Interview with Ember Swift
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 songwriting, too.
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 expat reality.
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!