When I first heard Deng Shui Xing Yi Hou (loosely translated into It can wait until after you wake), I almost couldn’t recognise it as a Joanna Dong piece. The dreamy, soulful—some might even say melancholic—song is quite unlike the singer’s usual upbeat jazz arrangements, although a closer listen allows me to identify her signature raspy vocals shining through the synth sounds and pop beats. Still, I can be forgiven for being surprised by this departure from Dong’s usual musical inclinations, for the songstress herself admits that her break from convention is inspired in part by how the pandemic has completely upended life as she knew it.
But it is not just the style of the song that marks a new undertaking for Dong, a music veteran whose numerous accolades include a third-place finish on Chinese reality singing contest Sing! China. This new single, made in collaboration with indie musician and long-time friend Charlie Lim, marks Dong’s debut as a songwriter. The lyrics touch on the moments of indecision between leaving and staying, and when I ask if the ambiguity behind the words reflected her own difficult feelings towards leaving her comfort zone, Dong admits candidly, “The central theme did in fact come from a very personal struggle. [But] often, our struggle isn’t with facing the consequences of our decisions, but having to make the decision itself. In those moments, perhaps we’re not in need of answers, but instead a warm gentle voice to reassure us that there’s no need to rush to any conclusions.”
For Dong, that “warm gentle voice” comes from her collaborator Lim. “Overcoming the self-doubt has long been the singular obstacle for me,” she says candidly. “So to have a dear friend choose to take my hand and painstakingly walk with me through the entire songwriting process was an incredible gesture of friendship.” But it seems to me that Dong is also gradually learning to be warm and gentle with herself as she leans into the unknown and becomes comfortable with the uncomfortable. “As I sat alone in the dark listening to the demo, tears of joy and relief just flowed,” Dong shares with heartfelt emotion. “To have successfully completed something for the first time, especially at my age when I am approaching the proverbial mid-life crisis, is a comforting reminder that I am still able to learn and grow.”
How did this song come to be?
Joanna Dong (JD): I’ve known Charlie for more than a decade, and we’ve talked about collaborating multiple times. At the end of 2019, we finally bit the bullet and got together for a writing “jam” session, with no specific agenda and no expectation for any song to actually emerge out of it. The entire process was remarkably comfortable with a natural ease to it. We definitely took our time with the process and didn’t give ourselves a deadline so that we could always come back to the song when we wanted to and not when we had to. We had standards of our own to meet, of course, but no stress.
Together, we listened to a bunch of music that I loved. Then Charlie took the lead from there by laying some chords and beats, before cajoling me into improvising some melodic phrases over what he came up with. I then took that very rough demo home, and came up with the lyrics that was inspired by a very personal struggle.
What was it like collaborating with Charlie?
JD: The entire collaboration was defined by honest and open conversations, with many moments of sheer delight. For instance, we were joking around about Charlie’s cat who—in typical cat fashion—can never seem to decide if she wants to leave or stay, but that actually led to Charlie incorporating her meows into the arrangement. But then Charlie felt that maybe the cat meows didn’t fit in anymore with the vibe of the song, but I had grown rather fond of those sounds, and after further discussion, we decided to keep them in. I don’t ever take our ease of communication for granted.
How did you feel about attempting songwriting for the first time?
JD: I don’t think I have a gift for melody, and was very reluctant to write at first; I have always shied away from songwriting in favour of letting those who are gifted writers do their thing. But Charlie gently and firmly insisted that I had to find the melody myself, and patiently helped me uncover the music buried deep in the crevices of my heart.
That said, certain attitudes that have always informed my work remain consistent—I’d ask myself, “Who is this for?”, and “Just for myself” is always a valid option. I always struggle when I contemplate any significant departure [from what I’m used to], but I tried to distil that internal conflict into simple lyrics that offer lots of space between what is said and unsaid. The ambiguity is important, because it holds space for the darker emotions, but also leaves room for light and hopeful ones.
Is songwriting something you would like to continue doing in the future?
JD: I absolutely would love to keep working on this. However, because I occasionally struggle with a crippling fear of failure, I’m not going to burden myself with any expectations. It may be a while before my audience hears another melody from me because it isn’t just the songwriting craft I have to work on, but also my own state of mind.
What do you hope your listeners will take away from this song?
JD: Even though the lyrics are filled with the tension of indecision, the dreamy textures are meant to be intimate, soothing, and comforting—and that’s largely what we hope to convey. It doesn’t really matter if one finds catharsis from the song, or if it’s just background music for easy listening—whatever the listeners make of it is valid.
Joanna Dong’s brand new single Deng Shui Xing Yi Hou is available on all major digital music platforms, including YouTube.