JJ Lin may be one of the biggest stars of Mandopop, with 14 studio albums and numerous chart-toppers to his name since he burst onto the scene in 2003, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. Earlier this year, the singer released his first EP recorded fully in English—a gamble by one of Chinese music’s most well-known names, but one that the 40 year-old thought was necessary. “I felt a strong tug in my heart that the time was coming where I had to see myself as two individuals. It was about bringing myself back to ground zero—starting up again, reminding myself of my core values and just seeing myself from a different angle because I felt that I needed the fresh perspective,” says Lin of the rationale behind the release.

To really drive home the difference, Lin ventured far outside his comfort zone. “Everything was very deliberate, even the musical style,” he discloses. “I intentionally did not try to reach any high notes in the album, except for ‘Bedroom’. I sang from the perspective of an alter ego. The things that I’ve done before, I tried not to do. I wrote from different perspectives. I wanted a new sound—I wanted to just try and see what comes out of it.”

One of the most surprising things that came out of it was Lin’s collaboration with legendary American DJ Steve Aoki. “That was the collaboration that got me really excited because I’ve never really collaborated with a DJ like that. It was a very different approach whereby we presented the remix before the actual version. When I heard his version, it was mind-blowing—I never saw myself writing a dance floor kind of song, but he made it so convincing,” says Lin of the partnership.

This drive to innovate and reinvent is nothing new for Lin; in fact, it is a compulsion he has felt from the beginning of his career. He brings up his 2005 album No. 89757. “It was such a weird album in terms of the concept—imagine, this was 16 years ago and a newcomer came in with the idea to write an album about a robot that was also a love story. Even to this day, it’s kind of weird. But I went forth even though I knew that most of my peers or colleagues wouldn’t know what’s going on. But at least I managed to convince the boss,” he exclaims with a laugh. “I would love to hear from them today about how they felt at that time. Sometimes, I feel that not everyone gets me, or maybe I’m too crazy or unrealistic or imaginative, but I’ve always believed that when it comes to creativity, you should never limit yourself.”

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That fearlessness manifests not just in the way Lin pushes his own boundaries, but also in how he would like to push the industry forward. “What excites me the most today is how the world and technology have advanced. I’m a tech geek,” he admits. “I’m thrilled by the advancements in tech coming together with those in music. Redefining the stage; combining music, performance, dance, visuals and technology with the stage… that really excites me. That’s my new vision: To bring music further, to stretch the boundaries of music making and stagecraft.”

The chance to bring that vision to life came when the pandemic halted his Sanctuary World Tour, which kicked off in 2018 and hit 43 cities before it was brought to a standstill. “We were right in the middle of the tour,” he reveals. “We waited for more than a year to see if things would get better and when it didn’t, I told my manager that we had to have an ending. It didn’t make sense to leave it for two years or more and then resume it—life would have changed; I would have different stories to tell, different emotions to share. We—the fans, myself, my team— needed a sense of closure, which, of course, also meant a reason to start again. That was why we came up with the idea of a virtual concert as the finale (which was held this July).”

To pull off the feat, Lin dreamt big. “It was this crazy idea and when I first presented it to my manager, her heart stopped,” he lets on. “But then I shared with her how I felt and how I actually see it coming together, the reality of it. The technology is already there—it’s just that no one has used it for music in this way. You see live streaming on Twitch and in gaming, and I asked myself, what if we made use of that? I’m not talking about having a concert and streaming it live—that’s a live telecast; you already see that with soccer games. I was talking about a show made just for live streaming.”

It wasn’t without its hitches—the streaming of the Sanctuary Finale Virtual Concert was spotty at times, but Lin was glad he persisted. “We probably didn’t do it in the best way we could have, but we did it,” he asserts. “Aside from the lag, it was a really decent show that would be convincing if put out internationally.” Lin sees it as the future of the industry: “It doesn’t have to replace the physical concert industry and it shouldn’t—they’re not the same. The audience may be the same, but it’s a different world.”

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In fact, Lin hopes that more in the industry will rally behind this shift. “I think this is the direction we’re heading towards and I hope that more people will experiment with it—take a little risk, but have fun with it because that’s what entertainment is supposed to be,” he says. “It can only be a business model if more people come on board, and it has to be monetised or it will always be just an experiment. I’m glad I experimented with it because I’m trying to prove, at least to myself and my team, that it is possible. The future is coming, whether you acknowledge it or not. I just wish we can all make use of the new technology to make a stand for ourselves, make a difference and keep the fans excited—be part of this changing world.”

Lin has been thinking a lot more about his craft and his calling, and that’s because of the pandemic as well. “I definitely had a lot more time to reflect. In a sense, it’s a good thing,” he says. “I never had that kind of chance to learn from myself and from life simply because of my schedule. [The pandemic] made me realise that life doesn’t have to be defined by one’s busyness; success shouldn’t be defined by one’s level of engagement in work. I started to redefine in my heart and mind what life is all about, and what it should be for myself.”

That’s not to say that the time and focus he has put into his music and career has been “too much”, he clarifies. “A lot of people, even my parents, have told me that I’m working too much. But I don’t want to stop and that’s a choice. I’m very fortunate to be at this stage where I can make major life decisions and nobody will actually really stop me. I realise that I’ve chosen to become who I am and do what I’ve been doing out of passion and love, so I should keep doing it because it makes me happy.”

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What he loves has not changed in the almost 18 years he has been in the industry, he adds. “My heart and how I see myself as an artiste have always been the same—I want to focus on the music, the work, the storytelling, and how I can convert my experiences into something that can be shared.” The pandemic brought about its challenges, but it hasn’t diminished his passion one bit—if anything, it made his love burn brighter. “It’s been hard,” he concedes, “because you crave that magic, that human connection. The process feels incomplete without interaction.” That interaction feeds his creativity, whether it occurs in the studio or on stage. “The studio is where the magic happens; it’s like a sacred place. It’s where you leave all your baggage outside and when you go in, it’s like entering a confession booth in church—it’s where you share all your inner feelings. When you’re on stage, you’re bringing that memory, the real essence of it, and sharing it with the world,” he explains.

Still, certain things aren’t easy to share—cue the songs that come from a place of pain. “You write sad songs because you’ve been there, you felt that hurt, and every time you sing those songs, you have to go through the pain all over again. Songs like ‘可惜沒如果’ (‘If Only’) are songs that people sing their hearts out to at KTVs, but those are the songs I don’t really sing on stage, for a reason,” he shares. “‘暂时的记号’ (‘Passing Through’), from my latest Mandarin EP, is a song I don’t really like to sing because it’s a deep song; it’s heart-wrenching because it talks about our time in this world and the realisation that you’re just a dot. From the English EP, ‘Not Tonight’ was a song I wrote when I was in a really low place. It’s a dance number, but the words evoke memories that are still very much alive for me. Writing those kinds of songs was hard, but at the same time, it was kind of like a healing process.”

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For someone so passionate about what he does, one wonders if there is any aspect of the industry that makes Lin question himself. “It’s not so much about the industry, but rather, our generation today,” he muses. “There’s this relationship between the fans, the artistes and the media, especially social media, that can be very exciting but at the same time also very scary—especially when people don’t make use of social media in a moral, proper way. When that happens, the relationship can become very draining and disappointing. I feel that social media now is all about the self—and I wish it’s less about that and more about others. I wish the world could be a little more loving.”

Does he sometimes wish to disengage from the whole social media machinery then? “Frankly, I don’t think I can fully disconnect unless I choose to stop everything. I care about what my fans think and that’s why I look at the comments. We’re talking about the vicious side here, but it’s not the only side,” he points out. “Of course, I’ve thought about just closing my accounts, but then I asked myself if that would really change things. There might only be one or two vicious people out of 10; the rest might be comforted by my music, or my presence maybe, and if I do that because of those one or two people, it would be quite sad for the others, right? So I guess you just have to keep moving on.”

In his times of trouble, a lesson from his youth helps him get through it. “My pastor used to say that the Lord will never let me be tested beyond my strength,” he says. “So I always tell myself that I’m only going through whatever I’m going through because I can overcome it; that it’s a process and I’m in the middle of it—when I overcome it, that will become a story I can share with the world and maybe, my experience will help others.”

Lin certainly has his eye on the bigger picture. When asked about the legacy he wants to leave behind, he allows that he does ponder it sometimes. “And I always go back to the people who inspired me from the start,” he states. “Musically, I want to leave a legacy like Michael Jackson’s. His music impacted the world—people remember all the moments, the way he was on stage. It’s a bit different for me because I don’t dance as much any more, but I really hope that my music and stage work would leave an impact like that on the fans, the world.”

Photography: Gan
Styling: Windy Aulia
Video: Parallax Collective
Makeup: Clarence Lee using Dior
Hair: Ken Hong/Evolve Salon
Photographer’s assistant: Samsidi Baderi
Assistant stylists: Lauren Alexa; Gracia Phang
Shot at Pasir Panjang Power Station
Special thanks to Classic Car Club Singapore