INTERVIEW: Chinese-born, Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Wanting Qu

“Know what you want” is never truer advice when it comes to Wanting Qu, and this is not merely on account of the coincidence of her name. The Harbin-born, Canadian-educated singer-songwriter started by knowing what she wanted and not hesitating to go after them (in 2005, it was music; in 2012, it is even more music and world peace.) Wanting got her music career started when she was signed to Nettwerk as its first Chinese artist in 2009. Her soulful singing and expressive lyrics have since earned her a following. Her biggest hit so far, “Drenched”, exploded on the charts after being discovered and featured in the recent Hong Kong hit film “Love in the Buff”. The stroke of fate that connected her song to the movie brought her to an even wider recognition on both sides of the world, just when she is about to release her debut full-length “Everything In The World”. After a whirlwind tour of premieres in China, Wanting spoke with us about her journey so far from the comfort of her home in Vancouver.



How do you feel about your song picked up by Pang Ho Cheung, director of “Love in the Buff”?
He and his co-writer, Jody, they heard my song at this coffee shop in Beijing, where they were writing the script. The coffee shop continuously played “Drenched”, the demo version of my song. They kind of wrote the script with my song, so they were strongly attached to it. Then Jody asked me if I’m interested in having my song in the sequel of [Love in a Puff]. I’m like, okay, but I have not heard about this movie. She’s like, no problem, we are gonna send you DVD of the first movie. I watched it, not knowing big stars are in this movie. So I felt like it’s probably a good exposure for me to have my song placed in the movie. It’s a good movie, and I think my song fits in the movie well. I was pretty excited for this connection.

How did you feel about the movie? Did you get all the very colloquial Cantonese jokes?
The first time I watched it I didn’t quite get some of the stuff they were saying. I went to Hong Kong for the premiere, I went to Beijing for the premiere, and I went to a different premiere, so I watched the movie three times. So like, by the third time, I think I got some of the stuff that I didn’t catch the first time. I think I might have learned some Cantonese sayings from there.

Did you know how the song was gonna be used in the movie?
No, I didn’t know. I was pretty excited about the trailer (featuring “Drenched”), but I didn’t know anything about how they would place the two songs in the movie, “You Exist In My Song” (“我的歌聲裡”) and “Drenched”. But people who worked on the movie sent emails to me saying, your songs are definitely placed in very important scenes and they definitely add emotional level to the picture. So the first time I watched it, I was just like, ok where is my song? Oh is it this part? Oh no… wait is it this part? No…and then all the way till the end, and I heard my song. The first time I watched it, I was focusing on my music. I couldn’t focus on the dialogue when I heard my music coming out, because I was surprised that they used my live version of the song in that scene. And so I was focusing on like, “Oh my god, this is the live version so it’s not perfect.” But the third time I watched the movie, I was totally focusing on the dialogue, and I think that the song and the dialogue kind of fit perfectly.

It was so unexpected, but it worked so well. We thought it worked really well in the trailer, too. We kept watching it over and over again.
Yeah, I really liked the trailer. And I liked the full production version of this song. But I think it’s a very smart cut for them to use the live (in the movie) because I think the live version makes the movie a little more interesting. Everybody has heard the trailer version, so maybe they want something different for the movie. I like how they cut it at “But it all doesn’t seem to matter anymore…” then they waited for maybe five seconds, and then they go, “When you kiss me on that street” It’s like “Aooh!” (Shrieks and giggles)

Having your song being placed in a movie, does it make you think differently about your other songs, like having a cinematic image in your head when you are writing?
To be honest, I have always written my songs with an image in my head. If it’s not based on my own experiences, then the image in my head is based on movies, or books or my friends’ personal experiences. But for this movie, I have written a song for Miriam Yeung’s character. The way I wrote it was I read the script and I put myself in her shoes. I haven’t seen the movie yet at that point, but reading the script made me imagine the scene. I wrote the song the way it is. It’s called “Love Unconditionally” (“沒有目的地愛了”). I kind of lived through their shoes, and it inspires me and makes me write from different point of view. It’s pretty interesting because one person can only experience so much in life — that’s why you watch movies. So to answer your question, I normally write my songs with pictures in my head. It works perfectly for films, and I wish more people would use more of my songs in films!

Hopefully people will read this and see that!
But they have to let me know first. There are so many short films in China right now, in which they use my songs, and they don’t tell me. They have to let me approve them first — maybe I don’t want to be associated with, for example, a fur company, or if the film is about killing animals. To be very open about it, if I really like the movie, and I think it’s going to work well, life is short, even if they don’t have a huge budget, we will work something out. But it’s about respect, when you want to use something, you need to ask for it first.

On the subject of copyright, since you’re penetrating the Chinese market and you are popular in China, the breach of copyright seems almost inevitable. As you know, and it sucks to say it, China is very disrespectful of the idea of copyright. How do you combat the situation? Not just for use in movies, but all sorts of piracy like dubbing your CDs, etc.
Sometimes I just can’t think too much about it, because I can’t use my Western thinking and apply it to Chinese market. I do think about it once in awhile, but I tell myself that I can’t think too much about this legal stuff. I have to see an opportunity in the problem. The opportunity would be that I get more popular, more people will hear my music, and they would follow me on Weibo and come to my shows. I’ll sell more tickets.

But I have my days. Sometimes I feel like, this movie sucks, why do they use my songs? I have to constantly tell myself that I have to see the positive side effects of this thing. I can’t change how people would do things, but I’m pretty sure in the future, maybe more people will realize how important it is for people who do original music — for singer-songwriters — who really write for the sake of music and not for making money. I just wish more people would know that musicians and songwriters, they are all human beings, they all have these needs. They all need to eat and live and sleep and shelter. Basically what I’m saying is, if people are writing really good songs, but they are not getting any compensation, like a living, to do what they love to do, then they are not gonna do it. Art and culture are just going to die down. No one is going to hear really good music.

There are so many so many great songwriters out there who do exactly what I do, and they are not being heard because they don’t have the means to, or supportive friends and family circles. They need to be heard, but we just have to support them to hear good music. You know what I mean?!

Photo by Jiaming Yan

We do. Let’s backtrack and talk about the beginning when you started. Why did you decide to study abroad in Canada? We read about how you were very insistent to study abroad.
I think maybe around 2000, lots of kids in Mainland China were going overseas to study. I was one of them. I was very intrigued by Western culture because of the movies and the music. All those Schwarzenegger movies and Hollywood movies; and music like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion. I listened to them and I watched them. I became very interested in seeing the outside world.

So I came out, and Canada was not how I imagined it would be. I went through schooling, but I wasn’t fulfilled in what I was studying in school, and I was still listening to lots and lots of music of different genres. I never knew there are different genres of music existed when I was in China. Then I started singing in a rock band, and after a while I realized I wasn’t singing, I was screaming. So I left and started writing my own stuff, going solo, doing singer-songwriter style in 2008 or 2009.

How does your experience in Canada affect your decision to work in China? Was it something you planned?
You mean like, when I came out, did I want to go back? No! When I first came out, I was like, “Yes! Never gonna go back!” It was mainly because of my very strict mother. I was very happy that I didn’t have to listen to her anymore. But at the same time I still had to get a bachelor for her because she sent me the money to study.

Anyhow, in 2010, I went back to China, where I met a musician in an indie-rock band in Harbin. We became friends because we were both doing music. He told me so many things about the Chinese music industry, and oh my god, I never knew! They have all these really good music and good festivals. That’s when I thought, “Maybe people over here would really like my music as well.” That’s when I decided that I should not give up on the Chinese market.

My manager, when he signed me, he also saw this opportunity in China because I write in both languages. He said that I have this Westernized expression with Chinese melody or something like that. He said, “We would love to work with you in the future. We will go to Asia and North America, even Europe. You will be an international artist, would that be okay with you?” I was like, “Hell yeah! That’s my dream, bring it on. I would love to do that.” It was part of his vision, and also something I really wanted for a long time.

Photo by JonnyPhoto.net

And then older I get, the more mature I get and the more I see, the more I think that I am not just myself, I’m bigger than myself, especially when you are in a foreign country, you are actually representing something that they are very foreign to.

Just recently, I realized that I can’t just be like any of the artist over there in China. I want to bring the good things from here to there, and I want to bring maybe the good things from there to here. If somebody has never met a Chinese person before, and if he or she just happened to walk into a concert I was playing at, and they left with a really good impression about Chinese music and the Chinese, then I think I have done something for the Chinese.

Other than the artists you mentioned, what sort of songs accompanied your childhood or teenage years? Which musicians influenced you as a singer-songwriter?
There were Chinese artists too, Jonathan Lee (李宗盛) and Emil Wakin Chau (周華建). After I came to Canada, I was basically exposed to all kinds of music on the radio. In 2005, I was really listening to Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch, I was a teen and they were a teen. You know sometimes teenagers are afraid to admit their inner feelings and they try to be this tough chick. I think the music I write now…I grew up now, I don’t have to pretend to be very tough. I can be in touch with my inner feelings and I can write “I cry” or I can tell people that I do that. I don’t have to portray that I’m a very tough chick who never cries and only gets angry. Mainly, Sarah McLachlan’s music made me that way. Her music kind of healed me.

How do you decide whether to write a song in Chinese or in English?
That’s a good question. I definitely want to talk about it. If my experience happened in China or with a Chinese person, then this song is probably going to be in Chinese; and if my experience is with an English person or in the English culture, then this song is going to be in English. However, I did write songs in English for my mom and dad, who don’t understand English. I think this has to do with the fact that I probably don’t want them to fully understand the songs because… (Laughs) I think it’s because if I want to express something very direct, it’s going to be in English. And you know, English is easier to sing in and write as well, melody-wise. With the Chinese language, you have to think about the tones. So I’ll focus on that with Chinese. But I can do both!

You don’t usually do the same song in both Chinese and English. How did you feel about the Chinese version of “Drenched”?
I don’t like translating my own song from one language to another, because there is so much stuff that get lost in translation. I would be okay if, for example, Shawn Yue, he really likes “Drenched”, and he and his team think that it would be great for him to do a Chinese version of it. I was like, go for it! I’m still very strongly attached to my English lyrics, but when I heard Shawn’s version, I really liked it. The lyrics are very tender and touching, and I would never write anything like that. I’m very happy that the Chinese version is the way it is, and I would love to cover it one day. Shawn said that he would also love to sing it on stage with me one day.

When would that one day be?
I don’t know.. when I make my next Chinese album?

You once mentioned that you are conscious about releasing demos, because they are often being compared to the final product. Does the initial reception of a song affect the creative choices you make for the final studio version?
I make a demo, which is normally done within a day, and then I put it online for people to stream and listen to online. I was hoping that they would just listen to it and give me feedback. It’s like trying to see if the song would be anyone’s favorite song, or if it’s popular, I can decide to put whichever song in the album. Making demo is also a process of knowing what we should add or what we should not do for the album version. If the demo version got in everybody’s iPod, then it’s hard for me to change that demo for the album version. People would feel a little bit disconnected to the album version because they have listened to the demo for so many times. If I wanted them to have my demo, I would set it up as “able to download”. I didn’t check that because I didn’t want them to have it in their iPod.

Listen to “Life Is Like A Song”, from her new album here.
Wanting – Life Is Like A Song by Nettwerk Music Group

You are often very opinionated on Weibo, and you seem to be really determined in your ways, sticking very much to your own principles. Does that personality or that side of you ever come into conflict with the business side of music, since artists often do not have much control after the creative process.
With my label, they signed me knowing me that, so they are ready for that. And they are very supportive for me and who I am. But with some of the fans on Weibo, because they only started following me recently or only followed me because they are fans of the artists of the songs I covered. They didn’t do any research about me and they don’t know that I do my own original stuff. They should know that people who do original music and lyrics are very opinionated because they are not afraid to put that into music and into lyrics, and let the world hear it. So sometimes if I say something on Weibo that shows that opinionated side of me, they get very offended for some reason. Then maybe you should realize that this is not someone you want to follow, or if you don’t want to hear this, you can just unfollow. You don’t really have to say something like, “Oh, she has become famous now so she acts this way.” I mean, come on, I have never changed. This is who I am, you never knew me.

For example, I got very very mad at this guy or girl, the fan who basically used my video and put in his or her own website and lyrics, and the lyrics were wrong. I felt that my video, which I had put so much effort and time into making myself, got sabotaged by whatever he put in there. And I was worried that if anyone sees the video for the first time and saw his or her version, they would not like this artist or not like my song. I was very upset and I said something on Weibo. Lots of people got mad at me for using that language. They saw me as not being thankful for someone who wanted to spread my music, but they didn’t understand why I was upset. But there are fans who are supportive for what I said and what I did. And for those who didn’t know the real story and who the real Wanting is, I’m not very sad that they unfollowed me. (Laughs) I’m just like, okay, maybe you would understand one day. Some magical event would happen and then you would understand.

You have always put yourself forward and you are really confident, judging by your approaching Nettwerk’s Terry back when you hadn’t even started, and getting the housecleaning job that we read about…
Sorry to cut your question. When I met Terry in 2005, I looked terrible. I dressed like a young immature teenager. (Laughs) But I think he got the sense that I was very sincere and I was very nervous when I talked to him. (Mimics herself) “Terry! You don’t know me, but I know you! I just want you to remember my name: my name is Wanting. Wanting, Wanting, Wanting, like you are wanting something, wanting something!” (Laughs) He didn’t remember me five years later, but he heard my music and then he loved my music. Eventually he signed me.

The original question was, what motivates you be so confident and doing even seemingly outrageous things?
I think it’s the end goal that’s making me wanting to do all these things. My end goal, music-wise, is to have as many people as possible to hear my music. I want my music to touch them in certain ways, and they would remember me when I die. Just to be on an even higher level, abstract-thinking, I really want my music to create world peace. No, seriously. If you think on one level, and then you think of a higher one — I have been thinking, and this is what I concluded: world peace. So my motivation would definitely be coming from my final goal. I just have to conquer every single difficulty to get to the next level. Running to Terry and speak to him was just one of the steps to get to my goal, and I did it. And maybe having a drink or two would help the courage.

About your rock band, The Wanting Band, other than realizing that it was screaming and not singing, was there anything else you gained from it somehow?
All of that experience were very helpful for what I’m doing right now, whether it’s playing in front of three people in a big place, or singing in a really cracky microphone and not having any monitors on the stage. They made me learn and know what I need and what I don’t want on stage later on.

I want more people to understand that singing at home probably sounds a lot better than you hear in a live performance or its video online, because if people were talking in the crowd or if you don’t hear yourself through the monitors, then you sing off tune. I think that with the fact that I’m getting a lot more popular and play bigger shows, the equipments are getting better and better, I would have in-ear monitors and have a better on-stage setup. Then the performance would probably be so much better. I don’t want people to think that I can’t sing because they see a really bad live footage of me singing on stage online and think, “She sings off tune!” Well, I did sing off-tune at that time, but it’s because I couldn’t hear myself…

What is your process of coming up with an album?
I don’t dedicate a month or two to write an album, I just experience life. I live, and if I experienced something that I want to make a record of it and express it, then I make a song. I can’t write songs just to fill the gap, like we need one more song for the album let’s write it. Every song speaks to me in a way, every time I listen to a song I wrote, it brings me back to that time when I wrote it.

You took a road trip in 2010 that became very inspiring for you. How does location inspire your music?
If you guys ever have the chance to come to British Columbia (BC), you could rent a car and drive from BC to Alberta. It was in March or April, in BC, it went from green trees to white, white as in snow. Then as soon as it hit Alberta, everything was gold because of the long wheat fields and just really big mountains. It was really pretty, and I have never seen or experienced that before. And being by yourself, you think a lot when you are by yourself driving in car for 14 hours. It was very inspiring to me, and I realized that these mountains, trees, and oceans, they are here longer than you, or him, or her. They have been here for decades and years and thousand years, and you are only here for a moment compared to them. It just made me realize that we need to have respect for these things. It’s like when you see an old and wrinkly person, you got to have respect for them because they are here on this Earth breathing so much longer than you. The least you can do is respect them. Sometimes war or money, stuff that human beings are fighting for is really not worth it. We just have to love one another, love the mountains and trees, and help the people who are in need and not being greedy and want everything like “me me me me me!”

(Pause)
Sorry, whenever I think about that trip it makes me very speechless, because it makes me feel like what I’m doing is really nothing compared to all these enormous landscape.

Can we ask about your name? So you came to Canada, and they ask you for an English name, so you just go with Wanting?
In China, you have find yourself a name in English class, so I was going through the dictionary and I went through all the As. Then I got to B and saw “Betty”. I was like, “Oh! ‘Betty’ is pretty cool”, but I didn’t want to be like everyone else who has “Betty”. I wanted to spell it differently so I made my name “Beddy”, because it still sounds like Betty but it’s spelled differently. One day in high school, one of my instructors told me, “You know, you really should not use Beddy because it sounded weird and wrong. It reads wrong. It might mean something different. You don’t want to mean it that way.” I was like, “Oh really? I’ll change it back to Betty.” Then after a while, a white friend said, “Why don’t you just use your Chinese name?” Even at the time, I was writing my Chinese name as “Wan Ting”, and [my friends] were like, “Wan Ting… wanting, like you are wanting something! You are Wanting!” And that’s when I realized that Western people might not pronounce it right as “wǎn tíng”, but it’s actually my name. I thought maybe this would be a great stage name as well.

What about your last name “Qu”, which is related to music in Chinese — when you are growing up, did you feel that it was destined that you are doing music?
I always felt my last name is very interesting for sure. I don’t know a lot of people with my last name. So I really like my last name, and I really like singing when I was young. I can talk about it in interviews and maybe at my shows. Like when I play in front of a Western crowd, I’ll say, “My name is Wanting, like you are wanting something. My last name is Q-U. It’s pronounced “Qu” and it means music, melody and song.” And everybody’s like, “Ooh!” I’m like, “That’s right!”

What are you immediate future plans after releasing the album?
Definitely tour. I guess just getting myself exposed to more people, to have them to know who I am. One step at a time. Touring is something I would do after this release. Because you know, supply and demand. People ask for it, then you give it to them.

Jessie keeps thinking that you should be on Warped Tour.
I would love to. I hear you. I go to music festivals. There’s one in Seattle called Sasquatch. I’ve gone to Lilith Fair. We have festivals here in Vancouver, and they bring really good musicians over here to play. Every time I see them on stage, I want to be on that stage. I would love to go.

Afterword

Wanting made the almost two-hour-long interview even more enjoyable with her animated hand gestures and chattiness. We also found a photo of her in a blue dress at the Hong Kong International Film Festival opening ceremony, and complimented her self-indulging pose. Wanting said she was just being a goofball. “It was my first time being on red carpet, so I was just having a good time. The rest of the people are very rigid and conservative. They are all like this (strikes a rigid pose), but I’m just like, ‘All right! Cheers!’ Everyone else was like whispering, (whispers) ‘Cheers.’” It was only afterwards when she looked at the photo and noticed that she was not in the group. “I was in my own zone.”

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Interview by Jaime Chu, Jessie Lau and Sherlock Lam