How my crazy dream to become a Chinese singer/songwriter came true: PART 2
A Magic Ferry
I enjoy taking the ferry. As a child, I'd wait impatiently for my Pirate-Pak meal from the onboard White Spot restaurant. I'd eat my ice-cream slowly, carefully searching the waves outside for Orcas (killer whales). This time was different, though. We were heading back to Vancouver from campus, and the ferry gates had just opened for boarding.
Johnny drove us up the ramp and we were signaled into a middle lane. We came to a stop behind a parked car, and the next thing I knew, Johnny was asleep with his seat all the way down and feet up on the dash. Normally, I would head up to the passenger decks, but today I was curious about that glove compartment full of Chinese Mandopop.
I started flipping through different tapes (yeah, his car played tapes...) and eventually found some kind of mixtape that sounded interesting. All the songs were in Chinese, yet, none of them sounded anything I'd heard before. I've mentioned that half the kids in my high school were Chinese. The thing is, they all spoke Cantonese at school, and listened to Cantopop. This... was Mandopop.
Let me just explain really quickly what the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is. Imagine someone yelling at you, with an onslaught of sharp sounding swear words, really loudly and quickly - like you had just done something terrible. Okay, so that is Cantonese - at least, that's what it sounded like to me at the time (it doesn't anymore, I love Cantonese, but once you understand it you realize they really are swearing half the time!) Mandarin, I had never really paid attention to before... it sounded... almost like French somehow! The vowels were a mix of English and French sounds, the syllables seemed easy to pronounce, it hit me like a ton of bricks - all this time, I'd been trying to learn the wrong Chinese!
So here I was, in a parking lot, feeling like I had just reached the summit of Mount Everest: Maybe I would still be able to learn Chinese after all?! I frantically searched the floor for a pen and paper (read: used napkins), and rewound the song I was listening to. The singer sang the first word, and of course, I hit pause immediately.
I had never learned Chinese, so I didn't know how to write it. Since it sounded similar to French, I decided that I'd use accents to remember how to pronounce the vowels. I scribbled:
Okay that seemed close enough. Next word.
This was actually French, so, it was pronounced more like "huh"
Again, this was French and sounded like "knee". I kept scribbling, pausing, scribbling, wash, rinse, and repeat - et voilà, I had my song transcripted to something I could read. The song I had transcripted is actually called You Yi Dian Dong Xin (有一點動心), it is a duet so I had both parts written down.
Now came the hard part. It sounded the same to me, but, that didn't mean anybody else would agree. I still had over two hours left before the ferry arrived - so I decided to try to memorize this. Let me first confess, right here on steemit for the first time ever, I have the worst memory. This has haunted me my entire life, especially when I'm on stage or on camera - my memory is not reliable AT ALL. I am so envious of my daughter, by the time she turned three, she could already remember more lyrics than me.
(LONG HORN SOUND)
We were pulling into the Tsawassen ferry terminal, and Johnny was awakened by the sound of the ships horn. I quickly hid my cheat sheet under my legs, and set the tape to rewind. When the tape reached the beginning, it began to play, and so I sat and I waited. It was probably a good fifteen minutes or so before the tape reached my song again. Then, just like that, it started playing again - it was now or never.
Nervous, I started singing along: Wo he ni, nan he nv, dou tao bu guo... ai qing. Shei yuan yi...
Johnny almost crashes the car
"What! The! He... !!!!", he yells!
"WHATTT! THEEEE!!! .........!!!!!!"
I stop. Discouraged, I ask how bad it really was.
"No, no, keep going! It's good, keep going!"
So... I finish the song, peaking at my cheat sheet between my legs, until the song is done. By this time, Johnny has a big smile on his face, and he turns to me and says - "I am taking you to Karaoke."
I didn't realize that he actually meant - right now, directly. We kept driving from the ferry all the way to a Karaoke place, where he was meeting his friends. I had been to karaoke only once before, at a ski lodge, at Whistler. It was a bunch of drunk people singing really badly, but it was fun. Chinese people are a lot more serious about Karaoke.
First of all, there was no stage. The karaoke place was organized into rooms like a hotel is. You walk down the hall to the room you were assigned, open the door, and that room is just for you and your friends. There were thick binders full of numbers, and a computer screen, that was also all in Chinese. I spent a good four hours that night watching everyone else sing, with one quick performance of You Yi Dian Dong Xin (有一點動心) at the very end. I didn't know it yet, but this was to be my life for the year to come.
I probably spent four nights per week at karaoke. In the meantime, I started listening to Mandopop at home. I discovered that there was a store that sold imported CDs in Richmond, and bought a couple to practice. It was somewhere around this time that I made the crazy decision: I am going to become a Chinese singer/songwriter.
Suddenly, with all the odds against me, this entire concept became more and more appealing. I noticed a VIP sign on the desk of the CD store, and told myself, I am going to become a VIP at this store. I would hear a song at karaoke, any song, and tell myself that I would soon be able to sing it. My determination - as steemit would put it - was FULLY POWERED UP.
The more I went to karaoke, the more I'd recognize the Chinese characters. I'd know some characters better than others, for example, 我 (me) and 你 (you) were words I'd see over and over. Though I couldn't possibly learn everything, I thought, if I could at least memorize the sounds of the words that popped up more often, I'd be able to kind-of sing along.
So that is exactly what happened. Almost a year had gone by and I was now a VIP at the CD store (it took 20 CDs to become VIP, and those CDs were not cheap). I could sing along to probably 30% of most songs, and, maybe 50% of the rare easier ones. I still couldn't speak a word of Chinese.
My First Few Songs
I probably went to karaoke over a hundred times that year, so I really want to make an important point: I was never asked to chip in, not even a single time. That tells you something about Chinese culture - it is extremely inviting. I received overwhelming support from everyone I met, no matter how much I struggled, or how wrong my Chinese sounded. Whenever I visited Victoria, Johnny would always let me crash over too, and that is how my next leap forward came to happen: I found out Johnny was a poet.
Once in a while, Johnny would write poetry in Chinese, and I happened to find his stash of poetry just sitting there one day. It was all in Chinese characters, so I circled the words I didn't know how to pronounce yet and asked Johnny to read them out loud for me. That was neat, I thought, but I had no clue what they meant. So I asked him to translate them for me too. I wrote down the general idea of the poem on the back and took these back to Vancouver. I was going to turn these into songs.
Back home, I had a bit of a recording studio. When I was nine, I started composing my own music, and because my music reading skills were terrible my dad took me to buy some MIDI gear. With MIDI, I could play anything on my keyboard and the computer would be able to record the notes. Eventually, as I got better, I began saving up my busking change and birthday money for nicer keyboards, and sound modules. My aunt Jacqueline is a professional musician in France, so sometimes I even got used gear for Christmas.
I wrote melodies for three of the poems, composed arrangements, and recorded myself singing them. This was done using multi-track cassette, before my first ADAT machine. Johnny heard the songs, and he really liked them.
I liked my songs, but this was the first time I had ever written a Chinese song. I was disappointed that I couldn't write the lyrics myself, but hey, I still couldn't speak a word of Chinese. I felt that this was the first step on a very long journey that one day, maybe, would take me where I wanted.
Except that it wasn't. One afternoon, Johnny showed up unannounced at my house, and yelled: "Get in the car, we are late!" I jumped in, no clue where we were going, and the next thing I knew we were knocking at the door of a radio station. That's when Johnny pulled out my tapes. He was submitting my tapes, just minutes before the deadline, for a national songwriting contest.
"What are you doing! Those aren't even finished yet, they are still rough, man!" I panicked. He just smiled and dropped them in the submission envelope... and just like that, I was part of the Canadian National Chinese Songwriting Quest, whether I wanted to or not.
The stress soon faded, though, and before I knew it I'd forgotten all about it. I went back to my routine, in fact, I don't even think I saw Johnny during that whole stretch of time. Then, one day, I got a call from Johnny.
Our song made it to the nationals
Wow - Johnny must be an incredible lyricist, I thought to myself. There was a reception at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Vancouver, which turned out to be a press conference. We were told that our song had made it to the finals and that I had to go re-record the song at a professional recording studio.
I looked forward to the recording studio experience for weeks, but unfortunately, it wasn't really what I expected. First of all, the recording took place at a local music shop nearby, Tom Lee Music. They are a great store, but, this wasn't the professional recording studio I'd hoped for. Something felt really strange, though. The station had never asked me to provide my original multi-track recording. I began to wonder, how would they filter my voice out of the original?
Inside the vocal booth, through studio headphones, my question was answered. They had thrown out my arrangement. The engineer signaled me to sing, but the song tempo was twice as quick as it used to be. I had to struggle to keep up, but the whole thing - it just sounded terribly wrong. Remember how I compared Cantonese vs Mandarin? Well, this version of my song, sounded incredibly Cantonese. I completed the recording and drove straight to the radio station.
The radio station told me that I had to use their version of the song. They said that really they were doing me a favor and that I didn't understand Chinese music as well as they did. They told me that this version, this recording, would give me a better chance of winning. I was not happy. I begged to speak to the manager of the station, and eventually, they actually let me talk to him.
After a long chat, Simon told me that if I really wanted to use my own version, I could - but that it had to be up to their standards. I would be performing live, at the Michael J Fox Theatre, and the song had to sound okay over their system. I thanked him profusely, breathed a sigh of relief, and took off for the music store. If they wanted quality, I would give them quality.
I spent all my savings (and more), and bought myself a Digital Sampler. At the time, it was bleeding edge technology - it also cost me a fortune. What it really was, though, is just a bunch of .WAV files. Basically, someone had recorded a single note being played by an instrument - digitally - and saved that note. Whenever I played my keyboard, the matching .WAV file would be played, and the volume would depend on how hard I hit the keys.
Thank you, Steven Pan
I am taking this opportunity to right a wrong - I want to thank Steven Pan for his contribution to our song. Johnny wrote the lyrics, I wrote the arrangement and sang it, but Steven was at my house the day I re-wrote the arrangement. In fact, he helped me decide which version of my new arrangement sounded best, and helped select instruments. I didn't know enough about how music works back then to realize that I should have included him in the song credits. In fact, no matter how little the help, the more the merrier when it comes to song credits. Collaboration is what music is all about!
So, now it is immutably out there for public record. Steven helped. Our new arrangement was not quick, like the "Cantonese" version, but kept the exact same tempo as my original. Sound module quality instruments were all replaced by digitally sampled versions. This was the way I had intended the song to be.
OMG, it's Dave Wang 王傑
On the day of the competition, we walk into Michael J Fox Theatre, and there he is - Dave Wang 王傑 - Johnny's all-time favorite Mandopop idol. An entire glovebox of albums had been dedicated to this man, and he walked right past us. Johnny stood there like a statue. I knew what I had to do. I walk into the dressing room after him and ask for his autograph. He looks up, slightly confused that a white guy had just asked for his autograph, signs, and walks away. He is a cool guy, like Fonzie from Happy Days, Shwartzenegger in the Terminator, or any other cool image you have of a guy with a leather jacket. The autograph, of course, was for Johnny.
Johnny and I chatted for a while about how I got his autograph and then chatted with the other competitors. I am still close friends with some of those people today; some of those people are now professional Chinese singer/songwriters themselves. One by one we were called on stage, and eventually, it was my turn.
So I still couldn't speak any Chinese. I had picked up a few words, but, I was 100% focused on the music. I walk out on stage and guess what, the hosts are speaking in Cantonese. They speak for a good few minutes, as I pretend to not look clueless. Suddenly my name is shouted (in Cantonese), the lights drop, and my music comes on - center spotlight.
I pray that I won't forget the words or sing the wrong ones. Hey, at least this is a songwriting contest, right? Hopefully, nobody cares about the singing too much?
I suddenly think about how my arrangement is sounding - thank god I didn't go with their version, I think! Everything sounded exactly the way I hoped it would, and that was extremely comforting. For a moment, I forgot I was on stage.
And then I actually started singing. I had never sang as a singer before, I'd only performed in musicals. I suddenly realized how big the stage really is with nobody else on it. So, I slowly started walking. And walking. In retrospect, watching my performance, I pretty much spent the entire song walking a giant circle around the stage, and then kept walking once the singing was finished. Luckily though, I sang my heart out, and I didn't make any giant mistakes.
The lights came back on, people were cheering, and I walked back off-stage. That was that. It was finally over. The contestants were all called back on-stage, and for another fifteen minutes, I heard nothing but Cantonese. A couple of people's names were called, they received prizes, and I began to wonder if the show was over. But then, a drumroll began to play... and wouldn't you know... that night, my very first Chinese song ever Awake In The Dream 醒在夢裡 took home first place. This white guy, who spoke French at home, English at school, and no Chinese whatsoever - was now officially the best Chinese songwriter in all of Canada.
As it turns out, not only was I the first white guy to win, but this was also year number three for this competition, and no Mandarin song had ever won before. So, we broke two records in one night. And, as if things couldn't get any better, we received some airplane tickets to Hong Kong and some other prizes too. Johnny's poetry must seriously be awesome, I thought.
This is a picture from left to right of Johnny, me, and Dave Wang 王傑. I was now determined more than ever that this was my path in life... I was going to become a Chinese singer/songwriter.