SO IT GOES – John Fleming's blog

Kevin McGeary on Chinese melodies, WH Auden and life after coronavirus

In yesterday’s blog, I chatted with Northern Irish born musical performer Kevin McGeary about how and why he started writing Chinese-language songs. This is Part 2 of that conversation…


JOHN: Are you worried one night there is going to be a knock on your door and a Chinese man will be saying: “We have been reading and listening to your work in Beijing…”?

KEVIN: If it happens, it happens. Isn’t there an old expression: If you’re gonna tell the truth to people, you’d damn well make ‘em laugh, otherwise they will kill you? Fortunately most people find my lyrics funny, so they don’t get that offended.

JOHN: You have a following in China?

KEVIN: I have fans, because the vast majority of pop songs there are just love songs or patriotic songs. My style is so different: just a massive slap in the face to the idea of being populist; so some people really dig it… You know the theory of The Second Dancer?

JOHN: No.

KEVIN: When you just start dancing in the middle of the street, people think you’re a madman. But, if someone joins you, then you’re a bit of a flash mob.

I had been writing songs in Chinese for over three years by the time I got my Second Dancer – Jennie Li who was an opera singer, a Mandarin-teacher and an academic. When the China Daily were researching their article about me, they interviewed her.

Another person who really liked my songs was a literary translator called Bruce Humes, who loved the satire.

I don’t often get a chance to perform my Chinese songs in public now, because I live in Manchester and there aren’t many Chinese people who come to English-language comedy club nights.

JOHN: You sing your English language songs at the clubs?

KEVIN: Yes – and occasional covers of Kunt & The Gang songs.

JOHN: Have you tried doing covers of his songs in Chinese?

KEVIN: I did a Chinese version of Women Love a Bastard. The Chinese title is the Chinese expression ‘Men aren’t bad. Women don’t love’ and it’s just too catchy not to write a song.

JOHN: So, you have released two albums in the last two weeks: one English-language, one Chinese-language. What next?

KEVIN: I’m going to dust off, revisit and rewrite some old songs from the back catalogue to provide the backbone for a new album. In the meantime, with all this coronavirus solitude, I’m going to step aside from comedy music for a bit and record an album of film soundtracks… The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in The West, Rocky, The Great Escape.

JOHN: In one music video, you seem to be wearing a cowboy shirt.

KEVIN: The song was called I Hate Hunan The Least. When a foreigner wants to become famous for writing Chinese songs, they will usually cover a Chinese love song or sing a Red song – something glorifying China or the Communist Pary. So I thought I would turn the idea on its head… I Hate Hunan The Least mentions every province and then the chorus is I Hate Hunan The Least – just to subvert all those suck-ups who try to endear themselves to the Chinese people.

JOHN: I seem to remember the Chinese, when I was there, had a rather worrying love of Country & Western songs.

KEVIN: Yeah, John Denver is huge there… Patsy Cline…

JOHN: Dolly Parton?

KEVIN: Yes, Dolly. She’s big.

JOHN: Yes… but there seems to be something about the Chinese accent that makes it good for Country & Western.

Are you regionally popular in China – popular in one bit but not another?

KEVIN: I don’t know.

JOHN: You are still persona grata? You could still go back to China?

KEVIN: Oh definitely.

JOHN: You should do a tour.

KEVIN: Well, to get a visa to tour is… In the mid-2000s, Björk ruined it for a lot of people because she gave a concert in Shanghai and, at the end of one of her songs, she shouted: “Free Tibet!”… So now they are very strict about who they will allow to perform.

JOHN: I was at a concert in Chongqing in the 1980s which had lots of musical acts and, if they liked the act, the audience clapped. If not, total silence. Did you ever perform to large audiences in China?

KEVIN: Yes, but not my comedy songs. I was invited to play Chinese-language songs in large halls to a family audience as a sort-of token Westerner – the sheer novelty of having a foreigner sing in their language. I would play whatever was in the Chinese charts at the time.

JOHN: And the clapping?

KEVIN: Yes. I think they were genuinely enthusiastic – and they would throw flowers as well.

JOHN: How did you get your head round the different tone structures of Chinese songs?

KEVIN: As a teenager, most of my musical heroes were the 1990s Britpop acts like Pulp and Blur, so it took a while to grasp… the Chinese put a really strong emphasis on melody. The melodic steps are qi-cheng-zhuan-he (起承转合)- wise-step-spin-unite.

So bands like Radiohead or the Manic Street Preachers would never be that popular in China because they don’t follow this strict melodic structure. But something like The Carpenters – they are really good with this melodic structure.

It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody before you write songs in Chinese.

“It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody”

JOHN: So is Country & Western structured in a Chinese way?

KEVIN: It is, because the melodies tend not to be very subversive.

JOHN: What is a subversive melody?

KEVIN: Most things by Radiohead. A lot of Leonard Cohen stuff. Bob Dylan isn’t popular there at all because, well, he can’t really sing, for a start.

JOHN: I suppose Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Radiohead share a drone sound. But why is Country & Western more attuned to their tastes?

KEVIN: I think it’s just the simplicity, the universality. I would not say Country & Western is particularly Chinese-friendly; it just has that universality to it. A purity.

JOHN: Who were the big Western musical heroes when you were there?

KEVIN: Kenny G, the saxophonist, is massive. Boy bands like the Backstreet Boys are really popular, even among 20-something guys. Justin Bieber.

JOHN: You must have this schizophrenic creativity to do a Western album AND a Chinese musical album…

KEVIN: There’s one song where the lyric is basically Tell Me The Truth About Love by WH Auden, slightly changed, and there is an English version and a Chinese version of that.

Some of my Chinese songs are melodies that have been kicking around in my head since I was a teenager – ones I never quite found the right English lyric for.

I have been writing songs in English since I was 14 and I’m very aware of the figures whose footsteps I’m trying to follow in – Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But I think one of my big strengths as a Chinese-language songwriter is that, aside from going to karaoke, I was largely pretty ignorant of whose footsteps I was following in. So I had that freedom to explore and generally be unaware of what rules I might be breaking.

JOHN: Might you go back to China?

KEVIN: I was seventeen when 9/11 happened, and twenty-four when the Global Financial Crisis toppled the economic superiority of the West, but this is the first time – the coronavirus pandemic – I have been so directly affected by an international upheaval.

The virus originated in China, but that country appears to be over the worst of it while Europe and North America could be six months away from starting to revive their industry. During the inevitable recession, I may consider returning to East Asia to ride out the lean years.


THERE IS A TRAILER ON YOUTUBE FOR KEVIN’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE ALBUM …

AND THERE IS A TOTALLY UNEDITED AUDIO VERSION OF MY CHAT WITH KEVIN ON THE PODBEAN WEBSITE HERE.
IT RUNS 42 MINUTES.