Mandopop singer Yen-j juggles creativity with mass appeal

Singer-songwriter Yen-j is thankful that his hiatus gave him a chance to rejuvenate and develop creatively

At the 15th Global Chinese Music Awards held in Singapore last month, Taiwan's Yen-j picked up the Top Five Most Popular Male Artistes Award and Most Popular Composing Artiste Award as well as a Top Twenty Hit trophy for his track, Something.

When he went on stage, he sang the opening line from his song Good Things: "You rest so as to walk farther along the road."

It is a snapshot of where the singer-songwriter is at in his career - a musician with mainstream appeal who is also acknowledged as a composer with chops. He recently returned from a two-year break to release his fifth and sixth albums, Thanks Giving and Why? Art, less than two months apart.

Indeed, Yen-j, 27, is one of the few acts who manages to walk the line between commerce and art as well as garners mass appeal while pushing the envelope creatively.

  • Yen-j's top three tracks

  • LOVE IS CURRY

    From: Thanks Your Greatness (2010)

    A playful track which samples the jazz standard Take The A Train and spices things up with a mix of Mandarin, Minnan and English. Yen-j co-wrote the lyrics and composed the music. It is exuberant and sweeps you along for the ride.

  • COIN-EATING TIGER

    From: Thanks Giving (2015)

    There is child-like joy and wide- eyed wonder in this track about slot machines, which are known as coin-eating tiger machines. The upbeat vibe is bolstered by the rhythm section and the repetition of the lines "So love is like fireworks" and "So dreams are like planes".

  • CONTEMPORARY ART

    From: Why? Art (2015)

    This scathing electro-rap track is fuelled by anger as Yen-j seems to take issue with everything from nudity passing off as art to people following blindly like sheep on the Internet. The dissing includes: "I'm a contemporary artist/I've made garbage to fill up your future children."

His debut album in 2010, Thanks Your Greatness, offered a fresh brew of jazzy pop that was exciting in the often-conformist world of Mandopop. On Why? Art, he injects elements of electronic dance music (EDM) and hip-hop into his songs.

It does not hurt that the singer has a clean-cut appeal and is easy on the eyes. Dressed in a baby-blue blazer, white shirt and pale-blue jeans spattered with patches of white, he says earnestly during the interview: "I hope fans who have been with me since the first album can get a surprise, something fresh from my music each time."

Just putting out good music is not an easy task. And he was honest enough to take a break when the frenetic pace of recording albums, promoting them and touring threatened to overwhelm him.

He notes: "I was not worried I couldn't come up with songs, but that my compositions would start to sound alike. Already, my fourth album (Y4You, 2013) was a little similar to my third one (Simple Love, 2012)."

Thanks to an understanding record label, B'in Music, he was given the luxury of creating without the pressure of deadlines in the last two years.

He set up camp at his older sister's home in Los Angeles and soon settled into a leisurely routine - a swim in the morning and looking after his one-year-old niece. He would spend five to six hours writing music and could even take a few hours just to nail a certain tone or note.

He muses: "It sounds like it was a huge waste of time, but I was very happy. After inhaling continuously for four years, I finally had the chance to exhale. Some seeds which I didn't even realise were in my body finally had a chance to bloom."

Dance music is not a genre new to Chinese pop, but he approaches it in a more thoughtful manner. He points out that EDM has been gaining traction over the past five years and he wanted to understand its popularity.

"When it comes to appreciating music, a strong melody is at the heart of a good track. You can be moved to tears even by something from over 100 years ago, say, something by Chopin.

"But EDM is about satisfying a craving for rhythm. What'll happen to music like that after 100 years?"

He might not always have the answers, but at least he is posing interesting questions.

The electro-rap number Contemporary Art is not exactly about visual arts, but came about because he was puzzled by the ubiquity of sexually provocative imagery. On his way to a recording studio in New York, he was confronted by a row of advertisements for jeans featuring a naked female body as impressionable children milled around him, taking it all in. The stinging lines include: "Sell your body, then sell your soul/Waste your time, waste your money/Want you to say sorry after wasting you".

It created controversy as some netizens thought he was dissing contemporary art, but he is unfazed. "I think it's a good thing as people are looking at the lyrics and discussing them. It's better than if I wrote this song and nobody cared at all."

Another key song on Why? Art is the jazz-synthpop-rap song On Idealism Street, in which he professes: "On idealism street/I don't need a gold watch/Or jewellery/I don't care for these/I only want some time to write/Music that's never been done."

It sounds like a confession that in the real world, he has had to put his ambitions on hold because he has to write music for a living as well. But Yen-j, who has had a hand in producing all his albums, says that is not how he thinks about his music.

After the inventiveness of the first album, he seemed to drift from the left field, towards the centre, with more radio-friendly ballads such as Good Lover. And now, Why? Art is like the spiritual successor to Thanks Your Greatness, while Thanks Giving is in the vein of the populist Mandopop star.

To Yen-j, though, the distinction is not that absolute. "It wasn't designed that way, for one album to cater more to the market. After all, in this day and age, how many copies can they really sell anyway?"

But he does agree that Why? Art is more experimental and personal. "In the past, it was more of a factorymade mass product that could make lots of money. Now, albums are more like works of art. It is like a potter using mud and water to knead a ceramic cup. It is such an intimate process and the result has my fingerprints and body temperature in it."

It is clear that the two-year break has re-invigorated his musicmaking. What remains unchanged is his humility and gratitude. From his first album Thanks Your Greatness to his fifth one Thanks Giving, to tracks such as Thanks For Your Inspiration, the word "thanks" keeps cropping up.

"From the time I was 19 and wanted to sing till now, what has happened seems like a dream," he says.

Kaohsiung-born Yen-j grew up in Los Angeles in a family of doctors. He initially faced resistance from his father when he dropped out of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he was studying music, to pursue his dream of becoming a professional singer. His passion and talent have since won over fans, critics and his father.

He adds: "All that I've wanted to happen has come true, so I give thanks to those who love me and have given me opportunities and wisdom. And because they have given to me, I'm able to give in return."

•Thanks Giving and Why? Art are out in shops.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'All in good time'. Print Edition | Subscribe