffe never anticipated how the career of his student would unfold. "He's got a lot of different talents," Jaffe says. "He's already doing fantastic things, but nothing he does in the future will surprise me. It is the greatest pleasure for a teacher to see what their students end up doing when they go out into the world."
The production values on your albums are extremely high, and the playing is very sophisticated. Do you use American or Asian players?
I pretty much play all the instruments myself. I play all the guitars and do all the programming. On the latest album, the drums were played by Eric Fawcett from the group N.E.R.D. He's based in Minneapolis, but he tours with me.
I'm interested in how you work in the studio. Do you like to track live with other musicians in the room, or do they send tracks via the Internet?
I've done it all ways. I don't have many rules, except that I try to stay out of the studio as long as possible. I like tricking myself into integrating work and leisure as much as I can. I often write or arrange a track when I'm on the road, in airplanes and cars. I think that's when I do the best work. That way, I hear the music like the audience hears it.
When I go into the studio and turn on my computer, it becomes work. I open up the piano and think that I have to write a hit song. That's not fun. It's a lot less painful when you're just kind of chilling out somewhere and sort of writing in your subconscious. When a great idea surfaces, I just pull it out of the air and write it down or record it into my cell phone or something else. Once I get a whole bunch of songs I think are really strong, the lyrics are done, and I've arranged them in my laptop, then I go to the studio to track them. That's really fun because you can get creative and completely crazy and lose yourself if all the preproduction is done before. I don't want to go into the studio and start rolling tape when I don't know what I'm doing.
Do you take sequences of your tunes into the studio and replace synthesized parts with live instruments?
I do that sometimes. It depends on the style of the song and the arrangement. Sometimes you don't want live instruments. I may lay down a live instrument and then think the track doesn't sound as good as what I had originally. If you're recording with MIDI, you can try listening to the song with a different drum sound. In the mixing, I enjoy being able to change from a Yamaha piano sound to a Bösendorfer piano with plug-ins. It's nice to have that flexibility.
Do you produce your albums, or do you have a producer work alongside you?
I self-produce, but I'm vigilant about playing my music for other producers or friends and getting constructive criticism. I do everything at my private studio at home. It's wonderful to be able to just wake up and hit the space bar and listen to what you did the night before. It's like being an artist who always has an easel right there. You can really get immersed without worrying about the cost per hour.
How many hit songs and albums have you had in Asia?
Well, I don't know how you qualify hits, but since 1995 I've made 14 original solo albums. There have also been greatest-hits albums or soundtracks for movies that have a song of mine on them. I don't know how to define a hit, but at my concerts, people are singing along and we've got a set list with 30 songs on it.
Your Shangri-La album is celebrated for your use of Chinese and folkloric influences and reflects the indigenous music of regions such as Mongolia.
After Shangri-La came out, people really got what the "chinked out" vibe was, but I'd been doing it for a long time. There are 54 different ethnic minorities in China, all tribal cultures. They all have their own language and songs, and a lot of them have their own instruments as well. I have large a collection of Chinese instruments. The stringed instruments are easiest for me to learn because of my background in violin and guitar.
What prompted you to blend Western pop elements with Chinese folkloric music?
I was inspired by classical musicians like [Béla] Bartók, who looked to Hungarian folk music for ideas for his composing. He went out and transcribed rhythms and watched folk dancing and was able to infuse that into his writing. [Claude] Debussy heard the gamelan. Each made deliberate decisions to differentiate [his] sound from that of other composers. That made me realize that indigenous music was what I should be digging into. I think there was a period of time in Chinese pop music where everything was just really Western. People were just copying what was on the radio in the States. I wanted to make music that was recognizably pop but had a different twist. My vision for Chinese music is for it to be international, but at the same time to have its own sound, like Indian pop music. Indian musicians always try to keep Indian elements in their songs, even though you hear that they're international-sounding productions. That music also inspired me in developing my sound.
As the world gets smaller and smaller, it becomes even more important for us to dig into these roots. Traveling to areas in China with ethnic minorities made me realize that some of the tribal cultures are endangered. The young kids are moving to the cities and aren't preserving their cultures. A lot of the younger kids don't speak the tribal languages anymore; they all speak Mandarin Chinese now. I'm glad to have shined some light on these cultures while they're still around.
Which musical directions have you considered for future albums?
I'm really interested these days in creating music that is driven by the language. To me, Chinese is a very musical-sounding language, and a rich source of inspiration for melodies and songwriting. I've become interested in linguistics, the aural qualities of Chinese, the grammar, and how sentences are structured. There are many idioms in Chinese that are extremely interesting. There are unique qualities in the language that younger languages such as English don't share. Old Chinese proverbs and sayings that everyone knows just pop up in conversation every few sentences. They're very unique to the language and interesting to me as a composer.
I trust you'll still include r&b, rock, and hip hop elements.
Yeah. hip-hop and r&b are newer genres and open for doing weird stuff, like sampling a Tibetan monk or something like that. Put that in a hip-hop track, and it sounds OK. Put it in a rock song, and it doesn't work as well. For a lot of rock songs, you need the sound of electric guitar coming from a Marshall amp, and you need drums and bass. If those sounds aren't there, it's just not rock. Rock is already a very mature genre, whereas hip-hop is very edgy and still maturing. You can still push the envelope.
Was your performance at the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics a career highlight?
It was incredible to play for 90,000 people-really amazing. It literally took my breath away when I walked into the performing area, and the place was completely packed: a thousand performers. I'll never forget the feeling of seeing 90,000 people out there.
Few artists have acting and music careers in the American entertainment industry. Is this more common for artists in Asia?
Yeah, it's common. You get a lot of flak for it-sometimes from the States-for being a singer who tries to act, and vice versa. A lot of times it doesn't work for audiences. They can find you unconvincing because they seem to accept your persona in only one medium. But to me, it's a perfectly natural extension of the creative process. Nowadays, if you're a pop musician, you're shooting music videos. I've done over 50 music videos, and I've directed 15 or 20. I realized it wasn't that big a leap.
Have you gotten seriously into the art of acting?
I take it pretty seriously. Working with Ang Lee was a huge educational experience. He's just an amazing teacher and, of course, an amazing director. He kind of threw me into actor boot camp, and it was sink or swim.
I've just finished a movie called Big Soldier with Jackie Chan that will come out next February. That was difficult. There was a lot of kung fu, a lot of fighting, and a lot of injuries. It's basically just Jackie and me for the whole film. We got to spend a lot of time together. We've been friends for 10 years but never really got to work together; it was great. He's quite a legend
With your diverse musical background and other interests, you've developed an amazing career.
I've been lucky. I think about it all the time. I think about where my music is going and about my film career as well. I'm also a scriptwriter and have written a couple of screenplays that will go into production starting in November. So whether it's writing a song or writing a story, it's the creative part that's most exciting to me.