Daniel Lew didn’t set out to be a professional singer-songwriter. Sure, he loved strumming on the guitar after being exposed to this instrument as a nine-year-old at Nestor Elementary School in Coquitlam. Later, as an undergraduate kinesiology student at Simon Fraser University, Lew became serious about composing his own music.
“It got to the point where I almost dropped out of my degree just to become a songwriter,” Lew tells Pancouver over Zoom. “But I ended up stifling that a little bit to continue my academic journey for a few more years.”
Toward the end of his undergraduate studies, he experienced a life-changing event. And it deepened his attachment to music and re-shaped his perspective.
“It happened overnight—and there’s a long story behind that—but essentially, I lost 90 percent of hearing in my left ear,” Lew says. “Then I developed tinnitus, which I experience 24/7.”
Even with ringing in his ear, Lew went on to earn a master’s degree in physical therapy at the University of Western Ontario. He then became a member of a licensed health profession and his future looked secure.
But Lew couldn’t let go of the itch to compose. So, he slowly began reducing time spent on physiotherapy and paid more attention to writing songs. Now, he estimates that only about two percent of his working time is devoted to his physiotherapy practice, with the rest on his musical career.
“It was a vision that ended up becoming a reality,” Lew explains. “It all started from an intention of wanting to do the most good, and just uplift people. And being content with the fact that even if it’s only one person that you impact, I’ve done my duty as an artist.”
Daniel Lew performs “Alive (The Ocean Song)”.
Lew remains grateful for his hearing
Along the way, he’s self-produced and engineered four albums and performed more than 250 times. One of his career highlights came when Ed Sheeran recently invited him to his dressing room at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre to meet his family. Sheeran revealed to Lew that he, too, has lost some hearing in his left ear.
Near the end of their 20-minute get-together, Lew sang one of his recent songs, “Alive (The Ocean Song)”. That was shortly before Sheeran went on-stage.
“I’m grateful that I can still hear,” Lew says. “I’m grateful that I can appreciate music and sound.”
Hearing inspires Lew every day because this sense is so directly linked to what he loves doing. Moreover, the songwriter has gained confidence learning about how the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven created some of his most memorable works after going completely deaf.
“Knowing that fact helped me get rid of some of my fears,” Lew states.
This month, Lew will appear at two free Jade Music Fest events in Vancouver. At 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday (October 18), he will speak at the Annex (823 Seymour Street) with Darling Sparrows. That evening, Lew will perform in the festival’s opening-night concert, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre (3123 West Broadway).
Launched last year by the Society of We Are Canadians Too, the Jade Music Fest is dedicated to elevating Chinese-language music in Canada and abroad. Even though Lew normally writes and sings in English, he plans to perform one song in Mandarin and another song in Cantonese.
This would have been unimaginable several years ago.
A big personal victory
During the interview, Lew shares a story about why he quit attending Chinese school. A teacher scolded him when he had trouble finding the proper Cantonese words. She wasn’t impressed by him switching to English during a show-and-tell presentation.
“That created an experience where I almost rejected the language for a long time,” Lew says. “So, for me to sing in these languages at Jade—I’m so proud that I’m going to be doing this. It’s a big personal victory.”
It’s even more remarkable when one considers that his parents, who were both born in Canada, spoke English to each other at home. Lew was still exposed to Chinese dialects because one set of grandparents spoke Cantonese and another set of grandparents spoke Toisan.
“This is why Jade Music Festival is so important to me right now,” Lew says. “I got invited to do this after a year of where I really started to embrace my own Chinese culture more.”
Even though he can be very spiritual, Lew is not big on religious labels. However, he acknowledges becoming interested in aspects of Taoism, including the concept of yin and yang. In another nod to Chinese culture, he’s also learning some Mandarin with the help of his girlfriend, Caroline Ding.
Watch Daniel Lew and Caroline Ding perform “Stand Up for Ourselves”.
Lew and Ding urge others to stand up
Over the Labour Day weekend, he performed several songs with Ding at Vancouver TAIWANfest, including “Stand Up for Ourselves”. Lew referred to it on-stage as their “anti-Asian hate song”.
“We wrote it together because we thought we had a responsibility as artists to express our voice and our emotions around the hatred that was being directed at our people over the past few years around the time of the pandemic,” Lew told the audience.
Ding, who stood beside him on-stage, then said that she feels like racism is really hidden in Vancouver. But she also revealed that their song is actually based on experiences.
It opens with a Bob Dylan-esque feel. Lew strums his guitar as he tells a story in melody with heartfelt intensity about a racist incident on a bus. Then, Ding jumps in alongside Lew for the harmonic chorus, before doing her own rap about an incident of anti-Asian hatred targeting a terrified woman
From there, it’s back to the chorus: “If we don’t stand up for ourselves / We will become the Asian girl…”
What comes next addresses a key question facing all decent people who endure or witness racism. Ding raps about being a girl with dignity, trying to live her life gracefully. But then, she proudly declares: “If you ever mess with me, I’m going to kick-kick-kick like Bruce Lee!”
Then Lew repeats this sentiment, singing that he’s a man of decency, trying to live his life peacefully. Like Ding, he sings that if someone tries to mess with him, he, too, will kick-kick-kick like Bruce Lee.
Daniel Lew recorded his “Candlelight” video four years ago.
Dylan makes a big impression
For anyone who hears the song, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that Lew has been influenced by Dylan. With anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”, Dylan changed the game for a generation of songwriters, including John Lennon.
“I’m a big fan of both,” Lew says. “There was an interview I was reading with John Lennon. And they were asking him about his songwriting process.”
Lennon replied that he would have a book of poetry and his music, then piece it together. But he adjusted his approach after meeting Dylan and witnessing his process. According to Lew, Lennon was captivated by the way Dylan simply strummed his guitar while speaking his mind in melody.
One might conclude that Lew embraced a similar approach with “Stand Up for Ourselves”.
“I love writing with just a notebook and guitar and going out in nature—and having no technology other than that,” Lew says. “It feels so real.”
Kid Koala offers guidance
Dylan and Lennon aren’t his only musical inspirations. Lew has also learned a great deal from his cousin, Vancouver-born and Montreal-based scratch DJ, producer, and visual artist Kid Koala. Also known as Eric Yick Keung San, Kid Koala has pursued his own path, which has included releasing graphic novels.
Koala has collaborated with many artists over the years. And he’s encouraged Lew to do the same, but not at the cost of his independence.
“He’s given me a lot of coaching,” Lew relates. “He’s really pushed me to try to take the onus on of being as independent as I can—and try to do as much as I can.”
Lew’s first album, Jiving Nomad, resulted from a one-month songwriting and surfing trip to Bali in 2019. He suffered an injury on the water early on the vacation, so he shifted his entire focus to songwriting. He initially planned on releasing only the final song, “Tethered”, but as he got into the flow, he added more to the mix until he had a full-length record.
One of his most recent pieces, “Alive (The Ocean Song)”, came about in a similar way. Lew was sitting at English Bay near sunset listening to the water when he became inspired to write. After he finished recording it, he was in the same spot a few months later working on other songs.
That’s when he was approached by someone from the Daily Hive, who asked for an interview.
“It was so random,” Lew says. “It was 12 o’clock on, like, a Monday. No one was at the beach.”
The interviewer asked Lew to share one of his songs. He played “Alive (The Ocean Song)”, which was later shared through the media outlet’s social channels.
“It ended up getting the song some traction—that video alone had gotten 180,000 views or something,” Lew says. “I never had exposure like that.”
Daniel Lew performs “Tethered” from his debut album, Jiving Nomad.
Meeting Ed Sheeran
A similar set of fortuitous circumstances led to his meeting with Sheeran. Lew believes in the concept of living with intention. So, he decided to go busking near the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on the night of Sheeran’s show.
“I had this feeling that I might meet him,” Lew says. “It turns out that he saw me and he sent his security guard over.”
At first, Lew thought that the security guard was going to order him to leave. But then, the man asked Lew if he wanted to come to Sheeran’s show.
Lew was delighted by the offer. But what came next was truly a surprise.
“Do you want to meet Ed?” the security guard asked.
That led to Lew being invited back-stage, where Sheeran said that he did a lot of busking in the United Kingdom before his career took off.
“We got to chat about music,” Lew recalls. “I shared my journey. He shared some of his wisdom. And I asked him, ‘Would it be okay if I played a song?’ ”
Sheeran replied by saying, “That would be amazing.”
The Jade Music Festival presents Daniel Lew at two events on Wednesday (October 18). At 9:30 a.m., he will speak at the Annex (823 Seymour Street) with Darling Sparrows. That evening, Lew will perform in the festival’s opening-night concert, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre (3123 West Broadway). Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.