Home > Culture > Music > Tuning In: Jolie Chan is jazzing up Cantopop classics for a new generation
Tuning In: Jolie Chan is jazzing up Cantopop classics for a new generation

In “Tuning In”, we delve into the lives and loves of the people behind the tracks you love — and the ones they love, as well. In this edition, we talk to Universal Music Hong Kong jazz singer, Jolie Chan.

Jolie Chan knows that chances aren’t given — they’re earned. Double that for second chances. The jazz singer has signed once again with Universal Music Hong Kong, the label she was first contracted to over a decade ago.

“It’s something you treasure, something you appreciate more,” says Chan. Spending the last several years honing her skills as an independent artist, she’s been putting in the work both inside and outside the studio to make sure this second time around leaves nothing to chance.

“It was seven, eight years of me singing jazz, taking care of my own band, booking gigs, chasing money — basically being a manger for myself and three guys — I learned so much. It was tough, but I’m very happy. And now I get the chance to go back to Universal,” she says.

After so many years of doing the heavy lifting herself, the hardest part might actually be learning to let others (ie: employees at the label) help her share the load.

“Suddenly it’s like, wow, so many people are helping me out!” she says with a laugh. “I’m still honestly not very used to it. My staff are always, ‘Okay, you have to stop doing everything yourself. You have to stop doing my job!’ But I’m used to it. Because I care. And sometimes, I think I could help.”

But that letting go is important, because it means more time working on what she does best: actually making music.

With the release of her new album, Present, Chan looks to her own future while paying homage to Hong Kong’s past. Through new arrangements of songs first made famous by bold-letter names like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, she puts Cantopop classics in a new light, both for those who treasure them as well as a new generation who may be hearing them for the first time.

“My last album was called Tasting, and it did really well. We got a gold record,” says Chan. “So for the second one, I actually have more freedom to include even more of what I like.”

In addition to making the music she’s passionate about, the new album also gave Chan the opportunity to work with someone she admires: the legendary designer and artist Alan Chan, who created all of Present‘s art and imagery.

“I feel very blessed that I was able to have Alan. He designed this and he also took all of the pictures for me,” she says. “We actually studied a lot of black and white pictures, jazz albums of the ’40s and ’50s. He loved the idea of bringing back these classics, these oldies, and then we gave it this modern twist to the present. And he’s really super detailed — the saturation, brightness, even the quality of the paper — he is so in control.”

With her second album out into the world, we sat down with Chan to talk about her musical journey, the artists that inspire her and what she hopes to achieve next.

Tuning In: Jolie Chan

How do you develop your your musical style?

When I was young, honestly, it was just music about pretty boys — no depth, no story. But with experiences, of course, and with some struggle, you learn, and I think that’s how you develop your character, and also your music. When I was young, my voice was nothing like this — now I have more techniques. And when you know more, when you experience more, your voice actually changes. You get more emotions, you get different tones. Back when I was young I don’t think I could be able to do what I do now.

What’s the first track someone should play to be introduced to your sound?

I think they should just listen to the whole album! They’re all so good! No, honestly, it depends on the moment, what you feel like. The second track, it’s big band, it’s very me, it makes you want to dance. But if you’re in a car, I recommend the last song, because it’s very vibey, very groovy. And I don’t see a lot of that in Hong Kong pop music.

You were singing from a young age, but did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?

My dad used to be a very good singer! He was in a band; that’s how he got my mom, I think. Back when he was hitting on her, he would get out a guitar and sing for her, like Romeo and Juliet. So it’s in the family. My dad didn’t pursue it, but I guess that’s why he understands why I’m doing this, and he gave me a lot of freedom. [My parents] were always very encouraging, but of course they’re still say, like, “Oh, you can be a banker, life would be so much easier!”

Even after your second album?

Oh yes! Even more!

What’s your creative process like?

It’s slightly different than it used to be, because we’re pulling out the old classics, then rearranging it. First, does the song speak to me? The melody has to be nice, of course. I have to connect with the lyrics, too. Most importantly, it has to have the potential to be rearranged, and not a lot of songs, especially Cantopop, have that. That’s why it’s a long, long process.

We always have a long list of songs. We have to find the right key, then sing it and discuss with my music producer. Sometimes there are songs that we thought would be great, but when it comes out, it just doesn’t feel right — doesn’t suit my voice or, you know, it’s just not as good as the original, so we have to cut it.

It’s difficult because all of these songs are classics, so people have a certain perception — the way the original singer sings, or how the song goes. So to break that and give it a new soul and life, it’s not that easy, and you also have to find the right balance that people could get that same feeling they got from the original one, without imitating that. If it’s not done well, then it will be karaoke. We want to make this song mine.

Is there a moment you can pinpoint when you realised that you were good?

I don’t really think I’m good [laughs]. I think… now. Now, I finally have the confidence that I know what I’m doing. When I was younger, I hadn’t even finished college, and then I was already signed to Universal. I released some really poppy, Cantopop things, and honestly, at that time, I was too young to know what I wanted to do, to know what kind of music is good for me. It wasn’t until I started doing jazz on my own that I developed and gained more texture and substance. And I still think that I have a lot of room for improvement. To be a successful singer, you just have to keep learning. But finally, I think… I’m okay-good. But still have to work hard.

Given your background are there any Hong Kong artists that inspire you?

Definitely Jacky Cheung, he’s just amazing. He’s the best. He’s a perfectionist, never misses a note; with some singers you might get worried, but with Jacky you can just relax and enjoy the show. It’s amazing to watch.

Do you have a favourite musician or artist?

This is very difficult. Mariah Carey was really, really different. And she’s who I listened to when I was young. Her and Celine Dion. I really like Bruno Mars. He does the big band stuff, too, and I think that’s really cool — and of course he’s a great performer and composer and singer. He’s amazing. He has this amazing band with horns behind him. Honestly, I hope that one day I could have a concert like that with a horn section, just dancing!

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

[singing] Don’t go chasing waterfalls. TLC! I have a bunch of those. Britney. Spice Girls.

Any pre- or post-show rituals?

I drink my favourite tea; it’s chamomile, vanilla and honey. It’s not sweet, though, it just has that aroma that’s so good. Before recording and performance, I love it. I pray also!

What’s one thing you’d like to achieve next in your music career?

I hope I can have a concert, singing songs from this album and the last album, but at the Hong Kong Cultural Center. And I’d love to have an amazing backup horn section.

Nathan Erickson


Born in Seoul and based in Hong Kong, Nathan has been writing about culture, style and food for some of the world's biggest publications for over a decade. He's loyal to tequila soda and Canon lenses, and still produces music in his spare time. (Charley is his Korean name.)

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