Mandarin-speaking French singer-songwriter Joyce Jonathan went from introvert to teaching French with her music

The Paris-born musician says she has “unbreakable ties” with Chinese culture

Veronica Lin |

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Joyce is no stranger to Chinese...even singing in Mandarin.

When Joyce Jonathan first looked up at the skyscrapers and immersed herself in the bustling markets of Hong Kong, the then-13-year-old was immediately fascinated and overwhelmed by how different it was from her hometown in France. “It was my first time experiencing such a fast-paced mega city,” she says.

Surprisingly, Jonathan admits that she was an introvert as a child, but music helped her communicate with the rest of the world. “I wasn’t talkative, but I would always express my feelings and emotions through music,” she explains.

Jonathan started playing piano aged five, and wrote her first song at 11. However, it wasn’t until she was 16 that she got noticed by the record label MyMajorCompany. To raise the 70,000 euros (HK$618,000) needed to make her debut album, Sur Mes Gardes, she and her label turned to a crowd-funding website, which asked other people to invest in her music.

“With this system, we ended up having 486 producers on my first album,” she says.

As a show of thanks, Jonathan would turn to her supporters for advice. “I asked them which song they’d prefer as the first single and which photo they’d like as the album cover. I even invited some of them to my shows,” she says.

Joyce Jonathan explains why her creative process works best when she works solo

Alongside listening to her backers, Jonathan has also tried to reinvent herself as a musician by working with different music producers. “When I’m composing songs in my living room, they would often turn out to be very similar, but the producers I worked with added different instruments to the musical arrangements, which really gave my music a whole new identity” says Jonathan. As a result, her latest album, Une Place Pour Moi, is her most diverse and sophisticated album so far.

Though Jonathan was born and raised near Paris, she and her family have some “unbreakable ties” to the Chinese culture. “I grew up with both my parents speaking Mandarin, and I learned Mandarin in high school,” she says.

So when the Chinese division of Warner Brothers called Jonathan to ask if she wanted to release her albums in China, she said yes straight away and decided to re-record her hits ... in Putonghua.

“I wanted to sing my own songs in Chinese. My parents were very supportive of my decision,” she says.

After gaining a large Chinese following, Jonathan was invited by Alliance Française to judge a Shanghai singing contest, in which the contestants were scored on their ability to speak French. Many chose to perform Jonathan’s songs.

She says, “I realised some people were singing my songs – I was told they learn French with my music.”

Her frequent trips to China led to a collaboration with Wanting Qu, a Chinese-born, Canada-based singer-songwriter. Their similar songwriting styles enabled them to co-write Sans Toi just two days after meeting.

Both sing in their native languages. “It’ s an exchange of cultures – was very natural for her to sing in Mandarin and me in French,” says Jonathan.

Instead of trying to make it big internationally, Jonathan wants to focus on just the French and Asian markets. “My goal is to do more shows in France and China instead of thinking about the other countries--it’s important for me to make sense of what I’m doing right now.”

Word sneak with Joyce Jonathan