From the heart

Updated: 2016-10-10 07:32

By Chen Nan(China Daily USA)

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Folk singer Zhao Lei writes his own songs that are as natural as breathing, he tells Chen Nan, and a growing audience is listening.

Folk singer-songwriter Zhao Lei is taking his raw and honest lyrics on a national tour in support of his upcoming new album, Almost Grown Up.

From late September to next January, he will share his original and emotional music with tens of thousands of fans in nearly 20 cities across China.

It's a remarkable turnaround for the 30-year-old, who has been performing as an independent musician in Beijing's streets and bars since 2003.

From the heart

 From the heart

Zhao Lei is on a national tour through January. The former street musician has won a growing fan base since his performance on the TV talent show Sing My Song in 2013. Photos Provided to China Daily

"My music is not mainstream. I am doing it naturally, like breathing or sleeping," Zhao says.

His songs, which are based on his own life, have captivated many fans and fellow musicians, including Liu Huan, a renowned Chinese pop singer-songwriter.

"His lyrics are so beautiful and imaginative, and offer endless surprises," says Liu, who was one of four judges on Sing My Song. That Chinese talent show aims to showcase the best original singer-songwriters in the country, including Zhao and his guitar-driven ballad Paint that he performed on the show in 2013.

In Paint, Zhao wrote about his dream life: "I paint a full moon in the lonely sky. I paint a warm stove fire for the cold house. I also paint a bed and a girl staying with me".

The song was recorded in Chinese on Zhao's debut album, Zhao Xiaolei, which was released in 2011. With no record company, he made the album with his own money, which took him over a year.

The Beijinger is the only child in his family. His parents run some small businesses, and Zhao says he was naughty and pampered during childhood.

He has been self-sufficient since high school as he started singing on the streets. He made from 20 to 100 yuan ($3-15) a day, and his life was simple and happy.

"I performed on streets with friends in the daytime. After the day ended, we spent the money on simple meals and beers. I don't want to be rich or be a star. I just want to make a living with music," he says.

He was admitted into college but decided to focus full time on his music career.

In 2004, Zhao started performing at bars in Beijing with a daily income of 80 yuan.

"I was the youngest singer in the bar, and I performed around 40 songs a day. I was very happy because my income was stable and I could write and sing my original songs," he says.

Zhao lived in a small house of a courtyard nearby Gulou, a densely populated hutong area in the capital.

In this less-than-10-square-meter house, he wrote most of his songs, including Paint and Girl From the South. Despite the solitude, occasional hunger and even sleepless nights, Zhao was contented.

In 2007, he traveled to the Tibet autonomous region and Yunnan province, which inspired him with musical creativity.

His song The Train to Beijing comes from this experience.

From the heart

Upon returning to Beijing a year later, Zhao gradually built a fan base by performing at live-house venues and outdoor music festivals.

In 2013, he staged his first national tour, visiting around 50 cities.

A year later, he released his second album, Jim Restaurant, which, compared with his debut album, is much more mature and reflects his life at certain moments.

"I used to immerse myself in the excitement of songwriting alone. Now with more people sharing my music, I want to put out new songs and tour," Zhao says.

"I have performed at small live-house venues, and I also perform at bigger venues like what I am doing on the tour. Every gig is different, and often it depends on the audience and how they interact and connect with the songs."

Zhao still lives in that courtyard. Soon, he will move to a bigger house but will keep the courtyard as his studio.

His living conditions have improved thanks to higher income brought by his rising profile.

But Zhao acknowledges that, to an extent, money gets in the way of what artists enjoy the most - making music.

"Compromise is inevitable since I am working with a team now. But I try to stay independent, committed and listen to the voice in my heart," he says.

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(China Daily USA 10/10/2016 page7)