The more successful a musician becomes, the more demands on their time there are to prevent them from being creative. Tours, interviews, general promo work, all hold back the vital task of making new songs. Be thankful then, for the British Council, whch is currently sending some of our best songwriters on extended trips to China charged with a simple task: go and make art.
Just after Christmas Jamie Woon, the BRIT School graduate who made waves this year with a dubstep-inspired soul sound, will head toXi’anin northernChinafor six weeks, returning on February 20. The 28-year-old from New Malden was selected from around 40 applicants by the British Council and fellow organisers thePRSfor Music Foundation alongside electronic experimentalist Imogen Heap, who is currently in Hangzhou in the east, folk musician Gareth Bonello, recently returned from Chengdu, and pianist Matthew Bourne, heading to Xiamen next year. The work they produce will form part of UK Now, an ambitious celebration of British arts running inChinafrom April to November next year, but generally speaking their brief is vague and all the more inspiring for that.
“New work is expected to come out of it but it’s not restrictive in terms of what they bring home,” says Cathy Graham, British Council Director of Music. “We can’t tie artists to a particular expectation, though we really hope there will be manifestations in both theUKandChina.”
“I don’t expect to have a giant epiphany and start writing Chinese music,” Woon tells me. “That kind of immersion would take a lot longer. But I’m looking to write as much as possible and there’s no doubt that it will have an influence on me.”
Matthew Bourne has stronger opinions on what the project should be about when he goes out in March: “I’m not really interested in creating an East-meets-West thing, a weird cultural silo. I hate it. I don’t want it to be this tokenistic thing. I’d really like to engage with their music more than anything.”
Heap is currently engaged in creating a new song inspired by a day in the life ofHangzhou, a city of 8.7 million, recording the regular activities of local residents. “I want to find the heartbeat ofHangzhou. To find a rhythm. A pattern. A physical thread between everyday goings on in the city and its inhabitants,” she says. Once he’s seenXi’an’s Terracotta Army, Woon’s main plan is to host his own show on the city’s local radio station. It’s a place known for its underground youth culture but he still feels he can offer them something new.
“I really jumped on the idea of radio time,” he says. “That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. The idea is quite liberating, to be able to play the music that I grew up on, inChina, and to find some conections too. It gives me an incentive to immerse myself in local music as much as possible so I can play that too.”
Back in 2007 Woon looked set for success as a folk-inspired singer-songwriter, until a Burial remix of his version of the standard Wayfaring Stranger caused him to reinvent himself with a more daring electronic sound last year. He and the similar-sounding James Blake, a Mercury nominee and fellow name on theBBC’s powerful Sound of 2011 poll, took dance music home for late night listening. “I thought it was a low-key, lo-fi record, so it took me by surprise when it took off,” he says of his debut album Mirrorwriting (Polydor), which reached the top 20 in April.
Having recorded most of it in his bedroom on a laptop, writing parts of his next album on the other side of the world is a huge leap. WhyChina? “InChinayou get such a feeling in foreignness, which is hard to get in a lot of places in the world where so many travellers have been there before you and everyone speaks English. I want to drop out of my culture for a bit.”
From the British Council’s perspective, it’s an important place in which to have a presence. “Chinais obviously a very important country with a very big economy, and an enormous audience with a lot of potential,” says Graham. “The impetus behind this is to send some of our best young musicians out there to work, take inspiration, and meet the music industry. That creates trust and understanding and we know from experience that those seeds that are sown can spread and develop over the years.”
Since 1934 the British Council has existed as a cultural relations organisation aiming to build trust and understanding between theUKand the rest of the world. While not strictly an arts organisation (the majority of its funding comes from providing exams and tuition abroad) the main way it improves our standing overseas is through showing off our creative industries. It currently syndicates a weekly two-hour radio show, The Selector[CORRECT], to about 40 countries, a surprisingly edgy programme that does a good job of breaking new music overseas. Woon’s single Lady Luck ended up an unlikely success inKazakhstanafter it was playlisted on The Selector.
Woon is better placed for an enriching experience inChinathan manyUKacts: his father is Malaysian-Chinese and he spent five weeks travelling around the country three years ago. Even so, he plays down the connection: “My dad spoke Chinese to me until I was about four but then he gave up. Now I can ask for directions and order in a restaurant, but I’m completely in the dark about Chinese music.”
Not for long – there’s a small chance that Woon could find his temporary home so inspiring that he goes native. Never mind dubstep, the sound of 2012 could be guzheng music.