Karen Mok: Somewhere I Belong

The Superstar Chinese Songstress Looks West with a New Jazz Direction

Chinese vocalist and actress Karen Mok is caught in a rare, quiet moment at Le Grand Hotel during Paris Fashion Week by photographer Michael Hemy in this series of intimate stills, accompanied by her cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times” from her new album Somewhere I Belong. With more than 15 full-length pop releases and 40 feature films under her belt, not to mention 36 million combined followers on social media sites Sina and Tencent Weibo, Mok is one of China’s biggest sensations. Now the Hong Kong native is looking to break into the Western market with her debut English-language album, a compilation of jazz standards from Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and updated covers from The Beatles to Sting. “Jazz is a genre that has always been about crossing borders and transcending cultural differences, so I think it fits with my being a Chinese artist coming to the West,” explains Mok. “No one has really made the transition in a big way—but someone’s got to start it.” Recorded in Shanghai, some of her tracks nod to Asian musical tradition, for instance using the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument, to put a new spin on well-known melodies. Here she speaks about her genre-bending ambitions and the discount CDs that changed her career.  

Has jazz always been a part of your musical life?
Karen Mok:
Years ago, I stumbled upon some cheap compilations of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets and I was just blown away. So this is what you call jazz, I thought, that’s how one should sing—straight from your heart with no inhibitions. It really opened my mind. When I became a pop singer, I realized all those years of listening to jazz had really influenced the way I sing. 

Did combining classic jazz and guzheng work out as you intended?
KM:
I think it really brought about some magic. The main thing was to try not to copy how people in the West do it. We wanted to retain our own identity for this album—that was really the most important thing. 

The album is called Somewhere I Belong. Do you have one place where you feel that most?
KM:
I guess it’s probably when I’m doing what I love most, performing and singing. That’s where I belong.

Karen Mok’s Somewhere I Belong will be released in the UK on Decca Records on March 11.

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