Sū Zǐxù 苏紫旭 started his performing career hopping between bars in Nanjing, and later Beijing, where he continued this trend. As his style developed, strong influences from the British folk stylings of Bert Jansch and John Martyn were combined with traditional Chinese literature and melodies. This unique combination, paired with Su’s fiery personality, soon got him scouted for Sing My Song (中国好歌曲 zhōngguó hǎo gēqǔ), a Chinese reality show with a similar format to The Voice, only musicians must perform their original compositions. He might not have made it to the finals, but he was a fan favorite, and soon after, became an underground Chinese folk icon.
It would probably make sense at this point to write about his most mainstream hit, “Without You” (没有你 méiyǒu nǐ), as performed on the show. It would also probably make sense to explain my relationship with Su, and why I won’t be doing that.
Su and I had been friends before his television debut, and after, we started working on new material together. One thing led to another, and soon enough Su was handed a big chunk of money to leave China for the first time to “record something groundbreaking.” No pressure.
In honor of his musical idols and lifelong yearning for a “Lowden” brand guitar, he chose the UK as his destination, and in honor of our work together and my UK passport, I was asked to join. It may not have seemed so at the time, but I will forever be thankful for the opportunities I was given over those three months, as only touched upon in the music video for our first single from the trip, “Bare With Me” [sic] (梦停留 mèng tíngliú).
After a few days acclimatizing to the damp British weather, pub culture, and a somewhat arduous yet unexpectedly emotional trip to the not-so-local incredibly expensive acoustic guitar megastore, the Lowden (later to be named Roni, in honor of my mother) had been purchased, and it was time to visit another pub on the way home before getting to work.
This was the first song that we had actually written together, and it was clear we had different ideas as to where the song could go. With those beautifully modulated turns between the verses, there was definitely further opportunities for musical development, but the challenge was choosing something that wouldn’t overpower or overcomplicate the song.
Many attempts later, we put our instruments down and set off for the pub.
While this memory is hazy at best, it’s a memory nonetheless: En route, we were joking about what would, could, and should fit. Once there, pints in hand, the conversation turned to a pair of cowboy boots Su had seen in a charity shop, and…pints down, taxi home, instruments out.
The grandiose Ennio Morricone-inspired interlude reflected the adventure we were embarking on. In performance, it gave us a chance to relieve our tensions from day-to-day life on tour. In recording, it gave me a chance to get the human Roni (my cello-playing mother, seen at 3.40) on a record with the wooden Roni (Su’s guitar). In China, it gave concert goers something to sing back to us from the crowd.
The lyrics to the song weren’t finished until the day of recording, but the song had its title long before. When I asked where the English title came from, Su simply replied: “It’s something you’ve been saying a lot this trip.”