He rose to fame as original member of the nine-strong Chinese-South Korean boyband EXO, described by Vogue as ‘the biggest boyband in the world’.But Lay Zhang has in recent years emerged as a wildly successful solo artist in his own right, with plans to break America.
Although matching Coldplay for Instagram followers, as most of us in the West are yet to hear of Lay-Zhang, it is difficult to fully understand the magnitude of his success. There are obvious geographical advantages of making it big in a country that holds ones fifth of the world’s population, and in which the UK could fit 29 times, but his guy is inching West with hopes of becoming a global megastar.
Lay’s first solo album Lose Control released in 2016, solo over a quarter of a million physical copies in 7 days. Watching the title track of the album on YouTube, the first thing you see is ‘Lyrics by Lay Zhang’, ‘Composed by Lay Zhang’, and ‘Arranged by Lay Zhang’. In the UK we tend to associate musical authenticity with the Amy McDonalds and the Laura Marlings, guitar playing singer songwriters baring their souls in a stripped back, low key kind of way.
【张艺兴的第一张个人专辑《Lose Control》于2016年发行，在7天内售出了25万张。在YouTube上观看专辑的主打歌的时候，首先看到的是“作词：张艺兴”、“作曲：张艺兴”和“编曲：张艺兴”。在英国，我们往往把音乐的真实性与艾米•麦当劳(Amy McDonalds)和劳拉•马林斯(Laura Marlings)的表演联系在一起，吉他演奏歌手作曲家，用一种赤裸的、低调的方式展现自己的灵魂。】
Pretentious, no? We do not associate realness with stylised, extravagant Asian-Pop. However, after just a little bit of research in to Lay, and certainly after talking to him, you see through the shiny pop facade, and find that you have a genuinely talented man who really cares about the artistry.
‘Everything inspires me’ he says describe his creative process. ‘All life experience can be inspiring, meeting people, coffee shops, hanging out with friends, walking around new and old cities, everything inspires me in a way.’ ‘I like sitting in the studio by myself when I come to make music. I slowly make a beat first, then move on to the melody, it’s so satisfying, and I feel so proud when its finished.’
【“一切事物都能激发我的灵感” ，他这样描述他的创作过程，“所有的生活经历都是我灵感的来源，可以是与人见面，可以是咖啡馆，可以是和朋友们一起闲逛，可以是在熟悉的或陌生的城市里漫步，所有的事物在某种程度上都能激发我的灵感。“ “我做音乐的时候喜欢一个人坐在作曲室里。我首先慢慢地写出一个节拍，然后再加上旋律，这个过程很令人满足，当音乐完成时我很自豪。”】
Everything comes back to the music with Lay. Vogue describes the singer, dancer, lyricist, producer, actor as ‘a trend setting idol’, and while flattered, it was clear his focus was on the music. ‘Fashion is very important for the vision and the image’ he told me over the phone, ‘but I care more about the music and I want it to reach more people’.
After the huge success of his first album in 2017, Lay released his second entitled SHEEP. When I asked him why the name, he explained with all the eccentricity of a pop superstar. ‘In China, the sheep is one of the 12 zodiac signs, and I was born in the year of the sheep(1991), and I wanted to show that sheep can be very powerful and strong.’ Far be it from me to comment, that analogy makes far more sense than say The Unicorns 2003 album ‘ Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?’, or Guns N’Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident?’
【在他的第一张专辑大获成功后，张艺兴在2017年发行了第二张专辑《SHEEP》。当我问他为什么叫这个名字时，他以一个流行巨星的古怪癖好向我解释：“在中国，羊是十二生肖之一，我出生在羊年(1991年)，我想证明羊可以非常强壮有力量。” 我想说的是，这个比喻远比The Unicorns 2003年的专辑《Who Will Cut Our Hair When We ' ve Gone?》或者Guns N’Roses的《The Spaghetti Incident》更有意义。】
SHEEP ranked 9th on the iTunes worldwide album chart making Lay the first Chinese artists to break in to the top 10, an achievement he described as a ‘huge surprise and an amazing achievement’. So, the star is inching in to the Western market, but will he make it where so many others have failed?
Lay very recently took the stage at Lollapalooza festival in Chicago where he joined powerhouse DJ Alan Walker on stage to perform the remix of his single SHEEP, which begins with the line ‘ Look, I’m the lead sheep in China’,to a very responsive audience. He uses both Chinese and English lyrics, making it possible for English speakers to get the gist of the matter and really connect with the song. He audibly smiles when recalling his first US solo performance, ‘It makes me so happy that the audience loved it, it was amazing to play to such a good crowd and to have my music heard by new people. I want to work harder, so I can perform at more US festivals, maybe Coachella if I’m lucky enough’, watch this space. The pair make a complimentary duo, with Walker saying it was an honor to work with Lay, and Lay describing Walker as ‘a very good person, very talented and very kind’, with a ‘cute smile’.
【张艺兴最近在芝加哥的Lollapalooza音乐节上登台表演，在舞台上他和DJ Alan Walker一起表演了他的单曲《SHEEP》的混音版，这首歌以“Look, I’m the lead sheep in China”开始，观众反响热烈。他同时使用中文和英文歌词，让说英语的观众能够了解歌词的主旨，并真正被歌曲触动。当他回忆起他在美国的第一次个人表演时，他露出了甜甜的笑容：“观众们都喜欢让我很开心。能在这么多观众面前表演，能让本来不认识我的人听到我的音乐，真是太棒了。”我想要更加努力，这样我就能在更多的美国音乐节上表演，如果我足够幸运的话，也许还能在Coachella音乐节上表演。” 这对搭档互相称赞，Walker说和很荣幸能和Lay一起工作，lay带着可爱的微笑说，Walker是“一个非常好的人，非常有才华，非常善良“。】
The 26 year old, born in Changsha in the Hunan province of China, has a polite and jokey demeanour as we speak on the phone, serious when talking about his music, and at times playful, and it’s easy to see Western audiences quickly warming to him.
Watching Lay’s performance at Lollapalooza, potential performance at Parklife, Creamfields and even Glastronbury flew across my mind. He describes his sound as Lay-Style a self-invented ‘mixture of C-Pop with urban, hip-pop, pop and a little bit of rap’, but it is also his passionate choreography that make his performance so entertaining. He mentions one of his idols Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee legends’ influence is easy to spot. The upbeat and stylish ‘What You Need’ is very reminiscent of earlier JT with long dance sequences and faultless falsetto.
【在Lollapalooza观看了Lay的演出后，我的脑海中便闪过他以后可能在Parklife、Creamfields甚至Glastronbury演出的场景。他把自己的音乐描述为独创的“兴式风格”，是C-Pop与都市风、嘻哈风、流行乐和一点说唱的结合，但也是他充满激情的舞蹈编排让他的表演更加具有娱乐观赏性。他提到了他的偶像之一 贾斯汀·汀布莱克，很容易发现他深受这位田纳西传奇巨星的影响。欢快而时尚的《What You Need》，让人想起早期的贾斯汀·汀布莱克的大段的舞蹈和完美的假声。】
So why has the Asian music market never fully succeeded in making it over to the US or the UK and staying for more than one track?
Lay believes that it is not for lack of trying. ‘It’s very hard to say why very few Asian musicians have struggled to break in to the Western markets but I think a lot of Chinese artists feel comfortable in China, they feel like their support base is in China,’ Commenting on the distributive power of platforms like You Tube, he goes on to say ‘Because of the internet, more Chinese artists realize they can have success overseas. I think all artists want the chance to show people their music all over the world, no one wants to stay in their own country.’ When asked how he would adapt his style for the Western market, he wouldn’t. ‘I don’t think I will change my style, because then it wouldn’t be me’. And maybe he doesn’t need to. Maybe it is us who need to adapt and be open to new sounds and styles. There are many similarities in his music to popular Western artists. Justin Bieber comes to mind, but with hints of the East. There is a genuine substance behind his music and a real determination to succeed, as well as a sweet desire to ‘make people happy all over the world’.
Asian styles are gaining momentum in the West, especially K-Pop which is having a post Gangnam style resurrection. What I noticed about Lay however, is that he is not trying to bulldoze his way in to your ears with one over the top catchy song. He is slowly working his way up, making connections and piquing people’s interest in a more organic way. The way a lot of people like to discover new talent is with a degree of exclusivity ‘Oh let me tell you about this amazing new artist I found at this festival’. People like to discover new artists themselves, they want it to be their secret to share. And that is what Lay seems to be doing, playing festivals, collaborating with globally renowned DJs, getting his name out there and slowly building up a gradual interest that will stick.
There is gap in the Western market for Asian music that has long stood unfilled. The diversification of the music industry is only a positive thing, and Lay, who wants to be remembered as ‘a kind person and a great musician’ might just have what it takes to make it happen.
The new Alan Walker remix of Lay’s song SHEEP is out on August 31st.