Composer Kin Lee Transports Musical Tastes Across the Pacific
The bond between the U.S. and China grows stronger by the day. We see it in our intertwined economies, in Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, and, most interestingly, we see it in our music and pop culture. To see this exciting cultural trend in action, we caught up with producer and composer Jian Li, aka Kin Lee. Lee began his musical journey as a classically-trained producer/composer in Guangzhou, China. He began making forays into R&B, funk, and soul with Chinese band Project Ace. Then, after touring extensively in China, Lee has come to the United States, bringing his unique background to the studio. Within a short period of time, he has worked with industry heavyweights like Byron Chambers (also known as Mr. Talkbox) and Gorden Campbell (Beyoncé). We talk about Lee’s plans for the future, as well as China’s growing appreciation for Western music styles.
To get started Kin, tell us about what first inspired your transition from classical training to the contemporary genres of R&B, funk, and jazz. Did your parents want you to stay on the classical path?
Well, I started playing classical piano at the age of 4, and honestly didn’t feel much joy in music at the time. Kids at that age have a lot of energy and just want to go outside and play, and I was no exception. Spending 2+ hours sitting in front of the piano every day really bored me. But as I got older, I started buying CDs and choosing what music I listened to. I remember listening to Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind, & Fire for the first time–the groove in the music was something I’d never heard in my classical repertoire. Music like that resonated with me and inspired me to start playing that way. From that, when I started making music with my band years later, I brought motown, R&B, and funk influences into my music.
Both of my parents were classically trained musicians; my father was a conductor and my mother is a classical piano teacher, so naturally they would have loved for me to continue down that path. But when they realized my passion for other styles of music, they were still understanding and supportive. And I have to say that having the classical background still does help me in many ways. It gives me great physical technique, a stronger musical ear, score reading abilities, and other advantages. My parents were strict about my musical education, and I’m grateful that I began at such a young age.
You’ve toured and produced extensively in China. How does the music scene compare to Hollywood?
Ha, good question! Yes, I’ve produced a lot of music both here in the US and in China, and there many differences in the music scenes. I feel that in China, the music scene is still trying to imitate and catch up to what’s happening now in Western music for the most part. It’s not totally surprising–the West is the birthplace of pop music, and the music scene in Hollywood has already matured and established itself. Take blues music for example; its musical structure and form is well-known and defined in the West. Because of that, there are standards in the genre for what makes good or bad blues performance and production. That’s part of what I love about producing music here. I feel that I’m always learning, and that there’s higher standards for me to hold on to. That being said, I still want to learn more about the music from my own culture. I’m hoping to take what I learn from Western music and apply it into the music scene back in China.
Your band Project Ace has an urban-inspired sound. How popular is this style in China? Is your fan-base mostly restricted to the larger cities?
My band Project Ace does urban R&B, funk and soul. Though these styles are getting increasingly popular in China today, I’d say that they weren’t very trendy a few years ago. Chinese music traditionally is more melodic, probably due to our tonal language. Music like what my band plays, despite interesting harmonies and catchy melodies, has a stronger emphasis on groove than on melody. However, I’d say that Chinese people today–especially the younger generation–is more interested in groove-oriented music, music that makes them move. So, my band’s music is well-aligned to what the young generation in China enjoys today! Our fan-base is mostly in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, but we’ve also toured in smaller cities. They were all very memorable experiences.
Was it a difficult decision to take your musical talents abroad?
Not really. I was already interested in Western pop and folk music when I was in China, so coming to the West felt like a natural next step for me. Another draw was how established the Western music scene is, like we discussed before. Coming to the West not only provided me with opportunities to learn more about its music and music production, but also gave me first-hand experiences working in the industry. Even the timing was perfect for me, having just come to the US after completing my musical education in China. I now feel that I’m able to bring my Eastern musical influences into my creation of more Western music, and I really enjoy that blend.
How has it been working at 2 Degrees Productions? Are there any collaborators you’ve felt you click well with?
It’s been a really great experience! I’ve had so much fun, learned a ton, and I enjoy all of the collaborations I’ve had. It’s always great to work with and learn from other artists, like Byron Chambers (Bruno Mars), Michael Norfleet (Janet Jackson), Gorden Cambell (Beyoncé) and so on. We all clicked very well. In terms of specific memorable collaborations, off the top of my head I’d say my work with Byron Chambers, aka “Mr. Talkbox”. It was fun working with him. I was producing a song for Shaohua Ding, a well-known Chinese R&B jazz singer, and knew that I wanted the song to have an old-school sound like Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic”. I got in touch with Mr. Talkbox about it, and after he accepted, we were creatively in-sync through the whole project. At one point, I felt like giving him some Chinese words to try, and before I’d even asked him, he suggested the same thing! I started to wonder if he could read my mind, haha! I taught him a few Chinese words, and he nailed them like he always does, so we used them in the song. It worked out perfectly!
What current projects of yours can we look forward to?
Recently I’ve been working on some compositions for an upcoming Chinese TV series, which will be played on China Central Television (CCTV). I’m also producing an album for a famous R&B/soul/jazz singer, Tia Ray. Additionally, I’m looking to collaborate with more artists like I did for Shaohua Ding’s recently released album. Lastly, I’ve got some upcoming projects with film directors from China and the U.S.A. It’s a very busy and exciting year for sure!
by Giorgio Chang