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December 30, 2009

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Chasing a guitar dream

ARMED with an acoustic guitar and two years of Chinese, 23-year-old American Jessica Gibson is writing earthy, folksy music, playing with a couple of bands and hoping one day she can tour China. Nancy Zhang strikes a chord. Shanghai with its proliferation of bars, live music venues and its history of jazz is increasingly a magnet for international musicians.

But while male jazz musicians top the list of expat performers here, women musicians in other genres are harder to spot.

American Jessica Gibson helps to fill that gap, writing and singing her own "earthy" folk songs accompanied by acoustic guitar.

"Shanghai is the place for musicians. It's an up-and-coming city where people increasingly have the money to spend on live music. I have met so many foreigners who say this is the place to find work."

Gibson came to Shanghai a couple of years ago to study Chinese. Since she had played and loved music since the age of 12, she enrolled in a one-year language course at the Shanghai Music Conservatory. She finished that course and is continuing her Chinese studies at Donghua University.

Meanwhile, she took a chance on the local performance scene. With only a guitar and her business card, she made the rounds of the bars and venues in the city, asking if she could perform. She remembers her first paid gig at a pub in Qingpu District. The novelty of being a foreign woman musician helped a lot to get her work - in contrast with the United States where so many musicians are vying for any chance to perform that many people will play for free, says Gibson.

Gibson has always been interested in China and the Chinese language, even before coming to Shanghai. She started a music-related degree in college with some elective Chinese courses, but dropped out to pursue her musical career. Moving from her home in Maryland to Los Angeles, she found that it was extremely difficult to make it as a musician and she took a full-time job as a waitress to survive.

"It's very hard to pursue your musical dream in the United States because you're playing but not being paid. So you also have to have a day job, which takes up time," she says.

Ever since taking a chance on China, however. Gibson has found regular work either playing her own material or singing covers around town. She is now a singer in two cover bands, Mixed Dream Colour Band and Undercover. They are formed from classmates in university in Shanghai and other expat musicians.

The highlight of her career so far has been playing at the prestigious Tennis Masters Cup in October this year.

She is inspired by the music of her parent's generation and by her father, a professional piano player. She is influenced by bluesy, folksy material such as Bob Dylan and Janice Joplin.

In China she says the most interesting music is also that of the middle-aged generation, and the "red" songs from the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) era. "There's meat in those songs, it's culture - it's not like the empty pop of today."

She spends her days practicing with the band, "blasting music in my apartment" and hanging out with friends. She also finds time to write songs. But inspiration for them has to come to her - it can't be produced on demand.

"When I'm writing songs it's very easy to slip into a dark place - that's what art is about, to express all the bad things you can't in real life."

Gibson is just going with the flow, hoping that she can continue to play music and make a living doing her dreams.

"I never stay anywhere long, but here I feel there really could be a future musically. My dream is to get a really strong band together and tour all over China, maybe even the rest of Asia."Jessica Gibson

Nationality: American

Age: 23

Profession: Musician



Spontaneous, sincere, intense.

Favorite place:

There's no one place, but I like finding little pockets of old Shanghai that's like a village. It's like all of a sudden you're not in Shanghai anymore. But these places are being torn down, which is sad.

Perfect weekend:

Playing a great concert somewhere so I feel good about myself, good dinner at a Chinese restaurant, shopping on Huaihai Road and buying some bargain shoes.

Worst experience:

Just being so far away from family and friends, they're the people who care most about you. I miss my grandparents especially.

Motto for life:

I have a new one every day because we're all changing all the time. My motto for today is don't take anything personally.

How to improve

Shanghai:Stop spitting. Chinese people are so proud of their country, but it's the biggest symbol of disrespect to spit on your own nice stuff. This has got to change.

Advice to newcomers:

Just hold on. It's easy to get complete culture shock - especially for Americans and Europeans. Don't get too caught up in the differences emotionally, and never take anything personally.


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