Big Picture: Ann Arbor songwriter Mark Zhu displays Confidence and Growth on recent Collaborative and Solo Releases
The pop singer-songwriter worked with hip-hop / EDM producer Felix Lahann to showcase growth and determination on this empowering hip-hop anthem.
“By openly sharing our personal experiences, we gain a sense of catharsis and self-acceptance,” said Zhu, who graduated from Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School in June.
“It reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles and that vulnerability can be a powerful tool for personal growth. Writing this track allowed us to express our vulnerabilities and showcase the strength that comes from embracing them.
“We wanted to create a song that could serve as a source of empowerment and encouragement for listeners, so the idea of ‘painting the world red’ represents how our music, ideas, and confidence is contagious enough to influence others.”
Zhu and Lahann spread that reassurance alongside bouncy beats filled with synth, bass, and percussion. Zhu sings, “Somedays, I don’t believe I belong here / On the runway, I’ll conceal my fears / Once I paint everything red / There won’t be any spots left / I’m getting so fast / No holding me back / Just paint the world red.”
“Growing up, I found it hard to fit in and struggled with body image. I also feared rejection and failure, as I was always pressured to succeed in my community,” Zhu said.
“As I work through these struggles I have learned to channel my experiences into my music, and ‘paint the world red’ is a reflection of that journey. Collaborating with Felix Lahann, we shared our stories and found solace in our shared experiences of self-confidence, courage, fear, and self-doubt.”
Like Zhu, Lahann admits writing and recording “paint the world red” helped him squash the insecurity and anxiety associated with exploring a new musical territory.
“The biggest theme I took away from this song as the producer was that having confidence in your abilities will make amazing things happen, especially if you’re trying something new,” said Lahann, who recently graduated from Ann Arbor’s Huron High School.
“Hip-hop is a new genre for me, as I mostly make EDM music, so I had a lot of doubts and fears going into this project. It took me a while to even muster up the courage to share the beat with Mark.
“Nevertheless, I am extremely happy with how the song turned out. I think this process revealed that stepping outside of your comfort zone allows for pleasant surprises.”
The duo completed their infectious single in just a few days, which included creating beats, adding samples, and drafting lyrics. Once “paint the world red” was ready to go, Zhu recorded, mixed, and mastered it in about 20 hours.
“Felix always surprises me with unique, experimental beats, which gives me enough guidance to envision the finished song before writing the lyrics,” Zhu said.
“He used samples in a way that added rich textures to the track while supporting the melodic components of the song. I was so inspired by the beat Felix sent me that I stayed up until 4 am one night and wrote the song in three hours.”
“paint the world red” isn’t the duo’s first collaboration. Last September, Zhu and Lahann released the chill R&B / hip-hop ballad “Limbo” to highlight the challenges of aligning one’s needs with the expectations of others.
“I went to middle school with Felix, and he was in my band class … so we had that connection. I think he reached out to me, and then I was like, ‘Well, you’re a producer now, that’s cool,’” Zhu said.
“We worked together and made ‘Limbo,’ which is about everyone telling you what to do in the future, and you’re like, ‘Whatever, I’m just gonna do what I want.’”
Both tracks will appear on Zhu and Lahann’s upcoming EP, which will feature six songs that explore identity, relationships, and mental health. They plan to release the EP later this year or early next year.
“Most of our previous songs are brooding and ruminating on the past, whereas ‘paint the world red’ sets a new theme of being confident and present,” Zhu said. “Sonically, it sets the stage for more hip-hop tracks, which Felix and I are excited to share.”
In addition to his recent collaboration with Lahann, Zhu dropped his latest solo single “Sad But True” in May. The introspective R&B / indie-pop ballad examines the emotional struggle of overcoming a past relationship and watching a former partner move forward.
Contemplative acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, and synth surround Zhu as he sings, “Oh, you so bad, Bae, walking like you just got a pretty boy’s / Name all over your old tattoo / I’m not so sad anymore, I got my own rhythm going / Needa make time for my debut.”
“This was actually a story I made up, and I wrote this song right after watching the Billie Eilish documentary, [Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry]. The song itself, like the music, is inspired by the visuals for the music video of ‘Bellyache’ by Billie Eilish,” Zhu said.
“[She’s] in this California desert, and I was like, ‘Running in broad daylight / Don’t you have somewhere you gotta be?’ so that was the spark. I wanted to capture this [feel of], ‘I’m no good for you like we’re moving on, and you stay in your own lane.’”
Zhu also released a picturesque video for “Sad But True,” which features him running and walking along paved roads on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.
“I went on vacation there during the winter with my family, and my dad and I woke up super early to film the video,” he said. “My dad has been helping me film all my music videos, and we’ve practiced a bunch; he’s basically a pro now.”
Zhu sought additional visual inspiration from the James Cameron film Avatar: The Way of Water and its moon Pandora while editing the video.
“The visuals were amazing, and I’ve always been a big fan of space and planets, which I reference in my songs sometimes,” he said. “In [Adobe] After Effects, I added a planet in the background, so it was like Pandora.”
Zhu discovered a love of music and visual arts while growing up in Canton and Ann Arbor. Raised in a musical family, he started playing piano at age 6 and wrote his first piano score at age 11.
A year later, Zhu played piano at New York City’s Carnegie Hall as a 2018 American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition winner.
“My piano teacher prepares us for a bunch of contests and that was after competing in a competition and being selected to perform there,” he said.
In middle school, Zhu started singing and developed a deep appreciation for K-pop music, including BTS.
“My friends dragged me into the BTS fandom, and I was obsessed,” said Zhu, who’s Chinese American. “At that point in time, my dream job was to be a K-pop star, so I got into singing and also learned a little bit of Korean.”
By fall 2020, he learned guitar and started writing songs in ninth grade after listening to Billie Eilish. He also sought inspiration from a high school friend who became a producer.
“I was super inspired by Billie Eilish’s journey as a songwriter and as an artist in general. Her story is really inspiring—how she rose to fame and how edgy her music is,” Zhu said.
“I was strolling through [my producer friend’s] Instagram, and I was like, ‘Oh that’s really cool, I kinda want to do that, too.’ I set that aside for a couple of months and once COVID hit, I ended up on his Instagram again and was like, ‘Hmm, maybe I should really start this?’”
Zhu downloaded a music production app to test out loops and soon added BandLab, Cakewalk, MuseScore, and Logic Pro to his songwriting and recording repertoire. He quickly composed six tracks for his debut EP, Iso_late, which is loosely inspired by the pandemic.
“I made a whole storyline for that one … there are two halves of a whole person. One half is submerged under the ocean and one is in this asylum, and they’re trying to find each other,” Zhu said.
“Through this storyline, they’re going through different experiences and trying to reconnect. The six songs represent the six feet apart you had to be [at the time] and that was based on my experience during the pandemic.”
“It’s me in this dreamscape walking down memory lane, but it’s kind of twisted a bit,” he said. “It was more like escapism with creating this place and just living in there … like a safe haven.”
With a growing roster of EPs and singles, Zhu is looking forward to releasing more music and entering the next chapter in his life. He’s traveling to China with his family this summer and attending the University of Michigan in the fall to study computer engineering or electrical engineering.
“I’ll keep working on music and finishing up some old songs and writing some new material,” Zhu said. “Hopefully, I’ll become proficient in Logic Pro because I’m still adjusting and transferring over my old stuff.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.