Indigenous Singer Jia Jia
Working Hard at Being Herself
Long recognized on the music scene as an exceptional talent, two-time Golden Melody Awards nominee for Best Female Singer Jia Jia tells how she learned to believe in herself…
Working Hard at Being HerselfBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 618 )
On a February winter’s night, singer Jia Jia holds a small performance and autograph session at an Eslite bookstore in Taipei to promote the release of her third album, Still Missing. The spunkiness of the uptempo tunes and the penetrating tenderness of the ballads combine with the clarity and restraint of her voice to seemingly possess the power to smooth out the wrinkles in one’s heart.
Unlike her unflappable demeanor when singing, Jia Jia sounds like an innocent girl next door when she speaks. Asking the audience in a somewhat demure, plaintive way, “How come only those of you in the first few rows are holding CDs?” she is met with a roar of laughter among the audience. Changing course, she responds, “Fine. Then I’ll just have to sing live for you here today.”
Jia Jia first made her mark a decade ago as a young lady from the indigenous Puyuma tribe with her Uncle Hào En as half of the duo Hào En Jiā Jiā, which earned a Golden Melody Award for best vocal combo for their album Blue in Love. She has come a long way since then, steadily gaining experience and maturing, letting her talents loose to touch the hearts and souls of even the most accomplished of contemporary urban female.
It is hard to believe that Jia Jia, whose last two albums were nominated for Best Female Vocalist honors at the annual Golden Melody Awards, and who is often lauded as “a phenomenal singer,” was once so lacking in self confidence.
Runs in the Family
Jia Jia’s given Chinese name is Chi Chia-ying (Ji Jia-ying). Her maternal grandmother is a standard-bearer for the Puyuma tribe folk song tradition, her uncle is Chen Chien-nien, winner of the Golden Melody Award for Best Male Singer, and her older sister is Chi Hsiao Chun, Golden Melody Award winner for Best New Artist. “You forgot to mention that A-Mei (Chang Hui-mei) grew up in the next village over!” she pluckily offers when asked during her interview with CommonWealth if it was always a given that she would one day become a singer.
For her, singing is part of daily life. Other than taking part in the song and dance festivities at tribal gatherings, she grew up singing aloud as she performed household chores. “My older sister would be singing as she mopped the living room floor, and I would be washing dishes in the kitchen, singing harmony to her part. It was like that since I was little.”
Known among family as Missy Chi, as a little girl she used to run around everywhere with a guitar, singing and recording whatever she made up to cassettes. When she was older, she sang harmony when sister Hsiao Chun made a record. And in the family group Am, Uncle Hào En was the guitarist while Jia Jia sang harmony before the two teamed up to make a record of their own, which went on to win a major award. And even on the heels of all that momentum, it took her five more years to release her first new record.
“When you sing harmony you don’t have to face the audience on your own. That gave me a sense of security,” Jia Jia recalls. After her collaboration with Hào En came to an end, she remained hesitant to make her own record despite considerable encouragement from family and friends. “I was scared because of all the unknown quantities at play. When you’re the main act you have to face so many things on your own. Maybe because I’m the youngest, but I get scared with no one next to me.”
Apart from being accustomed to being coddled as the youngest child, another intimidating aspect of being on stage for her is the expectations that seem to come with being a female performer. As a plus-sized singer with a bronze complexion, Jia Jia’s belief that singers should all be thin, with light complexions and beautiful faces, long kept her from getting in front of the camera. Even today, she still believes that she does not conform to everyone’s image of a female artist.
One of Jia Jia’s classic experiences, and one she has never been able to live down, is her rejection of an invitation from the supergroup Mayday to duet on a soundtrack to a movie, giving the obviously bogus excuse that she “can’t sing.” Only after an acquaintance who worked with the Mayday side project Believe called her and told her to give the song a listen, and promised that they would look after her, did the collaboration come to fruition.
This led to Jia Jia formally signing on to work with Believe. “I found out so many things about myself that weren’t good enough, like lacking star power and self-confidence, which I really needed to work on,” admits Jia Jia. Never thinking of herself as having a good voice, she endured constant comparisons to her sister, until after one, two and then three albums, with her own original songs and growing accolades, did she come to realize, “I am who I am, and there is only one me in the whole world. I guess I never really knew myself before.”
The market can always use a nice voice; the key is how to tap into it, sculpt it, and complete it.
Finding Herself i n Song
“Jia Jia’s voice has a special essence that is rare among Mandarin female singers, and that quality has to do with her as a person. Since she is a simple, unassuming person, she doesn’t lean on technique or artifice when singing a song, or dazzle people when they hear her sing. Technique is just a tool for her, not something to show off; she just wants to do the song justice with a good performance,” observes Mayday bassist Masa, executive producer of Still Missing. The warmth brought out in Jia Jia’s voice is a rare quality. “While everybody else is belting out high notes, her middle and lower registers pack a wallop,” he adds.
In order to effectively showcase Jia Jia’s vocal versatility, the album was deliberately balanced between up-tempo songs and ballads, encompassing styles as wide-ranging as funk (rare in the Mandopop market) and reggae, as well as soul and the lyricism of folk. To complement Jia Jia, the production team enlisted guest artists from the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and China.
“I want music producers from other countries to hear Jia Jia’s voice,” says Masa. Seiji Kameda, long-term producer for Japanese pop diva Ringo Sheena, set the direction for three songs on the album. “He said Jia Jia’s high notes are full of power, and her middle and lower registers are very sensual, which allows clear expression of the singer’s moods.” Masa also secured the services of Tom Coyne, a multi-time Grammy Award winning post-production wizard whose credits include work with Adele, Beyonce, U2, and Coldplay, among others. Coyne was tasked with working his magic to give the album a unified feeling.
Versatile singer-songwriter William “Weibird” Wei also wrote a song for Jia Jia for the new record. Titled “See Through,” it represents a departure from her established style, alternately sweet and rocking out. Weibird says it is not an easy song to sing, yet Jia Jia made it sound as easy as breathing, prompting him to ask her to try all sorts of things in the studio to get a feel for her limitations. Summing up her talent, he says “Everyone is able to hear their own story in Jia Jia’s voice.”
The girl that sang as she washed dishes and ran around with her guitar recording herself is all grown up now. No matter how sure or confident she feels, Jia Jia knows that “As long as singing feels right, it’s all good, because music is all about feeling and the transfer of energy. It has the power to comfort others, or comfort oneself.”
Jia Jia says she has left fear behind as she moves forward in pursuit of her dreams. If you meet her along the way, you might feel compelled to shout out to her, “Hey, Missy Chi, you’re a fabulous singer!”
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman