She smokes, drinks and swears, and is unlike the cutesy mass-market acts that dominate the Mando-pop industry. But it is her straightforward attitude and lack of packaging that appeal to her audience. Deserts Chang (張懸), who has been composing music since her teens, finally launched her debut album My Life Will ... at The Wall (這牆), an alternative music venue in Taipei, last weekend.
Despite having a bit of a rough edge, she inspires fans with her soothing voice, poetic lyrics and charismatic personality. Ironically, although her fan base is comprised largely of college students, especially those with artistic pretensions, Chang is a high school dropout.
"I couldn't stand the conservative restrictions in high school," Chang told the Taipei Times. "If I received a diploma based on that value system, then I would never [be able to] embrace my true colors. And I wouldn't be able to compromise with that value system."
PHOTOS: HU HSUNG-SIANG
Chang comes from an upper-class family; her father Chiao Jen-ho (焦仁和) is a former Straits Exchange Foundation secretary general. While a famous dad might be an asset, Chang has been quoted in the media as saying that she wants to make it on her own, not ride to success on her father's name. Hence the stage name Deserts Chang, which sounds mysterious and suggests something hanging in limbo, an image she says is a good representation of her personality.
"He's like an apparition behind my back," Chang said of her father. "I think it must depress him the way his picture always gets published when there is news about me."
After years playing the pub circuit, Chang signed with Sony BMG. Her debut album has already broken the record for pre-orders for a debut release in Taiwan.
My Life Will ... contains songs that she wrote between the ages of 13 and 19. The record was scheduled for release five years ago, but the company issuing it encountered financial problems and the deal fell through.
That was the hardest time in her life. "At that time, people around me started a rumor that it was my fault. I was seriously hurt. I hated feeling betrayed," said Chang, as she puffed on a cigarette.
She described song-writing as "picking things up from bits and pieces scattered in the air," adding that it helped shelter her during her tumultuous teenage years. In the song I'm Screaming, she revels in teenage angst, singing in English: "I'm screaming, I'm losing all of it. I'm trying to be mature someday but 'till now it's still in vain .... I'm bearing. I'm losing all of it. I'm trying to be understood. But you said I haven't seen it yet."
Baby (寶貝), her most downloaded song, is also a product of this struggle. It was written after she turned 13, when she ran to the banks of a river after a fight with her mother. She had not yet learned how to play an instrument, but she said the melody came to her mind naturally.
"I didn't even think Baby was a song at that time," Chang said, explaining that it was just a tune she sung to herself.
This voice of anger and alienation doesn't appeal just to college students. It also caught the attention of Sony BMG's album producer, Li Shou-chuan (李壽全), a Golden Horse Award winner for his role in producing a movie soundtrack. Li admired her talent and persuaded her to sign a contract with Sony BMG, ending her career as an independent singer.
This transformation left some fans feeling betrayed. On Internet bulletin boards, fans wrote that the intimacy they once felt towards her had vanished. Some said that they had once been like a goddess in a secret religion, but now everyone had access to Chang and her music. Some are afraid that commercial pressures will tarnish the essence of her music.
"My music will not be changed. It shouldn't be labeled just because of the way it is published," Chang said.
When asked how she felt about interacting with mainstream media, her response was blunt. "Painful," she said. "I'm shy. I don't like to talk too much about myself."
Her shyness and lack of self-assurance are also manifested in the 20 or more bracelets she wears, mostly given to her by friends. These trademark ornaments ease her tension and give her a sense of security, and she never removes them. One was a gift from her first boyfriend.
Chang is a regular at Witch House (
"When I left home ... I worked at a restaurant as waitress, then I sang songs at Witch House to make a living," Chang said.
At a time when the "whole world" didn't recognize her, music was her only refuge. "I escaped to the world of music." Since the age of 19, she has written more than 100 songs, she says, adding that her debut album contains only a tiny fraction of the songs she's written.
As singer, guitarist and songwriter, Chang's image is similar to that of Cheer Chen (
Now, on the cusp of bigger and better things in her musical career, she expressed no regrets over dropping out of high school. "If people can master a single thing in their lives, that's enough."
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