From West Hunan to Beijing, and from Beijing to New York, Tia Ray has been singing soul music for more than a decade. For 10 years, Ray has been on the path to international fame, while working to bring Chinese music to the world. In her latest album, The Moon Cannot Sleep, Ray showcases Chinese soul music.
Ray hopes to introduce more music from around the world to China over the next decade. In an interview with Billboard China, she talked about her decade in the industry, how she became the first soul musician in mainland China and her future plans for music.
Born and raised in Huaihua, West Hunan, about an hour’s drive from the ancient city of Fenghuang (phoenix), Ray inherited the musical gene from her great-grandmother, who was Hmong. She likes singing, and was a bold child who loudly sang the Cantonese theme song of Great Hero Huo Yuanjia on the streets. She is also a romantic girl who likes Hmong folk songs. The Hmong people express their love through songs. The unrestrained, cheerful and sweet music was her first impression of music.
At age 16, Ray came to Beijing to study and saw her classmate’s DVD of Michael Jackson’s world tour. That was her first contact with Western music, and she was shocked by how cool pop music could be. That night, she sat on the field and watched the DVD countless times. As she looked at the stars, a seed was planted in her heart. She wanted to learn about other music styles and explore the world to see the places that had nurtured such music.
That exploration eventually led her to soul music. It was love at first “beat,” and her soul resonated with it. She fell in love with the music instinctively and it became her most important music style. At the end of 2022, the story came full-circle. Ray gave a performance at the New York MetaMoon Music Festival. She had not only come to Michael Jackson’s country, but had, as the soul diva, also let the world hear her voice.
Hmong folk songs and soul music, homeland and the world — they may seem like polar opposites. However, in Ray’s view, they are rooted in life, passionate and unrestrained, free like the wind, and have a lot in common.
Music has no national boundaries, but musicians have a nationality. It was from her fourth album, Once Upon a Moon, that she began to combine her own experiences, feelings and thoughts with Chinese features and Western singing style. She finally created a unique Chinese soul style and brought its impact to the world stage.
Deciding on a Style and Freeing the Mind
When I first met Tia at a tea house near the China World Trade Center in Beijing, she was dressed like a cool girl. She wore a glossy black short-down jacket and her hair was tied up in a high ponytail. Her black eyeliner and earrings were especially eye-catching. The blue cartoon sweater under her jacket, her bright smile and her passionate answers revealed her relaxed and confident nature.
She still remembers her first encounter with soul music. In a live house in Chaoyang Park, Cui Jian, the first rock star in mainland China, was drinking downstairs. Tia ordered a glass of orange juice at the door when she suddenly heard a loud voice coming from upstairs. A black woman with a wireless microphone walked up to the stage while singing, and the musicians improvised the performance.
After the performance, Ray and a guitarist ran to the Hi-Fi shop in Dongsi Alley in Beijing to find relevant CDs. There, they saw the albums of popular Western female singers such as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. They also found many imported CDs in the warehouse. Ray scrimped on food and bought a CD player. Every weekend, she would go to Dongsi to buy CDs, and this lasted for several years. She broke three CD players and listened to a lot of music by musicians like Stevie Wonder and India.Arie who were not well-known in China at that time. She still has a collection of more than 200 CDs.
“I was very lucky to have come into contact with these things and experience what feels like true love,” she says. The Western music led her to embark on the path of soul music.
“I am a sentimental person. I am a girl from West Hunan who grew up eating chili peppers,” Ray says. “I yearn for freedom, and I pursue passion and things that allow me to imagine. The flexibility, openness, tension and diversity of soul music make me feel free.”
Ray formed a band with her friends immediately, just like how she could not wait to get to a hairdresser and cut her hair when she wanted a haircut. At the end of 2007, she set up the first original composition band, Soul Side. The band brought together many professionals. The drummer was Cui Jian’s drummer; famous musician Chang Shilei was the second keyboard player; Zhao Zhao, the music director of Sister Who Make Waves, was the main keyboard player; and Han Yang, the bass player of Radio Mars, was the bass player. They have been teachers and friends on the road of music and became Ray’s soulmates as she explored music. During those years, Ray learned from her bandmates, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.
Later, Ray joined a second original composition band ThaKnutZ, and she grew to have a deeper understanding of music without borders. The drummer of ThaKnutZ had studied abroad in London, the bassist was from the Dominican Republic, and the keyboard player was from Atlanta. In 2010, the band released a CD. The experience trained Ray in many skills. She bought her first computer and designed the CD’s cover in Photoshop.
She still remembers a show at Jiangjinjiu. She had designed the poster and the tickets were RMB 50 (about $7 U.S.) each. In the end, they only sold 12 tickets. She remembers clearly that she was wearing a black-and-white striped long-sleeve shirt, navy high-waisted jeans and a pair of sneakers. She sang with her hair loose behind her shoulders. The whole band felt that they owned the world.
In 2012, a bigger opportunity came her way. Ray became a sensation on The Voice of China and came under the spotlight. She gained a wider audience and a larger market. Two years later, she released her first solo album T.I.A and positioned herself as a neo-soul singer. From then on, she became known as a soul music singer-songwriter.
Soul music is rare in the Chinese pop music market. It is indeed difficult to become popular singing in the Western style. Zhang Yadong, a famous producer, once said that Ray was too aggressive. Many people expect her to continue singing fresh and quiet folk songs like “A-Chu.”
Ray wavered once. In 2017, on her first appearance on Singer, she sang “A-Chu” and was eliminated immediately. Fortunately, she had a chance to return onstage. She no longer tried to please the audience, but chose what she was best at — soul music. The song “Golden” won the highest score given by the audience in the history of the show.
“Don’t think about which is more popular, and don’t think about whether the audience will like it,” she says. “Instead, do what you love. We only have one lifetime. I want to be myself.”
Create Chinese Soul Music
Her second album TIARA was recorded in the U.S. Ray traveled to the U.S. twice to invite producers of the Grammy Awards to produce her third album 1212. They liked her music as soon as they heard it. Feeling accepted by the local culture, she grew even more confident.
At the same time, there were some male R&B and soul musicians in China, such as David Tao, Wang Leehom, Taiwanese singer Jay Chou and Fang Datong. But Ray was the only female soul musician at that time. This gave her a sense of mission, and she started to think about how to create soul music that truly belonged to her.
“I hope to bring Chinese soul music to the world, and show other countries that Chinese musicians can create soul music with Chinese characteristics,” Ray says.
This sense of mission has grown stronger since 2018. At the invitation of the Berklee College of Music, Ray performed abroad and realized the impact of her overseas influence for the first time. In the auditorium, one third of the audience was Chinese, and they sang along with her. When she stepped off the stage, many people told her that almost all the Chinese students auditioning to get into the school sang Love Can Fly. Ray was moved, and also became aware of the great responsibility she had.
This responsibility also seemed to have affected her music creation. She integrated the Chinese flute, guzheng, and folk music into her compositions. Music critic Er Di commented that the soft music of the guzheng, the style of the tune, and the distinct Chinese quality in the lyrics “Vermilion street, the Bell Tower, the blue dragon and the white tiger…” in the song “On the Clouds” in Tia’s third album 1212 was the soul music of China.
In 2019, Ray brought Chinese soul music to the international stage.
She was the first Chinese singer to be invited to sing at the Warner global headquarters summit meeting in Los Angeles. She sang an English song first, so that the senior executives could understand what she was singing. Then she asked how many of them were from Los Angeles. A few people raised their hands. “You must miss your home and family when you leave home to pursue your dreams,” she said. “Next, I will tell you what my hometown looks like.” Then, she sang “A-Chu.” “This is a folk song, but it is my soul music. Chu means Hunan, which is where I was born.” Then, she sang another Chinese song, Love Can Fly, and was met with thunderous applause. The Warner Global CEO told her that he wanted to visit her hometown because of A-Chu.
Perhaps this is the charm of music. Through simple scales and notes, we can cross geographical, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, connect cultures in minutes, and create emotional resonance. Two years later, with her fourth album, The Moon Cannot Sleep, Ray ushered in a new era. Compared with the direct presentation of Chinese elements in 1212, she integrated Chinese elements and soul music more naturally, seamlessly stitching together ethereal singing and oriental features, and building an international attitude that transcends national boundaries and cultural differences between the East and the West.
The album was inspired by the moon. Ray used traditional oriental features such as the moon and butterflies to start her creation. Instead of relying on international musicians, she produced the album herself, and also did the copywriting, poster design, her own styling, and other fine details, to create soul music that belonged entirely to herself.
The singing style in the album matches the oriental charm of the moon and the butterfly. It is reserved, clear, and gentle. The melody of each song connects to the next, giving the album a sense of wholeness. As for the singing style, Ray spent a lot of time thinking about how to pronounce the words. After the age of 30, “I don’t like singing loudly. It’s like I practiced ‘Iron Fist’ at the beginning, but now I want to practice ‘18 Dragon Subduing Palms’ or ‘Lightness Skill.”
The market reaction exceeded her expectations. The album won her several nominations for the Golden Melody Awards, and received a high Douban (a Chinese culture online community) score of 8 points. People commented that she is “romantic, complicated, noble, languid, full of soul, and deadly attractive.”
The great success of the Chinese soul music album made Ray think, “What do I want to do, what can I do, and what can I bring.”
At this stage, all music fans, regardless of national boundaries, are also her soulmates. “Music belongs to everyone,” she says. “There is no national boundary. It is a common language.”
Greater Opportunities in the Next Decade
At the end of last year, at the New York MetaMoon Music Festival, Ray once again soared to even greater heights on the international stage.
This time she made adequate preparations. She told her agent from the beginning that she wanted to find musicians. Her agent told her that it was too expensive to bring musicians in from China. She thought of the music director of the Justin Bieber band she had worked with. She was a little worried before the call, “He is so busy. Would he answer my call? Would he be willing to join the show?”
It worked out. The music director remembered helping Ray to arrange music and agreed to form a band with her. He helped her to rent a temporary band, which included Bieber’s keyboard player. Even though there were only four of them, the four-man band performed as if it had 10 members.
On the stage, Ray found that there were many Chinese fans, but most of her audience was American. The first song she sang was her Chinese soul piece, “On the Clouds.” She taught the audience how to sing it and they sang the song together.
Tia was filled with emotions then and began to think about a bigger question. “What music do we Chinese musicians want to create, what kind of music should we create, and what should we bring back to China?”
The past decade marks Tia Ray’s self-recognition.
Looking back, “it seems like time has passed in a blink of an eye, but I feel like I have walked for a long time. There were many twists and turns, but the significance is far-reaching. This is the decade that laid the foundation for my understanding. It allowed me to understand who I am, and allowed me to believe more in myself, so it is precious to me.”
In the new decade, the artist hopes to introduce more overseas music to China.
“People have always asked me the question about popular and unconventional music,” she says. “I think the world is actually led by the minority, but embraced by the public. The minority is responsible for development, and the public for dissemination. If everyone follows the popular style, how can music develop? From music styles, singing styles to artistic presentations, I hope they can be personalized, and they must be individualized to stand out.”
Ray is willing to be the pathfinder who explores and opens up lesser known paths. She will also dig into her own growth experience and thoughts, explore more local music, and add it to her own music. At the same time, she hopes that music can include more topics that show a caring for the world, for example, environmental protection.
Aside from music, Ray hopes to do something different. “It is neither a brand, nor a production company,” she says. “It is definitely not a management company. I hope to build a ‘soulciety.’ It is a society with a soul, and I hope to build a larger world of music expression.”
She also plans to build a virtual partner TIVA in the metaverse. TIVA is not a singer, but a stylist. Ray and TIVA can collaboratebeyond the metaverse. “For example, when I sing, she can help me to design my outfit or the stage.”
The music environment is also changing. Short videos and AI have impacted it, but Ray is not worried. “On the contrary, heroes will emerge in troubled times. AI can compose, but I sing better,” she says. In fact, she has always embraced greater diversity in her compositions. Just like falling in love with soul music at the beginning, then having her own Chinese soul music, and now the blending of East and West, her music transcends national boundaries.
In the next 10 years, she also hopes to have more like-minded music partners, her music soulmates.
Her greatest reward over the past decade has been her teachers and friends. They are her fans, friends, and soulmates. Recently, 10 years after the debut of Amazing Timeless Vacation, a concert has been planned. Ray has prepared a surprise. She revealed there would be more than 10 musicians participating in the concert, and she would be singing over 20 rearranged tracks. They have chosen to hold the concert emulating a live house model, allowing them to get up close with their fans. The format of the concert would be based on a solo concert so that every fine detail would be taken care of. She hopes that everyone will have a good time and will leave behind the regrets they have about not meeting during the pandemic.
The ultimate meaning of music, Ray says, is a seed that allows people to feel beauty and energy. Music has allowed her to understand who she is and to feel more self-consistent. It has allowed her to find numerous soulmates, let her be herself and live in eternal romance. It has also allowed her to climb over mountains, travel the seas and cross national boundaries, giving her amazing power.
Her 2022 journey ended when she returned to Beijing from New York after performing, and then returned from Beijing to West Hunan for the New Year. She came back from the largest international stage to where music started for her. It was a journey across three completely different places, but there was no sense of boundary or distance.
–Article by Xi Bu