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Changing into Leah Dou: The Scion Additionally Rises

Changing into Leah Dou: The Scion Additionally Rises

The daughter of two of Asia’s most successful musicians, Leah Dou talks about the pressures and expectations she faced while growing up in their shadows and how, after eight years in the music industry, she’s finally learned to break out on her own.

Photography and Creative Direction Isaac Lam    
Image Direction Chloe Mak

Styling Chloe Mak and Jennie Wong
Hair Him Ng
Make-up Heisan Hung

Gaffer Hsiao
Photography Assistants Jason Li and Riki Chan

Styling Assistants Michele Tang, Samantha Lai and Anson Wong

Making a name for yourself in the music industry is difficult enough, but doing so in the face of the expectations raised by your parents’ achievements is even harder. Yet that’s exactly what singer-songwriter Leah Dou has managed to do.

During a photo shoot for Prestige, which took us from a studio to the top of Hong Kong’s highest peak, Dou had displayed both passion and daring while exploring new and unfamiliar concepts with the team. Eventually, with the sun setting and hues of orange and purple washing over the evening sky, we get the opportunity to talk when we share a ride with her back to her hotel.  

With Asian pop legend Faye Wong for a mother and the Chinese rock star Dou Wei as her father, it might seem reasonable to expect Dou was always destined for a career in music. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that, at the age of 26, she’s making her mark in the music business. As a one-year-old infant, Dou featured in her mother’s song “Tong”; aged 14, she’d formed her own band and was writing her own songs and lyrics; and in 2016 she released her first album in collaboration with international songwriters and producers. She’s also been acclaimed for her work in cinema, winning a Best Supporting Actress award at the ninth Beijing International Film Festival, as well as being nominated for Best Original Film Song at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards and the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that her biggest inspiration wasn’t her own parents, but her aunt, Dou Ying, a professional backing vocalist whom she lived with, alongside her grandmother, until fourth grade.

“I spent a lot of time with her during my formative years,” Dou says. “My parents were so busy at the time and weren’t always around. Of course, they’re still two huge influences in my creative work, and they’re always people that I’ll look up to, but my aunt remains one of the most impactful characters in my early years, because she’d take me to her recording sessions. As a backing vocalist, she opened up the world of harmony for me, and that plays
a very heavy role in the way I write my own music. It was all the films, the music and the books she showed
me that really kickstarted my interest in the arts.”

Although it was her aunt who fully ignited her interest in music, Dou has firmly grasped the reins
of her own career during the past decade, driven by a determination to make her name on her own terms rather than being carried by her parents’ fame. If it was partly about refusing to take the easy path, it was also because she feared the inevitable comparisons with two of China’s most successful popular musicians. “In the very beginning, a big motive for me to make music was to try to prove myself,” Dou admits. “My parents played a very big part in that, because growing up in that environment, I was really trying to find my own identity. I was eager to prove to myself – and maybe to others – that I’m not just so-and-so’s daughter. I was also more reluctant about being raw and naked about my feelings and how I was. I was quite protective of my own feelings, and I’d make up scenarios for
my songs. You don’t always have to put yourself into your music – you can write songs without doing that, and that’s what I did.”

In fact, ideas of falling short and being transparent with her feelings were so deeply entrenched at the time that she even avoided writing songs in Chinese. As recently as 2016, she spoke of her reluctance to write music in her mother tongue until she was able to go through a “certain journey” or process. Until her latest album Spring Outing (chun you), released early in 2023, her albums of the past
12 years mostly featured songs in English.

“When I was younger, I thought writing in Chinese would reveal too much of me,” she confesses. “I also think a big part of it was because writing in Chinese would mean I’d be in the same domain as my parents, and I wasn’t ready for that.”

So what makes her comfortable enough now to produce something she’d previously distanced herself from so adamantly? The answer, she says, is a new-found sense of self-confidence, acceptance and the learned ability to not worry too much about what others think, all of which took years of practice and countless conversations within herself to achieve.

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“I’m more comfortable with myself nowadays, and I have more confidence in who I am,” Dou tells me. “If you’re in constant fear of what other people might say or think about you, then being raw and genuine in your work is going to be very daunting. I don’t know how it is with other people, but I don’t think you’re born with the whole ‘I don’t care’ thing. To be able to be vulnerable, to be OK with that and to be OK with other people not being OK with that is the real ‘I don’t care’ that I want to strive for. It’s not just about being tough – it’s more about being at ease and confident, knowing yourself and knowing you can’t please everyone. If you’re not comfortable with yourself, it affects every other aspect of your life.”

The process of finding her own voice and accepting who she is didn’t just open up a new language for Dou to write in. It’s also made the entire realm of music more enjoyable for her, whether she’s on or off the stage. She says that breaking free of those shackles has given her more creative freedom and a chance to connect more deeply with her fans by using her music as a medium to spread positive energy.

“I’m putting more and more of myself into my music nowadays,” she says, smiling. “There used to be a certain rigidity, an ideal self, and for you to be comfortable with yourself that ideal image needs to shatter. The perspective I had was so narrow – and confining myself to that box made my creative process very limiting. Anything outside of that box was scary to me. But once you’re free of that box, then you have all this open space to work with.

“Now I try to be very candid in my music. I try to just say what I feel, and sometimes I still feel that nakedness when I do that. I still feel vulnerable. But I also know that the audience can hear my candidness and know that I’m being honest with my insecurities, and I believe that gives other people strength. Insecurities and fear are things we all experience, so to see and hear other people being open about theirs is comforting. And that’s the most ideal relationship I want to have with people who listen to my music.”

Over the course of our conversation, Dou displays a refreshing clarity about who she is, how she feels and what she wants to do. Indeed, her maturity and new-found openness with herself and her fans led to two significant moments last year. The first was the unusually intimate song “Fireworks” (yan hua) on her latest album, in which she sings: “Mother, I’m grown up now, and no longer feel the need to please everyone around me. I don’t have to hide
in my castle anymore, where the walls are 3,000 metres tall, protecting me from being disliked or unaccepted by others.”

Less a direct message to her mother than a dialogue with herself and her listeners, the song is a testament to the journey of self-discovery she’s been on for the past few years and a clear – and admirably vulnerable – display of the woman she’s become.

“For me personally, rather than an open letter to my mum, it’s a conversation you have within yourself,” Dou explains. “When you think about your mum or your grandma, no matter how old or mature you are, in their eyes you’ll always be a kid. So in a way you’re trying to prove to them that you can handle this, that you’re not a child anymore. You’ve gone through some things and you’ve grown from it.”

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A month after the release of the song, the rare glimpse into Dou’s inner life was followed up by a sensational live performance with Karen Mok on the Chinese television show Infinity and Beyond, in which the two sang a touching rendition of “Tian Hei Hei”. For many, it was the first time Dou demonstrated the full might of her vocal talents, given the song’s vastly different style from the way she usually writes and sings. In just seven months, the video of the performance amassed 3 million views on YouTube alone, a platform that can’t even be viewed in the mainland. Among the comments flooding in were the inevitable comparisons between her and her mother, but Dou remains unfazed.

“I do look at the comments, and it’s constructive in a way, but you have to find the balance of seeing what the reaction is to get an idea of where you’re standing right now and what you actually want to do and pursue,” she says. “That was a big topic for me when I wrote my latest album. There was a period when I was so fixated on making the right version of a song – I’d have 10 versions of the same song – and I just couldn’t make up my mind. I’d lose judgment on which one to go with because that balance was off, and I didn’t have enough confidence to make that decision.

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“With the comments, it’s a good way to practice and find that balance. At the end of the day, whether it’s praise or criticism, it’s really the same thing. They’re other people’s projections of you, and you can’t take either of them too seriously.”

It was with this fresh perspective that Dou performed at Clockenflap late last year. Her first appearance at the festival was in 2015 when she was just 18 – and given the transformations she’d experienced since then, it was clear why she was so eager to return.

“I can feel a shift in the way I approach live performances,” she said before the festival. “I don’t think I really felt or understood the pleasures of performing when I was younger, but now I’m really excited to play at Clockenflap. Coming back means a lot to me, because this time I’m more authentic and I have more to say. I have more to share with the audience.”

Studio albums and live performances aside, she’s also taken on acting commitments, which she’d dabbled in before but is now fully engaged with. Production has just wrapped for a TV series that will air on Tencent Video later this year, which Dou looks back on with a sense of accomplishment and pride. If music was her road towards growth and self-confidence, then acting is her highway.

“Acting is something that really helps with my music, especially with the director that I work with, because for things to really happen you have to just let things go,” she tells me. “You have to let go of feeling embarrassed, of self-consciousness. It takes a lot of courage and it’s different, because when I’m writing songs I’m just in a room by myself, being vulnerable. But when I’m acting, I’m being vulnerable in front of 300 people, so that puts me to the test. Acting has shown me I can let go of my fears.”

Naturally Dou wants to give back to an industry that not only gave her the opportunity to flourish, but also understand herself better. To do that, she’s joined the First Initiative Foundation as an FIF Trailblazer, which enables her to promote artistic expression in Hong Kong and foster a sense of unity among different communities. In 2019, she made her first performance for FIF at the foundation’s Stars in Harmony event, and though the pandemic largely prevented Dou – who’s mainly based in Beijing – from coming here, she now plans to rekindle her efforts with the charity in its Starry Nights over Hong Kong initiative, part of the Art@Harbour campaign that celebrates this city’s beauty, heritage and cultural landscape.

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“I haven’t been back in Hong Kong for a while, so there’ve been lot of events I had to miss,” Dou says. “But FIF continues to be a trailblazer in supporting young artists here in this city, and it’s a cause I passionately believe in, so I’m very happy to be working with them in the future.”

As our car approaches her hotel, an air of happiness permeates the cabin, not only because she’s found her voice at last, but also because she’s learned to accept her vulnerabilities, something many people struggle to do. She’s evidently immensely creative, driven and talented, so it’s hard not to wonder just how high she’s going to soar.

“You find new possibilities,” Dou says firmly, “and realise you can be much more than who you originally thought you were.” 

Source: Prestige Online

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