Interview: Wang Leehom

Wang Leehom is an American born Taiwanese pop star most famously known for his pioneering music that fuses both traditional Chinese and Western song elements. He has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide and previously starred in Lust, Caution by Ang Lee, Jackie Chan’s Little Big Soldier and self-written and directed Love in Disguise.

It’s the first time that Leehom had visited Oxford University and like many that set foot on campus, he too felt “how incredible it was to be put into the state of mind of wanting to learn”. Leehom previously studied music at Williams College and Berklee College of Music.

Leehom comes from a family of three boys. When he was growing up in New York, there was competition between the siblings but they ended up “gravitating towards different things” and thus each excelled in their own fields. His older brother would always get the best scores in tests, whilst Leehom got his affirmation through music and his youngest brother became a mathematician.

For musicians, the songwriting process varies dramatically. With Leehom, he tends to create the melody first and then adds the lyrics on top. Leehom was quick to point out that it gets back more and more to his faith as a Christian, the inspiration for songs arrives when he is not expecting it. He gets ‘hit by a melody, or it comes in a dream” even. He is constantly open to inspiration and seldom sits down to write a song now. But once the “1% inspiration” is there, “99% perspiration” has to follow. He becomes “a slave to the idea” and has to see it through.

Leehom candidly admits that he is “demanding” and tries to “always see the big picture” and listens to his music objectively as if it was an artist that he was producing. Inspiration too can be derived from poetry and indeed Leehom used to read a lot when he was younger. He is a fan of John Keats and also Chinese tangshi poems by Li Bai.

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Leehom is proud of “songs that have had social contribution” and therefore he feels that the song he wrote with David Tao, ‘Hand in Hand’, whereby 85 singers in the Mandarin pop singing world all got together to encourage the community during the Sars epidemic, is one of his proudest pieces of work.

A prominent strength of a musician is the diversity in their music repertoire. And Leehom is no stranger to this. Leehom’s passion for music and curiosity in learning has meant that he is adept in playing more than 15 different musical instruments. When asked which Chinese musical instruments he loved, Leehom enthusiastically named Erhu, Guzheng, Pipa and Zhongruan as his favourites. He has often incorporated them to create traditional Chinese melodies in his westernised songs such as Hua Tian Cuo.

Life is a long learning process and for Leehom it has at times been tough. People constantly will either criticise or praise him and sometimes he would take it to heart. The most important lesson he has learnt in life he says is becoming unafraid of “being judged by others”. Leehom loves “making people happy” and connecting with them “even if it is just for a short amount of time” so for him it’s really important if someone wants an autograph or a photograph, but he has learnt to finally say no when he has reached a limit. “God can judge me, I shouldn’t be afraid of man or even myself, not for them to judge,” he concludes.

Like many artists, Leehom is highly spiritual. “Art is a divine process, to create beauty out of nothing, to get the gift of inspiration from thin air is miraculous, it’s like witnessing a baby being born”, Leehom exclaims. God is an inherent part of his creativity. What does happiness mean to him? “It means being in tune with life’s purpose” which is “to do the best” that he can be in both music and movies.

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In terms of film projects, what’s lined up for this multi-talented maestro? Leehom’s next film is a romantic comedy, to be released in July, called My Lucky Star, shot in Singapore in collaboration with Zhang Ziyi. So fans will be reunited with Leehom on the silver screens later this year. 

To finish the interview on a light note, I asked Leehom to describe himself to an alien using five words; he slowly uttered “I am a human being!” From this close encounter with an incredibly talented human being, I was able to get an insight into his core beliefs and values in life. Leehom is beautifully down to earth, humble, continuously striving for excellence and learning.