We were honored to meet up with the amazing and talented musician, writer, song writer, singer Ember Swift while in China. Ember is an international artist who has released 11 albums, as well as a much-published writer and a fluent trilingual in Mandarin, French and English. She is the only foreigner to have a hit in Mandarin on Chinese radio.
Swift is a Canadian, married to a successful, creative Chinese Reggea musician and a new mom to adorable baby Echo and they all live in Beijing. Our daughter is a musician and budding composer and singer who also never met another Caucasian who was fluent in Mandarin.
Funnily, Ember even looks like she could be related to our daughter Mozart and we thought she was a great role model as a creative, multilingual, well-traveled person who has used her talents wisely.
I love the synchronicity of our travel life! Just before we left for our China trip, it happened that my cousin from Michigan (who is a lawyer who just happens to be working this year in Bangkok), sent me a link about Ember on Facebook, since we have things in common and she had seen Swift touring "live" several times over the years and was a fan.
I emailed Ember on a whim then and she was gracious enough to meet with us at the fantastic new Four Seasons in Beijing soon after we arrived. It was one of those destined-to-be meetings and we fell in love with both her and Echo. They felt like family and we know we will be seeing more of them.
Yum! We feasted on the amazing spread put out in the Executive Club and had the place to ourselves ..including a cool high chair for Echo. Mozart did her own little interview with her ipod I will have to put up later and we all relaxed and talked and made goo goo eyes at Echo who was so adorable she was the center of attention.
It was a fantastic meeting and family style interview, but I was really glad that I had the presence of mind to ask the interview questions by email before hand, so I didn't have to worry about taking notes or recording everything. She was so sweet she even gave us her phone number in case we ever got stuck in China and needed an instant translator!
It was so much fun, we might make this into a series with folks we meet along the way. Here is the formal interview:
QUESTIONS FOR EMBER SWIFT
What inspired your passion for music?
I grew up in a musical family. There was
always singing and instrument playing around me. I was encouraged early
to explore instruments and my voice.
How did your family (or others) support you?
My parents got me piano lessons when I was
9. They wanted me to want them and ask for them, so they didn’t start me
earlier and I’m grateful for that. It felt like my journey and not
theirs, as a result. I was committed to excellence for my own sake.
Those piano lessons started me on my way towards composition and
What are the things you enjoy about working in the music industry and what are the most challenging parts?
I enjoy the performances, the communication
through music/art with people all over the world, the chance to
showcase creativity as part of my job, the opportunities it has brought
me to travel and explore other cultures and subcultures, the interplay
of musicians and the team work associated with forming a band and
building song structures and arrangements.... that’s just a short list.
The music industry, however, is rife with struggle. It’s a hard industry
to make a decent living in. I toured endlessly for many years and was
still very much a working musician struggling with debts and costs and
low income, but moving to China has helped. The cost of living is much
lower here and I can finally devote myself to my music, if I choose.
I’ve actually branched out now instead, though, and now do some voice
over work and freelance writing gigs as well as my own band work.
Another challenging part to the industry is its changing technology
(like the fact that selling CDs barely happens anymore) and this will
only become more challenging as more and more new technologies emerge
for distributing, listening to, and consuming music.
What are the pros and cons about being a Caucasian musician/singer in China?
Pro is that there are very few of us.
Con is that there are very few of us!
So, this is both an advantage and a disadvantage;
the advantage is that you’re unique and people will know who you are
quickly, but the disadvantage is that you’ll always be different and
from the “outside,” (regardless of how many years I live and work in
China) and thus, I will never be invited to “local” events or be seen as
a representative of this place. Eventually, I won’t be seen as a
representative of Canada, either. We’re hard to categorize. It’s the
How does the music industry differ in China than other places?
Its infrastructure is far behind that of
the European or North American music markets. There is no royalty rights
organization, for instance. Artists have very little copyright
protection here. What’s more, there’s less of a demand or hunger for
live music in Chinese culture, and so it’s a growing industry but may
never grow to the extent that it has in North America.
Also, this industry is governed and controlled. Censorship is rampant.
Content on radio and television and at live official events like
festivals all has to be approved before the events can proceed. It often
causes last minute cancellations and/or rescheduling. As a result,
sometimes I get festival gigs six weeks before the events, whereas
things are much more stable in the west and bookings are in place six to
ten months in advance.
Has speaking Mandarin and being multilingual enriched your life or added to your perspective and music?
Absolutely. When I first came in 2007, I did a few
gigs in English and French and felt very little impact and/or inroads
with my music. I took a break then, built a whole new bilingual body of
work, learned the language more proficiently than I had previous to my
arrival, and then re-launched my career here in 2009 to a completely
different response. It’s been going much better ever since. I conduct my
shows in Chinese and sing the Chinese versions of my bilingual songs
when I perform in China. I also sing in English and French, but I try to
“honour the language of the land” (my motto) especially when performing
live, and this approach has been well received.
What advice would you give to young people looking for a career in music?
I think that believing in one’s musical
talent and one’s musical mission is the key to building a career in
music. Without that confidence and self-fulfilling ambition, audiences
and industry alike are less likely to take notice. But, I’d also advise
that every little tiny success is worth celebrating. One doesn’t have to
be famous to be a successful musician. Self-sustainable was always my
goal and I reached it. If I never release another album, I’d consider
myself successful and I’m nowhere near famous. Most young people who
want a career in music equate this desire with wanting to be famous.
They’re two very different things.
How would you support a child interested in writing/composing? songs?
I would encourage it! I’d probably teach them how
to record themselves or buy a recording device for them so that they can
hear and learn from their own work. I’d also consider enrolling them in
songwriting workshops or kid’s “rock” camps (there are lots of those in
North America, especially in the summertime) and/or finding them
mentorship opportunities with established songwriters.
How do you balance motherhood with your music career and is this easier or harder to do in China?
Since having Echo, I have done a lot less
with my career, I admit. I’ve done more writing and voice over work so
that I can stay home with her and stay off the road. Last year, I
released my 11th album, though, and so I don’t feel like I have a sense
of urgency around songwriting like I used to. I’m in no rush, in other
words. If I release another project, I know I have some solid fans to
support it. If I don’t, then I also know that’s okay.
In China, it’s much easier to focus on mothering and take it easy
because of the lower cost of living and the availability of easy jobs
that an English-speaking person can obtain that more than keeps the
wallet flush. Without the Chinese economy, I’d be finding this much more
difficult, I’m sure. I also have the bonus of a Chinese mother-in-law
who has basically made herself available to be a caregiver for the baby
and the household. I think I won the lottery on that front!
How has living in China, married to a Chinese man who is a musician affected your music?
Well, Chinese culture, Chinese music, even
the Chinese language has affected how I HEAR music and how I want to
compose it. Marrying a Chinese man (after only being with women in my
life prior to meeting him) has certainly been an adjustment and has
taught me a lot about communication and acceptance and openness, which
all impact my approach to art and life in general. And his being a
musician has been very helpful and insightful when it comes to
navigating this new market and industry. He’s had a lot of great advice
and perspective that has been indispensible. He suggested I build a
bilingual body of work, for example, and that was really great advice.
Is music as important in China as it is in the West?
Absolutely. Going out to see live
contemporary music (like rock or pop) is still a new thing to do here,
as modern entertainment, but music itself is a huge part of Chinese
culture, as is the performance of music.
Does the young Chinese population dominated by males, affect the popularity of female singers?
There are fewer women in the industry here
than I see back home, but there are also fewer people in the industry
here in general, so the ratio may actually be similar but just seem more
obvious because it’s a smaller community. The popularity of the female
singers (and musicians) here does not seem to be adversely affected by
the fact that they are fewer in number than the male artists. Bands with
female singers seem to get as much attention and support, if not more.
How has travel affected/impacted/enriched your life?
In more ways than I could possibly list.
Mostly, though, I feel as though the world helped to raise me. I started
touring at age 24 and prior to that I had done only vacationing with my
family and not to international destinations. After touring became a
part of my life, my world became so much larger and richer. As you must
know as a family, leaving the borders of our country and then seeing
what the world thinks/sees/believes will forever expand how we see our
own country and ourselves.
What you’re doing with your daughter is totally admirable and
impressive. She will thank you for it later in life, that’s for absolute
certain (maybe after she’s complained about it as a late teenager when
she goes through a phase of envying the boring suburban lives of
“normal” Americans!) especially when she realizes how incredibly lucky
she has been. So many people never get such opportunities. You and your
partner are stellar parents!