A name that needs no introduction in the entertainment industry, Karen Joy Morris (her birth name) or Karen Mok as she is well known as, has not only conquered the movie scene but also won many awards as a pop singer. In town to promote her latest English Jazz album, “Somewhere I Belong”, Kenneth Wong had the chance to meet the Hong Kong super star who talked about her latest album and her love for Jazz.
This is your first English album which is a surprise for many as you have done many Chinese albums and movies and had a very successful career. So why did you decide on a first jazz album?
Karen: I have a lot of fans who are relieved to finally welcome this English album as they have been waiting for it. Jazz has been a passion since my university days when I first fell in love with it. It’s been a dream for a very long time which has finally come true and I am very proud of it.
What is your own interpretation on jazz as you have added a Chinese touch to many of the arrangements?
Karen: The first thing is that we are positive about is that we don’t want to copy other Jazz singers or musicians who came before us as there is no point pretending to be someone else. Jazz is such a widely loved genre and different people from different background tend to intercept it in their own way.
I think that is really the way to do jazz so this is a jazz album coming out this part of the world, from Asia and done by myself and Chinese musicians. We decided that it is important to have our own character and identity and that’s why I play the GuZheng (a Chinese string instrument) myself. I think it is interesting to throw in these Chinese instruments and create a new sound within the genre of jazz itself.
Looking at the album title “Somewhere I Belong”, it does suggest a sense of searching and did you experience it some point in your life? Why did you choose “Somewhere I Belong” for the album title?
Karen: It took me quite a while to come up with this title and this is actually the title of a poem that I wrote myself. The poem came from my photo book a few years ago, and it struck me that this is a lifelong question that I have been asking myself. I come from a mixed background growing up in Hong Kong and as it is quite a big place, it can sometimes have an effect on you being unsure where you belong to.
For me it doesn’t really matter which city or place I belong to but rather where I feel most comfortable with. The stuff I am do which makes me most at home is when I am on stage performing my music and especially Jazz, which is my biggest love in music. This would make a good summary of everything I want to talk about through this album.
Is there a new belonging in Jazz, the music genre?
Karen: Yes there is and I hope I can expand on this a lot more. I hope this is not the last jazz album as there are still many of these standards that I would love to reinterpret in my own way.
You mentioned that you gained an interest in Jazz during your university days. Do you remember which album or song or artist was it that started it all?
Karen: There was this one specific moment in time when I fell in love with jazz which should be on a Friday night. As my college was outside of London, I would often take a train to downtown London to see some plays and do some shopping. I was just walking down Charing Cross Road and there was this discount shop selling books and music CDs and stuff. It was there I happen to pick up a Jazz CD and brought it back to listen.
While listening to it, I went “WOW! So this is what they call Jazz.” I loved it, really got into it and started listening to all the big names in Jazz.
The thing with Jazz especially is that the vocalist really sings from within their hearts and that is what I think singing is about. It is not about showing off your technique but rather singing out the story or your emotions and touching people.
Does this affect your selections of the songs you chosen for the album as you have been very involved in the production of the album?
Karen: I picked the songs myself and that was a grueling task as it is almost impossible with so many songs I would have liked to do. I started out choosing the standards and we (the production team) were quite certain we wanted to have some contemporary numbers as well as coming from my pop background, it made a lot of sense to do so.
This included the one by Eric Clapton where I know I can feature my GuZheng in a nice way and so I decided to replace the guitar solo with it. Sting was another selection which came up quite early in the process as “Moon Over Bourbon Street” is really quite jazzy and it tells a story as a narrative. I like that as an actress as it is like acting out a character.
Do you see yourself doing more English albums or maybe even in other languages?
Karen: I love Jazz and singing in English comes very naturally to me as it is also a language that most people can understand and relate to. I think with being a performer as an actor and singer, the most important thing is to reach out to people. I hope via a genre like Jazz and also singing in English or maybe in the future, in another language, this would allow me to reach out to a bigger audience.
You recorded many Chinese albums and “Somewhere I Belong” is your first English album. What are the difficulties that you face and is there anything different with it?
The biggest difference was that with a Jazz album, you record it with a band. While as with pop music, you have the music arranged beforehand and you just go in and do your vocals. With Jazz it is like a pseudo live performance as you have everyone together in the same room. You have to get psyched up, not only just yourself but also everyone else.
You also have to practice before the recording session and yet not overdo it. Overdoing it can lead to killing the flair so it has to be at that moment where everyone feels they are ready to go. This also makes things exciting.
As a singer, what do you think are the qualities needed to sing Jazz songs?
Karen: You really need to immerse yourself into the music and for me I treat my voice like one of the instruments. I think as a vocalist, it is like acting in a movie. Even if you are playing the lead character, there still has to be teamwork and not just about shinning on your own. Everything is related and everyone should complement each other.
From your music to your movies, it does seem like you are heading “west wards”. Is this just a coincidence or is this the direction you would like to take?
Karen: I never planned out my career as I have been going with my gut feeling. If something looks to be fun and seems to be the right direction to go, I will just follow my heart and do it. Of course, I would keep my eyes out for opportunities I would like to have. This album and the Keanu Reeves movie “Man of Tai Chi” pretty much came up at the same time and they just found things to do no matter what the outcome is.
Karen has also become the latest to lend her celebrity voice to the global fight against malaria. Joining the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, she shared with everyone present her reason for doing so:
Karen: We are very lucky we come from big cities like Hong Kong and Singapore where we are not even aware that a killer disease like malaria is still taking so many lives, especially that of children. I just hope that by speaking out for these people less fortunate than ourselves, we could create more awareness and reach out to those that need our help.
Karen Mok’s latest English Jazz album “Somewhere I Belong” is available now at all good record stores and on iTunes.
Photo credits: Ken Koh
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