Two years ago, Wanting Qu, a Vancouver-based singer-songwriter, returned to her native China for a show. Her mother, who was among the screaming fans in the sold-out audience that evening, was about to see her only child perform live for the first time. At the behest of her rabid following, she asked her mom on stage. Says Wanting, “Mom told all parents to believe in their child. Then she started bawling.”
No one has motivated Wanting more than her mother—a woman she rebelled against, yet was determined to please. The singer, whose debut album Everything In This World came out April 24, 2012 on Nettwerk, made good on that goal. Her tunes have sound-tracked the upcoming Chinese film Love in the Buff, appeared on a Mercedes Benz sampler, and amassed combined views of millions on Chinese YouTube.
These days, Mom boasts about how her only child could sing the theme to Undercover Cop, a Chinese TV drama, before she could even speak. This, despite the fact that for years, she tried to divert her daughter’s musical ambitions to a more stable path. “When I was 4, one of her friends asked me what I wanted to be,” Wanting recalls. “I said, ‘a famous singer.’ And my mom’s like, ‘No, no, no—didn’t you say you wanted to be a doctor?”
Wanting’s passion for music took flight when she left the industrial city of Harbin, China, at age 16 for boarding school in Canada. “Mom sent me because she knew I could handle it,” she says proudly. “I was a tomboy, not a typical Chinese girl.” She went on to begrudgingly get a degree in business management. “I finished that for mom,” Wanting says. “She was supporting me. I would have felt wrong studying something different.”
That didn’t mean she didn’t cheat. Wanting, who played piano as a child, bought a keyboard to pick up where she left off. “It cost two courses of tuition,” she says. “I didn’t go to school for six months.” While visiting China in 2004, she brought back a guitar, taught herself to play it, and penned her first song, “To Markus,” a tortured lullaby about an ex. When she graduated from college, she told her mom that she needed to be a musician.
Despite being penned in English or Mandarin, Wanting’s piano-swept music has won a following because her compositions—pop musings that plumb emotion—resonate universally. The lilting first single “Life Is Like a Song” is a reflection on life’s ebbs and flows, the cascading song “Drenched,” about surrendering oneself to love. Meanwhile, “You Exist in My Song,” sung in Mandarin, is about old friends alive in one’s thoughts.
Wanting’s ascent has been steady, if fated. In late 2004, she wowed a crowd by covering Dido’s “Thank You” at a Much Music singing contest. Inspired, she attended a music workshop where she fleetingly met Nettwerk co-founder Terry McBride in 2005. Later that year, she approached him at a Sarah McLachlan concert—and never one to give up, Facebooked him four years later to give him her eight-song EP. Now she is on the same label that was once home to her two biggest influences: McLachlin and Dido.
Last year, Wanting played her biggest show to a crowd of 30,000 in Harbin as part of a large line-up for a China Day celebration. Hearing the crowd roar, Wanting was reminded that this was where she was always meant to be. “It was like, ‘I belong on this stage!” she remembers, beaming. “I want more of this!’”