Joanna Wang Covers Throwback Romance with a Twist on Love Is Calling Me
BY Evan Vitkovski / Feb-12-2020
As an artist who has experience shaping a musical project around a narrative, Love Is Calling Me fits into the oeuvre of Joanna Wang's marvelous sonic creations. With eleven albums under her belt in as many years, as well as an EP and multiple side projects, Wang started as a young artist under the wing of her father and mainstream music industry influence and has matured into a full-fledged musical auteur.
Going back and forth from producing original music to cover songs certainly shapes her catalog and people's perceptions of her as an artist. This familiar formula remains intact on Love Is Calling Me, but the approach seems to have its own unique flavor that is a departure from her earlier cover albums.
Inflections of Wang's 2018 all-original record Modern Tragedy bleed through, but Love Is Calling Me has a more serious, sentimental flow. Putting aside the playful, whimsical side of things shows an introspective window into the complications of romance, polished with a lingering side of psychedelia.
On the opening track, "Apple Blossom," lush, multi-layered production accents the filtered, smoky vocals. A hushed, romantic tone sets the mood for the rest of the album which hinges on references to nature, longing, heartbreak, and redemption, all the while putting a modern twist on the classic love songs.
Most of these songs have been covered by multiple artists over the years, which gives them a tried and true emotional spirit. It's this spirit that lives on through Wang's unique interpretation of the songs. Although they vary in time and place of origin, the old-school cool vibrates in the balance of taking something that's been done and making it fresh. Producer Chris Funk of The Decemberists adds his own overarching contribution as a well-placed partner in Wang's cinematic and prolific vision. Multiple love stories are intertwined and sung by a changing cast of characters all embodied by the vocalist.
Wang told China Post: "I saw different women in those songs. Some are tragic, some are very lovely and some are sweet. They share the same passion for love and romance－even though it's full of uncertainty and can break your heart."
Released in November of 2019, the album features Mandarin, Japanese, and Cantonese pop songs from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and digging even further, "Blues in the Rain" ("寒雨曲") was originally performed by 淡谷 のり子 / Noriko Awaya in the 1930s and later by Taiwanese singer Tsai Chin. These tracks are borrowed from classic pop stylings, including Shanghai's shidaiqu, as well as Japanese kayōkyoku and enka music. For reference on the origins of these ballads, see also 翁倩玉 / Judy Ongg, and 鄧麗君 / Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese-Japanese singer. "Apple Blossom" was originally recorded by Japanese singer Misora Hibari, and "Forget Him" was made popular by Teresa Teng.
With Adam Lee sitting in as the recording and mixing engineer, Ryan Francesconi helped with arrangement and handling the verbose instrumentation throughout the record. That's not to say the subtlety of stripped down simplicity doesn't also appear on songs like the lead single "I Only Care About You," which is the only song on the record that Wang was familiar with prior to conceptualizing Love Is Calling Me.
Three of the songs are repeated on the album with Japanese versions. This gives listeners a chance to revisit the songs in a different context that reveals the scope of how powerful they are, no matter what language is used for the lyrics. Sung delicately, each of the songs gives the instrumentation plenty of room to be fleshed out.
Compared to the dated originals, adding gorgeous wind instruments, strings, quirky sound effects, and vocal filters really adds new life. It's a bit dark and introspective, but the tone fits into the atmosphere created by Wang's vocal style, live instrumentation, and choice of songs to include on this project.
On "Forget Him," our intrepid narrator leaves the man she truly loves. For "Lover," sung in both Japanese and Mandarin, the mood is meant to be distinctly different according to the language. Wang feels one comes off as stronger in the situation, while the other expresses more sentimentality.
Recorded at Halfling/SinBin Studios in Portland, the entirety of the album has a consistent and haunting presence thanks in part to the variety of instruments used in the recording process.
To capture the visual direction of the album design, illustrator and comic book artist Brandon Graham drew the cover art and booklet inlays, which feature a whole world of alien creatures and sci-fi themes. Working with the same music video director, Robert Youngblood, and a wellspring of talented musicians and producers, as well as having an active role in developing each aspect of the project, Wang has the freedom and direction to keep her creative process humming along.
TB: What went into making Love is Calling Me?
JW: The concept originated not long before I started the project. I had some interest in old Japanese music... I was just kind of interested in the aesthetic of enka music. How enka singers express that kind of musicality. And then I heard an English psychedelic folk singer Vashti Bunyan. Her singing style is very light, whispery, very delicate singing. I thought I would love to try to sing like that on a project. Then, my company approached me about making another cover album because I hadn't made one in a long time. I said OK... I could combine these ideas that I was interested in old enka music and singing like Vashti Bunyan. I could combine how to take these old Asian ballads and produce them in a psychedelic folk style. That was my initial concept. Then, I reached out to this keyboardist I've worked with for a very long time named Robert Joseph Manning Jr. He's very well-versed in all kinds of music. So he would be somewhat familiar with old Japanese music and psychedelic music. I asked him if he was available to produce this project, but he said he was really busy touring with Beck. So I asked him to recommend a producer who would have the skills and the sensibilities and the knowledge and expertise to produce a concept like this. He recommended the guitarist from the band The Decemberists, Chris Funk. So I emailed Chris and told him my concept and I sent him some references, like Vashti Banyan and King Crimson.
I wanted to take these old Asian ballads and make them a lot dreamier and maybe a little bit darker and psychedelic. He loved the idea and wanted to work on the project... We were corresponding via email and around April, I went over to Portland for preproduction, discussing the structure of the songs and the producing direction of the songs, like who are we going to hire, what's the instrumentation, what are the arrangements going to be like. Then he hired the arranger Ryan Francis Conney, who worked on Joanna Newsom's record called Ys (2006). I went back to Taiwan, and we were all corresponding through email as Ryan was arranging everything we talked about what to fix or what direction to go in. In May, I went back to Portland for five weeks and finished recording the record.
TB: How did that process compare with your previous albums?
JW: They're always different every time. The things that majorly stand out are: one, these are not my songs. These are old ballads, with some of them having Japanese origins and that aesthetic, so not my material. But where it is the same is that this is a cover record but as I was singing them, and producing them with Chris and trying to build this sonic landscape, I did feel like I was digging in the same way I would on an original album. Trying to go far with the imagination, in terms of that, I think the process is the same… One of the stand out things is the production of this album. (It) is one of the finer productions I've partaken in in my career. We were going for this old 70's sound. For the sonic quality, we were trying to emulate an older sound. And it's not even that consistent, like some of it is like a 50's sound, some of it is like a 70's sound, some of it is a 60's sound... some of it is loungey. In terms of that, I feel like this production is one of the most accurate and extravagant productions I've worked on.
TB: What compelled you to incorporate Japanese, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin into your lyrics?
JW: I wanted to have more languages because I think it's more enriching. It makes the world feel richer. Different languages have slightly different sentiments, and characters and colors. I felt like it adds more layers to the world. I thought it would be more interesting. And more mysterious because I've never really sung in those languages before. To sing in a language that is not exactly your own, in this instance Japanese and Cantonese are not my native languages, so it was like adding more cartoon characters to an imagined universe.
TB: How did you choose the songs to record for Love Is Calling Me?
JW: My criteria was, I wanted really dramatic and kind of sad stories that are also tender and beautiful, melancholy. Stuff I felt like would do well with this psychedelic interpretation... Actually I am not too familiar with these old Asian hits, Taiwanese hits, or Japanese hits. So at that time, I asked my colleagues in the company (Sony Music), 'Can you guys provide songs you remember from your childhood from these big Asian singers, Taiwanese, Japanese, or Cantonese singers?' Then I listened through that list, and I picked out the ones that I felt really stood out to me in terms of melody, lyrics, song structure.
TB: Where do you see yourself in terms of your career trajectory as an artist?
JW: For me, music is a lot about exploring and creating a landscape. Sometimes listening to music, I feel like there is this landscape that exists. There is something there that is very strong and very real, and to me that feeling... it's almost as if there exists a space. I like to think of it as an underground space. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is about an underground world. That's kind of how I view what I try to do when I'm making music.
It's like I'm carving out this kingdom of my imagination. The most beautiful space that I found in other people's artworks, books, illustrations, music, especially music, and I want to do that. When I'm making music, that's what I'm imaging or the space that I'm in. I'm thinking 'I have to make this thing real. I have to further expand this underground world in my universe.' That's my trajectory or path. The last cover album I made, (Midnight Cinema) I also felt like there was a bit of personal magic. This one is even a bit wilder perhaps. With this project, I felt like, in the process of recording these songs and making them happen, I had to dig and I had to make it quite imaginative. Any time I feel like I have to dig or be more imaginative about something, it is like carving out part of that imaginary world.
TB: What's the story behind Alferd Packer and the Weird Uncles (Chuck Payne (drums), Mike McLaughlin (guitar — later replaced by Jacob Liang), Matthew Fullen (keyboardist), and Yohei Yamada (bassist)?
JW: I had just watched Cannibal! The Musical. After I watched it, I was looking for a stupid handle, like an internet handle, and I just used Alferd Packer. The story was irrelevant, but the name became perfect for us. On House of Bullies, that's the aesthetics of the Weird Uncles. It's kind of gothic, probably very Danny Elfman inspired. It would be like Tenacious D and Oingo Boingo. That's the vibe of the Weird Uncles. Dark and humorous and aggressive and crazy and kind of tongue and cheek, but also not tongue in cheek. There is sincerity in moments. I wrote all of the songs, but we did the production together. House of Bullies, that's when the Weird Uncles are in their essence, but… they are (also) my backup band for some gigs.
TB: Do you have any other side projects at the moment?
JW: The next project I'm working on is called Hotel La Rut, it's also an original project. It's based on a Kids in the Hall sketch called "Hotel La Rut." In that skit, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson are parodying French Canadian soap opera. They are dressed up as these French hookers. They're just looking out the window, like "Where's Tony? Wondering where he could be. What is he thinking? Is he thinking of me?" Then, I took those lyrics, this was about ten years ago, and I wrote a little song and that kind of became the starting place for the Hotel La Rut project… (which is) a film noir story centered around this detective who is disillusioned because the love of his life was killed in one of his cases, or an incident in a case he was working on. And then the whole album is kind of like, a little bit about neuroses too. This detective clearly has... he's very paranoid, and he has a lot of neuroses. There's different songs about those aspects of him, but then there's also this overarching storyline where he overcomes the heartbreak because he vowed he would never be a detective again after the love of his life died. In the story arch, he picks up his work again and then he saves the world. But the world gets destroyed, but then everything is OK. So that's the story of Hotel La Rut. So I either want to work on it again with the Weird Uncles or...There's this musician in LA called Ego Plum, who now does a lot of soundtracks for Nickelodeon TV shows and stuff. and He loves that album and he loves Oingo Boingo, and so because of him . He was working with Richard Elfman, who is Danny Elfman's brother, and they worked on a movie a long time ago together called The Forbidden Zone, which is one of my favorite movies. So because of him, I got to hang out and meet with Richard Elfman. And last year, Richard Elfman had this new movie he was making. Ego asked me if I wanted to sing the theme song for it, but I couldn't because I was working on this album. All the musicians who worked on that soundtrack for that new movie Richard Elfman was working on were all the members of Oingo Boingo... I don't know if it's even possible, but I was thinking 'Oh maybe I could, if possible I want to be able to do Hotel La Rut with all the members of Oingo Boingo.' Because there is that connection that exists now, so that's what I'm working on right now.
TB: What artists have you heard this year that stood out to you?
JW: I heard this amazing song, but I couldn't find the rest of (the album) on YouTube. I think they're an English post-punk group called Acrobats of Desire. They're all strings, they might even be electric violins and violas. The song I found was called "Parking Boys." And I couldn't find the rest of the album, they only uploaded two songs from that record. The song "Parking Boys" itself is so brilliant and up my alley. I can't even describe why, maybe because it's really irreverent and that's what I like about it.
TB: Tell us about your latest music video for "I Only Care About You." It has a very distinct style and narrative.
JW: After I finished making Love Is Calling Me in the studio, it's my favorite song on the project and one of my favorite things I've worked on ever actually. After I heard it, I thought it sounds like the soundtrack to a 70's French sci-fi flick or something. I could hear that. So I called up my director, and I told him that I want all of our music videos this time and all of our visuals to go in a retro sci-fi direction. We're both really big fans of Moebius, the comic book artist. A lot of his stuff talks about reincarnation or a soul traveling through the cosmos. So we loosely made up a narrative of this girl who in different life times, love is calling her. The saga ends with "Love Is Calling Me" where she becomes this supreme cosmic being. Far into the future, she is this space bounty hunter. She finds a kind of space egg life form, and she touches it and becomes this cosmic supreme being. She becomes the love that is calling her in the first few videos, where she's still just a girl in her earlier lifetimes. Personally, I always love stories where the protagonist falls in love with someone really far away or someone she's not supposed to fall in love with, like teachers or in this instance a robot. To me, that is ultra-romantic and so for "I Only Care About You," I asked my director 'Bobby can she fall in love with a robot? Can you make up a story where there's a woman robot relationship?' And he wrote this story. The other music video for the song "Forget Him," the girl is an old kaiju monster stunt person, but then after she takes off the kaiju costume, she's madly in love with her kaiju monster. That's her other incarnation from a different lifetime. In the other videos, she goes far into the future. I haven't seen all of the other videos yet, and we might not release all of them. I'll have to see what the other ones look like.
TB: What's a memorable part of the recording this time around?
JW: We recorded at SinBin (in Portland, Oregon), which is this interesting piece of property with really interesting architecture. (It's) a studio with apartments built in it and also an exhibition space sort of like a workshop. So I was living there because we were working at the studio, it's called Halfling Studio... There's this instrument called the Baldwin Fun Machine, it's like those old family keyboards where you could, it sounds really goofy and really stupid. We actually used it on the record. It's like a toy instrument, but it has a really great synthesizer sounds. It's an amazing instrument, but it has those really cheesy drum beats and then the synth sounds are really brassy and goofy. The Baldwin Fun Machine is great for family good times! (laughs) We used it on "Apple Blossom," "Love Is Calling Me" and I think we used it a bit on "Helpless" as well. You can hear it in "Apple Blossom," it sounds kind of like an organ like a synthy organ.
TB: What kind of plans do you have for 2020?
JW: I have a concert tour in China. (Shanghai in January and Guangzhou in February) I am working on a children's TV show pilot with my friend. It's going to be a lot of segments. A blend of Kids in the Hall, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street and Adult Swim's Off the Air, but all suitable for children. Trying to incorporate really positive messages about love and respect. It's targeted for a Western audience but to also introduce Taiwanese culture. It's going to be in English, but we’re going to introduce Taiwanese or old Chinese culture. I've always wanted to make children's music. There is some of my own original music projects that are akin to something you would see in PeeWee's Playhouse. Like on Bob's Music, there are some, what could be considered, children's songs.
Wang's aspirations go beyond just making music, touring, and coming up with ideas for accompanying music videos for her albums. This year promises some interesting side steps that will expand upon Wang's many interests and talents.
Drawing from heaps of eclectic influences and fields of interest, endearing qualities of her music and persona attract fans from various backgrounds who have different tastes. A decade plus as a solo artist and several new projects on the horizon appear to be only the beginning of creative exploration and discovery. As the many characters come to life on Love Is Calling Me, Wang seems to dig deeper into the possibilities of her own artistic abilities and achievements.
Wang told Asian Pop Weekly: "I feel like the best way to enjoy music is when you can't really find or don't really know who that person is; it's just this strange, abstract thing that exists in the ethers of the world. I always really like it when I can't find who's done the music. It's like this little treasure box. That's the thing I love about finding pop culture, or any kind of thing… When you have to dig for something, I think that's the most magical part. The world is… big enough that there's all this exciting unknown."
Her innate ability to take an aesthetic concept and inject that into a multitude of media focused around the creation of an album means the resulting music videos and album design are infused along with the stylized vocals and musicality. Each project has a certain distinct flare and also a recognizable signature consistency. Actualizing these ideas from a broad range of influences into a concentrated offering for fans and listeners has a real creative impact. Imbued with meaning and giving a frame to the sometimes abstract realm of art gives her projects a tangible relevance without being too heavy handed. That leaves just enough room for interpretation and subjective critique, while simultaneously guiding the audience into the personal world of the creator.
If love is calling, be sure to answer. How else will you be able to transcend into a supreme cosmic being?