Joanna Wang is one of my favorite currently active songwriters, although that, in and of itself, was not enough to compel me to write this biography/discography/ timeline. For one, most of what I’ve been able to gather about Wang has been written in Chinese, whereas I think that the appeal of her music should extend beyond the Sinosphere. Also, it is for my own use because, frankly, while I love some of her records, others I’m completely ambivalent to, and in researching her career the reasons for that became clear as an intriguing tale of conflict emerged — conflict between father and daughter, artist and label, as well as creativity and commerce. Finally, I also wrote it because I needed a break from other projects. When I realized that today is Overseas Chinese Day (華僑節) in Taiwan, the country from which Wang hails, I figured I should finish and publish it.
Whatever your reaction may be to her music, Wang is certainly one of the most interesting artists making music currently, drawing as she does from an array of influences and synthesizing them into something which has nothing to do with the predominant, upbeat “whoa-oh music,” seemingly written with the goal of being used in ads for various types of insurance. Wang’s music is cinematic, often manic, and unlikely to be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Increasingly, it’s also deliberately obnoxious and confrontational — but unlike punk (the music most associated with those attitudes), its replaces sloppy amateurism with a tightly wound precision. If there is an artist with whom she can be compared, I would suggest Go-Kart Mozart, albeit sung by a woman with an arsenal of distinct voices rather than sung-spoken like a Brummie Lou Reed.
Joanna Wang (王若琳) was born 1 August 1988 in Taipei, one of three daughters (the others being Hannah and Tina) born to Ginnie Fan and producer Wang “Bing” Zhi-ping (王治平). When she was seven years old, the family moved to the San Gabriel Valley, where, according to several sources, she developed a love of pop stars like Paul McCartney/The Beatles and Huey Lewis & the News — and video game score composers like Koji Kondo (近藤 浩治) and Yoeko Kurahashi (倉橋ヨエコ). When she was sixteen, Wang dropped out of Gabrielino High School, in San Gabriel, and returned to Taiwan, where her father is renowned as a successful songwriter and producer.
“Bing” has long been involved in the Taiwanese music business. He’s had a hand in the commercial success of Mandopop artists like Blue Heart Mae (藍心湄), Babes, Tanya Chua (蔡健雅), Kit Chan Jie Yi (陳潔儀), He Yao Sun (何耀珊), City Girl (城市少女), S.H.E., ASOS, Yoga Lin (林宥嘉), Faith Yang (楊乃文 — widely regarded as “Taiwan’s Rock Queen”), Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿), and Sarah Chen (陳淑樺). Chen was the first artist to sell a million records in Taiwan. Singaporean singer Stefanie Sun has sold more than 30 million records.
[Although not a Bing production, I love Stefanie Sun’s song “Sleep Walking” (“夢遊”), which I first heard and saw the video for whilst dining at JJ Hong Kong Cafe in Monterey Park around 2007. It was composed by Hao Gu (古皓), with lyrics by Yunnong Yan (嚴雲農), and produced by Weisong Li (李偉菘). I mention this because I occasionally feel like listening to it and have a hard time finding it on YouTube.]
Under her father’s guidance, Joanna began her career at Sony as a rather ordinary jazz-pop singer. She has referred to her early career as sounding like Kenny G but Asian and female. Although I’m not a fan of this period of her work, I feel like she’s been a bit hard on it. At its best, it sounds a bit like Japan‘s bossa nova singer Lisa Ono (小野リサ). Sometimes it gets a bit cheesy, warranting comparisons to Norah Jones (whose warm milk blandness has duly earned her the nickname “Snorah Jones” in some quarters).
START FROM HERE
Wang’s debut, Start from Here, was recorded at various studios in Burbank, Pasadena, and Tapei and was produced and arranged by her father, who also plays piano and other keyboards. It was released in 2008 when Wang was still a teenager. The songs on the two-disc album (one in English, one in Mandarin) are fairly safe covers of songs by the likes of Billy Joel, David Tao, and Spandau Ballet. The mainstream rewards adherence to formula, though, and not surprisingly it topped the charts in Taiwan and also brought Wang fame in China and Singapore.
The album’s commercial success no doubt pleased both Sony and Wang’s father, although the singer has gone on to disown it and savage its middle-of-the-road approach. I first came across the album, which was my introduction to the singer, shortly after its release, whilst exploring the heavily-Taiwanese San Gabriel Valley for my blog. To be honest, I was pretty ambivalent. Although I have a rule against listening to music with wind chimes (and the windchimes dutifully kick in on track one), I didn’t find it especially unpleasant. Nor, though, did I find it especially memorable — rather it struck me as the sort of audio wallpaper you might expect to hear at a BlackBall, Cha Time, or 85°C. I did like Wang’s voice, however, albeit not enough to follow her career at that point.
Start From Here track listing:
- Let’s Start From Here
- Lost In Paradise
- As Love Begins To Mend
- Bada Bada
- Lost Taipei
- The Best Mistake I’ve Ever Made
- I Love You
- For No Reason
- Stages Of Flying
- New York State Of Mind
JOANNA & 王若琳 AND THE ADULT STORYBOOK
Although Start From Here played it safe by offering up a polite collection of modern-day standards, as a songwriter and composer, it apparently left Wang creatively frustrated. With her father again producing, Wang composed a collection of original material and presented it to Sony who apparently weren’t impressed and insisted on another collection of covers. A compromise was reached between the artist and the label, which in 2009 released the covers album, Joanna & 王若琳, and the collection of originals, titled The Adult Storybook and credited to “New Tokyo Terror.”
What, exactly, Sony’s objections were to The Adult Storybook are somewhat hard for me to imagine — as the songs are performed in a style pretty much in keeping with Joanna’s then polite jazz-pop on which she’d built her following — although a few of the song titles enough are enough to signal the coming emergence of an artist with an uncommon musical viewpoint.
Joanna & 王若琳 track listing:
- Tikiville (英文版)
- Maybe Some Other Time (英文版)
- Times Of Your Life
- Tikiville (中文版)
- Maybe Some Other Time (中文版)
The Adult Storybook track listing:
- Adult Crap
- I Guess I’m Paranoid
- Longing For Romance
- His Remedy
- Nobody’s A Nun
- Even If We Did
- How I Feel About Businessmen
- I’m Pathetic Enough
THE ADVENTURES OF BERNIE THE SCHOOLBOY
Apparently owing to her dissatisfaction with Sony’s control over her musical career, Wang shelved her musical ambitions and returned to school. Sony, in turn, coaxed her back to music-making with another compromise; Wang could release a self-produced stand-alone album of her originals if she agreed to follow its release with another conventional album of covers. She agreed, apparently, on the condition that her original work first be released in Japan, where she felt the record buying public was more open-minded to her artistic vision.
The Adventures of Bernie the Schoolboy was duly released, first in Japan, in 2011. Musically, The Adventures of Bernie the Schoolboy marked a seismic shift in Wang’s sound, showcasing a cinematic sound influenced by the scores of Danny Elfman and Wendy Carlos‘s electro-baroque of the late 1960s. There was also a pronounced whiff of European Renaissance music so it was perhaps fitting that renowned English fantasy artist and illustrator Ian Miller provided the cover image. I have no idea what the folks at Sony thought of it but as with all of Wang’s albums, the promotion included the making of several promotional videos.
The Adventures Of Bernie The Schoolboy track listing:
- The Adventures Of Bernie The Schoolboy 博尼的大冒險
- Apathy 漠不關心
- Chitterchat 聊八卦
- Plotting Revenge 復仇記
- The Fool 愚人
- Only Child 獨生子
- We Just Won’t Know 大家的孤獨
- The Bug 竊聽蟲
- I Blame It On You 我怪在你身上
- The Chicken Circus (Instrumental) 公雞馬戲團 (器樂曲)
- Chitterchat (Reprise) 聊八卦(重奏)
- The Revenge Of The Farm Animals 家畜的大復仇
- The Adventure Comes To An End 冒險的尾聲
THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE
After the release of the unconventional The Adventures Of Bernie The Schoolboy, Wang fulfilled her business obligation to Sony with another set of straightforward covers, The Things We Do For Love. It included more not-unpleasant covers by the likes of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, 10cc, Cat Stevens, Carole King, Steely Dan, as well as a group of which I’m not at all familiar, Fools Garden. The fact that there was also a cover of an Oingo Boingo song suggests to me that perhaps Sony granted her a bit more leeway in the choice of songs but to be honest, I’m a fan of most of the artists covered on this collection.
The Things We Do For Love track listing:
- Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head
- You’ve Got A Friend
- The Things We Do For Love
- Wild World
- Lemon Tree
- Dirty Work
- You’ve Got A Friend (Acoustic Version)
- Wild World (Acoustic Version)
- Stay (Acoustic Version)
- Lemon Tree
GALAXY CRISIS: THE STRANGEST MIDNIGHT BROADCAST
Galaxy Crisis: The Strangest Midnight Broadcast was released in 2013 and marked the unexpected reappearance of Joanna Wang on my radar. I was writing a piece on picopop (or ピコピコ; literally “piko piko”) — an almost exclusively Japanese genre of video game inspired pop music. In the course of my research, I noticed Joanna Wang’s non-Japanese name in a list of picopop performers.
I’d forgotten about her and motivated by curiousity looked up her video for “You and Me,” in which the then-platinum blonde Wang delivered a catchy song which not only drew upon picopop but on bossa nova and picopop’s musical predecessor, ‘60s-inspired Shibuya-kei.
By this point, Wang had assembled a band she named Alferd Packer & the Weird Uncles, comprised of Texan Chuck Payne (drums), New Orleanian Mike McLaughlin (guitar — later replaced by Jacob Liang), Matthew Fullen (keyboardist), and Yohei Yamada (bassist). Although the musical setting (and coiffure) had changed, the voice was instantly recognizable and although I found the entire album to be a major improvement over her debut, I again failed to follow her career in part because her music was still then still relatively hard to come by in the US.
Galaxy Crisis: The Strangest Midnight Broadcast track listing:
- Galaxy Prologue
- Pressure’s on Me (Space Saloon Theme)
- The Antagonist
- Evil Nerd Theme
- Remote Control
- Meteor One (Inside the Mind of a Wrestling Fanatic)
- You and Me
- Garden Party on Mars
- An Audience with the King
- Galaxy Crisis
- Chitterchat (TV Theme)
- The Chicken Circus (Crash Detour into the Chip Galaxy)
The back-and-forth between originals and covers continued with the 2014 release of Midnight Cinema. Nonetheless, Midnight Cinema was apparently much more in line with Wang’s singular vision than her previous covers albums. Whereas those mostly contained interpretations of over-played pop songs, Midnight Cinema offered a collection of themes from various films. The choice of films was almost as revealing as the actual tunes: Alice in Wonderland, All Consuming Love (長相思), A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色), Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In the Mood For Love (梁朝偉眼中的花樣年華), Infernal Affairs (無間道), A Little Pig Goes a Long Way (我不笨，所以我有話要說), A Moment of Romance (追夢人), Prison on Fire II (監獄風雲二 逃犯), Red Rose White Rose ( 紅玫瑰 白玫瑰), Romeo and Juliet, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and You Only Live Twice. The album was recorded in Finland, where it was co-produced and arranged by Finnish pianist, accordionist, and composer Pessi Levanto. The band, this time around, included Finnish musicians Rajaton, Antti Lötjönen, Rico, Tuukka Tervo, Mikko Kosonen, and Jarmo Julkunen — as well as American musician Roger Joseph Manning of Jellyfish and Imperial Drag. As far as I know, for some reason, no promotional videos were made.
Midnight Cinema track listing:
- Alice in Wonderland
- Moon River
- Pure Imagination
- What is a Youth
- You Only Live Twice
- If I Had Words
Bob Music (2015) was released on 2 June 2015. The title hints at a double meaning. “Bob” is a given name which is almost intrinsically mundane. “Bobbing,” of course, also refers to the act of involuntarily moving one’s head to music. The music on Bob music was appropriately bouncy and stripped down to a childlike straightforwardness. Many of the lyrics offered observations of mundanity with a strongly implied critique of consumerism. I’m not sure what was happening between Sony and Wang, but after Bob Music, there would be no more covers albums (although Wang continued to perform many covers on her YouTube channel). There were also two covers on the album, one of Milton Ager and Jack Yellen‘s 1927 Tin Pan Alley standard, “Ain’t She Sweet” and the other of Herb Alpert’s “Spanish Flea.”
It was with Bob Music that I was again reacquainted with Joanna Wang’s music. In 2015, my former roommate Tim Shimbles and I were going to DJ an all-Los Angeles set called “To Live and Deejay L.A.” in Chinatown‘s Melody Lounge. In the spirit of accurately celebrating and reflecting Los Angeles’s unparalleled diversity, I wanted to include Angeleno musicians who perform in languages other than English (namely Spanish, Korean, and Chinese). I remembered Joanna Wang and compiled a Spotify playlist of her music. My reactions varied between love and embarrassment (the early cover of “I Love You,” released in 2008) and it was then that I began trying to get to the bottom of what was going on with this musician about whom I knew next-to-nothing.
- Kungfu Sound Bite
- When I Nod
- Truckin’ Everyday
- Whip Out the Shampoo
- The Scientific Method
- Teenager Statement
- Liquefied Cheese
- Ain’t She Sweet
- I Knew It, I Swear!
- I Don’t Give A Hoot
- Now We’re Together Forever and Always
- Everything Anything
- Spanish Flea
- I’m Fucked!
- Simply Nothing You Can Do
The three-song H.A.M. EP was followed by a trip by Wang to Korea in which she collaborated with several Korean musicians (Command Freaks, EunJee Shim (심은지), Coach & Sendo, and Deez) and Japanese producer Manabu Marutani (丸谷マナブ). The title, reportedly, was an acronym for “Happy Accessible Music,” which if taken literally might give the impression that Wang gone full K-pop. I suspect that there’s again a double meaning. In English, “ham” is the commonly used shorthand for “hamfatter,” a term which according to Merriam-Webster refers to “a showy performer” or, especially “an actor performing in an exaggerated theatrical style.” Whilst Wang’s happy music might not be especially accessible, she does seem to have more than a bit of the ham in her.
H.A.M. track listing:
- Teenage Girl Patrol
- Good Times
- Hello Anyung
HOUSE OF BULLIES
Wang’s latest release, House of Bullies, was released on 11 November 2016. It saw her
reunite with renowned illustrator Ian Miller for the album cover, although the music is closer to that of Bob Music than it is to The Adventures of Bernie the Schoolboy. It’s also baroque, in its own way, albeit not in the vein of earlier work but the broader use of the term to reply to busy musical ornamentation and ostentatious displays of technical proficiency. Think of the highly orchestrated guitar-driven art rock made by the likes of Be-Bop Deluxe, Jobriath, Sparks, and Queen in the 1970s.
House of Bullies track listing:
- Isn’t It Exciting
- My Belly Really Aches
- Scary Cousins
- The Rightful Heir
- When You Dream in Technicolor (Inst.)
- Inside the Mind of a Chicken
- The Greatest Stink
- The Art of Bullying
- Intermission (Looney Galop)
- When You Dream in Technicolor
- Meanest Kids in Town
- Run Away from Home!
- The Cult Leader
- Senile Rock
- Mom and Dad Don’t Understand
- Pick of the Litter
Performing in the musical, Turn Left, Turn Right. (今宵多珍重)
Follow Joanna Wang on various platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please leave any corrections and suggested additions in the comments and kindly go easy as my Chinese is sub-remedial. (Update: my Chinese is now fully remedial. 我不是中國人. See?)
(Further update: I saw Wang perform a live score for the silent film, L’Inferno, with Nora Keyes & The Alchemical Orchestra, at a small house in Hollywood, on a rainy night in March. Afterward, I may’ve gushed a bit and she punched me (in a nice way) on the shoulder!