1. ‘Boat People’—Teresa Teng
Teresa Teng was a Taiwan pop superstar, and she is definitely one of the biggest inspirations that got me into music. She is considered a goddess because of her voice—there is so much pain in her delivery, but it’s so tender and magical. When I was born, my mum used to sing me her songs as lullabies. But I really became a huge Teresa Teng fan the day she died. There were tributes everywhere, and I started out imitating her when I was about 11. I could sing more than a hundred songs of hers. This performance is very old-school and completely genuine. It’s a love story, set by a river, about a couple not being able to live without each other. It still gives me goose bumps.
2. ‘Flowers Of The Other Shore’—Faye Wong
The Chinese language is very beautiful and deep, and Faye Wong has always worked with the best songwriters in the industry. When I was growing up in Shenzhen, she was doing her best work. She is the only forward-thinking Chinese commercial pop star. With her status, she could do whatever she wanted, and this is one of her most transcendent and experimental songs—the composition is more orchestral and arty than pop. It’s like Beyonce doing Bjork in Hong Kong. When I was a kid, I loved to read very dark stories, and my favorite novelist Anni Baobei used this song in one of her novels to describe a woman in a hopeless love affair.
3. ‘Ant’—Zhang Chu
Zhang Chu really mixes Chinese culture into rock spirit rather than copying anything else. This isn’t his biggest hit but it’s off his best album, Lonely People Should Be Ashamed (1994), which is where I became a big fan. I later covered the title track in my own style. His songwriting style is very imaginative, and he really reflects Chinese society and its modern transitions in his perspective. In this track, he puts himself in an ant’s body, talking about how his life operates; he uses metaphors to talk about inequality, and he has another song where he is a fly.
4. ‘Time’—Pink Floyd
My knowledge of English music mostly starts with 1990s releases, but this is an exception. When I was about 11 years old in China, a very musical older friend played me a live recording of Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon. That was the beginning of me getting into the cool side of alternative music. This track is a soundscape that takes you to a different place; the lyrical metaphors are almost Buddhist, and it kind of turns your mind on. I already felt like a black sheep in my family: I shaved my head because I wanted to stand out. When I came to Britain, I felt such a great sense of freedom, but I also realized that I could be at home anywhere.
5. ‘Escape Cloud’—Helicopter Girl
When I was at boarding school near Bristol, I had Helicopter Girl’s album How to Steal the World on mini-disc! It was love at first listen. I’m drawn to music that triggers a physical emotion, like my senses are being activated. I also love Scottish musicians, and I later studied in Scotland. Helicopter Girl is a singer-songwriter called Jackie Joyce, from Perth, and she has a very unusual voice and resonant lyrics. The music has a very mysterious, smoky-club kind of vibe. It’s like discovering a secret. I’ve listened to this album a lot more than most, and I really hope she’ll keep making music on her own terms. She did something too good to forget.
6. ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’—Cocteau Twins
I was walking down a high street in Bristol when I heard this playing out of an independent record shop. I went in and said, ‘I need this.’ I wasn’t old enough to have heard it when it was first released in the 1980s, and it just grabbed me. It was so mysterious—I kept asking what language the vocalist Liz Fraser was singing. ‘Is it German? Is it a made-up language?’ I still don’t understand a word that she’s saying, it’s so alien and beautiful, so far away, that it feels untouchable. The Cocteau Twins can take you to a different universe in five seconds.
7. ‘Flowers In December’—Mazzy Star
Friends at school would often tell me, ‘You have such weird taste in music—what is that? That song would make me want to kill myself!’ Mazzy Star’s frontwoman, Hope Sandoval, has this vulnerability in her voice that really resonated with me as a young girl in love. It’s a very feminine expression, almost like the loneliness of a girl’s diary, and she sounds like a confidante, someone whispering in your ear. There’s a line in this song that really stands out to me: ‘They say every man goes blind in his heart.’ It’s about the feeling of not being understood—by men, or the whole world.
8. ‘Nothing Even Matters’—D’Angelo & Lauryn Hill
I loved the whole ‘nu soul’ movement and I am the biggest fan of D’Angelo, who really stands out in the genre. Everything is so fine in every aspect of his music; it’s very sexy, but not in an obvious way—his voice is sensual. If I call myself a fan of someone’s work it means I like at least 90 percent of their catalog. On this duet, he and Lauryn Hill are singing about what love means, and they capture a private kind of chemistry—that idea that you could run away together. In the second half of the song a kind of reality kicks in.
9. ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’—Tricky
I actually met Tricky when I was working at a club in Mayfair, London. I’d been a fan of his work since his first album, Maxinquaye, and he’s a very unique character. He found my music demos on MySpace by himself after we met, and we later worked together. Tricky has a woman’s heart when he writes. He’s one of the best lyricists, but the magical quality of this track also has a lot to do with Martina Topley-Bird. I toured with them both for the Maxinquaye tour. When I listened to Maxinquaye again recently, it still cast a spell.
10. ‘To Care (Like You)’—James Blake
When James Blake’s first album came out I was already making my own music and listening to other artists less. This felt like a shock to the system—I cried when I heard it. He’s an all-round great musician and singer-songwriter, and I appreciate his minimalism. He’s managed to put real sentiment into very electronic sounds, and he’s also influenced by gospel and R&B. He is really good at writing naked and simple songs, sampling his voice as an instrument and using his instruments as a voice. The flow of this track is so melancholy—you have to be emotionally ready for it.