From The Straits Times    |

By her own account, Jasmine Yen is an introvert. Despite growing up in the spotlight – her father is Donnie Yen, the prolific actor known for his roles as the titular character in the Ip Man film series as well as Hollywood blockbuster franchises Star Wars and John Wick, while her mother is former beauty queen and model Cissy Wang – she has always been “very shy, even from a young age”. “Even now, I can’t have conversations easily with my parents’ friends – I’m just that shy. I struggle to talk to them, and I’m practically wordless.”

On stage, however, it’s a different ball game. When an opportunity to hold her first live performance at this year’s Majulah Music Night festival came, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter took it. She was in town in July this year for the performance, and there was no trace of shyness when she took the stage at the music festival, performing confidently without missing a beat.

And it’s not just the technical perfection that sets her performance apart. By her third song, the crowd was chanting her name as Jasmine constantly engaged the audience with effortless charm and an aura of confidence – impressive for someone who was “kind of hyperventilating and crying backstage out of nervousness” before performing in front of a live audience for the first time.

“It was intense, but I forced myself to stop crying because I had a performance to deliver,” she says. “I went on stage, and I was really nervous, but I slowly eased into it. The audience in Singapore is so friendly, and I love that they were interacting with me. Afterwards, when I went offstage, that’s when the floodgates opened and I started crying again [this time out of joy].”

When we first met for this cover shoot, it was less than 24 hours after she debuted as an official singer-songwriter. Two weeks later, the reality still has not sunk in. “It’s something that I’m honestly still adjusting to,” says the young singer, who is signed to Sony Music Entertainment’s RCA Records Greater China. “There are moments when I can’t quite grasp the reality of it all. I remember, a few days after being in Singapore, I visited the Sony headquarters. On the screen, there was a message that said ‘Welcome to Sony, Jasmine’ with my face right there. I was like, ‘Wow, is this really happening? Is this significant?’ It’s surreal that my music is available on streaming platforms, and I exist online in that sense.”

A star is born

Knit sweater with button details, Louis Vuitton. Divas’ Dream rose gold and mother-of-pearl necklace with rubellites and diamonds, and Divas’ Dream rose gold openwork earrings with rubies and diamonds, Bvlgari

Music has always resonated with Jasmine from a young age. Born in Canada and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai, she shares that her mother recently told her about the time when she was two, and they were watching a recorded concert of Michael Jackson at home. There was a scene where the renowned singer struck a pose and stood completely still on stage for over five minutes, while the crowd went absolutely wild. Most babies or toddlers might have gotten bored, however, Jasmine was completely captivated by it. “I have always been drawn to performance and music, I guess,” she says.

As she grew older, it became clear that Jasmine’s fascination with music was more than just a passing fancy. At seven years old, she started experimenting with songwriting. Her first song, she recalls, was called This is Not the World, a “very deep and emo” song that delves into the complex emotions and struggles of the world. “It’s really funny because I was really proud of that song, and I shared it with my entire family. My aunt was so worried, she was like, why did you write it? Did you hear your parents fight or argue or something? And I was like, no, I never even thought about that, I literally just made it up,” she shares.

At nine, she had her first performance when she sang in front of 2,000 guests at her aunt’s wedding. “My aunt was looking for a guest performer, and I overheard this and asked if I could perform. My mum was very shocked and unsure because, you know, I’m really shy. And my aunt knew that about me, but she loved me and said of course I could,” reveals Jasmine.

She ended up performing two songs that night: From This Moment by Shania Twain, and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. “I was really into it, I was even pointing at the audience and interacting with the wedding guests. My entire family was so shocked – they had never seen that side of me before,” she recalls with a laugh.

Knit sweater and wool miniskirt, Prada

At 14, she knew that she wanted to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She set about to apply for a scholarship during her last year of high school. “My parents were really busy during that period, so I took it upon myself to complete the application. I auditioned and just tried to do my best. For months and months, I kept it to myself. I didn’t discuss it with anyone. I wanted to avoid influencing any negative or positive energy around it,” she shares.

Her family, she said, knew that she had applied but “didn’t really know what was happening until the morning [she] got an e-mail from Berklee”. When she opened the e-mail and saw the acceptance letter, she “wasn’t as hyper as expected” for she had prepared herself so much. Her parents, on the other hand, “were so happy and were screaming in joy”.

Like a dream

Wool coat, knit sweater, and patent leather pumps, Miu Miu. Divas’ Dream rose gold bracelet and pendant with carnelian, Bvlgari

Jasmine is currently on a hiatus from school to focus on the launch of her album, as she wants to “give 200 per cent effort” to her music. Titled Tbh, the album was released on Sept 1. It has eight songs, four in Mandarin and four in English. Jasmine grew up attending international schools and is fluent in both languages, hence the decision “to release a bilingual album that represents who [she is].” The songs span genres such as punk rock, R&B, and slow ballads.

“Each song is so different, but if you put them together, they represent me and my thoughts and feelings right now as a whole,” she says. idk, the debut and focus single of the album, is a pop-R&B anthem with a simple but important message: Follow your heart.

The single’s acronym “idk” stands for “I don’t know”, but make no mistake: “It’s not about being clueless,” says Jasmine. “As I mentioned earlier, in my younger years, I was very shy – and I still am. Expressing my feelings and thoughts is sometimes a challenge. My personality leans towards being easy going.”

However, as she grew older, she came to realise that relying solely on the mantra of “if they’re happy, I’m happy” isn’t always feasible. “And so, I think this song is really about coming out of your shell, and being able to love yourself and prioritise yourself. Sometimes, it’s okay to say no – not to hurt others, but to protect yourself,” she explains.

Sometimes, it’s okay to say no – not to hurt others, but to protect yourself.

Jasmine Yen
Knit turtleneck top, and bejewelled knickers, Miu Miu. Divas’ Dream rose gold and mother- of-pearl necklace with rubellites and diamonds, Bvlgari

Jasmine plays the guitar, trumpet and piano, though songwriting in particular helps her express her emotions best. To date, she has written over 70 songs, half of which were penned during the pandemic. Most of her songs are written on pen and paper (“I’m super old school,” she confesses) though she does use the voice recording app on her phone a lot as well because “once you have an idea, you gotta record it, or it just leaves”.

In 2020, she wrote a song titled No Man Could in tribute to her maternal grandfather, who passed that year. She describes writing the song as a cathartic process: “My grandfather was such an important figure in my life as my parents were really busy when we were younger, and so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who took care of me. I wrote it the same night he passed, when I was alone in my room. It was already 2am and the whole house was quiet,” she recalls softly. “Usually, I like to write with a piano, but I didn’t want to wake my brother and my parents up, so I used my computer keyboard and played the chords very quietly.”

It was a simple melody, she says, but the simplicity of the chords held a powerful message that evoked a flood of emotions for her. “There’s just so much to it, but you can’t really describe it, It’s more about the feeling, you know?”

She kept the song a secret from her family, until a year later. “We were with other people who wanted to listen to some songs I’d written by myself. Up until then, I didn’t play the song for my family, because songs like that are deeply personal to me. That moment was the first time I ever played or performed it, and I only sang half of it. I just couldn’t continue because it’s just so full of emotion that I just like…” she breaks off for a moment.

“I remember my mum started crying too, because as soon as she heard the lyrics, she knew it was about my grandpa. So we both had that really nice, heartfelt moment together. It was very emotional. When she found out about it, she encouraged me to post it online. She thought it’s such a beautiful song, and that people deserve to know how great my grandfather was.”

Facing nepotism labels

Self Portrait knit dress with rhinestones, Divas’ Dream gold openwork earrings with sapphires and diamonds, and matching necklace, Bvlgari

Jasmine is extremely close to her family, including her parents and younger brother James Yen. The tight-knit family often stand by each other’s side in public appearances such as red carpets and movie premieres, and her parents also frequently post dedications to Jasmine’s musical talent on their social media platforms.

Their steadfast presence at pivotal moments also speaks volumes about their support for their daughter’s dreams – her parents were by her side throughout her time in Singapore, having flown here to support her debut performance. They were always quietly encouraging her, whether it’s extending their support at her cover photoshoot or standing among the cheering crowd at the Majulah Music Night festival.

The singer shares that her family’s unwavering support and commitment has enabled her to pursue her passion with confidence and determination, though her parents didn’t always approve of her career choice. “In the beginning, they didn’t want me to pursue music or enter the entertainment industry because they know that it can be tough,” explains Jasmine. “They were worried for me, but they saw how I’m happiest when I write music and perform, and they can feel how much I love this. So, seeing their daughter happy, they obviously give me their full support.”

Knit dress with matching inner dress, Fendi. Divas’ Dream gold openwork earrings with sapphires and diamonds, and matching necklace, Bvlgari

In today’s culture, there’s an obsession with “nepo babies”, an Internet buzzword that describes celebrity children who tend to benefit from nepotism due to their parents’ status in their chosen industry. Is she prepared for the scrutiny that comes with the label? “I understand where the preconceived notions come from,” she says, acknowledging that her luck isn’t lost on her. “I’m appreciative and thankful that I have my parents in the industry, and because of them, I understand the entertainment industry a little better than others. I’m grateful for that, and I’m aware. That’s why I’m going to give my 200 per cent in music. I hope to do my best and give it my all.”

I’m appreciative and thankful that I have my parents in the industry, and because of them, I understand the entertainment industry a little better than others.

Jasmine Yen

Has living in the public eye from a young age helped with her confidence? “I don’t think so, [at least] not to a significant extent,” she muses thoughtfully. “I think the best way for me to build confidence is to surround myself with positive people who genuinely love and care for me, and provide unwavering support. In my case, I find confidence when I’m with my close friends and family. And, of course, when I engage in the process of writing music.”

Empowerment in artistry

Louis Vuitton outfit, Bvlgari jewellery

Besides hanging out with her loved ones, the natural introvert also enjoys spending time alone by herself. “I love to go to little coffee shops, art galleries, book shops, and libraries by myself and just wander about,” she shares.

Dancing is also something that she enjoys, and has been something that she wanted to learn from a young age, though she only formally started classes when she was 15 years old. Memorising choreography comes easily to her, she shares. For example, learning the choreography for idk only took her one class. What came after was perfecting each movement, and making sure that she was perfectly synchronised and coordinated with the rest of her dancers.

“I just wanted to do the best I could, so I trained and pushed myself really hard. I had dance rehearsals three times a week. On the days I didn’t have performances or rehearsals, I pushed myself to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts just to keep up my stamina. My parents were like, ‘Oh my, you’re kind of crazy.’ But I just wanted to do my best,” she shares.

Metallic lycra draped dress, Ferragamo. Divas’ Dream rose gold openwork earrings with rubies and diamonds, Bvlgari

Perhaps her perfectionism is in part influenced by her favourite singer Beyonce, who’s known to be a perfectionist herself. “She’s just incredible,” gushes Jasmine. “I have deep respect for women empowerment and strong female figures, and Beyonce can do everything, whether it’s singing, dancing, or songwriting.”

Other key musical influences include Teresa Teng, also known by her stage name Deng Lijun, and Aretha Franklin – interesting choices for a 19-year-old. “Yeah, you won’t believe it, but my go-to karaoke track is Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman or Ain’t No Way,” Jasmine says with a laugh. “My friends at Berklee often tease me about it – every time we hear an Aretha Franklin track playing, they’re like, ‘Jasmine, it’s your song!’”

So what’s next after the release of her first album? She reveals: “There are so many ideas that are in my head. And I think, ultimately, I’m really lucky to have this platform and to hear my music out in the world. When you listen to songs that truly resonate with your heart, you know, if you’re feeling sad and you hear a song that really connects with how you’re feeling, that’s really important. So, I hope I can do the same; I hope my music can help others with what they’re going through.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Ivan Teo
HAIR & MAKEUP Kee Hau Wing