GEM on working with Avril Lavigne, answering her critics and taking over the world
"I'm a very simple person. I just think the world doesn't have to be so complicated"
By Matt Fleming|
Few Hong Kong popstars ever make it big on a global scale. Despite the sheer number of people here, our SAR just doesn’t seem to produce many major international music icons. GEM, which stands for Get Everybody Moving, though, could, maybe, just go and change all that. She’s got the looks, the voice, the creative talents and now the growing global profile, meaning she has a real shot of representing Hong Kong and China in charts across the planet in the coming years.
GEM isn’t everyone’s cup of cha. She’s taken some criticism in our city over the past couple of years, whether it be for her perceived political stance or just for the fact that some people don’t like her music. But millions of fans would dispute that. And, since she shot to regional fame in Hunan Television’s I Am a Singer reality singing show in 2014, she’s amassed an army of supporters on the Mainland. And clearly she’s popular in the USA and Canada, too, as she’s working with the likes of Avril Lavigne and Ashley Tisdale in a new animated fairy-tale, Charming, over on the other side of the world.
Despite being born in Shanghai on August 16, 1991, GEM is all Hongkonger. She went to school here and started her career in the city, debuting in 2008 with self-titled EP, GEM. She is now one of the city’s best-selling artists, thanks to her I Am a Singer success, her diverse range of songs, her popular tours, her team at Hummingbird Music, including mastermind CEO Tan Chang and creative director, Lupo Groinig, and her 2012 IFPI Hong Kong Top Selling Female Artist award. She has fans in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and across Asia, and has amassed a whopping total of 25 million social media followers on Instagram, Twitter, Weibo and Facebook. And she’s gaining more fans all the time. Last year, as she released her Heartbeat album, she was ranked 11th on the Forbes China Celebrity List and, as she wound up her two-year XXX world tour earlier this year, she was named as the only Asian artist in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Music Shortlist. She has played to crowds of 40,000 at venues like The Forum in LA. All this and she’s doesn’t even turn 25 until August 16. So, when we meet her in Chai Wan, she’s in a powerfully upbeat mood as she poses with our homemade globe, despite ‘getting old’ in just a few days’ time.
Hello, GEM! So, on July 10, you celebrated your eighth anniversary as a singer. That’s pretty amazing at your age. Tell us about what you’ve been up to this year...
I’ve been working on a lot of different projects. I have my own documentary that’s coming out, then the movie, Charming. There’s also a tour that’s coming next year. I’m also doing promotions here and there. Tonight I’m flying to Malaysia and Singapore, and we’re doing the autograph session of my last album, Heartbeat. I’m doing lots of things in preparation for coming projects or performances.
You’ve got a really good fan base over there in Malaysia and Singapore?
[Chuckles] Yeah. I would say that they’re quite passionate. You have lots of projects in lots of countries, like Singapore and Malaysia. What other countries are there with really good GEM fanbases? I would say that, over the past two years, I have been to a lot of places, from the US to the UK and to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore and mainland China. And in each place, the fans have actually reacted differently. For me, it’s like, when I see my fans online and when I hear how supportive they are towards my music, I just try my best to reach out to them.
So, we’ve been talking about how our Hong Kong Olympic stars are being put under the international spotlight in Rio soon. It’s a great parallel to you, because you’re also going global. How are you trying to get traction internationally?
I think that there are a lot of different voices out there and the only reason people listen to you is because you’re unique. You always have to stay true to yourself, be yourself and be unique. I think it’s really necessary to be smart about remembering your roots while also being smart about the balance between adapting outside influences and putting your own voice into your music. It’s a growing process that I’m still learning.
But have you sat down with your team and said ‘I wanna go global’?
For me, this is not the thing I focus on. The main reason people listen to me is the substance in my music. I just really put all my focus on growing as an artist, as a songwriter, as a singer and as a performer. I just make sure that I do my part and my team do their parts.
Why does your music, though, appeal to so many different people in countries across the world?
I think it’s because there are so many great things and great people in the place that I come from: Hong Kong. So when you put this kind of uniqueness into your music, people are going to react to it, whatever country they’re from.
Since your debut EP, GEM, came out in 2008, your international fan base has been building and building. Where haven’t you gone yet?
I haven’t been to a lot of places.
But where would you like to perform?
Um, I don’t know. My experience has just told me that wherever I go, the fans react differently.
In what way?
For example, my hit songs vary in different countries. Fans react totally differently. Sometimes, for me, even though I’m singing the same songs, it feels like I’m performing them for the first time in some places because the fans give me such different reactions.
All positive, though?
Yeah. For me, it’s like, when I know there are people who want to listen to my music, then I try my best to reach out.
We reached out in 2012 and watched you perform at Happy Valley Racecourse. You were already growing in popularity and then you exploded in terms of popularity when I Am a Singer came out in China. We watched you in Hong Kong and cheered you on. What did this show do for your career?
First of all, I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to be on that show. Because, before that show, for over six years, I hadn’t had the chance to be on a proper music show in China. So it meant a lot to be able to stand on that stage. Also, I think one of the main things that I gained was, well, it’s a reality TV show which lasts for three or four months, so I got a lot of chances to hang out with different artists. We shared and we talked and we explored. We absorbed a lot from each other. It actually improved different aspects of my music and my performances. I gained a lot in the long-term.
But you also got a lot of fans, particularly in mainland China, as a result. How do you feel that it improved your popularity in China?
All of the sudden I got a lot more Weibo followers. I went from 1.5 million to 15 million followers in just three months. It blew my mind. Why did they love you so quickly? I’ve always thought that you have to be prepared so that you can grab an opportunity. I am really thankful that I have a team, a core team, that works with me on my music. When the opportunity came, we were able to present what we’ve got.
Okay, so there’s been a few stories over the past few years in the media, particularly on the subject of your support for the Hong Kong Government. How do you answer your critics?
First of all, I have never shared my political standpoint in public. You know, there’s a reason people are separated when they vote. There’s a reason voting is done in private, without anyone seeing. For me, I really understand. I am really clear about my role, my major role in our society, and that’s to make music and to influence people through music. I just always have to remember that I’m a musician. I’m not a politician.
Do you think other people remember that, though? There have been a few times…
Actually, it doesn’t matter. Whatever they say, I have to be really focused. As long as I remember my role, I can be focused on doing the right things that I’m supposed to be doing.
There were also a few rumours on your decision to withdraw from I Am a Singer last year, which, we understand, was simply down to whether you would perform new or old songs. Some rumours were circulated about the TV station banning you. Can you put the record straight for good?
Well, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, so it’s hard to explain. But, actually, the show’s director just made everything really clear on his Weibo. Back then, nobody was trying to listen. Everyone was just trying to imagine their own versions of the story in their heads and then some believed it and they spread it and they bashed it. For me, all of a sudden I realised that the truth is just for people who want to listen. Those who seek it. For me, I don’t try to explain any more because I know that isn’t what people want. The fact is, I was on the countdown show last year and a few other shows this year on the same TV station. So I guess I don’t have to prove anything...
Now, let’s pull away from the negativity and look at the positives. Your album, Heartbeat, for instance. It was released last year. Tell us about its success...
It’s the work of my team and me. Everyone put in a lot of effort. It was the first time that I had written an entire album, from the melodies to the directions. It was also the first time that we had created 10 music videos, for every single track on the album. I mean, we loved it. The fans really received our passion in it.
For those MVs, if you look down the comments on the videos on YouTube, there are many comments in English as well as Chinese...
I’ve always believed that music is a language that speaks to everyone’s hearts. Even though there still aren’t as many English audiences for my songs as there are Chinese audiences, I just really hope that one day my music will speak for itself. My team and I are definitely working on that.
So what songs are you planning next?
We are actually doing a lot of remixes of my own songs and also covers. We actually just released one cover song. It was a cover of Taeyang from Big Bang’s Eyes, Nose, Lips.
Are you going to have other remixes out for fans soon?
And can you tell them which songs?
Very soon they will know… in about a month.
Now, then. Charming. You’re doing voiceovers for the film in the USA and Canada. It’s a computer-animated fairytale comedy musical and sounds fascinating. Is it for kids, adults or both?
And what’s your role?
My role is Sleeping Beauty, which is actually a very beautiful coincidence because the very first song that I wrote in my life, back when I was 15 years old, was called Sleeping Beauty.
You’re a fan of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, then?
Yeah! I’ve always believed. I still believe in fairytales.
Because I think I’m a very simple person. I just think that the world doesn’t have to be so complicated. If you love a person you go for it. You love to do whatever you want to do. Just go for it. If you dream about something, just chase it.
What’s it like to be a film with mostly Western musical heroes? There’s Demi Lovato, Avril Lavigne, Ashley Tisdale, Steve Aoki and Fall Out Boy...
I’m really honoured, obviously. At the same time, I feel like the whole process is, for me, quite the challenge. And definitely, I appreciate the chance to learn, to absorb and to grow. I’m not just doing a voiceover in this movie. I’m also doing one song.
Which song is it?
It’s a song with Avril Lavigne and Ashley Tisdale, written by Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy.
So, the whole thing for me, it’s a big surprise already.
So you’ve actually recorded it together with Ashley and Avril? We recorded it separately. But have you met those guys?
We’ve just been speaking from afar. But it’s still amazing because the approaches to the same song from three different girls are so different. I’ve been able to learn a lot just from listening to their voices.
Is the film a good way for you to improve your profile in the USA?
Definitely! For me, I think the most important thing is that it enhances my ability as an artist and as a performer. I think this is what’s so great about it, in the long run.
On August 16, you’ll be 25...
[Chuckles] I’m getting old…
We hear you’re throwing a big party and you’re also launching a photobook. How is GEM celebrating her 25th?
For me, turning 25 sounds quite old. But it’s actually a really exciting thing. It’s like going into a new stage of my life. So the photobook and the new remixes are ways to celebrate. And since I’m going into a new stage, the styles in the photobook and in the music are actually quite different. I’m showing a lot of different sides of me. I think people are going to be surprised.
I’m showing a lot of different things that I’ve never tried. And I think it’s the best moment for this. The clock is actually ticking for me, so I should grab every chance I have to explore different things.
Do you have any plans for more TV work?
I do have plans. But not only for TV. Again, the clock is ticking, so, right now, what’s important to me is to not just focus on one aspect but to try out different things in different areas. There’s a documentary being filmed on my life and I’m planning a new tour. Then there’s the movie and collaborations with other artists. I think everything will just come together and transform into a new stage of my life.
You completed your two-year XXX tour earlier this year. How did it go?
Well, 49 cities and 73 shows, all in two years. That sounds a little overwhelming, right? But, for me, every single performance was like my first time being on stage because I’d never done a tour on such a scale in my life. I’d never even dreamed about something like that when I was younger because it would feel like something from outer space. I’m really grateful for it. But, at the same time, what I learned from the tour was that practice actually doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes transformation. I think who I am now is so different from who I was two years ago.
So the tour changed you?
Well, I started to experiment with a lot of different versions of the same songs.
Do you have some downtime until your next tour?
Apparently, before my next tour, I still have some time to chill out.
What sort of tour would you like to do next?
I actually can’t imagine. Right now we are still at the stage of taking lessons, finding different inspirations and collecting ideas. We still need some time to search and to think.
Fair enough. So, this documentary on your life. What’s it called?
That one, I still sort of have to leave it to the officials...
You’re still going through the naming process, then. When does it come out?
Soon. Supposedly last year but we keep editing and editing and editing...
At almost 25 years old, though, how does it feel to have a documentary coming out on your life?
I felt quite surprised when I first watched it. It’s a very honest and sincere documentary, which shows my life in 360 degrees. There are actually some stories and perspectives on myself that I didn’t know were there until I watched it. I feel loved.
Okay, forgive us for saying this, but you’re a very attractive girl. How do you work on your looks?
I try my best to keep fit. I bring my own food with me all the time. Not just salad, though. I bring olive oil and sea salt. It’s all in my bag now. I even brought a cucumber.
So you adhere to a really strict diet, then?
[Opens her bag] This is my homemade almond milk...
You make your own almond milk! Your diet is strict, right?
Yeah, most of the time. And I work out a lot, so when my stylist wants me to try on different clothes, I’m able to feel confident enough to handle them.
You’re also a powerful person. You have an extremely powerful voice and a powerful persona. We’ve just seen how that translates in the shoot we’ve just done with you. How important is it to have an image of being strong and powerful, both as singer and woman?
I really think that the more attention you get, the more you have to make good use of that attention. I really try to get everybody moving so they can live a life that’s filled with faith and hope. So, whatever I’m facing, I really just try my best to stay hopeful and faithful so I can just naturally influence people.
And get everybody moving! On that note, as our Olympians head to Rio, do you have any words of encouragement to our medal hopefuls?
I would say, as long as they put in their best and prepare well, they can just enjoy the moment. So, the only thing I would say to them is ‘go for it with joy and with confidence’.
Yes, good luck to them! So, finally, what does GEM want to achieve in the future?
I want to be a more loving and a more caring person. You can always explore new ways to love and to care. I think if I’m more loving and more caring, and just nicer all round, then I can spread more love and care in my music, naturally, without forcing it or faking it.