Note from the translator: For all English speaking Jacky Cheung fans out there, you’re in luck! I’m very happy to be able to collaborate on this project with notable Taiwanese music journalist Jamie Lee, who has very kindly provided me with the rights to officially translate his interview with Mandopop King Jacky Cheung. It details the painstakingly meticulous work that went into Cheung’s latest album ‘Wake Up Dreaming’, inspiring fans with his motivation to attain nothing less than perfection. An album like none he has ever created before, its intricate concept will wow listeners, as will the pedantic details and personal motivations Jacky shares with Jamie in this exclusive interview.
Wake Up Dreaming is Mandopop legend Jacky Cheung’s phenomenal 57th album to date, and has certainly been a long time in the making. Inspired by Elton John’s live performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1987, Jacky has fiddled with this album’s concept for over a decade, before finally taking the plunge and releasing this album last December. It seems to me that this album is not just a drop in a hat for the Mandopop king who was most recently nominated at the 26th Golden Melody Awards; it encompasses complex ideas even the king himself is hard-pressed to put into words. But what certainly comes shining through in this album is his admirable motivation to better his music for himself and for his fans, even given his status as one of the most venerable artists in the industry.
Can I get you to once again introduce your album Wake Up Dreaming?
I spent a lot of effort in creating this Wake Up Dreaming album; other than taking on the role of artist in this album I was also the producer for this album, taking on much of the album with a hands-on approach. At the very beginning the concept for this album was to create an ‘orchestral and rock’ studio album but after creating half of it a couple of the songs were swapped for a few others which were a little different. The repetitiveness of the arrangement was just too much at that point, so the album and the genres everyone hears in this album are different from before. But there are a few songs which are more folksy, those were the songs I just couldn’t bear to not put in the album.
So in conclusion Wake Up Dreaming is an album which represents my musical style, preferences and orientation, and is not an album with a very clear concept.
So at the beginning the album was meant to be produced as an ‘orchestral and rock’ studio album?
At the beginning it was agreed that this would be the direction we would move in, but the things that we created began to become too similar to each other, even when I myself listened to it it really gave me pressure. I still wish that when everyone is listening to this album they can feel a little more at ease, with a little bit of different music entering their ears. So at the end I decided to divert from the original plan, and with this kind of modification, actually this is the direction I most love going in when I am creating an album.
Why did you choose to create an ‘Orchestral and rock’ album at the beginning?
At the beginning it was because I heard one of Elton John’s live albums ‘Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1987)’. I really~liked this album (At this moment Jacky’s eyes lit up), the influence of this album on me really was pretty great, and I listened to it on repeat for many years. Every time I get into a car I’ll take it out and play it.
And with every listen the feeling I get is just “woah”, because Elton John’s music originally was genred towards pop rock, but who would have thought that his kind of music could be played in this form? So I myself really wanted to do something like this, and afterwards I did create a concert (1996: Hong Kong Orchestra-Love and Symphony concert) which was also inspired by the concept of Elton John’s album.
After the concert I still kept wishing to do a studio album of the same kind, but was never able to finish it, so each time I worked on an album this idea would come back to me and wouldn’t leave, so with every album I will pick up this idea and play around with it, but still I could not find a real logic in going about it or finding the right songs. Even until now when the album is finished, I still feel that I haven’t found it in its entirety, it is not complete enough.
Many articles all reported that this album was in the production stages for over 10 years, and that not being able to find suitable songs was the biggest obstacle. Could I get you to share with me a rough standard that you have when choosing songs?
Alright I’ll explain it this way; from the year of ’96 when ‘Love and Symphony’ was finished I had already wanted to do this kind of style, but at that time I hadn’t yet started to produce my own albums. Sometimes I would suggest to the producer ‘we can do it like this’, and found many people to do arrangements, but after taking it back and having a listen-“Woah~they all sound kind of the same”, and so I felt that “It shouldn’t be like this…”. But actually it’s quite hard for me to express why I felt this way. Once they start asking “What? Where is it not right?’ then it’s over for me! Because I myself am unable to accurately pinpoint what is wrong with it; my communication with my musical team still has really big problems.
So if I could really go back, I really wish that when I was young I had learned music, learned to play instruments, learned just a little. I don’t want to become a musician, I just want to be able to solve this communication problem I have; to be able to say exactly what I want. Sometimes the things my heart wishes to say can only be kept in my heart and not said, it’s pretty painful you know (laughs)
But I think album production generally does take a lot of time; when running into obstacles it’s not always to do with finding songs and keeping them. It’s because I felt that Elton John found a really great team of musicians to work with; they had a clear concept of rock and orchestra, but this situation was not something that we could handle, possibly because the space of imagination in the arrangement is limited, but I myself am not a true player of music, so I do have my restrictions when producing works.
I don’t have any way of completely getting out there and making music outside the box, you say doing this kind of ‘orchestral and pop combinations’ , these eastern songs; is there use, are they different? I believe there is a difference, but are all things also this way? This ‘orchestral and pop combination’ has many different dimensions, and it should be this way so that it can be a complete concept. Under these techniques the song structure, weak and strong points, changes in the music will all be different. But once I say all this, everyone will subconsciously create a ‘concrete concept’, and I have no way of overcoming these kinds of situations. Even if you give different people arrangements, at the end the product that comes out will be very similar, or should I say when creating pop music we have a habit, and everyone finds it hard to get out of this habit.
Being truly able to achieve such goals I am not sure, but I hope to be able to try and see what happens.
How about the part about production taking over 10 years?
Accurately speaking, it should be from when the idea of creating this album blossomed until now that ten years have passed. Just like what I previously said, in the middle I was constantly trying, but picking up the idea and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down really took that long; of course in the middle I still had many different other projects going for me, two concerts, Cantonese album etc., these all took up time, but I never really completely stopped everything and produced this album.
Listening to myself it sounds like “Oh Jacky Cheung you stopped everything for ten years to create this album, and it’s been so long but you’re not able to create it?” Even rocks would be able to do it, seriously! There is no way you took that long! But what it was was that in the middle I was working on it, but was not successful so I left it as is. But now listening to myself it sounds even worse, just as if I went to find some other songs or something.
How did you balance ‘Orchestra’ and ‘Rock’, these two very different genres? To you, where do the two cross over? What are the similarities between them?
I’ll first say that if you wanted to look at it seriously, this album has a large focus on ‘strings’ only, the orchestral part is not as significant. So it isn’t a complete representation of the concept I originally wanted. This time in my collaboration with Teacher Du (Du Tse Te), he is very strong on the strings but orchestral work was not his strong point. Wanting to create an orchestral album really needs a couple of orchestral teachers, and for me to collaborate with them.
So with this album focusing on ‘strings’ mainly, we hoped that the ‘personality’ of the strings could be represented. When you listen to ‘The rest of time’ the sound of the cello is very loud. We felt that its dynamics and sound should be coming out a lot more so let it be that way, and it was not that we purposely measured its comparisons with the human voice. Even if it is between two cellos, I still hope that they can have different ‘personalities’ that will be revealed; they are a double quartet, and every group is composed of two people working at the strings; in this aspect it did take a lot of our skill because we hoped that even more emotion could be shown and heard through the strings arrangement.
With the strings, rock becomes different. Actually it’s not just pure rock’s personality which is different. Looking at when rock was in its roaring years you may feel that it was very noisy, but when you add strings and zoom in to look at it, there is a kind of elegance there. It is not purely a rough kind of feeling; that roughness has texture within it, and does not make you feel pressured. But with these kinds of things I feel you still have to look at the personality of the song before doing it.
The last two singles ‘The rest of time’ and ‘Tears of time’ both used a lot of orchestral or piano arrangement, the traditional use of ‘drums and rhythm’ in popular music wasn’t frequent here, why did you decide to use these arrangement methods?
This is what I was talking about before, we wished that the ‘strings’ personality’ within the song could be revealed, if there was too much rhythm in the arrangement, if it was too strong, it would erase away what we originally wanted to represent, and what we wanted others to hear. When I want to do something big, I wouldn’t necessarily add a lot of drums or anything like that, what we wished what that we would use an accumulation of strings to push out this atmosphere.
I originally thought this entire album would have a similar arrangement to ‘The rest of time’ and ‘Tears of Time’?
At the end this was not the case…after I listened to all of it I felt that it was not good enough, like with the tenth song ‘Not Bad’, its arrangement is also very big, and when I heard it I was thinking “Woah, I’m done for”. Actually, ‘Tears of Time’ does not have so much of that sound, but when the sound becomes bigger it really becomes very big, so this entire album would just continue to have this large sound, and I felt that this would cause problems so made some adjustments on the songs.
Many listeners who heard both of these songs all said ‘This time the God’s works can be re-listened to for 30 years’, and I too deeply felt this in your works; no matter new or old, it constantly has a kind of timelessness to it. What I wanted to ask was, if a song needs to be listenable and have the ability to transcend time and be popular, what is the most important element?
Firstly, you need it to be something people are willing to listen to, this is what we need to achieve first. The so-called ‘listenability’ behind it actually has many reasons like whether you sang it well, whether the music was created well, its arrangement, mixing; in all these specific places we have tried our best to add to the reasons of ‘why you should listen to this album’, this is what we wished to do. We’ve done all the abovementioned very carefully, I hope that they will be able to accumulated into a reason or motivation for people to listen to the album, to allow you to listen when you have nothing better to do. I don’t have the authority to say ‘Wake Up Dreaming’ is a popular album, but I do hope that when everybody listens to it they can hear every single thing in it clearly, so I have tried my best to give even more people a reason to listen to it.
You don’t have a very definite direction or reason that allows you to listen for a certain amount of time or say something is listenable, but we can only try our best to make every song the best it can be.
Within the album, which of the songs is your favourite?
Hmm…I actually have no way to choose, but between ‘The rest of time’ and ‘Tears of time’ to compare, possibly ‘The rest of time’. Because at the end of it all it’s a rather different experiment, perhaps after a certain period of time you would still remember it and go back to listen to it. But ‘Tears of Time’ is aimed at reflecting intricacy in its emotions, in this song the emotions are clearer but the song structure or melody is actually one that I am quite familiar with, and so wouldn’t have that many problems expressing myself through it.
But with < The rest of time > if you just don’t think about it, don’t think about how to sing it, perhaps after you’ve sang it for a long time the way you embrace it may become different.
This time in Wake Up Dreaming other than being the artist for it and being involved with much of the production work, what was the biggest challenge in both? How did you find a balance between both roles?
I feel that having Du Tse-Chi (music producer) here was a big help for me, first of all he is very diligent, second of all his music is quite highly accomplished, and he has no problems communicating with me, he can quickly grab what I want, what I am trying to express, playing the piano, writing strings sheet music are all not hard for him. He is also very …accommodating of me, possibly collaborating with other producers it’s quite often that they aren’t willing to trust in your judgement but with him he won’t do that, he will go with my decision and use that as a starting direction.
I really enjoyed creating this album, being able to produce an album is a very happy process. If I myself had good enough musical foundation, and could completely produce an album by myself, then I would be very very happy. The creative process of singers extend to emotions and vocals, but when you are doing an album, it is talking about designing everything, the album, its look, creating it, and that really makes me happy.
The album was specially recorded at the legendary recording studio of many rock bands, Abbey Road Studios, which is your favourite rock band?
Let me first say that I actually didn’t have a very big connection with Abbey Road, but of course to all musical people it definitely is a musical holy ground; for Hong Kong music especially because of Hong Kong’s British colonisation background. This album I especially hoped that it would have a brit-rock kind of feel, that kind of grooving. And teacher Du said “Let’s go to England to record! Shall we go to Abbey Road?”. So if you were to compare me with going to Abbey Road to record perhaps you should say it is their wish coming true!
But the music they have there is really what we want, for once I felt that different musical people’s music were different. How should I say, perhaps I hear one guitar solo, in Hong Kong I can find another guitarist and give him this chord to listen to, when he plays it you know roughly its direction, its more stable. But if I take the same guitar solo to England and give it to an English instrumentalist to play, that it becomes something totally different. This is perhaps due to different cultures, the way that people feel music is different. So if you want this kind of Brit-rock stuff you will not go wrong going there to record, I believe that his decision was right, at least Du Tse-Chi had an excuse to go there on business to fulfil his personal dream!
This time the recording of the album took the longest, which song was most difficult to sing?
The one that took the longest to record was < The rest of time >; we recorded it many times, and it was not many ‘times’ but many ‘days’. If I think about it and believe that it doesn’t sound right then we would go back to re-record.
The difficulty in this was that I picked a key that I believed would be best for this song, perhaps if this song could be transposed into another key it would be a little easier, but at the end I still made it a bit harder, but I think it was still the most suitable key. All this time I’ve had a view which was ‘As long as it can be recorded, I need to be able to sing it live’, this is perhaps my stubbornness, but I also have proved that it is possible, just depends on how much work you have to put into it.
This song and my usual songs are quite different; my usual songs will have elaborations and ups and downs, but this song is different. From when it came it it was already in its place (Jacky sings one line to demonstrate its pitch), some people are not used to it actually, how did it reach that place even at the start, but I am already used to it (laughs).
Jacky you’ve been around for so many years I bet there’s nothing you haven’t gotten used to?
Hey! I practiced very long for this round!
Quantitatively speaking how long did you practice for this?
For this album it initially was supposed to be released at the end of October, the production by mid-October was already finished, after getting the final product I then began to practice, until now we released it two months late. In the middle I roughly practised every day, and sang each song at least once a day.
Then you can immediately hold a concert?
That’s no problem, I can definitely do it! At this minute, if the band came in I can immediately sing, no problem at all, it’s just this album is like this, from past until now I have never had an album which was like this. Previously there were some albums where after I recorded it I would ask ‘huh? Which song is this’ and have these kinds of situations where after singing it I would not remember it at all, it’s really only this album that I really got very familiar with it.
I feel that it may be firstly because I controlled a lot of the specifications of it, so I know everything about it; the emotions I felt towards this album are also different. Secondly, previous to singing the song I already felt these songs really were hard to sing, so specially went to practice them, definitely have sang them over hundreds of times!
Having a 30-year lifespan as a singer or just in a career is a very long time and a big challenge for anyone. What is it that allowed you to continue persevering, to continue singing and to preserve your passion?
I think it is ‘curiosity’ and ‘greed’ that are my motivation. I am curious where I can go with this and am greedy because I want to know if it was just a little bit better, if this music was just that bit better or if I sang it a little better how would it sound?
My experience makes my friends or descendants say “What do you mean you want to be a little bit better? Can you even get any better?”. But in reality you can; in real life as long as you have the drive you can. From the outside looking in, you see me and you think ‘It’s Jacky Cheung you now, he’s already so good, what more do you want?’. But from my own perspective looking at myself, I know what I have is not enough, and when you are ‘greedy’ and want to be a little bit better, you really will be able to do it, it will really get a bit better. And that ‘little bit better’ really presents me with a lot of motivation.
As for these two unsatisfied attitudes, I believe that the motivation to keep singing is enough. I myself am very excited for my next time, what can happen in my next album. Possibly this time what I found was that songs really need to be immensely catchy, but this everyone already knew, they’ve been saying it for several hundreds of years; but have you really been doing it? If you’ve done it what will the end result be? It really is very different, it’s not that I don’t know and I believe that many people also know this, but it’s just that if you really went and did it, where do you believe you will end up? For example if I sing and I don’t do this [make the songs catchy], you can still sing it, it’s just that whether you do it right or not there is a difference, a big difference so…just watch, watch what I’ll do next (laughs).
“Jacky Cheung’s album is much more than just about listening to music and listening to how Cheung makes these songs his own; instead, it is about listening to the persistence of a veteran with 30 years of musical experience under his belt; his story of humility and his drive for perfection.” – Jamie Lee
Author: Jamie Lee
Translator: Jocelle Koh
Originally published on Jamie Deer Music
Photos/special thanks: Universal Music