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Reality-show singer to bring soulful voice to Beijing
Last Updated: 2016-02-19 10:02 |
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Yuan Yawei (center) and her band, The Knutz, perform for the reality TV show China Star.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Standing against a red door, Yuan Yawei pulls her hair over one shoulder and flashes a wide smile. The warm afternoon sun makes her happy. Dressed in a white sweater and tight jeans, she giggles while posing in a narrow hutong (alley) of downtown Beijing.

Her laugh is a quick reminder of the singer-songwriter's bewitching voice and wide vocal range, which support her changing music styles, from pop and rock to her signature soulful tunes.

Despite having been in the music industry for more than 10 years, Yuan doesn't keep a high profile. She actually tries to avoid the limelight and simply enjoys her space.

On April 9, she will perform at a concert in Beijing, her first public appearance after participating in the popular reality TV show China Star, aired by Dragon TV since November.

Featuring influential Chinese singers as contestants and high-profile judges, including singer-songwriter Liu Huan and rock star Cui Jian, the show is produced by the Recording Academy and the China Recording Association, and aims to be an effective channel for Sino-US cultural exchanges.

After three months of competition, Yuan finished in third place.

"During the three months, I sang 13 songs in different styles. I tried some new styles," says Yuan, who is also known as Tia to her fans.

For the Beijing concert, Yuan will perform hits from her debut self-titled album, which was released in 2015 with soulful works, such as Love Can Fly and No Soul, No Good.

Fans can also enjoy the songs she performed on the TV show, including A Chu Gu Niang (The Girl, A Chu), written by songwriter Liang Fan.

Unlike Yuan's usual soul and jazz style, the slow pop number tells the story of a girl named A Chu from a small town.

The idea of singing the song came from Liu, an iconic figure on the Chinese mainland pop scene. Liu also recommended that Yuan participate in the show.

The two first met in 2012, when Yuan participated in the Voice of China, a popular reality show aired by Zhejiang Satellite TV.

Yuan attracted the attention of Liu after she adapted one of Liu's hits, The Crescent Moon, into a totally different style - soul mixed with blues.

"For years, there weren't many soul and jazz singers on the local music scene. Tia came along and blew us away with her fresh and free music," Liu says.

Like the character in The Girl A Chu, Yuan was born and grew up in a small town in Hunan province. Her house was surrounded by mountains and rivers, a setting that gave Yuan an idyllic childhood.

Since her parents divorced when she was little, Yuan's mother supported them by running a small family business.

When Yuan decided to study acting at the Beijing Film Academy, her mother sold their shop to pay for her education.

"I didn't feel deprived. It just made me appreciate how fortunate I am now," Yuan says.

The self-taught singer-songwriter didn't recognize her own talent until her roommates asked her to sing every night in the dormitory after the lights were out.

"I was a shy girl but the idea of liberation in acting enabled me to sing my heart out," Yuan says.

Like many others on the Chinese mainland, she listened to lots of music from Hong Kong and Taiwan as a teenager.

However, at 16, she discovered soul and jazz when she watched a live show at a Beijing bar.

"It was the first time that I watched a live performance, which totally changed my idea about music. The American singer, named Big Mama, performed with a wireless microphone and walked through the audiences downstairs and upstairs. It was so cool," recalls Yuan.

At 18, she brought in money for the family by singing at five-star hotels in Beijing. She uses the name Tia Ray to introduce herself, in honor of soul legend Ray Charles.

In 2015, Yuan performed at the Shanghai Jazz Festival, jamming with Joss Stone, who was also there. They sat in the balcony of the UK singer-songwriter's hotel room and sang each other's songs.

"I am not in a hurry to achieve anything, such as fame and fortune. What really matters to me is learning and making friends in the world of the music," she says.

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