Leo1Bee on his new album Wilderness, redefining Chinese R&B, and remaining true to himself

Leo1Bee’s latest album, Wilderness, is a delicate blend of soul, jazz, blues and hip hop, and arguably one of the most original and emotionally nourishing Chinese records of the past year.

The conceptual album was crafted over two years and details the 29-year-old’s search for self in an industry and society he calls “harsh”, especially during the pandemic years, when he traded the United States for Shanghai.

“The environment I grew up in was always optimistic and forward-looking – I had felt that the world would be steadily progressing and becoming better,” says Leo1Bee, born Zhang Siyuan, in northeastern China. “But since then I’ve had the awakening that life could be very unpredictable and even unimaginable – that experience informed my creative process.”

Leo1Bee performing his new album “Wilderness” at Beijing jazz club Blue Note, in March, 2024. Photo: Leo1Bee

During his time at Peking University’s school of journalism and communication, Zhang made music after class. Upon graduation, he convinced his parents that music production could be a moneymaking skill and career. So began his move to the Berklee College of Music’s international campus in Valencia, Spain.

The Spanish arts hub was where Zhang perfected his self-taught composition and arrangement skills – something that he had been wanting to do since being exposed to Taiwan’s R&B-infused pop music by his cousins in the early 2000s, ruled by the likes of Jay Chou and Yu Quan.

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Listening to Taiwan’s David Tao and Hong Kong’s Khalil Fong, who are credited with popularising rhythm and blues in Chinese-speaking regions, allowed Zhang to develop what he calls a “real awareness” of his love for the genre.

Zhang would then grow to admire the work of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo, and by the time he moved from Valencia to New York he was an all-in-one package who could sing, write and produce, and having spent his early adult years across three continents, the pensive musician now thinks of himself an “observer to world changes”.

The turbulent years of the Covid-19 pandemic have changed Leo1Bee’s worldview, which he sings about in “Wilderness”. Photo: Leo1Bee

After a string of well-received singles and extended plays, as well as two tours spanning cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, Zhang released his debut album last October on streaming platforms, with vinyls in the works. The sequencing takes the listener through a night of introspection, which begins at sunset – as Zhang enters a state of confusion and breakdown – and ends at dawn, by which time he has narratively rebuilt and restored himself.

To Zhang, sunsets symbolise his realisation of the mismatch between the harsh realities of life and the fantasies he had about the world as a child. “Values and aspirations can be fragile in the face of real life,” he says. “Wilderness encompasses my journey of examining myself and my environment over the couple of years after I graduated. In a culture where the majority of people listen to music that you don’t like or don’t want to produce, how do you remain yourself?”

But Zhang has “remained himself”, or at least so it seems. Wilderness is saturated with poetic lyrics and elegant melodies that were clearly not made to serve mass – perhaps mindless – consumption.

My perspective is that this album will inspire, especially with its sound … it’s a new dimension

Leo1Bee, aka Zhang Siyuan

“False God”, which appears in the middle of the album and symbolises Zhang’s passage from turmoil to clarity, is the work he is most proud of, he says. It critiques how narrowly society views joy, success and stability.

“‘False God’ is about me pushing away a value or moral system that was imposed on me, I wanted to oppose this sort of ideological authority,” says the musician whose first degree – in advertising – was never something he desired.

Leo1Bee has had two successful tours and will to return to Shenzhen and Guangzhou for shows in May. Photo: Leo1Bee

The rock-infused tune begins with Zhang challenging the “superficial ideals” of society, which, he says, “arms itself with ignorance”. He sings: “Is the pursuit of knowledge the most primitive human instinct that we bury? And since I am human, why am I forbidden from asking questions?

“In music, it is only when I can fully express my ideas as I intended that I can feel a sense of achievement and joy,” says Zhang, adding, “all the songs on the album were written around this concept”.

Zhang has hopes for the album to have “cultural meaning”: “It is not about the numbers I can do with the album, or its commercial value […] My perspective is that this album will inspire, especially with its sound – if it is to be defined as an R&B album, its sound is one that Chinese R&B has not heard – it’s a new dimension.”

She’s written songs for everyone from the Jackson 5 to Jacky Cheung

Choose Your Weapon (2015), the critically acclaimed album by Australian neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote that deeply influenced Zhang, uses a similar approach, taking influence from a variety of genres including jazz, soul, R&B, progressive rock, West African funk, samba and Latin grooves.

Rippling in Mandopop circles, Zhang has also written, produced, arranged and engineered tunes for some of China’s biggest pop stars, including Bibi Zhou and Roy Wang.

Despite having been trained at a prestigious music institute, Zhang says he has benefited from the industry’s barriers to entry being lowered in recent years – as an independent artist without a major label’s backing.

“It sounds contradictory saying it, but I actually quite welcome this phenomenon of people making music as amateurs – everyone doesn’t necessarily have to understand everything, music made without full [scholarly knowledge] can also serve us.”


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