Unveiling the Truly Inspirational Life of Jennifer Zhang [INTERVIEW]
With both natural talent and songwriting education, Jennifer Zhang walks us through her inspiration, from her mom’s cassette-filled closet to her quarantine performances. Much like her melodies, Zhang is always finding new and creative opportunities as well as implementing a variety of instruments, emotions and techniques into her music. Read more about her story through Zhang’s words below!
Haley: What made you want to become a singer/musician?
Jennifer: I never wanted to become a musician. It fell upon me long before I was old enough to make that conscious choice. My parents always loved singing, listening to music, and going to concerts, etc. When I was in my mom’s belly she had a closet full of cassettes and she would always play music to me and sing to me even before I was born. It was when I was at about three and a half years old that I saw one of my family friends playing the piano at a family event.
I was mesmerized by the performance and I told my parents that is what I wanted to do. So that’s how I got started playing the piano at the tender age of four. I progressed very quickly under the guidance of my piano professors, such as Professor Xiaosheng Zhao and Professor Baili Fang at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Soon after I was performing at some of the largest events in Asia. I was quite a natural, as sometimes the auditoriums were filled with thousands of people. I have always enjoyed the stage and the passionate energy my audience brings upon me.
Haley: What would you say most inspires your music? What inspired your most recent song “On the Throne?”
Jennifer: One of the people that inspires my music the most is definitely my mom. From a tender age, she has always encouraged me to be brave and to express myself. Being a professor herself, she would bring me to her classroom when I was just a little girl. Her students would set up the desks, put me up there, and watch me perform for them in between classes. I inherited lots of artistic genes from her. Besides my mom, I would say my biggest inspiration for my music is the four-letter word – love.
I love playing various Chinese instruments, especially my dizi and xiao because I love my beautiful traditional Chinese culture. I also love nature, as you can see in a lot of my music I mimic the sound our mother nature makes, such as the blow of wind, the waves of the ocean, and the flow of water. I also have lots of love for animals, people, culture, film, fashion, and the complexity of human emotions. All these can be seen in my music. For instance, the inspiration for my recent song “On The Throne” came to me when I was watching the tv show “Game of Thrones”.
Haley: In addition to singing, I see that you play 10 various Chinese instruments. When did you learn to play them and how would you describe their incorporation into your music? How else do you incorporate traditional Chinese music into your music?
Jennifer: I started learning the Chinese bamboo flute (dizi) at the age of thirteen with one of the most respected dizi masters in China, Professor Chunlin Lu. I then branched onto a variety of woodwind Chinese instruments studying from other well-known musicians in China such as Professor Yue Chen. Passionate about Chinese art, I went on to further my studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where I learned many other string instruments such as Guzheng, Pipa, Konghou, and Guqin. I have also had the honor of playing with some other amazing Asian musicians in various ensembles worldwide, and by practicing with and studying from them, I have advanced my knowledge and performance skills of other Chinese instruments.
As I write my own songs, I test how each instrument would sound after I have made the background track. I write melodies that would be the best fitting for each instrument and weave them together into a coherent piece. I like incorporating Chinese instrumental music into my original songs because this way, more people would be introduced to Chinese music and Chinese art.
I also do cover songs that are popular in the US and other parts of the world and play them on my traditional Chinese instruments. People around the world always find it exciting and interesting to hear their familiar melodies played on exotic instruments.
Haley: Walk me through your music-video-making process.
Jennifer: Sometimes there isn’t really a process – I just record my music video on my cell phone while playing the flute, singing or performing on stage. Some of the footage is just straight out of the camera so there wasn’t really much of a process at all. For some of my more “formal” cover music videos, after I have made the soundtrack, I would then shoot the footage from various settings/locations and then put the clips together into a final music video.
Some of my original music videos, for instance, “Flying High“, were shot professionally with a group of dancers and by a team of videographers. Music videos aren’t really rocket science. If I can do the videos, you can do them too!
Haley: How would you describe your musical growth throughout your studies at Berklee School of Music and Central Conservatory of Music?
Jennifer: I studied songwriting at Berklee School of Music in Boston and Chinese folk music at Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. I have improved my songwriting skills at Berklee. I learned to write catchier songs and more songs in a shorter period of time. I have expanded my creative range by integrating new influences, genres, and styles. I have learned practices and principles to fine-tune my production and create more polished, radio-ready, and professional tracks.
I have also made lots of life-long friends and got in touch with many alumni that are well established in the music universe. I have also maintained my mentorship with faculties that are so wonderfully talented and some have been touring musicians for decades. I have also learned so much about Chinese folk music at the Central Conservatory of Music.
Not only have I improved my skills playing woodwind instruments, one-on-one with some of the best professors in China, I was introduced to a wide array of Chinese instruments, both ancient and modern, under the guidance of China’s top experts in respective fields. We also got involved in researching and developing some of the newest Chinese-style instruments that are one of a kind in the world. Being able to study at some of the world’s very best musical institutions has really broadened my horizon and honed my skills as a musician.
Haley: How have the techniques you learned in school changed the way you write music?
Jennifer: I have always been gifted in writing music in a natural way. Through my education, I have learned to write music in a systematic and methodic approach as inspiration doesn’t always come to you at every moment. With the techniques I have learned, for instance, creating melody over a riff, using chord progressions to create rhythmic changes, and using different chord voicing for the progression, etc., I can write faster, better, with a lot more character and variety to my songs.
For instance, by embellishing pop chords with dissonant notes like 7ths, 9ths, and more, I am able to create a richer and fuller harmonic foundation. Although the techniques don’t always guarantee that you are a successful songwriter, but having these skills in your toolbox always helps out tremendously when it comes to composing and the well of inspiration would always flow. Also, collaboration is always a good way of writing music and through education, you get to know many people that inspire you the same way you do for them. It is more fun to write music with your best friends and be a team when making songs together.
Haley: How has being a musical artist changed the way you approach other areas of your life, such as being a social media influencer and entrepreneur?
Jennifer: In life, we always take on many different hats. Sometimes, it could be to be a good lover, parent, kid, friend, neighbor, teammate, teacher, student, boss, client… – the list is endless. Music almost always makes everything better, regardless of what you do. Music brings lots of color, texture, vibrance, and rhythm into your life. Since music is already in my blood and sweat, I guess I wouldn’t know how to live otherwise. As far as being a social media influencer goes, I suppose it helped me stand out more from the crowd, and carried me through times that I don’t feel like posting anymore.
Without a doubt, music is a special and powerful way of communicating with people. Our thoughts and feelings expressed through music connect our souls. Maybe I wouldn’t start my social media sites after all if I wasn’t already in love with music. I currently have about 54.5k followers on Instagram. I have also represented and worked with a multitude of brands, such as United Airlines, Visit Florida, Ferrari, Brita, and Uniqlo.
Most of these collaborations are on many levels – not only have I performed musically for them at their major events, but I have also modeled and promoted these brands on my social media channels with great results. I think the brands like me because of who I am as a person. The same applies to entrepreneurship and your own brand. As artists we are multi-dimensional – just like a building, the bricks we lay are in all directions. It is hard to separate the music from the musician I am.
Haley: What has been your most memorable performance/experience since starting your music career?
Jennifer: I have had the honor of performing at lots of prestigious venues throughout my career. One of the highlights was to be invited to perform for the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City in 2017. I performed Chinese bamboo flute (dizi) for over 250 heads of state and CEOs of multinational corporations.
Some of the guests in my audience included Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Indra Nooyi, Jean Liu, and Mike Bloomberg himself. I also had the opportunity to meet with these distinguished guests after my performance. We exchanged memorable conversations and took photos together. They said they love the way I played and loved my music. I stayed in touch with many guests until today. I will always keep in my heart their kindness and inspiration.
Haley: How has the pandemic impacted your career and music?
Jennifer: The pandemic has given me some of the best times in my life. Although the live performance scene, which I LOVE so much, is in hibernation, the quarantine time really gave me some nice breaks which I didn’t have before to reflect on my career and my artistic goals. It has also opened the doors to an array of new opportunities. I have been live streaming online, doing corporate gigs over Zoom, and performing for my subscription-based communities.
I love my fans!!! I have also been advancing my techniques in singing, practicing Chinese instruments, and writing more songs. I have also taken on a few more students in music, and have been giving classes remotely. I am also proud to win the Best Asian Entertainer Award at the 39th Chicago Music Awards this year. One thing I do miss is the ability to travel internationally. I miss seeing more of my family and friends in person.
Luckily, I have many of you who always stay next to me, spiritually no matter how far apart we are, physically. I want to especially thank my fans and friends for their wonderful love and support. I feel so blessed to have journeyed through this interesting time with you all. Together we grow wiser, stronger, and more beautiful in time. Always and forever.
Haley: If you could give one message to your audience, what would it be?
Jennifer: I love you to the stars and back.
Haley: Thank you very much for your time and we wish you the best in your incredible career!
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Jennifer Zhang Biography:
Jennifer Zhang is a well-known musician, model, actress, show host, social media influencer, and entrepreneur. In addition to being a singer, pianist, and composer, Jennifer plays more than ten different Chinese instruments, most notably, dizi and xiao. From her crowning of the Miss Friendship Ambassador of Chicago 2015, she went on to win an impressive total of five coveted international titles such as the Miss China International 2017 and the Brilliant Miss World 2020.
In addition, Jennifer has received numerous awards in music and performing arts, for instance, Best Asian Entertainer by 2021 Chicago Music Awards, first prize by 2018 Chinese Songwriter Contest in the US, and Best Music Video Award by 2019 US-China Film Festival. Jennifer has illuminated the stages at more than 500 notable venues around the world.
She has showcased her musical talents in front of many leaders of our generation, for example, former President of the US Barack Obama, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Anna Wintour, and Cindy Crawford. Jennifer also represented and collaborated with companies including Google, Apple, United Airlines, Ferrari, Meijer, Ecolab, Brita, and Uniqlo. She was chosen as the tourism ambassador for the State of Florida and starred in the Visit Florida video series in 2018.
With a loyal following on multiple social media platforms, her original songs including: “Flying High”, “On the Throne” and “Foam of the Ocean”, received millions of views and critical acclaim by the international press.
Her involvement in numerous social and charitable causes has also won her a number of awards, such as the 2020 Global Clean Environment Award by Action for Clean Environment, 2019 Excellent Community Service Award by Association of Chinese-American Scientists and Engineers, 2017 Exemplary Community Service Award by Asian American Coalition of Chicago, and 2015 Chicago Emerging Leader Honoree by Mandarin Leader Magazine.
Jennifer graduated from Northwestern University with advanced studies at Berklee College of Music and China’s Central Conservatory of Music.
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