With almost two decades in the world of music under his belt, JJ Lin talks about the nuances of his craft, creativity and where he’s going next.
Superstar JJ Lin on His Artistic Journey
In the world of music and entertainment, scouts and managers across the globe perpetually seek the next big act – someone who not only possesses immense talent and that elusive star quality, but is also capable of weathering the storms of public life and, most importantly, carving out a career with dynamic longevity. In a simpler term: a unicorn. Individuals like this come around very rarely, but when they do, what a difference they make to the scene. One such person is, of course, the Singapore-born mandopop luminary JJ Lin.
Although based mostly in Taipei, Lin returned to his home city last year during the pandemic to wind down and be closer to family. “I’m such a workaholic,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t stop. I can’t rest. So, during the pandemic, largely due to all the restrictions, I told myself, OK, I’m going to try and stay put and relax. Take it from someone who always tries to just keep moving forward: everything happens for a reason. Something I’ve really learned through this experience is that you just have to get in tune with the world and get used to living in the moment.
“I was never inclined to sit down or just chill and take time to pour a cup of coffee. Or even tea. I’m always in a rush. At the core of it, this whole ordeal really taught me patience, and to slow down. I wouldn’t have picked up coffee-making if it weren’t for Covid. I wouldn’t have gone camping, wouldn’t have discovered a whole host of new activities if not for these changing times.”
While Zoom interviews have lamentably become the norm during the pandemic, in an unexpected timeline of events, I happened to be in the Lion City last month, along with our fashion editor-at-large Alvin Goh, which gave us the opportunity of shooting and interviewing Lin in person.
“It was fate,” declares the superstar with a bright smile. And we use the term “superstar” with full sincerity. In fact, if a word existed that transcended it, we’d use that. To attempt to encapsulate the unbridled energy Lin brings on set would almost do him a disservice. After almost 20 years in the industry, he’s successfully cultivated and refined the art of making the cameras – and the people behind them – love him.
And love, as a genre, is not something new to the artist.
“Love songs have always been the stem and the push for a large amount of my inspiration, because I do feel that, in songwriting especially, there’s a lot of love and compassion that needs to exist. It helps to create an emotional connection with myself and my fans, and just generally in my life, too. I’m someone who’s really emotionally sensitive, and so I always try to be really current and direct and transparent with that.
“In the beginning of my career – in the first decade or so – I was more focused on the craft and pruning my works and style to develop myself, so there was a lot of experimentation. In my second decade, it evolved more into looking within – a soul searching, I would say. I asked myself questions all the time, like what does life mean? Or what’s my calling as a songwriter and an artist? What’s the bigger meaning of my existence?
“Admittedly, the tone of my songs has developed to become more philosophical, yes, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to love any more. I’m now just looking at life as a whole; seeing things from different perspectives and experiences in a whole new way. Much like storytelling, I’ve always focused on how to bring a message across
– it could be the simplest thought or idea, or just something that excites me, like a tone or melody or beat. I just execute that storytelling with a song.”
As he’s built such a thriving career in music, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s where Lin would stop. On the contrary, the singer has hurled himself into passion projects, establishing an expansive portfolio of brands and projects that stretches from fashion to coffee to art.
“I have a lot on my plate,” he admits. “But it’s hard for me to stop. If something appeals to me on a lifestyle basis, either in the form of something I’ve always believed in or am passionate about, I’ll then ask myself – can that be part of the ecosystem of my career or brand? Is it something that would make sense for me to pursue or explore? If it is, then I usually go all in.
“With every brand, it all boils down to embodying the brainchild of, I guess, the storytelling aspect of my creativity. I’m always eager to take creativity to the next level, trying to make something that’s not bound by industry or genre. On a wider scale, I’d love to be able to share and contribute to different industries in terms of creative works. It could be the auto industry, or make-up, or even the environment. Right now, I feel like anything that the world throws at me, I’d be able to think about ideas for it and try to develop it if it sparks my interest – especially since everything is so interconnected right now.”
Lin’s dream of connection in the midst of the pandemic brought about what he deems one of the “proudest moments” in his career, successfully conceiving, putting together and executing a virtual live-streamed concert, Sanctuary Finale, watched by fans around the world.
“It’s something I’m really proud of, both from a larger vision perspective in general and as an artist, because we were trying something that was never done before – launching a paid live-streamed virtual experience on this massive scale. Pandemic or not, we’d probably still have tried doing it, but at that time, it was literally the best reason and time to go ahead with that vision. The team and I definitely took that leap of faith to just move forward and put all our effort into it. It was executed and performed in Taiwan and live-streamed globally.
“It was a full-on virtual experience, customised and curated just for an online audience. So, what that means is that we were trying to redefine the stage and redefine what performance could be in front of a live-streaming audience instead of, say, just putting on a show to simply be streamed. With digital and virtual content, there’s so much potential, so much more that we can do to interact with the audience and with the fans. It’s really up to the performer to redefine it.
“Doing it the way we did elevated the show more than we expected. It was no longer a one-way event, because my performance was actively affected by the online engagement. There was no physical audience, but I was able to interact quite personally with fans on a different level. Sure, we can’t bring them up on stage and I can’t see them in person, but when I was online, I was able to have one-on-one sessions with fans just chatting or even playing real-time interactive games.”
Viewership numbers for Sanctuary Finale were estimated to be 200,000 globally, with fans banding together to stream the show at home, in hotel rooms and even movie theatres. Every ticket holder was sent an interactive wristband that lit up at intervals during the show. You’d imagine one person buying a viewing link that would serve for an entire party, but social-media posts showed the opposite scenario, with everyone – even those in groups – wearing a wristband.
“I’m so grateful for their support,” says Lin about such dedication. “They were watching from different places in different environments, but all at the same time. It really gave me – and, I hope, my fans too – a sense of community. A lot of them grew up with me. They’ve seen me through my ups and downs and changing phases in life since my debut when I was 22, so I really want to just help us connect more through technology and, of course, music.
“I know I said before that I was singing less about love, but I do feel it’s coming back,” he says. “It’s coming back to love, simplicity and just bare emotions. I feel that maybe with my next album, or my next few songs, we’re moving into a more minimalistic approach again with my songwriting. Similar to the English EP I just released; that’s actually a series of love-inspired songs. Sure, with a touch of dance and a more urban tone, but ultimately still with threads of love.”
Being largely based overseas for much of his career, Lin has famously spoken about improving his Mandarin, even encouraging students at his former school to develop their language skills.
“With songwriting, I still feel as if I’m best able to express myself in English. It’s more direct and instinctive for me. Having studied English Literature as well, that’s just the language I continue to visualise in. When I write or sing in Mandarin, it’s different – musically, linguistically and culturally. You almost have to spend more time to think and plan the words and phrases carefully. It’s more crafted. I see that in my daily life, too; when you speak in Mandarin, we tend to be a little more careful. There’s an intricacy in that language and culture that’s deeper, and I’m still learning, still exploring. Having tried both, now it comes down to which language suits the musical style I want to explore, which language fits more seamlessly into the piece.”
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Lin’s debut in the musical scene, a milestone he’s both excited and cautious about. “Compared to the beginning of my career, we’re dealing with a whole new generation and, in fact, a whole new world now. Sometimes, it can be a little mind-boggling to think about. I’ve always been very engaged with my fanbase. With our official fan club JJ Federation, for example, I interact with them pretty much on a day-to-day basis and that’s an incredible part of technology. On the flipside, though, with the level of unregulated content online, you’ll also see people who post falsified claims that can be really hurtful. I think that’s one of the most challenging aspects of being in the public eye. When you put yourself in the spotlight, unwittingly or not, you’ll get dragged into this dangerous vortex of toxic online scrutiny.
“I’m usually a very positive person, but I can imagine if it were another person who may not have the support that I do, some outcomes might be very different. A lot of issues, such as mental health, can emerge through this sort of media. I pray there’ll be more effort done to help this new generation. We need to be more sensitive with our words, and to be more responsible for our actions.
“I love doing what I do every day, and I’m so thankful to still have such loyal fans follow me over the years. For my 20th anniversary, I must admit we’re still at an early stage in terms of planning. We only have seven more months this year, but we’re trying to pull together a journey of 20 years of music making – something that I probably can’t finish expressing in one show, but that I hope will be very visually exciting and, dare I say, state of the art. We haven’t done a physical show in some time, so I definitely want to present this milestone in a new way, do something that differentiates my shows and my content to be able to give the fans something new and fresh. I definitely hope to be able to release a new album next year, too.”
For Lin, it was always about the love of his craft and the exploration of creativity. Storytelling through songs works as a medium for him to heal, to share, and to connect. With all the pressures of the world, he admits that being surrounded by good people and learning to stay grounded have been at the core of his longevity in the industry.
“I used to doubt myself a lot and I didn’t always have enough confidence to say, look, this is me and this is it. It’s been a long journey, but you have to remind yourself of where you come from and why you started. Even when the world around you keeps changing, always be true to yourself. That’s been my goal and my focus from day one.”
As he shares his story so earnestly, one thing becomes startlingly clear – in the world where fame can be a fickle friend, Lin has triumphantly coaxed his way into all our hearts through more than just his voice, but rather, a quality that’s just a little more profound: his compassion.
JJ LIN COVER STORY
Words Sandra Kwong
Creative direction, styling and interview Alvin Goh
Photography Reuben Foong
Hair Ken Hong @ Evolve Salon
Make-up Clarence Lee
Producer Michelle Goh
Photography Assistant Quinn Lim
Gaffer William Eng
Florists Flora Kokoro, Fuiyi Chong and Ivan Ong