Tennyson King is an indie-rock Chinese Canadian musician. A traveler at heart, his nomadic adventures were paused due to COVID, however, it was during this time that he released his singles “Wild Rose” and “Garden of Truth” in collaboration with guitarist Daniel Rougeau and Shawn Mendes’ bassist, Dave Haskett.
In May 2021, Tennyson released his first Chinese language single, “生命的进度”, in support of Asian Heritage Month and to represent a voice for Asian artists in Canada, and later released “自在” in June.
I chatted with Tennyson as he promoted his new album Good Company. True to his nomadic persona, we chatted on a midday – morning in his timezone – phone call while he was in Western Canada’s Kootenay mountain area.
As I yammered on with questions about his whereabouts, my third cup of tea devoured, he calmly flowered me with details on ski and snowshoe-filled days, offering that he’d be there for an ambiguous ‘while.’
We connected on what it was like to pursue an unorthodox career while growing up in a traditional Asian household, what he wishes he could’ve said to his younger self and the songwriting process for his Mandarin singles.
After two years of COVID-19, your newest single What am I doing? explores the highs and lows of being a musician. Growing up, what was it like to pursue a career as a musician?
Growing up, music was not a viable career option. My parents never suggested music could be a career. I played instruments growing up but only ever as a hobby. For younger generations now, you can do whatever you want. Sure, Chinese parents back then said that too, but they were more focused on financially stable careers. A part of Chinese culture is abundance and wealth. Music isn’t always that; it’s up and down.
It’s been an internal battle of having that Chinese culture ingrained in me as a young person, and – in a lot of ways – every move I make professionally works against that. It’s a mental hurdle. I’ll want to try new things creatively, but it could be a big financial risk. I have to get that out of my mind. I’ve gotten used to that way of thinking. My family is more supportive now, too. Although, my mom will still say it’s not too late to be a lawyer.
Oh, was your undergrad in Law?
Not at all. It was in communications. She probably just hasn’t stopped dreaming.
What do you wish someone had said to a younger you, chasing a career that deviated from a traditional Chinese role?
A great first approach is to be open and talk to your family about it. Tell them what’s valuable in your life and what makes you happy. If that means going against the grain, that’s okay too. Pursuing art and creativity often means going against the grain. You need to believe in yourself and do what’s right for you. The people who care about you the most will always come around.
What has kept you motivated to continue pursuing music?
I haven’t even considered an alternative. I can’t imagine not having some sort of music or creativity in my life, even if I stepped away from music. What’s kept me going through the years is performing and touring. Nothing else can compete with that performance high. Touring from town to town, playing for all types of people, and experiencing people and places through music – it’s amazing.
You recently released two Mandarin songs. What was the songwriting process like for those written in Mandarin?
It was a really interesting process. I started writing in English and basically did a direct translation, but when I showed it to a friend [Hover Chan] that tours in China, it didn’t really make sense. In Chinese, poetry and the actual message don’t come through in the same way. The lyrics made sense, but for Chinese people who would be reading and listening, the combination didn’t carry forth the same message I was trying to portray in English.
I sat with him [Chan] to go through each phrase and line to find a way to say it in Mandarin that made sense to Mandarin listeners and speakers.
Do you speak Mandarin fluently?
I speak Cantonese, not Mandarin. I wanted the songs in Mandarin because the language has less tonal range than Cantonese, so there’s less of an opportunity to misconstrue words. Singing already has such a wide range of tones. That, and Mandarin is the more widely-used language. I’ve toured a lot in China, and I can speak some Mandarin, but I’m working toward speaking fluently.
Why was it important that you have Mandarin singles?
It was important to me to reconnect with my roots and ancestry. The past years, my journey has been to discover who I am. Part of that is looking back at where I came from and my culture. Growing up in Canada, we’re not forced to deny our culture, but it’s easy to absorb into North American culture. Over time, I lost my upbringing. I was never super into my Chinese heritage because none of my friends were either. It was the norm.
I took that culture away from myself. The last few years, I’ve tried to look for it again through learning the language and history. My Chinese songs were a chance to learn the language, feel connected to my culture through music, and start connecting with people through my music too.
If I can help those who are disconnected, to help any Canadian-born or immigrant that no longer feels connected to their culture. If I can spark something that’s part of their own culture and journey, and they can learn more about it, that’s pretty awesome.
Tennyson paused as he searched for a recent message from a fan, who thanked him for providing the opportunity to feel connected to Chinese music. The fan continued, this was the first opportunity they had to enjoy music through a Chinese lens.
Being able to make music helped me reconnect with who I was, and to see that other people are hearing it and recognizing that too, that they’re digging into their own culture: That’s what it’s all about.
Tennyson King’s album, Good Company, is out now.