9m88 Interview on Beyond Mediocrity, Her Style, and Musical Influences
BY Evan Vitkovski / Nov-26-2019
Bringing a sound that crosses genres and styles, 9m88 released her first full length album Beyond Mediocrity in August. From R&B, neo-soul, hip hop, city-pop, jazz, and experimental improvisation, she has really struck a chord with audiences who are thirsty for music that speaks to them. Her most recent solo tour in Taiwan was so popular that an extra Taipei performance was added to the schedule. Her collaborations with local and international artists round out the music and style she is famous for. Since 2016, her notoriety and fan base has grown along with her presence as a pop culture icon in Taiwan. Taiwan Beats caught up with 9m88 for an in depth interview about her background, future, and present place as a singer/songwriter.
Taiwan Beats: How was your recent Taiwan tour compared to previous shows you've performed around Taiwan?
9m88: This time was more prepared, I had a bigger team, and the interactions with the audience were really touching. I heard people were crying. They were touched by a few songs, and I saw them crying from the stage. For the previous tours, I hadn't released any physical albums only singles and collaborations, so it was really hard for me to present my music to the crowd, because I always felt it was not mature enough. I didn't have enough songs to perform. This time, I feel more complete in this identity as 9m88.
TWB: What was it like to play with such a diverse lineup of Taiwanese artists at SummerStage in NYC in August?
9m88: It was fun. I was studying in NYC for four years. It was really fun to reunite with my musician friends in NYC. My music is a mixture of Eastern and Western music because I sing some English songs. That was a really interesting difference between my music and the other (Taiwanese) musicians. There were some aboriginal musicians and some rock musicians, and I thought that I didn't fit into that category of Taiwanese music, but it was fun because I had my NY musicians to join this event and it's different from the other people who only brought Taiwanese artists. That made for some good interactions.
TWB: How does humor and storytelling play a role in your music videos and songwriting?
9m88: Because of my fashion background, whenever I started a concept, most of the time it's visual. When I went to music school, I tried to launch every song or project by seeing the visual part first, not only playing the chords and melody itself. So that plays a main part in making the music videos… I think about the outfits, styling, and the person I'm going to work with. I choose the director, and talk to them about the concepts for the image it's going to show to the audience.. Making it funny comes naturally. It depends on the collaborator. If the director is a funny person it will pump my humorous side. I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't do it to prove to the audience that I'm a funny person. It's just part of improvisation.
TWB: Can you tell us a little about your creative process or songwriting process?
9m88: Normally, it starts when I see something on the street. I sit down at the subway and type it down on my phone and try to finish the lyrics. Then I go back home and hum into my phone, recording and trying to figure out the melody with the lyrics and sit in front of the keyboard and play the chords. Then, because I'm not a professional producer making beats, I find an arranger to work with or jam with musicians to figure out the form. Then, I think about the visuals. I see something and try to make it a real vision.
TWB: is it about the retro chic / retro futuristic / vintage style that appeals to you sonically and stylistically?
9m88: This period of time I really feel like trying something that I love to listen to. And I am drawn to 80's music and R&B, but not the latest sound. Every single thing I'm trying to do right now is to practice and present what I like as a listener, but I think it's fixed right now. Probably after a few months, I will change directions. I want to try as much as I can and I don't want to just be defined as retro, but for this period of time I want to try to accomplish this aesthetic. I like the colors. I remember watching Twin Peaks and it struck me. The color itself, the lighting, I was trying to make something like that probably for nostalgic reasons.
TWB: How did studying clothing design influence your style and approach to music?
9m88: The best thing I learned from fashion was to find my identity. It's really important physically, how you dress or finding your sound or your style in music, that's the most important thing. It's a constant search for me. The biggest difference between the me who did fashion design and trying to do music right now and the people who have been trained as a musician during their childhood is visually. I know there are so many different things that matter that can complete your music, not just playing chords. Jazz musicians are sometimes really stubborn. They try to train themselves to be musically elite, but they don't know how to connect with others. I had a hard time seeing them trying so hard then having little audience. That gives me a reflection of how to find a middle ground.
TWB: What is it like to collaborate with over the years with Leo Wang?
9m88: He's a close friend, so it's really easy and simple to work with him. We think alike sometimes. Probably because we are the same star sign I guess, I don't know. (laughs) We are reflective people. We talk about life, we talk about how we can do music better all the time. Working with him is like working with a brother. It's fun to work with him and we try to reach something new every time, so I enjoy it.
TWB: How have you both changed/evolved or stayed the same as artists within the context of the Taiwan music scene?
9m88: It's funny to see how he evolves because he just won the best artist (Mandarin Male Vocalist) from Golden Melody Awards, and at first I was a little bit worried about him because he's so young, he's so new and this title is kind of heavy. But it turned out that he gained much more confidence and I'm really happy for him. The energy of his performance is just different. It has blown up. It's a good thing to witness. He's more aware of what he's doing. He has to reach a higher quality to fulfill other people's expectations since he won that award.
For me, it's just like I'm constantly trying to figure out what I want. Even now, in music, I'm trying different styles, even on this album. Some people might say that I have various styles and sounds, and it's not even or professional. But it's just a phase of trial and error. I enjoy it, and sometimes I'm affected by those comments, but it's not a big thing. I have to experiment more.
TWB: What do you think it is about early American NYC hip-hop groups like Digable Planets and The Fugees that remains relevant and still inspires artists like yourself?
9m88: In that time, they tried to be more expressive of themselves. They are more aware of their environment, the government, the movement. They are almost like activists. I'm really addicted to this idea of being not only hip-hop, the toughness of hip-hop, but trying to find a new path. They were doing that. They have a great sense of humor. I love their music videos. It's just really organic to me.
TWB: Who are some other musical or artistic influences that stand out for you?
9m88: Right now, I'm still focusing on music itself. For jazz, I listen to standard and experimental jazz like Sun Ra, Coltrane, Mingus. And for the soul R&B part, I still listen to Erykah Badu even though she's not releasing new music. It's really timeless. I like Stevie Wonder, I love his singing and his songwriting is really good. Sometimes I watch movies like Spike Jonze and his music videos. It's really fresh to me, and he covers so many different topics. I admire his work and his energy of trying so many different things. Also, the new FKA twigs music video, which I really loved.
TWB: Why did you choose to study jazz specifically and how has formal training shaped your choices as an artist?
9m88: I was in New York for a fashion internship, but I figured out I didn't want to do it anymore, so I was looking for other options for my life. I checked out a senior recital at The New School, the jazz program (School of Jazz and Contemporary Music). Before, I only knew some musicians, like Bilal, Jose James, Robert Glasper, they all graduated from there. So I checked out this girl from Iceland, and I was like: this is the style I really want to learn. It's everything, a mixture of R&B, hip-hop, jazz... She was a skillful musicians for sure. In terms of jazz, I had a course in Taiwan for improvisation, just an introduction. It was new for me because in Taiwan you do a pop song, and you go to a talent show. I thought that was the only path for me to be a musician. When I learned jazz, it was something more challenging and a new point of view on music. I kept that in my mind and found a way to learn jazz, but (before) I didn't have a formal training in music. I try to put some improvisational spirit in my music. For example in one of my songs there's an open part.... I was telling the producer that I want to do a solo there, but I've never recorded a solo. You can fuck up really bad, so I tried a few takes and I thought it was imperfect, but it was real. So I put it in and I asked a saxophone player to underline my solo. I felt that is a small part of taking the jazz spirit to my album.
TWB: In the historical context of R&B in Taiwan, what's your take on your own place in the new movement and recent popularity of the genre?
9m88: I think it's really exciting. At the same time, I feel really lucky. There was a drummer, he told me, there are so many people that are trying to do this kind of music, but they didn't have many audiences like you, and you are right on time for doing this. I feel really natural for doing whatever kind of music I want, but I feel really lucky.
TWB: When it comes to R&B and soul, there is less context for the history of this genre in Taiwan. Is this a sensitive issue?
9m88: Because it's so young, this genre, which is happening right now, especially in Taiwan it's really young to us, so I guess we haven't developed the tradition (for) the style itself in terms of mixing Taiwanese music with R&B and hip-hop music. It's forming, but it's not yet there. I guess it takes a longer time. And for listeners, I'm happy to hear they are trying to accept new stuff, but I'm not expecting them to be as versed as other R&B listeners. I think it's our responsibility to introduce the background and history to them.
TWB: How do you plan to develop your career internationally?
9m88: As far as I have seen with Asian artists, you still have to play by the rules for an international global music scene. For example Yaeji and Peggy Guo, they are doing themselves for sure, but they try to have the standardized Asian cool girl type to promote themselves. So it's tough for me to keep insisting on being myself because they (the scene) might not recognize the style and what I'm doing. I'm still trying to find a middle ground because I don't want to give 100% to this international, global music scene. I have to keep treading my technique, my music, and at the same time find a really cool image that can infuse my Eastern background and show them who I am. I'm still doing English music and writing more English songs. I have to find my own way of trying to make English songs but still show them my Taiwanese identity in a cool way.
TWB: Tell us about your experience working on your debut album at Stones Throw Studios.
9m88: It was really fun. I've been following them for years , and I've been a big fan for a while. At first I had to find a mixing guy for my album. But if I had my album done by a person in Taiwan, it might be a certain type of sound. I (thought I) can find somebody somewhere else. I have a friend who has worked for Stones Throw for a while, so she recommended me to one of the engineers. I talked to him through email for a few months. But I figured out it's too tough talking about some details. There's hundreds of emails. I figured out I had to go to L.A. and meet him. So we finished our mix for seven songs in only two days. It was really efficient, but it was tiring. I enjoyed it. The boss Peanut Butter Wolf was so nice, he just opened a bar downstairs, so he took us to the bar and to another listening session. It was quite a journey.
TWB: Did you write all of the songs yourself and how many producers/musicians did you collaborate with on Beyond Mediocrity?
9m88: I wrote every song. We have some Taiwanese producers, like Laytonwoobill, and Yellow, a Golden Melody Award winner. He does some R&B stuff, he's a really good singer, and he does really good production. Another producer from China, but he lives in LA, he does a lot of R&B songs, Kin Lee. A korean guy, 0_Channel, he's like a hip-hop R&B producer. He reached out on Instagram and talked to me about helping on the new album. Also, I worked with some musicians that are based in New York, but they are from all over.
TWB: Two months after releasing Beyond Mediocrity, how has the reception been so far compared to your expectations?
9m88: At first I thought it was quite similar to my expectations, people like it and they think it's cute, it's expressive. But after a while I figured out that no matter how hard I try to do different genres in my music, they still think I am only doing retro stuff. That really depressed me, but I guess the listeners embrace the abstract idea of what an artist might do. So they thought what I'm doing is mostly retro stuff. Some people think I'm doing vaporwave music, but I've never listened to that genre at all. So people can define it in a thousand ways and I can't control what they feel. That's the beauty of it, they can explain something and the reason is in their imagination or based on their expectations of the artist, or their background of listening to music and it might lead them to that kind of feeling or idea. It's kind of cool.
TWB: Do you have any upcoming plans for your career or projects that fans can look forward to?
9m88: I'm going to do some music festivals in Taiwan and in Asia. After that I'm looking forward to making new music. Probably make an EP in English. I might work with some Japanese artists on some new collaborations and not be restricted in Taiwan.
Next up for 9m88 is a performance in Hong Kong scheduled for 12/12, hosted by the promoters of Clockenflap, who recently had to cancel their festival after 11 consecutive years. The world is definitely taking notice and 9m88's blossoming career is making waves not only in Taiwan, but also with fans around the world. Check out her latest music video below.