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COVER STORY: The Rise and Rise of Lay Zhang

Meet the Mandarin pop singer/producer putting China on the global music map

Riddhi Chakraborty Nov 07, 2018

"I want to make good ranks on the charts and I want people to know that Chinese producers can also make good music," says Lay Zhang, our November 2018 cover star. Photo: Sun Zhong Guo (China Studio)

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Lay Zhang’s duality is truly a thing of wonder. If you watch the music video for his new single “Give Me A Chance,” the Chinese pop star is all raw sex appeal with his sleek choreography, smooth R&B and sensual lyrics. When it comes to an actual conversation with him however, he’s quick to shed that image and trade it in for something a little dorkier: “I want everybody to give me a chance. You know, ‘Give Me A Chance,’ like my song?” It’s only been a few minutes since we started talking and he’s already dropped a dad joke. There’s an innocence to it all that’s quite endearing, and it becomes impossible not to laugh along with him.

Lay Zhang on the cover of Rolling Stone India. Photo: Sun Zhong Guo (China Studio.)

It is four days after the release of his second studio album NAMANANA and Zhang is Skyping in to Mumbai from Beijing. “Did you like it?” he asks when I congratulate him on the record. “You know I made the beats, right?” Zhang’s production skills on the record have caused considerable buzz, even though it’s been a challenge to pin the singer-songwriter down in one place for a discussion; in addition to solo promotions around his own album, Zhang’s been busy with the Chinese version of his group EXO’s fifth studio LP Don’t Mess Up My Tempo (which dropped on November 2nd to global success), fan meets in the U.S. and several other commitments he needs keep before the month ends. There’s no time to stop and take a breath, and this particular itinerary doesn’t even include his schedules as an actor. Despite all this, he has ton of energy and a big smile on his face. How does he do it? “If I take some time to make music in between, it helps me balance everything and gives me strength,” he replies brightly.

Zhang probably hasn’t taken a day off since his career first started. Born Yixing Zhang in Hunan, China, the singer first stepped into showbiz as a six-year-old child star in the 1998 Chinese television drama We The People. Although acting was what he began with, it was his participation in the Hunan-based TV show Star Academy in 2005 that truly set his destiny in motion. “It made me realize I wanted to do music for a living,” he says. A string of small television roles followed before he auditioned for South Korean label SM Entertainment in 2008 and passed, moving to South Korea and training for four years before finally debuting and shooting to mega-stardom with prominent boy group EXO in 2012.

Zhang started his career in entertainment as a child actor. Photo: Courtesy of Lay Zhang

He’s an overachiever in the best way, always ready to leap into a new project and it’s a little overwhelming to list out all of his achievements. In addition to his global success with EXO, the 27-year old singer is an accomplished dancer, producer, author, actor and philanthropist. He’s released two full studio albums and two EPs as a solo artist in the past two years and regularly writes and produces tracks for film, television and fellow musicians. Things also came full-circle earlier this year when Zhang took on the role of mentor and judge on the idol competition Idol Producer, a national-level show similar to Hunan’s Star Academy. While his output on the entertainment front is quite substantial, he maintains that music is his first love. “I’m a singer first, then a dancer, then a producer, then an actor,” he states firmly. “I love music. I can’t give it up.”

Upon its release on October 19th, NAMANANA reportedly took all of 11 minutes to break several records, becoming the number one album on Chinese music streaming platform QQ Music and the best selling album of 2018 in China. Internationally, the LP hit number one on iTunes charts of 16 countries within the first hour of its release (India included) and went on to chart in over 40 others. A few days after our conversation, it debuted at number 21 on the Billboard 200 chart–the highest ever for Chinese artist. “I’m really happy and thankful to all the fans and everyone who loved the album and loved the sound,” Zhang says. “I started making NAMANANA last year in October in Shanghai and I wanted the album to be special and unique. I wanted people to feel motivated and happy and after they listen to it. Especially the title song, I want to show [the world] what Mandarin pop or M-pop is, too.” So far it would seem Zhang is well on his way to realizing this dream.

Zhang performing at Lollapalooza 2018 in Chicago. Photo: Qiongmin Fang

This LP is undoubtedly the singer’s bravest. There’s a distinct focus on traditional, exotic instrumentals on NAMANANA and for a change, Zhang’s production skills take center stage. Ask him about the production process and he is only too keen to dive into the technicalities. “M-pop combines Mandarin with another language–English, French or maybe even an Indian language,” he explains. “The track should have strong beats and bass. It’s usually a combination of hip-hop, urban R&B and future bass.” This, along with the respect Zhang pays to Mandarin lyricism and tradition, NAMANANA is also a good example of China’s current youth culture and the reinterpretation of tradition by a younger society. “Iwanted it to be exotic but also meaningful.” The title track “Namanana” is a power-packed anthem with lyrics about Zhang unfurling his wings to take on the world as a solo artist: ‘Just another day up inside the jungle/Tryna stop these foes from/Making me crumble/Find my way through/Dreaming don’t need nobody/I got my bags packed/Ready to take all the power.’

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Filmed in the deserts and beaches of Perth, Australia, the video is a gleaming feast of dance, diversity and metaphors that match the message of the track. Zhang traverses through phenomenal landscapes, seemingly on a journey to find himself. “I was inspired by the book The Alchemist [by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho],” he says. “It’s a story about a shepherd. The alchemist helps the shepherd boy know his true self and inspires people not to give up on their dreams. I hope I will always dream too.”

Zhang lights up even more when the conversation turns to the Chinese instrumentals on NAMANANA. “It takes a long time to put all the sound together but it’s a really good experience. Each instrument has its own meaning and there are no ‘bad’ ones. Just depends on you, on the arrangement and the feeling.” The record cruises beyond Zhang’s previous releases to experiment with cinematic world music. His foundation still lingers within his favored hip-hop, trap and R&B, but he adds zest with regal brass sections (“The Assembly Call”,) pulsing synths and xylophone (“Save You”,) and generous doses of traditional Asian instruments throughout. The entire album is confident, sexy and intricate; the lyrics are a tad cheesy at certain points, but it’s all part of the charm. He’s not afraid to try out various combinations, and the risk of meshing together Asian flute and moombahton on the title track pays off big-time. Zhang says, “First I make the beats–a very simple one right–and then when I finish the beat I choose the bass. Then to find a very good lead instrument is very important for every song.” He reveals he was most excited about trying the guzheng, or the Chinese zither, a 2500-year old plucked string instrument which can have over 16 strings. It’s the most quintessentially Chinese sound on the album but somehow manages to compliment the dreamy trap on “Mapo Tofu.”

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“Figuring out how to make music on your own”¦ there are lots of steps. So you need to just love music and that can help you go through the hard times.”

How does he come up with these combinations in the first place? “Oh my gosh, my inspiration can come from everything, everywhere,” he says, adding that traveling is a key method, but he banks on the feeling he gets while trying out each instrument he finds. “The experience is very important.” When it comes to what kind of listeners he hopes to attract (in addition to EXO’s powerful fanbase EXO-L,) Zhang is determined NAMANANA will appeal to several kinds of people. “People that love music, especially people that like different kinds of music… People who like new languages and have an open mind.” There is of course always a lot of pressure and stress in establishing a strong solo career outside of the group he’s been a part of for six years, but Zhang feels that the way to overcome those challenges is to have faith in the music itself. “Figuring out how to make music on your own… there are lots of steps,” he says carefully. “So you need to just love music and that can help you go through the hard times.” While Zhang hasn’t participated in an EXO album since 2016’s Lotto (likely due to the current political tension between South Korea and China,) he started his own production company Zhang Yixing Studios in his home country which handles a lot of his solo releases and activities. Is he interested in eventually expanding it into a label that signs on and helps other artists build their careers? He answers, “It’s amazing to get this question! How did you know I wanted to do this? For sure, this is one of my dreams for the future. But I also need to study and collect a lot of knowledge about [this part of the music industry,] you know what I mean?”

Zhang [standing, third from the left] with EXO. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment.

As of now, the studio’s focus will remain solely on Zhang and his various musical endeavors. Following EXO’s explosive comeback this month, he’ll collaborate with Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber and SM Entertainment labelmate boy group NCT 127 on a tribute to Michael Jackson titled “Shut Up and Dance,” due November 16th–a collaboration he’s honored to be a part of as a singer-dancer. Zhang also wants to begin touring, but isn’t sure where he’s going yet other than the U.S. “More places… I want it, but I don’t know my schedule. You’ll have to ask my managers,” he says with a laugh. I mention NAMANANA charted at number one on the overall albums chart on iTunes India and it’s a tiny moment of shock for him. “Wow! Okay yeah, I didn’t know I had a lot of Indian fans. But today I know. For the tour, I promise I’ll come to India.”

We spend the rest of the allotted time chatting about random things–his role in the 2017 Chinese-Indian Jackie Chan, Sonu Sood starrer Kung Fu Yoga is a particularly fun topic–before I ask what he wants people to learn when they discover his music or videos. “When people watch ‘Namanana’ I want them to know… It’s very, very, very expensive to make!” he jokes. He gets serious a moment later as he begins to really ponder the question, and the innocence in his tone from the beginning of our conversation resurfaces when he says, “I hope they think, ‘This artist isn’t bad.’ I hope that they find my music special and maybe… they’ll want to learn more about me and Chinese music.”

Watch the video for Lay Zhang’s “Give Me A Chance” below:

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