American Abigail Washburn is an acclaimed folk singer, songwriter and one half of the team that produced the Wenchuan-earthquak-benefit CD Afterquake. Released on the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake to raise funds for Sichuan and awareness of post-earthquake reconstruction, the CD features electronic mixes of student voices and sounds from the earthquake zone.
GoChengdoo caught up with Abby on her recent three-date tour in Chengdu to talk music, China and her continuing connection with Chengdu and Sichuan.
Photo courtesy Abigail Washburn
What first brought you to China and Chengdu?
The first time I came to China was after my freshman year of college in 1995, on a nine-week summer program. I had no real previous interest in China, and had never studied Chinese before, but I just knew I wanted to do something challenging and totally different. So I just thought I'd give it a shot.
That first time I actually didn't like China very much – it was so different, and I didn't feel I could connect properly with anybody. The whole thing was a bit of a clash of civilizations and really wasn't very fun. But I eventually realized that that was probably the mindset of a lot of Americans who go to China, and I wanted to overcome it rather than live my life slightly resenting 1.3 billion people. So, I took Chinese classes at college back in the States, and six months later I came back for a semester's study in Chengdu, at the Sichuan University Science and Technology school.
What was Chengdu like then?
Oh my god, it was so different! So dirty, so over-crowded, hardly any cars, but it also had a lot more of the charm that you can occasionally glimpse in the back-alleys today. In 1996, the whole place was like that.
At that time, there were only about 100 foreigners living in Chengdu, so as a foreigner you were constantly stared at. It really was a huge learning curve, but there were so many special things that happened in the midst of all the difficulties that made it worth it. Just walking around the alleyways, you'd see shadow-puppetry, neighbors getting together to act out Sichuan Opera, you could sit down on a bamboo stool to watch and drink a cup of tea ... it was so cool.
By the time I left that second time I'd totally fallen for China, but I didn't end up coming back, this time to Beijing, until after I'd graduated in 2000.
We heard that you played your first-ever gig in China ...
Well, not exactly! But I did have some of my first musical experiences on stage in China. I sang back-up in a few people's bands in Beijing, and a couple of times I played my banjo which I'd just begun learning; it was really great fun, but not serious at all. Still, the beginning of my interest in music is totally connected to China, because from being "into" China and Chinese traditions I realized that I really didn't know anything about American traditions. I decided I wanted to learn more about American traditional music so I could bring it back to China and show people this really cool, special thing about America, because I'd previously had trouble finding something like that to show and tell my Chinese friends about.
And people here really were interested in it. Music is universal, there's no doubt about it, and I found that I could say things through music that I couldn't say with language.
Nonetheless, I had no intention whatsoever of becoming a professional musician. After seven months in Beijing I went back to the States, but planned to come back to Beijing and study for a master's in law. I was all set to move back to Beijing, went on a kind of "goodbye to America" road-trip – and that's when I got "discovered" and ended up moving to Nashville. At that point I thought I was only putting off my Beijing plans for a semester, but then my music career took off, I got signed, and suddenly it's seven years later! But I have and still do come back to China as often as I can.
What keeps you coming back?
Well, you know, China becomes a part of you. It would feel like I was slowly suffocating my child if I didn't come back.
That said, it did take me quite a while to come to terms with modern China. I fell in love with the China of 1996, and to watch it become what it is now was kind of heartbreaking. These feelings all kind of came to a head in 2004; I was on tour in Shanghai, staying with an old friend and talking to him about all this, when I ended up breaking down and sobbing, because I felt I had lost my love for China.
My friend just put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Abby, China's not here for you. I can understand your feelings, but you've got to remember that this is not a land for your pleasure. We just have to keep falling in love with the China that it is." And eventually I managed that. So in a way, you could also say that China has forced me to have a much bigger heart. It's made me more accepting.
And how do you feel China has influenced your music?
Well, I, err, write songs in Chinese! But I also have this kind of ultimate life goal to help China and America understand each other, and I don't think there is a better way to do that than through music.
Tell us about how Afterquake came about.
I was teaching traditional American music at the Sichuan University Music Department for two weeks in December 2008 when a friend put me in touch with [Bookworm manager and Sichuan Quake Relief coordinator] Peter Goff. I ended up volunteering with SQR for a couple of days, going out to the relocation schools, playing music for the kids, and that's when I learned so much about how the earthquake had affected people's lives. Many of the kids would come up to me after I'd played, sing me songs and tell me how they had lost all confidence in the world. I was so moved by this, and it made me want to record their songs because I know how healing music can be.
So, I ended up coming back with Dave Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project, recording the kids' songs, and Afterquake was born. On this recent trip back to Chengdu I got to meet up again with some of the kids who made the CD with us; it's been great seeing how much happier they are now that they're back living with their families, and also to see them hear the music for the first time – they're so proud of it.
Do you have any more Sichuan-oriented projects in the pipeline? And when do you plan to be back here next?
Well, I still don't feel like my work with the Afterquake project and SQR is over, so I wanna keep spreading the word about that. I don't know exactly when I'll be back in Chengdu, but sometime in the next year for sure.