Jon Niermann fosters Pan-Asian dreams of stardom
For years, Jon Niermann has hosted an English-speaking talk show with a modern multiethnic goal few others can claim: bridging the cross-cultural disconnect between East and West.
Taped in both Shanghai and Hong Kong, his “Asia Uncut” program places visiting Hollywood stars alongside emerging Asian actors, singers and comedians, with the wisecracking Niermann there center stage, living out his Johnny Carson dream.
But now, the son of a tractor salesman from Nashville, Ill., who was once a senior executive for the Walt Disney Co., is aiming for a breakthrough on another medium: the international music scene. He aims to create a five-member Pan-Asian girl band with the never-before-accomplished goal of breaking into the top 10 of the pop music charts in America and Britain.
In a sort of international twist on the competitive model of “American Idol,” Niermann’s Project Lotus plans to assemble an as-yet-unnamed English-language band drawn from women in China, South Korea, Japan, India and the Philippines using auditions submitted on the Internet.
“I’ve always been intrigued why a big-name Asian act has never made it in the West — why no one has broken through to major success,” said Niermann, 44. “You can’t ignore Asia anymore. The economy is booming. I think Asian entertainment is ready to take its rightful place on the world stage.”
It’s a declaration that’s been uttered many times over the last few decades. Why does Niermann — whose boyhood was steeped in cornfields and country music — think his band will find Western stardom where others have failed? For one, he’s developed a team of Grammy-winning songwriters and producers to capitalize on the Internet revolution that has changed musical listening preferences worldwide.
“Music is now the universal language,” said project collaborator Mike Conway, a strategist for the Sydney, Australia-based children’s band the Wiggles. “People in India are listening to Alicia Keys. Seoul can claim its favorite artist is Beyoncé. These days, you don’t have to wait for the music to come to your local record store. You can listen live on the Internet, iTunes and YouTube.”
Eliot Kennedy, a British songwriter and producer who has worked with the Spice Girls and Bryan Adams, staged a recent seminar for 20 songwriters to produce material for the band.
“We had four writing teams and I told them to go the Internet, listen to what’s going on in each country and try to bring in those influences — let’s just dive into it,” he said. “What resulted was fantastic. People were dancing around, enjoying the music.”
The effort produced 20 songs — some with subtle sitar-tinged Indian riffs, Chinese melodies and Japanese rhythms using the koto, a traditional stringed instrument.
“We don’t want to come off like a bunch of Westerners coming to people from the East and saying, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. This is how we do things.’ It’s a collaborative effort,” Kennedy said.
The project’s Facebook site lists 22,000 fans. Production teams in each of the five countries are also reaching out to drama schools, talent agents and music academies in search of both amateurs and professional performers.
“Do you ever dream of being famous, part of a sensational new girl group,” the project’s website asks. “Here’s your chance.”
So far, Project Lotus has received more than 3,200 entry tapes. Some show live performances, others capture young women sitting at home on their beds, nervously introducing their songs.
The audition process has hit some sour notes. Some applicants were discovered to be lip-syncing. Others sent in tapes of friends and family members without their knowledge.
There have been more than a few “Sweetheart, you shouldn’t be singing,” tapes and, inexplicably, numerous male applicants, Niermann said. There applicants also include a handful of men dressed as women. “One of them was really good,” Niermann laughed. “We had to sit around and deliberate a while on that one.”
Live auditions involving between 100 and 200 young women selected from their videos will start in each of the five countries at the end of August. Finalists will be invited to a six-week training academy in Hong Kong, where the women will be schooled on vocals and performing.
“The reason this has never been done before is because it’s bloody hard,” said production manager Laura Conway. “The West sees Asia as one big, monolithic entity. There’s really no such thing as Asia, but there is a collection of countries, each with its own language, culture, music and style of doing business.”
For now, Project Lotus is eager to discover what level of talent emerges. But Niermann’s mind is already in the recording studio. He sings the lyrics of one of the group’s songs, about romance in Asia, that includes the words “I love you” in five different languages.
He catches himself. “It sounds better if you’re female,” he says, blushing. “And you can sing.”