For Lay Zhang, music is personal. "Music is my life," he tells me over the phone from China, where he’s in the midst of preparing for a series of concerts in Shenzhen. And anyone who knows the 28-year-old Chinese performer and actor knows he’s not exaggerating. He’s constantly consumed by music — performing it, listening to it, and making it. And he’s not one to slow down, even when real life brings everything to a stop.
A few months ago, Zhang lost his beloved grandmother to illness. He grappled with the heartache the best way he knew how: through music. The creative process became a healing one. "Being able to make a song so close to me helps me when I’m sad to find peace," he says.
His latest single, "外婆" (pronounced waipo, the Chinese word for "grandmother"), is a tribute to her and the encouragement she gave him throughout his life and career. "My grandmother was my biggest fan," he says. Through this song, he adds, "I want my grandmother to know that I’m going to work hard and achieve my dream."
Zhang wrote the song in Los Angeles in the fall. It started as an outlet for his grief, a way to express the feelings he was still having a hard time processing himself. "When I was young, my grandmother was always beside me, but as I grew up, I couldn't stay with her and protect her," he says. "I was too busy. I always felt sorry about that." The lyrics are deeply personal, with references to cherished childhood memories of him and his grandmother, his regrets, and his favorite bedtime story. But these intimate details are what make Zhang such an empathetic storyteller.
"I want to share my story with people," he says. "I want people to know me better... I want to use music to express myself." Most essentially, he adds, "I want people to hear the Chinese sound."
Bringing his culture to the West through Mandopop (or, Mandarin Chinese pop music) is important to Zhang. He views music as a conversation, a way to "connect the world" across languages and time zones. It's not easy, of course. Being a pioneer is equal parts intimidating and invigorating. "It's difficult. I have experienced some prejudice," Zhang says. "But it makes me want to work harder to share my Chinese culture. I want people to see something new."
As for baring his soul through his music, especially on songs like "外婆," Zhang admits that he's "nervous" but mostly "proud and happy" to share this side of himself with not only his fans but also people around the world who can relate to the feeling of losing someone close to them.
When it comes to Zhang's insatiable work ethic — a trait he proudly got from his grandmother — the artist has big plans for 2020, with new music and a few major collaborations currently in the works. But right now, he's trying to stay present and focus on his grandmother's favorite phrase: "let it be." Because everything happens for a reason, and in due time.
"I will confuse work and life sometimes," Zhang laughs when asked about his personal goals for next year. Then, he pauses, and I can visualize his smile through the phone: "Can I keep it real? I want a girlfriend."