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Silian Wong finds her footing by writing her own songs on Insomnia

Bilingual singer Silian Wong will be among the performers at the Jade Music Festival in Vancouver.

Toronto-based singer Silian Wong says it took several years to find her authentic musical voice. And it came as a result of plunging into deep sadness about six years ago.

At the time, she was living and working in her hometown of Hong Kong. In 2010, she had moved back there from Toronto to pursue her musical career.

In Canada and Asia, Wong had sung other people’s music in a variety of venues, including weddings, Chinese community functions, and professional gigs. From 2010 to 2012, she sang backup on tour with Cantopop legend Jackie Cheung.

She tried to master many genres, such as jazz, folk, soul, funk, and world music. But doing covers just didn’t feel right. Wong sensed that she had lost touch with herself and went into a mental tailspin.

That was coupled with severe asthma, which forced her to shut down her career for almost half a year.

For solace, she rested and often went hiking, allowing the trees, mountains, grasses, and wind to energize her and help her heal.

“At the same time, melodies and lyrics just flowed into me naturally,” she recalls.

Songwriting focuses on nature

In 2018, Wong released her first song “Journey”, describing her voyage of recovery from depression.

“As you can hear from ‘Journey’, I like to talk about nature,” Wong says. “During that time I was so sick, I had to stay away from the city, stay away from all the cars, and all the buildings.”

To Wong, it felt so good writing original music in English that she decided to create a concept EP called Insomnia. She praises her producer, Orlando Bonzi, for understanding “her vision and language, and turning the pictures in her mind into beautiful orchestration”.

The disc features seven songs and closes with “Journey”, which was a semi-finalist in the 2019 U.K. Songwriting Contest. Another of her songs, “Where Are You, My Angel”, received a special mention in the same competition.

“The EP is actually telling a story of one evening,” Wong explains. “If you read the lyrics and listen, it gives you a background of the sickness and the story of why I feel sad.”

Insomnia opens with “I Don’t Belong Here”, in which she writes: “Is this all there is/Will there be a life for me/Have I fallen with no sod to nurture me/Am I in the wrong place”.

As the songs continue, the mood improves. An angel helps pass the midnight hour. By morning, peace arrives.

“You have to listen from track 1 to track 7 in one roll,” Wong advises.

Listen to Silian Wong’s Insomnia EP.

Wong suffered from insomnia

Wong’s nature-oriented spiritual pop will be part of this year’s Jade Music Festival in Vancouver. On November 30 at 7 p.m., she will be part of the JMF Showcase at the Vancouver Playhouse.

TD is presenting the six-day festival, which was created by The Society of We Are Canadians Too to promote Vancouver as a hub for Chinese-language music production.

“Insomnia had been a problem of mine since my teens,” Wong says in a message accompanying her EP.

Her awakening came at the age of 34 as she realized how much she needed to be connected to greenery.

She freely acknowledges that when she was younger, she didn’t feel that she belonged to the world of humans. “I like to talk to plants,” Wong says. “I like to talk to the grass.”

While she’s sung many Chinese-language songs in the past, she’s eager to perform her original compositions in English in front of mainstream audiences.

“That is one of my goals for the coming years,” she states.

Wong says that her original music might remind listeners of U.S. psychedelic folk singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs or Japanese folk singer-songwriter Ichiko Aoba.

“We tend to very soft, very intimate, and expressive,” she declares.

She has another song about nature called “The Moment”, which is inspired by a Margaret Atwood poem of the same name. It hasn’t been released yet but Wong plans to perform it at the Jade Music Festival.

Finnish instrument strikes a chord

Wong spent the first 12 years of her life in Hong Kong, where she learned to play piano before her family immigrated to Toronto. In recent years, she’s been learning a Finnish instrument called the kantele. She heard it for the first time during a break when she was performing with a big band in Hong Kong.

A woman in another band was tuning the instrument.

“She was plucking the notes,” Wong recalls. “It started to ring through the speaker. She wasn’t even playing—just checking the sound—and I started to have tears coming down. It’s a tone that rings in my soul. I would say it’s a very spiritual instrument.”

As the interview comes to a close, we have one more question to ask: is there a story behind her name “Silian”?

Wong laughs before revealing that her sister made it up.

“In Hong Kong, kids from primary school to the first year of secondary school have to come up with an English name,” she says. “My sister said ‘There’s Vivian, there’s Lillian, why not Silian?’ It sounded a bit silly but it still sounds nice… Silian is how they remember my name.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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