Canto-pop veteran Prudence Liew on sex, jamming and her Coliseum comeback shows
When she released her debut album in 1986, it caused controversy for its sexual subject matter. Now the 52-year-old has a new covers album to promote and is busy preparing for two theatrical live shows
With a new album (her first in five years), a Hong Kong Coliseum show in October (the first in nine years) and a second grandchild on the way, Canto-pop singer Prudence Liew Mei-kwan has every reason to be upbeat. “I’m not kidding you, I can’t wait to get on stage to perform,” says the 52-year-old who is in a buoyant mood despite having sprained her ankle earlier in the day, wearing heels to meet the press.
Liew is in the middle of a publicity blitz to promote Reincarnated Love, a covers album of (barring the hidden track) 10 English songs from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s including Jim Croce’s I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song, The Bells’ Stay Awhile and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It’s the result, she says, of a recording project, that started two years ago, and went awry.
“I was just doing it the traditional way,” Liew says, explaining that all the songs were arranged for her, but “there was something not right about the whole thing ... I didn’t know if I liked them.” She adds that despite the “awesome” music arrangements, it was like doing karaoke versions: “I don’t want to do karaoke,” says Liew. “Doing it the traditional way, everything was calculated, I couldn’t move around much creatively. So I just trashed everything.”
The project was set aside and it was not until last October she realised what was missing – spontaneity. The singer recalls, as a little girl, she would “make music” without using any instrument but, instead, clap her hands or slam the door or “pick up whatever from the classroom” and jam – and that was the kind of freedom that she missed.
So she quickly put the word out and “I said whoever is available, come along, let’s start jamming”. Among the session musicians who jumped on board were Ted Lo (keyboard) and Eugene Pao (guitar), drummer Jonathan Sim and bassist Max McKellar. She also roped in singer Gin Lee for a duet, doing a swing version of Mary MacGregor’s Torn Between Two Lovers.
Out of some 50 songs they jammed during those sessions, 10 made the final cut. “The essence of making good music is that everyone feels it, the soul in that music,” says Liew.
Liew says she wants to make improvisation “the norm” for her future performances, even though it would be more difficult to do in Cantonese because of the tonal dialect. “I know it’s hard but I’m trying to push that,” she says.
Doing things the hard way has always been a motivating force in the singer’s career. It’s been three decades since Liew became an overnight sensation on the local music scene with her self-titled breakthrough album. It shifted more than 500,000 copies and, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, remains the best-selling debut by a Hong Kong artist.
But success didn’t just happen, she says, as a 22-year-old, she had to fight to get the album off the ground. Ahead of her time, Liew’s debut album dared to broach the subject of sex, and casual sexual liaisons, in songs such as Midnight Love, Pretending and The Last Night.
“I fought through it because of the songs ... the lyrics were extremely controversial at the time,” she says.
“I was a young person, and people put your face on the album, and all the songs that I was singing, and the messages that I was delivering through all those songs, it just didn’t look right, because they were so controversial.
“That was why even when I was in the process of making the album, my producer was, like, ‘Are you sure you want to put that kind of topic in that song? You want your lyrics to talk about ... that kind of personality?’”
But she was determined to make an album that delved into different personalities of, or life stages in, a woman – which is also going to be the theme of her upcoming show at the Hong Kong Coliseum: “it resonates with my first experience doing the album ... and a lot more.”
Without giving too much away, Liew says the show, titled “Karma Chameleon”, is as much about music-making as it is theatre, and she has award-winning composer of songs for musicals, Leon Ko Sai-tseung, involved in the October production.
“I want to do something really theatrical,” she says. “I want to bring small theatre to that stage in the Coliseum ... most people would think, that’s crazy, it’s very hard to do something theatrical given the scale of the venue.”
But Liew says she has her “dream team” that will make it happen: “There will be singing, acting and 10 different scenes with costume changes. There will be no intermission. And I will not leave the stage. The audience will see a lot more than just a regular concert.”
Liew says challenges keep her on her toes.
“I have to live constantly under challenge, I need to push myself,” she says. “When I work out on my own, when I practise yoga or just exercise, I push myself, I like being pushed. So for me, pushing the boundaries will be my thing for the rest of my life.”
Though hardly a one-album wonder – subsequent releases Why (1987), Jokingly Saying (1989) The Queen of Hardships (2009) and Love Addict (2011) all topped the charts – nothing quite matched the success of her eponymous debut.
So does Liew ever feel she is living in her own shadow?
“No,” she says without hesitation. “After the first album I still had other masterpieces that I really liked, but the first album is always the best for most people.
“I don’t really compete with other people and I don’t live under my own shadow either because I know I am always growing and maturing. You have to keep evolving and I am in a very happy place now.”
Prudence Liew “Karma Chameleon”, Hong Kong Coliseum, Hung Hom, Oct 14 and 15, 8.15pm, HK$380, HK$480, HK$680. Inquiries: 3761 6661