DOB: January 6
Occupation: Musician and Producer
Residence: New York
Photo Above by Zhuang Yan
“My parents were paying lots and lots of money for my education. The least I could do was give consideration to their recommendation as to what I should major in. My parents have never ever mentioned how much they put into my childhood or into raising me.”
In an era where millions of songs are available at the push of a button, rising to success in the music industry is no easy feat, particularly when your specialty is not mainstream pop. What others have done with food, fashion and other facets of culture, Dave Liang has accomplished with music- fusing Western and Chinese music into a whole new genre ironically best called Asian Fusion music.
Songwriter, producer, musician and singer all in one, the multi-talented Dave Liang has defied all odds and stereotypes of the Asian male in America. While he did obtain a prestigious Harvard degree, he did not go on to fulfill the “Asian path” of becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. After a brief stint at a consulting firm, Liang could no longer ignore his musical calling and left the safe path to dive head on into the highly competitive and uncertain American music industry. Perhaps what is typically Asian of his path is that Liang gave his utmost in dedication, hard work and passion into his music, which paid off not long after his entry. His first significant debut was a piece on an album released by Bad Boy Records which went on to sell 500,000 copies.
Maintaining great appreciation and respect for his parents, Liang has gone on to become a highly sought after musician and producer whose music is used by international brands including Louis Vuitton, Starbucks and Christian Dior. His fusion of East meets West music is the perfect harmony between two vastly differing cultures, paying homage to that which has contributed to not only Liang’s life but many of us around the world whose backgrounds straddle America and Asia. Liang’s humble and down to earth personality and his admirable accomplishments in music serve as a stunning example of what can happen when we take the best of traditional Chinese culture and modern American dreams.
Interview with Dave Liang
Dina: What’s your family background? Are you 100% Chinese?
Dave: I’m Chinese American. My parents were born in China, raised in Taiwan. They came to the US in the 70s. I speak pretty decent Mandarin Chinese.
Dina: You were born in Kansas then moved to New York and then Boston. What brought your parents to Kansas of all places in America?
Dave: My father came over to the US for a Ph.D. in Mathematics. After his Ph.D. he was looking for a teaching job and got one at Kansas University. That’s how I was born there but we were only there for about 3 years or so before we moved to New York state.
Dina: Tell me about your childhood and family dynamics. Was it a typical Asian household?
Dave: My parents definitely valued education but they weren’t really very strict. They let me do all kinds of extracurricular activities. My mother specifically was very forward thinking. Once they arrived here (in the US), she realized that the traditional way of parenting that worked in Asia might not work here. One thing unusual she did when I was a kid that I still really appreciate was that she sent me to acting class. She felt that in America, being able to express yourself was really critical to success. She had no desire for me to become an actor and neither did I but in acting class you learn to tap into different emotions and you’re forced to empathize with different types of characters. The other thing she did was shop around when we were looking for a piano teacher for me. She didn’t want a teacher that would just teach me how to play and get through the pieces; she wanted someone who would teach me to improvise and develop the ears. There were definitely some aspects that were more traditional. We were only allowed to speak Chinese at home for example. Respect your elders.
Dina: At Harvard, you majored in Applied Mathematics and Economics. What made you segue into a musical career?
Dave: I graduated and then worked for a consulting firm for a few years. It’s not easy to pursue an alternative path coming from those schools. I knew that I would never ask my parents to support me again after college and I knew that I wanted to do something with music. So I moonlighted with different jobs including as a jazz pianist and DJ’ing. Didn’t really enjoy that. Up until that time I had listened to mostly jazz but friends introduced me to contemporary pop and hip hop, which I really liked. My real break into the music industry was when a friend of mine who worked with P Diddy’s Bad Boy Records sent out this email. I called him and asked him if he would listen to some of my stuff. He agreed and his feedback was that I needed to work on some areas but that I was good at jazz and classical music- areas he could use. That’s how we started working together and I broke in. For a while I was doing double duty between my day job and the music. After a while, I had to give up my day job. Over the three years I had saved some money so that I could make the transition. My first cut was on Bad Boy Records on an artist’s album that ended up selling 500,000 copies.
Dina: Do you remember any key moments throughout your life where inspiration struck you hard and you just had to get to your instrument and compose?
Dave: The moments when I get most inspired are oddly when I am on a deadline.
Dina: How did the deals with major companies like Louis Vuitton, Starbucks and Dior come about?
Dave: I had a digital distributor in 2005 and he would pitch my music to companies like Microsoft. The Shanghai Restoration Project was featured on MSN Music for some kind of music of the week. That’s when Louis Vuitton reached out to me. The Starbucks guy who is in charge of music for them approached me a couple of years ago and said they were doing a China theme.
Dina: How do you define success?
Dave: When you’re growing up in a hyper competitive environment, success is all about the grades you get. Then it’s about what school you get into. And then a capitalist society defines success as how much money you have. I don’t think money is unimportant. I like that people like my music and buy it but there is a certain point where I’m happy with what I have. Especially compared to when I was in the corporate world I would have made much more had I stayed on but you don’t have time and you don’t have freedom. So I think that’s how I define success now- it’s freedom. In order to have freedom, you can’t have no money but you don’t need all the money in the world. It’s having the freedom to take a walk in the afternoon if I want to, go do yoga or buy groceries when I want to. There are people who approach me and say I should take on a certain music project in a certain genre because it’ll make a ton of money. To me that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t like the topic so it doesn’t make sense. There’s always going to be something you can spend money on.
Dina: Do you have any advice for kids today who are hoping to have a career in music like you?
Dave: In America there are many more business models than just ‘I’m going to work and get a salary’. I feel that Asian parents should be more open minded about that. Even the so-called risky businesses can pay off. Having an easy to understand brand is a huge thing. You can’t just focus on writing the song because that’s not necessarily strong enough to penetrate the millions and millions of songs that are out there.
Dave Liang is the Emmy winning producer of The Shanghai Restoration Project, a group renowned for its blend of Chinese culture, hip-hop, and electronica. His albums have reached #1 on electronic charts around the world (iTunes/Amazon) and receive millions of radio plays annually. Over the years, his music has been licensed to numerous television shows, tastemaker radio programs, and global advertising campaigns. He has performed at the Sundance Film Festival, MASS MoCA, the American Museum of Natural History, the Hong Kong New Vision Festival, and the Hawaii International Film Festival.
In 2009, Liang and American folk artist Abigail Washburn went to Chengdu, China to produce an album remixing songs sung by teenagers who had been affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. The resulting EP Afterquake raised thousands of dollars for the region and caught the attention of The New York Times as well as the charity USA for Africa, which included one of the songs on the 25th anniversary release of the iconic “We Are The World”.
In 2010, Liang partnered with Chinese creative collective NeochaEDGE on eXpo, a compilation of Chinese electronic artists whose work had never been released outside of China. The project received coverage from BBC, CNN, and FADER and marked the first time many of the artists had been compensated for their art. In 2011, Liang released Little Dragon Tales, an album of remixed classic Chinese children’s songs sung by kids from Yip’s Canada. The Wall Street Journal praised the effort and wrote “you’ll find that the results are addictive for kids and parents alike.”
In 2012, Liang premiered Himalaya Song at the Sundance Film Festival, collaborating with award-winning filmmaker Mridu Chandra and composer Gingger Shankar. It was selected as one of the Ten Best Music Films at Sundance by Rolling Stone.
In addition to running his own label Undercover Culture Music, Liang has worked with artists on Bad Boy, Warner, and Universal. Most recently, he produced a third album for Japanese electro-pop star Miu Sakamoto, which The Japan Times described as “another strong CD from a duo who have been creating some of the best J-pop of the last few years.”
Liang was born in Lawrence, Kansas (USA) and grew up in upstate New York. He attended college at Harvard University where he majored in Applied Math and Economics. He currently resides in New York City and can be found on Twitter (@daveliang), Facebook (shanghairestorationproject), YouTube (UndercoverCulture), and Sina Weibo (@srpdaveliang).