Hong Kong singer Janice Vidal on new Canto-pop album, SoHo art show and finally being able to express herself
The last decade has seen her creativity smothered, weight criticised and her sister Jill arrested on drug charges, but with new label Warner Music, Vidal is now getting the chance to tell the stories she wants to tell
On a recent weekend in Central’s SoHo district, Hong Kong pop star Janice Vidal gave a guided tour of her debut art exhibition, where almost two dozen of her paintings were on display and her latest music played on a loop.
Appearing happy and content, the singer said she is finally able to be true to herself after a decade-long struggle with Hong Kong show business.
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Vidal, 34, is making a comeback after a nearly three-year hiatus. She has just released a new studio album, Love and Other Things, the first under her new label Warner Music. The album was launched alongside a three-day exhibition of her very colourful and emotional oil paintings – the first time she has showed her works to the public.
Vidal says the music and the paintings tell stories that she was unable to tell in the past.
“They are not just songs. They are [songs] about my life and what’s important to me. It’s a personal story. People can get to know the real me,” she says. “It’s such a blessing. I’m very grateful that I am able to express myself through music and art.”
Vidal is widely recognised as one of the most gifted singers in the history of Canto-pop. In June, she was voted No. 1 in an online poll to find the singer with the most beautiful voice, beating superstars including Eason Chan Yik-shun, Joey Yung Cho-yee and the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. But the woman with a voice that has won the hearts of many feels she has never had a chance to tell her own stories, until now.
“Before that, I wasn’t able to have any creative ideas about music. Back in those days, it was just about ‘Here’s a song, sing it’,” says Vidal, recalling her days at record label Amusic reporting to Leon Lai, the label’s boss and one of the “four heavenly kings” of Canto-pop. “Now I have a chance to put something more personal out there.”
She says colleagues at her new label ask her what songs she wants to sing, what kind of style she wants to use and what feelings and topics she wants to talk about. The outcome is an album of eight melodic and jazzy pop tunes with Chinese lyrics written on her behalf based on the stories she wanted to tell. (A native English speaker, Vidal cannot read Chinese and only speaks basic Cantonese.)
One of the songs, Sai Sai Goh (When I Was Little), details her relationship with her twin sister and fellow singer Jill Vidal, whose career took a nosedive after she was arrested on drugs charges in Japan in 2009. Janice, who was at the peak of her career at the time, says some people started distancing themselves from her, but she did not abandon her sister.
“It’s a blessing and annoying having a twin sister,” Vidal says. “We have always been compared to each other since we were kids. As we grow older, it’s clear that we both have our strengths and weaknesses. She’s really positive and she always comforts me. It’s a blessing to have a good relationship with your sibling.”
It was Vidal’s new colleagues at Warner Music that encouraged her to explore her talent for painting. They asked her to produce 19 pieces for a three-day exhibition to coincide with the album launch, with the added challenge of doing them all in a month.
“I was flabbergasted. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do it, and wouldn’t be able to think of anything to paint. But I took on the challenge and surprisingly I finished more than 19. I did 21, two more than they expected. It made me realise that a little pressure can be good.”
But too much pressure has sometimes driven Vidal to the edge, especially in Hong Kong’s showbiz industry where appearances often matter more than talent. One of the paintings at the show reflects this, depicting Vidal’s ongoing struggle with her self-image.
Born in Hong Kong to parents of Filipino, Korean and Chinese descent, Vidal began her music career as a singer in nightclubs before her voice caught the attention of producer Mark Lui. She was taken under Leon Lai’s wing when she was 23, not really knowing what she was getting herself into.
In the beginning she performed backing vocals for Lai until releasing her debut album, Day & Night, in 2005 under her Chinese stage name Wai Lan, featuring cover versions of Lai’s chart-topping hits. Towards the end of the same year, her second album, My Love, was released, which brought her many accolades for newcomer of the year.
In Hong Kong’s entertainment business, however, a great voice is often not enough. The local press has always focused on her weight and even former boss Lai once told the media that she was “fatter than a motorcycle”. One of Vidal’s paintings, built up with layers of colours, depicts her years of struggle – and finally, acceptance – of who she is.
“People have always called me fei mui [“little fat girl”] since I was a kid. I have never been skinny. Even when I was at my skinniest, people still thought I was fat. I was so caught up with trying to be like everybody else. People can be so mean,” she says.
“But honestly, beauty is about being comfortable in your own skin. Women come in various shapes and sizes and the skinniest isn’t necessarily the healthiest. Now I’m at my healthiest in a very long time. I need to learn to love myself.”
It helps to feel loved at her new company, which still has a lot of plans for her, including a Putonghua EP and a concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum in January.
“We really want to do something different and take some risks,” she says. “People are maturing in the way they listen to music. The diversity [of local music] is better than ever and now is the perfect time to do something more meaningful.
“I see myself as a storyteller. Someone out there listening to my music will feel that they have a friend. As a singer, I want to take them on a journey with my thoughts and perspectives.”