COVER STORY: The Rise and Rise of Lay Zhang
Meet the Mandarin pop singer/producer putting China on the global music map
Lay Zhang’s duality is truly a thing of wonder.Â If you watch the music video for his new singleÂ “Give Me A Chance,” the Chinese pop star isÂ all raw sex appeal with his sleek choreography,Â smooth R&B and sensual lyrics. WhenÂ it comes to an actual conversation with himÂ however, he’s quick to shed that image andÂ trade it in for something a little dorkier: “IÂ want everybody to give me a chance. YouÂ know, ”˜Give Me A Chance,’ like my song?” It’sÂ only been a few minutes since we started talkingÂ and he’s already dropped a dad joke. There’sÂ an innocence to it all that’s quite endearing and itÂ becomes impossible not to laugh along with him.
It is four days after the release of his secondÂ studio album NAMANANA and Zhang is Skyping in to MumbaiÂ from Beijing. “Did you like it?” he asks when IÂ congratulate him on the record. “You know I madeÂ 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 promotionsÂ around his own album, Zhang’s been busy withÂ the Chinese version of his group EXO’s fifthÂ studio LP Don’t Mess Up My Tempo (whichÂ dropped on November 2nd to global success), fan meets in theÂ U.S. and several other commitments he needsÂ keep before the month ends. There’s no timeÂ to stop and take a breath””and this particularÂ itinerary doesn’t even include his schedulesÂ as an actor. Despite all this, he has ton ofÂ energy and a big smile on his face. How doesÂ he do it? “If I take some time to make music inÂ between, it helps me balance everything and givesÂ me strength,” he replies brightly.
Zhang probably hasn’t taken a day off since hisÂ career first started. Born Yixing Zhang in Hunan,Â China, the singer first stepped into showbiz as aÂ six-year-old child star in the 1998 Chinese televisionÂ drama We The People. Although acting wasÂ what he began with, it was his participation in theÂ Hunan-based TV show Star Academy in 2005Â that truly set his destiny in motion. “It madeÂ me realize I wanted to do music for a living,”Â he says. A string of small television roles followedÂ before he auditioned for South KoreanÂ label SM Entertainment in 2008 and passed,Â moving to South Korea and training for fourÂ years before finally debuting and shooting toÂ mega-stardom with prominent boy group EXOÂ in 2012.
He’s an overachiever in the best way””Â always ready to leap into a new project””and it’sÂ a little overwhelming to list out all of his achievements.Â In addition to his global success with EXO,Â the 27-year old singer is an accomplished dancer,Â producer, author, actor and philanthropist. He’s releasedÂ two full studio albums and two EPsÂ as a solo artist in the past two years andÂ regularly writes and producesÂ tracks for film, television andÂ fellow musicians. Things alsoÂ came full-circle earlier thisÂ year when Zhang took on theÂ role of mentor and judge onÂ the idol competition IdolÂ Producer””a national-levelÂ show similar to Hunan’s Star Academy.Â While his output on the entertainmentÂ front is quite substantial, heÂ maintains that music is his firstÂ love. “I’m a singer first, then aÂ dancer, then a producer, then an actor,” he statesÂ firmly. “I love music. I can’t give it up.”
Upon its release on October 19th, NAMANANA reportedlyÂ took all of 11 minutes to break severalÂ records, becoming the number one album onÂ Chinese music streaming platform QQ MusicÂ and the best selling album of 2018 in China.Â Internationally, the LP hit number one onÂ iTunes charts of 16 countries within the first hour of its release (India included) and went on to chart inÂ over 40 others. A few days after our conversation,Â it debuted at number 21 on the BillboardÂ 200 chart””the highest ever for Chinese artist.Â “I’m really happy and thankful to all the fansÂ and everyone who loved the album and loved theÂ sound,” Zhang says. “I started making NAMANANAÂ last year in October in Shanghai and I wanted theÂ album to be special and unique. I wanted people toÂ feel motivated and happy and after they listen toÂ it. Especially the title song, I want to show [theÂ world] what Mandarin pop or M-pop is, too.” So far it would seem ZhangÂ is well on his way to realizing this dream.
This LP is undoubtedly the singer’s bravest.Â There’s a distinct focus on traditional, exoticÂ instrumentals on NAMANANA and for a change,Â Zhang’s production skills take center stage. AskÂ him about the production process and he isÂ only too keen to dive into the technicalities.Â “M-pop combines MandarinÂ with another language””English,Â French or maybe even anÂ Indian language,” he explains.Â “The track should have strongÂ beats and bass. It’s usually aÂ combination of hip-hop,Â urban R&B and future bass.” This, along with the respect Zhang pays to Mandarin lyricism and tradition,Â NAMANANAÂ is also a good example of China’s currentÂ youth culture and the reinterpretationÂ of tradition by a younger society. “IÂ wanted it to be exotic but alsoÂ meaningful.” The title trackÂ “Namanana” is a power-packed anthem with lyricsÂ about Zhang unfurling his wings to take on theÂ world as a solo artist: ‘Just another day up insideÂ the jungle/Tryna stop these foes from/Making meÂ crumble/Find my way through/Dreaming don’tÂ need nobody/I got my bags packed/Ready to takeÂ all the power.’
Filmed in the deserts and beaches of Perth,Â Australia, the video is a gleaming feast of dance,Â diversity and metaphors that match the messageÂ of the track. Zhang traverses through phenomenal landscapes, seemingly on a journey to findÂ himself. “I was inspired by the book The AlchemistÂ [by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho],” he says. “It’sÂ a story about a shepherd. The alchemist helps theÂ shepherd boy know his true self and inspires peopleÂ not to give up on their dreams. I hope I will alwaysÂ dream too.”
Zhang lights up even more when the conversation turns to the Chinese instrumentals onÂ NAMANANA. “It takes a long time to put all theÂ sound together but it’s a really good experience.Â Each instrument has its own meaning and thereÂ are no ”˜bad’ ones. Just depends on you, on theÂ arrangement and the feeling.” The record cruisesÂ beyond Zhang’s previous releases to experimentÂ with cinematic world music. His foundation stillÂ lingers within his favored hip-hop, trap and R&B,Â but he adds zest with regal brass sections (“The Assembly Call”,) pulsingÂ synths and xylophone (“Save You”,) and generous doses of traditional AsianÂ instruments throughout. The entire album is confident, sexyÂ and intricate””the lyrics are a tad cheesy at certainÂ points, but it’s all part of the charm. He’s not afraidÂ to try out various combinations, and the risk ofÂ meshing together Asian flute and moombahton onÂ the title track pays off big-time. Zhang says, “FirstÂ I make the beats””a very simple one right?””andÂ then when I finish the beat I choose the bass. ThenÂ to find a very good lead instrument is very important for every song.” He reveals he was most excitedÂ about trying the guzheng, or the Chinese zither, aÂ 2500-year old plucked string instrument which canÂ have over 16 strings. It’s the most quintessentiallyÂ Chinese sound on the album but somehow manages to compliment the dreamy trap on “Mapo Tofu.”
“FiguringÂ out how to make music on your own”¦ there are lotsÂ of steps. So you need to just loveÂ music and that can help you go through the hardÂ times.”
How does he come up with these combinationsÂ in the first place? “Oh my gosh”¦ my inspiration canÂ come from everything, everywhere,” he says, addingÂ that traveling is a key method, but he banks on theÂ feeling he gets while trying out each instrument heÂ finds. “The experience is very important.” When itÂ comes to what kind of listeners he hopes to attractÂ (in addition to EXO’s powerful fanbase EXO-L,)Â Zhang is determined NAMANANA will appeal toÂ several kinds of people. “People that love music,Â especially people that like different kinds ofÂ music… People who like new languages and haveÂ an open mind.”Â There is of courseÂ always a lot of pressure andÂ stress in establishing a strong solo career outsideÂ of the group he’s been a part of for six years, butÂ Zhang feels that the way to overcome those challenges is to have faith in the music itself. “FiguringÂ out how to make music on your own”¦ there are lotsÂ of steps,” he says carefully. “So you need to just loveÂ music and that can help you go through the hardÂ times.” While Zhang hasn’t participated in an EXOÂ album since 2016’s Lotto (likely due to the currentÂ political tension between South Korea and China,)Â he started his own production company ZhangÂ Yixing Studios in his home country which handles aÂ lot of his solo releases and activities. Is he interested in eventuallyÂ expanding it into a label that signs on and helpsÂ other artists build their careers? He answers, “It’sÂ amazing to get this question! How did you knowÂ I wanted to do this? For sure, this is one of myÂ dreams for the future. But I also need to study andÂ collect a lot of knowledge about [this part of theÂ music industry,] you know what I mean?”As of now, the studio’s focus will remain solely onÂ Zhang and his various musical endeavors. Following EXO’s explosive comeback this month, he’llÂ collaborate with Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber andÂ SM Entertainment labelmate boy group NCT 127Â on a tribute to Michael Jackson titled “Let’s ShutÂ Up and Dance,” due November 16th””a collaboration he’s honored to be a part of as a singer-dancer.Â Zhang also wants to begin touring, but isn’t sureÂ where he’s going yet other than the U.S. “More places”¦ I want it, but I don’t know my schedule. You’llÂ have to ask my managers,” he says with a laugh. IÂ mention NAMANANA charted at number one onÂ the overall albums chart on iTunes India and it’s aÂ tiny moment of shock for him. “Wow”¦ Okay yeah,Â I didn’t know I had a lot of Indian fans. But today IÂ 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 2017Â Chinese-Indian Jackie Chan, Sonu Sood starrerÂ Kung Fu Yoga is a particularly fun topic””beforeÂ I ask what he wants people to learn when theyÂ discover his music or videos. “When people watchÂ ”˜Namanana’ I want them to know”¦ It’s very, very,Â very expensive to make!” he jokes. He gets seriousÂ a moment later as he begins to really ponderÂ the question and the innocence in his toneÂ from the beginning of our conversationÂ resurfaces when he says, “I hope theyÂ think, ”˜This artist isn’t bad.’ I hopeÂ that they find my music specialÂ and maybe… they’ll want toÂ learn more about me andÂ Chinese music.”
Watch the video for Lay Zhang’s “Give Me A Chance” below: