Zhang said that he is not thinking about messages when writing his songs. Most are improvised and spontaneous - a strong feature of the folk music traditions in northwest China.
Anything in life can spark a song in Zhang. For the past decade, he has been collecting the happenings and sounds in his hometown with a digital camera and audio recorder. Some of them he samples in his songs, such as the soft rustle of wheat, farmers ploughing their fields and even villagers’ snorts and coughs.
Zhang was born in a poor, remote village in Gansu Province, but grew up with its rich musical traditions. Each year, the village holds a temple fair where locals showcase their talents. His father would perform Qinqiang, a folk opera form from northwest China, while his uncle played traditional instruments such as the sanxian, banhu (a bowed string instrument) and qinqin (a two-stringed instrument).
Zhang grew up writing songs. He and his siblings wrote “Blackout” about how kids would have fun in the dark during the village’s frequent power outages. They also wrote a song for their donkey.
The village began changing around 2000. More villagers were leaving for the cities to find jobs, Zhang said, and often would come back with new and interesting things. Some would return with motorcycles. Others had beepers clipped to their belts.
It was a new classmate, the son of a contractor in the nearby city of Baiyin, that really opened his mind to new ideas. Zhang remembers he was different than other local boys. He wore fancy glasses and had a different air about him. The village boys called him “the alien.”
Zhang’s unusual friend had a Walkman and liked rock music, which at the time in China was still underground. He introduced Zhang to rock musician He Yong’s “Pretty Girl.” “When I heard the song, a loud voice popped in my mind, crying ‘I wanna do that!’” Zhang said.
Zhang often sat for hours looking toward Baiyin, imagining the street lights and all the interesting things happening there.
That year, he took a summer job at a construction site in Baiyin to save for a guitar. But since nobody in his village could teach him how to play, he played it like a sanxian - which uses a large plectrum and distinct fingerings.
By high school, Zhang’s musical tastes had turned to Chinese rock and indie. He devoured albums by folk artists Zhou Yunpeng and Wan Xiaoli, and the northeastern rock of Second Hand Rose. He seldom listened to folk songs. “For a long time, I’d forgotten the tunes of my hometown,” Zhang told NewsChina.
In 2008, Zhang enrolled in the Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha, Hunan Province. But he spent more time playing music than studying. He and four other students formed a rock band called The Hunter and sang about what he calls “typical cliched sentiments of youth.”
In his junior year, The Hunter was rehearsing at a local bar when Zhang started humming a northwestern tune from his childhood. “I realized everyone was staring at me when I looked up. There was a glimmer of amazement in their eyes. At the time I realized that the music I was familiar with the most since I was young had the incredible power to impress listeners,” Zhang said.