by Eric de Fontenay, MusicDish*China
Deserts Xuan is a women of contradictions. I first saw her perform during MIDEM's Taiwan Nights showcase. By far the best act in the lineup, her folksy indie pop style and silky voice drew the attention of a usually fickle MIDEM audience. "I was surprised how very calm and attentive the audience was. It was really touching to feel and see them listening to Chinese songs in such a sincere manner."
But I had mentioned her being a 'woman of contradictions' with perhaps the best example being Taiwan's premiere indie singer/songwriter while being signed to major label Sony Music. Considered a pop singer in Taiwan, she repeatedly exclaims "Lang Lang sucks!" in the middle of Times Square (considers him the Kenny G of classical music). A sweet girlish exterior with the mouth of a sailor (or more properly NYer). Xuan reportedly dropped out of high school because she "couldn't stand the conservative restrictions". Suffice it to say, Deserts Xuan has lots to say and is not afraid to say it.
Considered one of the leading alternative musicians in the Chinese music industry, Deserts Xuan started her career as a member of the rock band Mango Runs, which won the Indie Music Award at the Taipei Ho-Hai-Yan Rock Festival in 2003 and was featured in the documentary Ocean Fever. She credits her true music education to Yu Jin Pong, owner of Witch House, a Taipei club (livehouse) that showcases independent bands playing alternative music. "Witch House was very important to my development. I look upon it and Yu Jin Pong as a mentor, teacher. It was actually where I was discovered by Sony BMG."
The problem in Taiwan, Deserts explains, is that the independent music community lacks the infrastructure we in the West take for granted. "The West has the advantage of having a long history of producers, mangers, labels, publishers... There is a level of maturity, expertise and professionalism that we simply lack in Taiwan and China." This lack of 'brain trust' to tap, combined with a lack of journalist and bloggers who understand the indie scene, have left independent artists without direction or support.
So somewhat controversially for her fans, when given the opportunity, Deserts signed with Sony BMG in 2006 for her debut album "My Life Will...".
"I wanted to learn how to promote and present myself to the public, and I thought that a major could help me understand." What makes Deserts particular is that she has not Xuaned her folk-pop style, or more importantly, songwriting despite the expected major label pressures. Take her second album "Oh, dear. dear. I haven't.", which unlike her debut made of songs written from ages of 13 and 19, has deeper and darker lyrics, reflecting "a passage to adult and womanhood" Deserts notes. It was a Xuane that was little appreciated at Sony.
In fact, the songs from her first 2 albums were all rejected by various labels and producers to whom they had been pitched. You see, Deserts is a songwriter who sings, as opposed to the typical songwriter. "I never really intended to sing. I care much more about my songwriting - that is my passion." That is a point I'm reminded of throughout our 3 hour talk. By the age of 19, Deserts had written over 100 songs and was actively pitching them. By the time she released her debut 6 years later, she was already well known in the livehouse scene and online.
"A lot of recording artists would ask me to write them a song, but they would always get rejected by the producer or music company. They'd tell me that the song was too deep for today's listeners and ask whether I could make it more like a love song." So she took the best of those rejects and released them on two major label releases, only to have them nominated for a combined Golden Melody Awards (Taiwan version of Grammys) as well as winning Best New Mandarin Artist at the 7th Chinese Music Media Awards... literally turning lemons into some oh so sweet lemonade!
She has since released her third album "A City" with a new band she created called Algae, and is presently working on her fourth album for Sony Music. So how has the experience with a major been?
"Being signed to major, my relationship with Sony is a partnership. I give Sony everything I have and take everything from Sony - the successes and support, but also the rules, pressures and frustrations. It was that experience - the good and the bad of working in this industry - that I was looking for and needed. It was a necessary and healthy experience."
What impressed me most about my time with Deserts was the maturity she has acquired over the years, verging on wisdom. For example, take her view on whether to sign with a major or go indie:
"If you know exactly what you want with your music and career, then you are truly independent, whether you are signed to a major or indie label. In either case, for it to succeed, it must be a partnership where both sides know exactly what each wants and the combination is a win-win."
Deserts is also vocal about her beliefs that the Taiwan government should take a more active role in supporting the country's budding indie talent:
"An opportunity like showcasing MIDEM should not just be for signed artists such as myself or 1976. The government needs to do their homework on the indie scene and identify those bands with the most potential, but that also reflects Taiwan's unique culture. We have so much talent and potential in our small country, but the Taiwanese people doubt that potential most. The government can help develop it, in part by bringing such bands to events like MIDEM where they can realize what's out there and what they are capable of."