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Become a Cultural Navigator

Tennyson King makes waves across Asia-Pacific by marrying catchy indie folk rock with clever videos

Tennyson King by Jen Squires
Canadian Folk Music Award nominee Tennyson King sings in English and Mandarin. Photo by Jen Squires.

Tennyson King likes to describe himself as a true indie folk-rock nomad. For good reason. The Canadian singer-songwriter’s musical career has taken him to countless communities in Canada, five tours of Australia, and three tours of China. In addition, he’s performed in Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil, and New Zealand.

“I was actually just in Indonesia and Malaysia,” King tells Pancouver over Zoom.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t do a concert in Jakarta because it was still coping with the fallout from the pandemic.

“When I go to Southeast Asia to play music, I’m not thinking about how can I make the most money possible,” King explains. “I’m finding how I can connect to the culture through the music and with locals and local musicians.”

It’s been a remarkable musical odyssey for King, who was born in Hong Kong. He immigrated to Canada with his family when he was four years old, growing up in Mississauga. He also lived in Hamilton, Toronto, Kelowna, and part of the year in New Westminster.

“I go back and forth between Vancouver and Mississauga,” King says. “I go to Australia, too, and Hong Kong. Before COVID, I was spending about four months in each area.”

His debut full-length album, Good Company, includes one track, “What Am I Doing”, which reflects his nomadic lifestyle.

“Every day, I wake up in a different place,” he sings in the opening stanza. “I look around twice to make sure it ain’t the same.”

“What Am I Doing?” oozes alt-folk, anchored by King’s strong singing. It’s complemented with emotionally resonant background vocals by Rainey Smith. And the song is rounded out with powerful electric guitar, understated keyboard, and a steady beat augmented with a clever cymbal riff. King has also recorded an acoustic version.

Tennyson King 2 by Jen Squires
Tennyson King enjoys creating memorable images. Photo by Jen Squires.

King nominated for Good Company

In fact, Good Company delivers a banquet of indie folk-rock on tracks such as “Life on Shore (Carry Me Away)” and “It Ain’t Easy”.

“I often relate it to a Jack Johnson or John Mayer vibe—that type of music where it’s chill, but there’s a lot of catchy vocal melodies,” King says.

The album is getting noticed. King is nominated in the New/Emerging Artist(s) of the Year category for Good Company at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. The CFMA festivities take place in Vancouver from March 31 to April 2.

He’ll perform on Thursday (March 30) at 7 p.m. at Guilt & Company (1 Alexander Street) and then at 9 p.m. on April 1 at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Watch the video for “What Am I Doing?”

Videos showcase B.C. scenery

Meanwhile, the video for “What Am I Doing?” features footage of King filmed on five different continents.

“When I write a song or when I finish writing a song, my mind—the first thing it goes to—is ‘How can we turn this to a visual offering as well?’ ” King says.

“It Ain’t Easy” is another of his memorable videos. It was inspired by playing in a somewhat seedy yet cool bar in Northern Ontario near the end of a Canadian tour. At bigger venues, he might perform to audiences of 300 to 1,000 people. But on this occasion, hardly anyone was in the place when a rowdy group of drunk young people showed up.

King recalls that they weren’t paying much attention to him. Then, all of the sudden, they began engaging in competitive and noisy arm-wrestling battles inside the tavern.

“As I was playing, I was kind of losing focus,” King says with a smile. “I was thinking, ‘this would be a hilarious scene—just, like, people arm-wrestling at a dinghy bar… So that’s where that idea came from.”

The video for “It Ain’t Easy” was shot in the Okanagan.

When King returned home to Kelowna, he talked to a friend who plays drums. This friend also happens to be a semi-professional arm wrestler, who then rounded up members of his club in the Okanagan for King’s video. Because it was going to be shot during the pandemic, King moved the activity outside in a spectacular lakeside setting.

Now, he believes that “It Ain’t Easy” can double as a workout video.

Another of his music videos, “Slow Down”, was shot in Vancouver and Sea to Sky Country, including at Kitsilano Beach and along Tunnel Bluffs.

“I love pairing music with videos,” he says.

The “Slow Down” video includes footage from Kitsilano Beach.

Singing in Mandarin as well as English

Aside from his videos, what truly sets King apart from the vast majority of other indie folk-rockers is his ability to sing in other languages. In May 2021, he released his first Chinese-language single, 生命的进度, coinciding with Asian Heritage Month. The next month, he released a second Chinese-language single, 自在.

As a child, King learned Cantonese from his parents. But he’s been working hard on his Mandarin, which is the national language of China and Taiwan. It’s far less tonal than Cantonese.

“I’ve started with Mandarin first because it’s a bit easier to write and sing,” King says. “I don’t have to worry about all the tones.”

At first, he would try to translate his English lyrics directly into Mandarin. But a friend in China advised him that this didn’t capture the feelings and message that he was trying to convey. So they worked together to figure out what made the most sense to a person listening to Chinese-language poetry.

“Poetry and art in different languages are said differently,” King says. “They have different colloquial sayings.”

Watch Tennyson King’s video for “Loving You”.

From the Royal Conservatory to Kunming

King didn’t initially set out to be an indie musician. Like a fair number of Canadian-born children of Hong Kong immigrants, he enrolled in classical piano at a young age. His mother told him that he had to remain in the Royal Conservatory up to at least the eighth grade.

“Then I quit and started playing music for my own enjoyment,” King says.

He picked up a guitar, inspired by the likes of Nirvana and Metallica. And the rest is history.

But King didn’t entirely give up on the piano, either. By the time he reached university, he decided to return to the conservatory to finish the ninth and 10th grades.

Then, after graduating from university, King went travelling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Upon returning to Toronto, he decided to get serious and studied independent music production at Seneca College. It taught him to think about pursing his creative aspirations as a business.

“That kind of switched my whole music mentality and started my career,” King says, “because I was able to learn how to actually succeed—and relate music to a business.”

Since then, he’s become a popular performer in Australia. And he’s played in many provinces of China, from southwestern Yunnan all the way north to Beijing.

One of his favourite spots is Kunming, a bustling southwestern Chinese metropolis of more than eight million people. Kunming is known for its diversity, including Indigenous cultures, as well as its traditional Han Dynasty buildings and colourful clothing infused with natural dyes.

King says that one area, the historic town of Dali, is like China’s version of Nelson, B.C. That’s due to its hippie vibe.

“Prior to COVID happening, I wanted to go back there to live for a few months to learn to play some Chinese instruments,” King says. “I love it there. It’s kind of like alternative China.”

Tennyson King
This image appears on the Good Company album cover.

Canada as a Chinese-language music hub

He feels that his travels enrich his music because it exposes him to so much more of what’s out in the world. He also doesn’t look at overseas performances as simply a way to advance his career but as a means to grow as a person.

“I love meeting different cultures and people,” King declares.

Last year, the Society of We Are Canadians Too launched the Jade Music Festival in Vancouver to promote Chinese-language music in Canada.

King says that he’s been impressed by the growth of Chinese-language music production in Canada, noting that this country has a huge Chinese diaspora.

Furthermore, he emphasizes that embracing Chinese-language music in Canada is important not just for the youths. According to him, it’s also worth doing to let immigrants know that it’s perfectly fine to retain their culture rather than cast it aside after moving to Canada.

“That’s something that I went through, which I wish that I didn’t have to,” King acknowledges. “It was the feeling that I couldn’t keep my culture for so many years of my life until I was old enough to kind of heal myself from that trauma. And recognize that it’s okay.”

Moreover, King believes that these are reasons enough to support Chinese-language music, even if record companies haven’t yet recognized the business potential.

“I think the more we do it—and the more we normalize it—then the Canadian music industry will start to recognize it,” he adds.

Tennyson King will perform on Thursday (March 30) at 7 p.m. at Guilt & Company (1 Alexander Street) and then at 9 p.m. on April 1 at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. The Canadian Folk Music Awards Weekend runs from March 31 to April 2 in Vancouver. For more information and tickets, visit Eventbrite. Follow  editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.