The Goodman Arts Centre turned into a focal point for everything related to music during the Axean Festival 2023 on October 28 and 29. Alongside a vibrant gathering showcasing Southeast Asian artists, the occasion also welcomed talents from Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. We had the chance to connect with NIO and Cicada, who brought their unique sounds to our sunny shores, making the journey all the way from Taiwan.
Billed as an alternative pop artist, NIO prefers to push the boundaries of different genres. Being half British, his music is influenced by a lot of electronic, house, and afro-beat elements, seamlessly infused with soulful rhythm and melody familiar to Mandopop.
When asked about which song represents Taiwan, NIO points to “如何成為贏家” (Ru He Cheng Wei Ying Jia), which translates to “How to Be a Winner.” The song strikes a chord with the Taiwanese because it’s musically familiar to them, and it explores the theme of perpetual competition among people in Taiwan. Whether in academics, career, or the arts, people are constantly competing with their peers for better grades, higher pay, and other accomplishments.
“It’s a brag for someone to say they worked overtime,” joked NIO. Coming from the UK, this Taiwanese trait stood out to him when he first moved to Taiwan. “People are OK with being constantly compared to others, and taken advantage of. It’s a self-deprecating culture.”
But no matter how negative that seems, NIO sees the Taiwanese people as open and accepting, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community.
His musical start
NIO’s entry into the music industry wasn’t meticulously planned; as he phrases it, “musician, yes; music industry, maybe.” NIO’s musical journey started on the piano, as he humorously reflected: “Like many Asian parents, my parents forced me to play the piano against my will. I was in classical bootcamp till I was 18.”
It wasn’t until the age of 13 that he truly appreciated his musical education – when he stumbled upon Final Fantasy… sheet music. This discovery ignited his passion for (sheet) music, which then transitioned towards pop and eventually evolving into a phase where he spent eight years as a hip-hop dancer. One might say that NIO is a true Renaissance man.
The songwriting process
NIO’s songwriting process involves creating the music and the lyrics separately. “Often, writing music is more like a workout routine,” he admits. “I would sit down, play something on the keyboard or bass, add the beats and hum the melody.”
Despite NIO’s constantly positive mindset, he’s not looking forward to creating songs about being hopeless or giving up. As he eloquently puts it: “Most artists have written something about this, so I’m not looking forward to it. It’s like you have to go through a tough breakup to make a good love song.” Now, that’s something to be said about his take on the philosophy of life.
Formed in 2009, Cicada’s music isn’t what you’d consider “pop” at all. Billed as a chamber music ensemble, the quartet consists of violinist Kai, cellist Tao, pianist Jesy, and acoustic guitarist Ocean. While their music is sometimes described as neo- or post-classical, they sound very familiar to most of us, as if they’re all songs from soundtracks of emotive films (Ghibli films come to mind).
There’s a reason why Cicada’s music is so emotive. “I visit various places in Taiwan to compose music for the band. If it’s related to nature, I have to go in person,” said songwriter Jesy (who’s also the pianist). In fact, for their latest album, Seeking the Sources of Streams, she actually embarked on a month-long solo hiking journey through central Taiwan’s imposing central mountains for inspiration. She hiked through the rain, ridgeline, cirques, and giant trees in order to bring back visual references for the rest of her bandmates.
Usually, Cicada would go as a group to these inspirational trips, but not this time. Not only was this mountain trail – from Nantou to Hualien – particularly challenging, the trip was too long for both Kai and Tao, who weren’t able to take time off from their families.
An inspiration to city dwellers
For a decade now, Cicada’s music has been inspired by Taiwan’s nature, and it isn’t always about mountains. “Light Shining Through the Sea” was inspired by Taiwan’s east coast and the Pacific Ocean. They’ve also composed songs inspired by the island’s valleys, rivers, and coastline, including marine life such as whales, dolphins, and sea turtles.
Cicada’s music is clearly a love letter to Taiwan. “Taiwan is a small island with a tall mountain range in the middle. But most of us live in a small part of a big city. Many people don’t go out to explore nature, so they become afraid. We want to let people love this land through our music,” said Jesy.
Their creations resonate with the melodies of the island and the personal journeys of self-discovery, earning Cicada recognition as a nature-inspired chamber ensemble that reflects the essence of Taiwan’s soul.