Chinese Megastar Lay Zhang wants to bring ‘China to the world’ with his music. He talks to Don’t Bore Us about how he plans to achieve his dreams.
For most of us, our dreams are conditional. For us, they remain in the abstract most of the time, attached to phrases like ‘It would be good if…’ or ‘I wish I…’. Not for Lay Zhang. Lay Zhang speaks in dreams. In his mind, he picks them out of the abstract and parks them on the road to his goals. Then, he sets into motion a cause and effect cycle, where each step leads to the realization of that dream.
“The word dream is a strange one,” he wrote in his autobiography Standing Firm at 24. “You start with a dream, but you have to fulfill everything in reality. Of course, it’s not really that you’re dreaming, because someone once told me, a dream is actually what a person’s heart looks like.”
Despite his status as one of China’s most famous stars, it’s this spirit that still is the condensation of Zhang’s ethos as an artist. Born in Changsha in the Chinese province of Hunan as Zhang Yixing, he was no stranger to the world of entertainment as a child star. In 2008, he auditioned for trainee-ship at SM Entertainment, largely considered the progenitor of modern-day K-pop, and passed. Four years later, he debuted as EXO’s Lay, an act that turned the tide for K-pop in the 2010s.
Home, however, was never very far away — after flitting between South Korea and China for work for sometime, the lengthy schedules eventually made him shift base to mainland China, laying the groundwork for Lay Zhang. His first studio album, Lay 02 Sheep, broke five records on the first day of digital release on the Chinese music service QQ Music. His second, NAMANANA, ranked No. 21 on the Billboard 200 chart, making him the highest-ranking M-pop artist on the chart to date.
It’s an ideal trajectory for anyone with dreams as big as Zhang: every new release came with new records and renown. Eventually, however, Zhang realized what his work was missing: a piece of his roots. He wanted to show the world “what China is really about.”
And so he said: “Let there be LIT.”
Named after a play on the Chinese word for lotus, ‘lián huā’, LIT — released in two parts over the course of 2020 — puts Zhang’s Chinese identity at its core. As he weaves the sounds of the Hulusi, Guzheng and Gong together with hip-hop, R&B, and Latin, Zhang not only creates his own genre (which he calls “mixed Mando-pop”), but also nurtures a new dream: one where Mando-pop frees itself of the labels of being “vapid” and “vain” and presents new avenues of experimentation and cultural triumph.
“In the future, mixed will be king. Every work, every genre can be mixed with each other; every language can mix with another. That’s where we go.” he says.
The way to this “mixed” world might be long, but Zhang will soon have company on the way. Earlier in 2020, he announced the establishing of his own company, Chromosome Entertainment, with a set focus to not only train the next generation of Chinese idols, but also to include Chinese culture and history as an integral part of their artistry.
DBU caught up with Lay Zhang to talk about Chromosome Entertainment, his music, how he is going to take his company to ‘infinity’, and his adorable cats.
Don’t Bore Us: Why did you think this was the right time to start your own company?
Lay Zhang: I have always wanted to have my own company and leave my mark in the world. I feel I need to think less and do more. I wanted to do it no matter how difficult it would be. If I kept waiting for the right moment, I might never do it. So, I created the Chromosome Entertainment Group.
DBU: Is there anything that you’ll focus on teaching the trainees that you yourself didn’t get during your trainee years?
Lay Zhang: Our trainees will learn more and more about Chinese culture and Chinese history.
DBU: Speaking of your music over the past year, we have to talk about LIT. We saw you expand into genres that you had never experimented with before. While Part 1 was a mix of traditional Chinese sounds, Part 2 had more modern inspirations such as R&B, Hip-hop, Latin, and others. Which of these sounds comes more naturally to you, and which one is more difficult to explore?
Lay Zhang: I just tried a lot of genres. Since I was young, I have been singing in Chinese and listening to pop music, so I find writing R&B is easier, since it is similar. With traditional Chinese music, it feels like second nature, since I grew up with it.
Latin and Hip-hop is very new to me, but Latin caught my ear because it’s easy to dance to. I’ve been listening to hip-hop and trap in the past few years. I think no matter what kind, I want to do a new genre. I want to call it M-pop because I think in the future, mixed will be king. Every work, every genre can be mixed with each other — every language can mix with each other, and that’s where we go.
DBU: Speaking of the incorporation of your native Chinese sounds into the songs on the first album, what is the most difficult part while looking for a middle-ground between culture and modernity?
Lay Zhang: You always want to respect the culture. We owe a lot to the past for giving us today: I cannot stress that enough. I understand that people have new tastes each year, so you want to make sure that you match the energy and the vibe of the year.
It’s hard to explain how I find the balance. I ask my friends and collaborators, what they feel. I took that into consideration [with LIT], and checked my gut feeling. Did I feel [like] it mixed my Chinese sound with the present or modern without losing it? It’s [a] feeling I get after listening to the record time after time in my car or in the studio.
DBU: With reference to bringing “China to the world”. How do you think LIT did that, apart from, of course, being a mash-up of different influences?
Lay Zhang: I think this album is the first of its kind in a way. It’s very unique: we brought together new and legendary producers to create beautiful music. We had traditional and modern day stories to showcase the idea of the past and the present, to show the world that Chinese artists can be creative. They can think more deeply about music. I want people to know that we are improving everyday. We are working hard. This is what LIT shows.
DBU: Historically, western audiences have thought of Mando-pop as being “very vain or bland.” You have always wanted to push forward Mixed Mando-pop through your work. How do you hope to change this perception of Mando-pop globally through your music?
Lay Zhang: It is a work in progress. We are still improving and developing M-pop. Since I was a child, I have always had big goals and dreams. I want to show the world what China is really about, that we are respectful people trying to better ourselves.
DBU: Your current approach to your work makes me curious. The words “one of China’s biggest celebrities” are often used in your context. With the fan-base and work you’ve built over the years, you could very well have taken the safer route and stuck to the previous sounds you have experimented with before, because anything you make is guaranteed to be a hit. So why is it important for you to keep making the kind of music you do, in the way you make it?
Lay Zhang: I want to challenge myself and see what I can do. I admit, I don’t always succeed, but I’d rather try different genres and sing in different languages to see what I am capable of. Like any artist, I want my music to reach more people, so you have to branch out and try new things, but at the same time, not lose who you are. I have great fans that support me and allow me to dream bigger. I want to pave the path for the next generation to share their music with the world.
DBU: You’ve worked both in South Korea and China. With K-pop having a moment in the global spotlight, what are some things that you feel M-pop could learn or borrow from K-pop?
Lay Zhang: I think it’s great that K-pop is having its moment. In M-pop, we need to put ourselves out there more. We need to meet fans in every city and town to create that one-on-one interaction. I think there are enough artists with quality music to match the artists in K-pop: we just need to focus on sharing Mando-pop.
DBU: For the past few years, you have been heavily involved in music reality shows geared towards bringing out China’s next musical stars. There was Idol Producer, Youth With You, Street Dance of China: what are your hopes from the next generation, and why this interest?
Lay Zhang: The next generation inspires me. Their dreams and efforts inspire me to work harder and be a good role model. I hope they can focus on creating great art and work that they can be proud of. Their work should speak for itself. If everyone can do this, they can do this. If everyone can do this, we can push the boundaries of music and art. We can create works that leave people in awe.
DBU: In the larger context of your artistry, what impact has this year had on you personally?
Lay Zhang: COVID-19 slowed my life down like everyone else. We have all experienced difficulties, but I was able to think about my music and career more clearly. I decided that I should go after the things I want as soon as I could. For my artistry, I realized I needed to focus on music I made, my company, and make music that really carried the culture and vibe of my country.
DBU: Observing your trajectory from when you just started out to now, I was thinking about how it is very clear where your professional priorities lie. What about personal ones? What are you focusing on personally in the coming year?
Lay Zhang: I think about this a lot, and it’s hard to separate my work and personal life. But I think I only have that much time before I run out of energy. I am always thirsty (laughs), so I know I won’t be able to continue this forever. I want to keep pushing until I can’t. So, then I can focus on my personal life knowing I gave it all to my career.
DBU: I asked some fans if they had anything to say to you, and most of them wanted me to relay the same thing: please take a well-deserved break! Now that LIT has had its successful run, is it time for a vacation, or is there more to come?
Lay Zhang: My cats give me a lot of confidence and happiness. They make it easier to face each day; it’s nice to know you have someone waiting for you at home. But I will take a vacation when I turn 40 (laughs). Of course, there is more to come: the trainees we are receiving are so talented. I am excited to create something that will hopefully last a long time, and will improve and uphold the entertainment industry in China.