Canada’s Atlantic provinces aren’t exactly known as a bastion of pop music. Our stronger efforts have traditionally been wrapped up in at least a heavy veneer of alt rock, making for quick exports. Our local mainstay equivalents are just as likely to feature fiddles and a bodhrán solo. So it might be a bit surprising to discover a growing foothold for Mandopop in Halifax with Century Egg.
Their newest album, ‘River God’, is a rough sequel to their 2016 release, the similarly named ‘Mountain God’. Aside from the matching album art that would suggest the inevitable return of Hayao Miyazaki from yet another retirement just to direct all of Century Egg’s music videos, both albums contain songs that were written before the band was even fully formed.
“A couple of these songs were already in our set at the time we recorded Mountain God, and in fact were among the first songs we wrote for the project even before Nick and Tri joined the group,” says Century Egg’s Robert Drisdelle.
The EP is populated with songs being sung in Mandarin outnumbering English tunes at a ratio of 3:2. It’s a fairly conservative balance given that the number of Mandarin speakers in the world outnumber English speakers by at least that much.
Drisdelle explains that pop music has a deceptively simplistic appearance, particularly in North American, but with a rich history in Asia that’s played off its American counterpart and expanded on it, its been rewarding for them to follow in that lineage. “I would say what distinguished Asian pop to me is the sophistication of its chord progressions, even in Top 40 music. I have an academic music training – a masters in composition in fact. I love music that is extremely pop but with a sophisticated touch. There was a lot there for me to like.”
“We couldn’t really anticipate how the language aspect of Century Egg would be received when we released that EP,” says Drisdelle, but he’s quick to make the comparison to the popularity of New Brunswick francophone band Radio Radio. While it’s not uncommon for a band to swing from English to French (or vice versa), proving the appeal of music as a universal language, there was still some question about how audiences would react to something a little more foreign than Chiac.
“We were curious to what degree people might view us through an “exotic” lens, which fortunately doesn’t seem to be the case as much so far. We don’t want to be exotified. Exoticism is a form of othering – seeing someone of a different ethnicity through cheap tropes. Instead, feedback of our music is focussed more on the songcraft, and performances, which is encouraging.”
As performers it’s paid off. They’ve thrilled audiences at Sappyfest and Halifax Pop Explosion with their high energy shows, known as a band guaranteed to bring a ton of fun, and at the risk of making them sound exotic, at least like nothing else.
Shane Keyu Song is the band’s singer, lyricist, and the only Mandarin speaker of the bunch. She grew up listening to big East Asian pop star heroes like Teresa Teng and Faye Wong, and has shared that influence with the band.
“Shane is the singer and whatever language she’s singing in, it’s cool. We made a point with the last release not to translate our songs, partly to establish firmly that indie rock in Canada is not only for Anglo or Francophones and that there is space for Mandarin and the multitudes of other languages people here express themselves with.”
Not being a Mandarin speaker myself, it necessitates a certain amount of trust – much like picking out a tattoo of a Chinese symbol – that what you get is exactly as described. The album is fun, bubblegum sweet, and kind of adorable. It’s easy to imagine a track like ‘Sunshine Realize’ as an Adventure Time musical subplot, and that’s about the most complimentary fate for a contemporary pop song imaginable.
“Shane’s lyrics are very beautiful and well thought out”, insists Drisdelle. “She writes on very provocative and playful themes in a well considered way; realistic things like relationship and family dynamics, as well as more cosmic and mythical things – like lazy mountain gods.”