May Ip was one of the few English singer-songwriters from the 1990s, performing regularly in Hong Kong and releasing two albums, My Mama¡¦s Words and Very Personal. May talks about her music, live performance, being an independent artist and her life in Canada.
Who is May Ip?
This is not an easy question to answer. A person is an ever-changing entity; who I am today is not who I was yesterday. Besides, I don't think I have completely discovered myself. So, I can only tell you what I know about myself, or what I think I know about myself so far.
At age 16, I came to the realization that every person has a mission in life, and mine is to bring love and happiness to the world. I have been working to accomplish this mission since then. I have taken many different paths so far, but they all have one thing in common ¡V music has always been part of my life.
Can you tell us something about your early experiences of music? When and how did you start to listen to English songs? Any particular favorites?
I grew up with music. My parents were music lovers. I still remember very clearly how my mother would hold my hands and dance while singing along to some 45 rpm vinyls, English and Mandarin. My father was heavily involved in scouting. So, I learned a lot of campfire songs from him. When I was 12, I bought a nylon string Yamaha with my pocket money and started teaching myself how to play guitar.
I have been listening to English songs for as long as I can remember. Anything my parents put on the turn-table, I would listen to and learn how to sing. I don't have any particular favorite. I like good melodies, good lyrics and good arrangement. However, I prefer real instruments to electronic music.
How did you start to sing and perform in Hong Kong?
In kindergarten, we always had to do a short performance for parents at year end. That's how I started and I have been performing since then.
Can you tell us something about the band Cocos?
Cocos was me and two guys, Martin Yu and Michael Tsang. We were an electronic trio signed to EMI. During the time of our contract, we released an EP and an album, I think. It was so long ago.
Can you tell us how you started to sing as a solo artist? How did you come to record your two CDs?
It just happened naturally. At that point in time, I chose performing music to be the means to bring love and happiness to the world. Being alone, not attached to any record label or manager, I had full control over what to write and sing about, where and how to perform (EMI never allowed me to sing live). At that time, I just wrote songs and sang them at gigs. I had no intention of selling my music. Then people who came to see me play started asking if I had a CD. It just so happened that some friends had made recordings of some of my live performances, in Hongkong and England. That's how My Mama's Words came into existence. When I knew that I would be leaving Hongkong I decided to leave something behind for people who appreciated my music. That led to the Very Personal project.
On your CD, you wrote that it was not easy being an independent artist. What did it mean to be an independent artist in Hong Kong at that time? Who else would you think of as being independent artists at that time?
I might have used the word ¡§artist¡¨ at that time. Looking back now, I have never really considered myself as one the way the media, or even people in general considered an artist to be. I liked being called a singer/song writer because that was what I was. I did encounter some difficulties at the start in trying to find gigs. Never before had venues in Lan Kwai Fong had a Chinese woman play a guitar and sing English songs written by herself. I got turned down many times before landing on a regular gig at Brown Sugar. So, that was one hurdle.
Back in those days, ¡§independent artists¡¨ were usually bands who played rock, punk, experimental music, etc. My music was, well, melodic compare to the ¡§independent stuff¡¨ So, fans of independent/underground music did not accept me to be in their ¡§circle¡¨ Yet, my music does not resemble pop music in arrangement, theme, melody etc. People who listened to popular music found my stuff too weird. What I discovered when I was starting out was that if people could not put you under a category, they hesitated to come out to listen to you. ¡§What is May Ip like?¡¨ ¡§She's good, but it is hard to explain.¡¨ Hardly convincing, right? I think my experience was actually quite unique because there was no other ¡§May Ip¡¨ kind of music. Starting out was hard. However, once I started performing at Brown Sugar, ¡§May Ip¡¨ music started to spread in Lan Kwai Fong, thanks to those who were open to something different.
When we look at listings for live music in Hong Kong in the early 90s, you seem to be one of the very few English language performers. Do you feel that this restricted or expanded your audience?
What listings did you look at? In South China Morning Post listings, you will find that almost all were English performers. If you meant that I was the only Chinese performing in English, then it is correct.
Quality is what counts, not quantity. I was never worried about how many people would show up at my gig. In fact, when I did my concert at Fringe Club, I was surprised that the tickets were sold out a couple of days before the event. So was the person in-charge of events at the Fringe. They wanted me to do another show there the following week, but I chose to do it at Music Union in Tsim Sha Tsui instead. I felt that the time was right to reach out to a Chinese audience. I was correct.
Can you tell us a little about your music career in Canada? How has it been different to your career in Hong Kong?
When I left Hongkong, I was at the start of my music career, and I have no music career in Canada. So, that's the difference.
It is true that when I came to Canada, I had a vision of myself driving a Westfalia traveling from town to town with my guitar, suitcase and my Doberman, performing music wherever I go. However, quite unexpectedly, I met my husband and we settled down in a beach community far away from Toronto. Before we had kids, Gary and I did gigs, concerts and performed at festivals. Now, we focus more on nurturing our children and the community with music, and occasionally perform at benefit concerts. We have three boys. The older ones, 10 and 9 this year, are learning drum and clarinet. Before long, we may have ourselves a five-piece family band.
It seems that you chose to perform and compose in English at the time when Cantonese pop was been dominant in Hong Kong. Can you sum up your reasons for doing so?
I very seldom do things because of others. Choosing to write and perform in English was because it came more naturally, that's all. I did not have very good grades in Chinese Language at school.
Do you have any message for young people setting out to make music in Hong Kong today?
Depends on what their purpose of making music. If they hope to get into the music business, I am afraid I am the wrong person to ask. I have never considered my music as a commodity. For those who truly love making noise and share the joy, I'd say, KEEP PLAYING :)