“It feels like I’m waiting for judgment day,” 9m88 admits with a laugh.
It’s a warm Taipei morning and Joanne Tang is sitting in her apartment, anxiously awaiting the release of her second record, ‘9m88 Radio’. She spent two long years making the album, but when NME meets the Taiwanese singer-songwriter over Zoom, she almost seems to miss being in the thick of the creative process.
“It was time consuming, it was tiring – but at least you feel like the ball is rolling,” she says. “Now that everything’s done… it just feels like I’m at a test, waiting for someone to announce the results.”
Being busy has become the norm for 9m88, who’s also nicknamed Baba. She cut her teeth at New York’s New School as a jazz vocalist before bursting to prominence with her 2018 cover of ‘Plastic Love’, the Mariya Takeuchi city pop classic that went viral online that same year. Listeners were taken with Baba’s stylish retro charm and buttery-smooth vocals, and calls for collaborations soon came from across the Taiwanese scene. Since then, 9m88 has shot for the stars: starring in television dramas, hosting her own podcasts, all while dazzling audiences with performances at multiple Golden Melody Awards ceremonies (Taiwan’s equivalent of the Grammys).
“I’m trying to break my first impressions – I want to break my own barriers”
Baba has been satisfied by her fast-rising profile, but she’s not content with her current success. “Sometimes, I’m almost persuaded that if I can have a really good career in Taiwan and the Mandarin-speaking world, then I’m a good artist,” she says. “But sometimes, my conscience – my New York self – tells me there’s so many possibilities to explore.”
Unsatisfied with her 2018 debut, ‘Beyond Mediocrity’, Baba sought to produce the next 9m88 record herself, hoping to boldly introduce herself on a global stage. “I think I’ve done enough to try to fit in with this Mandopop scene… To be honest, people outside of Mandarin-speaking areas don’t really know what I’m doing.” In line with those world-conquering ambitions, ‘9m88 Radio’ is a stylistically omnivorous offering, spanning soulful boom-bap cuts and hyper-polished synthpop. She’s clear about the album’s aims: “I’m trying to break my first impressions – I want to break my own barriers.”
But getting started was a challenge in itself. Wrestling with pandemic fatigue, Baba became unable to write songs for two to three years, often finding herself consumed by self-doubt. “Sometimes I drown in my own thoughts,” she says. “It changed when I realised I can’t do everything on my own.”
Baba is no stranger to collaboration: her debut came via a feature on a Leo Wang track, while her recent exploits have included oddly metered math rock with Elephant Gym and Madonna covers with Joanna Wang. “I always think about how to make my own sound heard while glorifying their sound.” But when it came to her own material, ceding creative control proved challenging. “It was difficult to fully trust one person and give out all the ideas in my head,” she shares. “But at the same time, I don’t want to be at the front row myself.”
Eventually, 9m88 found a reassuring partner in co-producer Alan Yue, who she had met when he worked as a crew member during her solo live performances. Encouraged by Yue and her management team, she began firing off messages and requests to assemble the record’s cast of collaborators, hoping to cross as many borders as possible. “I told them we could just start from scratch and just make something together – any genres,” she says.
That everything-goes approach inevitably led to moments of trial and error. Tang, for example, crafted the glitzy highlight ‘Sleepwalking’ with South Korean producer (and BTS, Red Velvet and Chung Ha collaborator) SUMIN, who initially kickstarted the song with a hypnotic blend of gliding synths and snappy beats. Seeking to match the producer’s hyper-synthetic style, Baba tried drenching her verses in Auto-Tune. Eventually, she embraced her natural voice and instinctual jazz inflections, which when paired with SUMIN’s signature processed vocals, created dreamy, captivating juxtapositions.
Working with others also helped breathe new life into old material. The seductive, Arthur Moon-featuring ‘Love Is So Cruel’, for example, was formerly a funk-influenced romp dating back to Baba’s college days. On the other hand, ‘Star’ – originally meant for release on ‘Beyond Mediocrity’ – was almost abandoned, before assists from Japan’s StarRo and Stones Throw crooner Silas Short transformed it into the neo-soul tune heard on ‘9m88 Radio’.
Other songs leaned into Baba’s formative influences, like her love for jazz rap, which she fostered while attending a dance club in college. Her affinity for the genre led her to reach out to Washington D.C. rapper Oddisee – one of her teenage heroes – for ‘Friend Zone’, a bouncy ode to the romantic chase.
“It’s a story of a girl who doesn’t want to wait anymore for her crush’s response,” Baba says. “In terms of having a crush, I’m really proactive – I’ll always chase over this person until I can’t.” She laughs. “I think that’s part of the spirit installed inside of me – but most of the time, I’m more like those ballads: feeling really pessimistic and really hopeless.”
“All I can do is to keep writing, and not limit myself to a rigid goal of what success is”
The more sombre mood also stems from Baba entering her thirties and a more sober outlook on life after years in Taiwan’s music industry. “Before, I used to write about aiming for the best,” she says. “But I was feeling weak, I was feeling fragile. Now, being exposed to those feelings empower[s] me more than [being] merely positive.”
That maturity shines through on the intimate ‘Dark Night / Sunlight’, which Baba wrote after a heartbreak. The song puts the spotlight on Baba’s own voice, standing apart from all the meticulously produced collaborations. Aiming for the subtlety of some of her favourites, Stan Getz and Nils Frahm, Baba teamed up with Yue to improvise a stark piano-led ballad, anchored by her breathy crooning above a lullaby-inspired motif. “It’s soothing but expressive – to me, it’s like therapy.”
Hearing Baba cite Getz, NME asks if she sees herself as a jazz singer first and foremost. She demurs. “To me, I don’t feel like I’m really composing jazz tunes. In fact, I’d say it’s not jazzy enough, for me and many musicians as well.” The ever-adventurous Baba tips Taiwanese trio Lilium as a band she’d like to work with, expressing her admiration for their blend of traditional Taiwanese music with disco and post-punk. She’s also interested in working with artists singing in Hakka and Taiwan’s indigenous languages. “I want to explore those with traditional roots to work with me in the future, to embody the Taiwanese sound.”
As our conversation draws to a close, Baba remarks on the possibility that ‘9m88 Radio’ might not be the international breakthrough she hopes for. Even so, she seems to be at peace with that. “It doesn’t matter in the end,” she says – after all, the record is her favourite and most genuine body of work yet.
Though older and wiser, 9m88 is not ready to rest on her laurels – quite the opposite. “When you feel like you’re enough, I’d say that would be the end of making your art,” she declares. “All I can do is to keep writing, and not limit myself to a rigid goal of what success is. What it means to make it in the music industry – I try to liberate myself from that thought.”
‘9m88 Radio’ is out now
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