Artist Spotlight: Joanna Wang

Be Forewarned: This is the first post I’ve written for The Avocado and I’m still getting the hang of WordPress (line breaks in particular are giving me grief) , so please let me know if I’ve formatted anything in a way that causes annoying bugs to pop up for you, or if it’s just plain annoying.
Be Forewarned Again: I am not the best at subjectively describing why I think something is good (uhhh… cause it is?), and on top of that I’m fairly ignorant of the more technical aspects of music (Like chords, I mean, what is a chord? Music goes in, music goes out. You can’t explain that). I guess my point is: I am singularly unsuited to write anything substantial about a body of musical work… and yet, I must! I’ll try to include Joanna’s own words wherever I can, however my Chinese comprehension can be charitably characterized as sub-toddler, so I only know half the picture at best (I should clarify that she writes her music exclusively in English, it’s the promos, interviews and such that I don’t understand).

tl;dr – I wholly endorse skipping over the words and just playing the music instead.

Update: Whoops, I didn’t consider that too many videos might mess up loading for some people, so I’m going to replace most of them with links.

Artist : Joanna Wang (Chinese name 王若琳 Wáng Ruòlín)
Genre: ?????

I can’t place Joanna Wang’s music in any definable genre, all I can say is that it’s just… heart (forgive the lameness but that’s as close as I can get it). Pure, genuine heart. Whether it’s a baroque soliloquy from the perspective of Richard Nixon, a children’s song explaining the scientific method, or a punk rock anthem about senility, when Joanna makes a song she goes all in every time, and the result is unadulterated fun. The lyrics are often simple, like something you might sing along to in kindergarten (Indeed, she has mused multiple times that children’s music may be her true calling), but her songs themselves are anything but, weaving together harpsichords, chiptunes, banjos, theremins, and her phenomenal singing voice to create something that defies explanation. It’s just plain awesome.

Joanna’s story is quite the tale in and of itself, and I’m basically going to plagiarize it wholesale from her 2011 AMA:1

I am a Taiwanese-American raised in Southern California, and my father is a fairly successful record producer in Taiwan. From elementary all the way to high school, I listened to a lot of Queen, The Beatles, classic rock radio, some classical music, videogame music (I really loved Zelda/Mario/Castlevania), soundtracks from Sound of Music/Alice in Wonderland (1951)/The Nightmare before Christmas, and Oingo Boingo. It was in my heart and soul to be some strange and goofy theatrical blend of Danny Elfman/Paul McCartney. Around when I was 15, my dad came across the really crappy songs I had written and Beatles covers in my MD player. And I suppose he thought those were good enough for me to record a better and more polished demo. After the demo had been circulating in the T-Dubs for awhile, some label guys were interested. And so at 16, I dropped out of high school and began my journey as the Kenny G of Asia.
At 17, I signed my first contract with Sony Music Taiwan (a decision I would soon have extremely mixed feelings about. regret, fear, frustration, arousal, and sometimes hunger.)


Start From Here (2008)

From what I’ve read, the studio heard the original songs she wanted to record, decided they weren’t marketable, and started leaning on her to record “demos” of covers and ballads and such, with the implicit agreement that she would have more of a say over what would and wouldn’t make the final cut. When it was finally released, she hated it; it was, as she put it, “Kenny G soft jazz”.
Even though it wasn’t what she wanted to make, I think the album itself is really good for what is; bear in mind she was still in her teens when these were recorded. She didn’t get the job just by virtue of her dad’s position (I’m sure it helped), she clearly had some serious natural talent. Still, as nice as the album sounded it was definitely not Joanna Wang’s music.

Let’s Start From Here

Lost Taipei

Of course the album went on to be a huge hit across Southeast Asia and won multiple awards (It’s possible she got her voice from a cursed monkey paw and this was its way of extracting ironic payment), and formed the basis of her celebrity image. To this day if you search for “Joanna Wang” on YouTube the results are overwhelmingly comprised of her early albums (and on her later songs you’re likely to see someone in the comments going “This is crazy! Where did the sweet, gentle Joanna go?”).


Joanna & 王若琳 (2009)

Returning to the AMA:

About half a year passes, I start to make my second record, by this time I have explained how I felt about the whole situation to my dad (who also produced my first record, and at that time he felt it was best to not go against Sony’s wishes, because of that our relationship wasn’t very good when we were making the first record) enough that he agrees so we record all of my own songs, (though these are still my more commercially acceptable compositions) I am fairly happy with said record. We go back to Taiwan. The asswipes at Sony are like “this won’t sell, add some covers, more ballads, more pop songs, here’s a song with Nokia, here’s another song you could sing that will net us airtime from this sponsorship.” My own album ended up being a “buy one get this as a bonus disc” next to the array of songs we ended up adding.

Times of Your Life

Tikiville


The Adult Storybook (2009)

And here on the “bonus disc” are Joanna’s original songs. The music is still pretty much the same as the previous two albums, but the lyrics hew closer to her own sensibility:

How I Feel About Businessmen

I Guess I’m Paranoid


The Adventures of Bernie the Schoolboy (2011)

 

Click for album art

bernieCoverBy Ian Miller

 

OK, now we’re getting into the good stuff. Sick of the studio trying to wring elevator music out of her, she took a couple years off to go back to school, and came back with a compromise: if the label allows her to produce and release entirely original album, then she’ll make another commercial cover album in return. They agreed, and Joanna went on to create Bernie, the antipode of her previous albums; operatic, sinister vocals accompanied by synthesized harpsichords. In a radio interview2 she said that she “Really intended it to be a Wendy Carlos type, 60’s synthesizer Clockwork Orange kind of thing”. Note: the eponymous schoolboy’s name was chosen because she thought it had a “evil, tongue in cheek, kind of butchers boy” quality that embodied the album’s “Wacky, dark, melancholy theme”, not because she was feeling the Bern years ahead of the crowd.

The Bug

Apparently she was inspired to write a simple song about the life of farm animals after watching Babe, but successive drafts kept gravitating towards the macabre, until the final version ended with the animals butchering the farmer. Maybe she really was feeling the Bern. (Ho hooo! Watch out Murphy Brown, here I come!)


The Things We Do for Love (2011)

As was the deal, Joanna made another cover album to sate the record label’s beige appetites. Its got a really good Carole King cover:


Galaxy Crisis: The Strangest Midnight Broadcast (2013)

 

Click for album art

galaxyCover
By Evah Fan



This might be my favorite album of hers. Again following a “one for me, one for you” deal with Sony, Joanna produced an album with the idea that each song is the basis of alternate reality’s weird, late-night television broadcast, inspired by wee-hours MTV programming she saw as a kid. Many of the tracks retain some of the Victorian-era feel that Bernie had, but she adds in heaps of different genres to the mix as well, premier among them SNES style chiptunes.

Prime example of me being out of my depth: I’m not quite sure what this is… Jazz? Hawaiian? Whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites.

I think this is “-The Avocado” in song form.

The sentiment of this song is similar to her early albums, but it’s much improved now that she’s doing it on her own terms.

The singing that starts around 00:30 in this one is just fantastic.
An Audience with the King
A full orchestral theme song for an early 70’s space adventure? Yes please.
Galaxy Crisis

Midnight Cinema (2014)

 

Click for album art

midnightCover
By Przemek Sobocki

 
Joanna wanted to get ahead of the game and start making a cover album before the studio could start bugging her for it, and decided “I wanted to make this nostalgic and kind of lonely listening experience that, the name kind of entails, is like a midnight cinematic experience.”3 To make it, she teamed up with Pessi Levanto, a Finnish film composer she met at a K-pop writing retreat in Finland (yeah, for real), and together they went to Slovakia and recorded the album with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. For her covers, she said “I wanted to pick an album full of songs that are not your standard love song, these songs all have a kind of twist to them, they’re kind of dark”. The resultant lavish album was the first cover album she proudly claimed as her own, especially praising Levanto and the orchestra for “totally nailing the old Hollywood sound”.

Alice in Wonderland

Moon River

Pure Imagination
Of course, coming full circle from “Revenge of the Farm Animals” in Bernie, she includes a splendid rendition of the climax from Babe.


Bob Music (2015)

 

Click for album art

bobCoverBy: Not sure, which is a shame because it’s a riot.



“Bob” takes on multiple meanings, with the obvious notion of music you can bob your head to, as well as the name Bob personifying the album as “A very simple, stupid, kind of cute person”, and even the name of a new genre: “Kind of like demented pop music, so it’s not quite pop, it’s Bob”4. For this album, Joanna collaborated with Korean EDM (haters relax, there’s nothing like that here) duo Coach & Sendo, whom she had met at yet another songwriting camp. Between the three of them, they double down on the video game feel of Galaxy Crisis and produce a bundle of pure, stupid, 16-bit glee.

When I Nod

A shoe store employee gave her this nugget of knowledge one day, and it struck her as so creepy she went home and wrote a song about it.

EVERYTHING ANYTHING

Host:“Why would you write a song about trucking?” J:“Because… just listen.” *laughs*
Trucking Everyday

The Scientific Method

“’Simply Nothing You Can Do’ is written about a hoarder defying the therapists who try to ransack his home, and he and his hoarder friends defeat them in a game of dogdeball.” natch.

Who knew Tin Pan Alley was a video game overworld?
Ain’t She Sweet


H.A.M. (Happy Accessible Music) (2016)

Joanna does pop like Jack Skellington does Christmas; checks all the boxes, and yet still completely orthogonal. In addition to bringing back Coach & Sendo, Joanna also worked with EunJee Shim, Command Freaks, Deez, and Manabu Marutani, all experienced in the K-pop & J-pop industries. Honestly I think the best description I can give is to put up the Google translations of Joanna’s Facebook plugs5, because they are just perfect:

虛構超級青春變態火腿偶像藝人 – 王。若。琳。
Imaginary Super Youth Perverted Ham Idol Artist6 – Wang. Ruo. Lin.

少女偶像愛上電話騷擾的大叔,成為大叔最忠實的粉絲!
Teenage idol fell in love with telephone harassment uncle, became uncle’s most loyal fans!

撫慰宅男與中年男子空虛心靈的青少女巡邏隊!
The young girl patrol to soothe otaku and middle-aged men’s empty hearts!
Teenage Girl Patrol

無論如何都要打起精神!人生的好壞裁決於你看他的角度!
No matter what, we must start the spirit! The quality of life is judged by the way you look at him!
Good Times


House of Bullies (2016)

Click for album art

bulliesCoverBy Ian Miller

Joanna’s most recent album was made with the band she had formed (and has since dissolved) called “The Weird Uncles”. By this point, it seems her own work has garnered enough attention for her to break the cycle of covers and original compositions. This album is a bit more reminiscent of Bernie, not just in the album art (both created by eminent illustrator Ian Miller), but in the gothic, menacing undertones running through the album. The Weird Uncles add more of a rock feel to it though, so it’s a bit more energetic than Bernie.

(Note: song starts around 3:25)

The Art of Bullying

Isn’t It Exciting

Coincidentally, the album was release in November 2016.
The Cult Leader


And that brings us to now. In July of 2017, Joanna announced her official separation with Sony Music 7. I’m not sure where she goes from here (From her Facebook page it looks like maybe she’s performing around LA? If any of you west coast Avocados see her name a flyer, do yourself a favor and go!), but I certainly hope we haven’t heard the last from her.

Best Miscellaneous Tidbit

I’ve always wondered how many people edit their own Wikipedia pages (and being the inveterate snoop that I am, I’ve spent more time than I’d admit trawling the edit history of famous peeps trying to catch a glimpse of it in action). I took a look at Joanna’s page and sure enough, there’s her handle! But the name is red? Wonder what happened…
JoannaWangWikipedia
Banned for calling herself her own nickname. Legend.


And that’s all you get for your money, folks! I hope you heard something that strikes your fancy, thanks for checking it out, and please let me know if there’s anything that’s unclear or could be worded more naturally; as a minor league commenter and first-time contributor, I’m not used to writing anything longer than a Simpsons quote. Big thanks to Crooked Paul for proofreading!