Jian (Kin) Li is an award-winning producer and film composer living in Los Angeles. Kin produces music in a vast array of contexts—from writing and international touring with his funk group Project Ace, to producing and arranging for an album with Chinese Top 5 R&B/Soul artist Tia Ray. Kin also has his hand in film composing, and his films have gone on to receive recognition in dozens of film festivals, including awards for Best Original Film Score in the Asian International Short Film Festival. We caught up with Kin to ask him a few questions about his career.
First, why don’t you tell us about your band Project Ace? You guys are an Urban Soul Funk band from China, and are well known around there, how has it been recording and touring with the band?
We’re a very diverse group; we all come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds. We’ve got a rapper and a DJ, some of the other members are more hip-hop oriented, and I’m classically trained and also play soul, jazz, and funk. Because of that, every time we come together to rehearse or record we all have different ideas to contribute into our compositions. You can definitely hear it in the music. So it’s been really fun, and I’m very grateful to be a part of the group. We’re all pretty established in our careers and can be quite busy on our own, but always
manage to find the time to record and perform as a band. We’ve toured a ton of places, including many of China’s major music festivals like the Shanghai Strawberry Music Festival, Shanghai Jazz Festival, Southwest, and others. Our album from 2014 was nominated for some of China’s top music awards: the Chinese Music Media Award in 2015 for Best Band, Best Hip-Hop Artist, and Best Arrangement as well as the Guangzhou New Music Best Band and Best New Band.
What has been your favorite memory working in production studios? Do you enjoy being a producer as much as a musician?
I’ve got many good memories from the studios… and I love being both a producer and musician for sure! There are plenty of differences though. As a musician, I very much enjoy the performance aspect of it. But being a producer is quite different; I feel there are more creative challenges, but also more room to create. One needs to share and communicate their thoughts with other musicians, as well as to listen to the thoughts of others. I feel great when I can make something that satisfies both my musical tastes and that of my collaborators. As for my favorite memory… if I had to pick one, it’d probably be working with “Mr. Talkbox”, Byron Chambers. I was producing a song for Shaohua Ding, a well-known Chinese R&B jazz singer, and I wanted it to have an old-school vibe like Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic”. So I got in touch with Mr. Chambers, and he gladly agreed to join the production. We were totally in sync creatively. He wanted to try to sing some Chinese, so I taught him a few words; he nailed them! Definitely a favorite experience for sure.
Any great composers or players that you have gotten to work with?
Yeah, and I feel very lucky and humbled for that. I’ve worked with Byron Chambers (Bruno Mars), as well as other grammy award winning artists like Michael Norfleet (Janet Jackson), Gorden Campbell (Beyonce), Nathan Wang (Hans Zimmer), Adam Kagan, and others. Working with each of them has been a great pleasure, and I’ve learned a ton from them!
Was it easy to make the change from music composer to film composer? Or had you always doing both things simultaneously?
I’d say I’ve been doing both simultaneously for the most part. I grew up in a family of musicians, and have been playing piano since I was 4 years old. But I didn’t actually start composing until my dad passed away. I was about 14 years old at the time, and his passing made me want to take music seriously, to express my feelings of loss and of missing him. Coincidentally, around the same time, I was offered to compose music for a Tibetan documentary. It was my first composition to be released publically, and it was very well-received, further motivating me to continue composing for documentaries and film. Ever since then I’ve continued producing a lot of music, both for groups and for films.
What is your favorite film you have scored for?
I’d say Brad Lee is my favorite. It’s a fairly recent film I scored; the story is about an underground MMA fighter who tries to put his life as a fighter behind him. When he gets a new job as a janitor for a gym, he soon realizes that his passion for fighting never really left. He’s forced to choose between his life as a fighter and his relationship with his girlfriend, who is secretly pregnant. It’s a difficult choice for him, but ultimately he decides not to give up on his dream. Initially his girlfriend and family don’t support his decision, and he fears that he’ll lose them. But eventually he succeeds in his dream, and his family returns to support him. Though not a fighter myself, I found his story relatable when I first watched it. That drive to succeed is the same for me in my musical career. People don’t always understand or support why I chose this career, but I know music has been and always will be a necessity in my life. The picture also won me Best Original Score, which I’m very grateful for.
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences playing live.
That’s a hard question, I’ve got a lot of favorites! If I had to pick one, I’d say it was when I played to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the Playwrights’ Arena Barnsdall Gallery Theater. I was invited by Nathan Wang to be the keyboardist and music director for the show, and was very surprised when he contacted me. At the time, I’d only been in the United States for 2 months! I probably didn’t even speak English very well back then. But he trusted me and gave me the opportunity, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to make it work. It was a ton of pressure, but I was also excited to share the stage with many talented musicians from around the world. Our diverse musical backgrounds and cultures created a great chemistry on the stage, and made the experience very special for me. Definitely one of the most memorable live experiences in my life so far!