A seductive and passionate voice, evocative songwriting, and formal training make Dawn Xiana Moon one of the most distinctive Asian-American singers of her generation. With influences ranging from traditional Chinese music to modern American folk, she bridges the musical traditions of the East and West.
Moon was born in Singapore, a cultural melting pot with a rich mixture of Chinese, British, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and Malaysian backgrounds. She began her musical training early, studying classical piano at the age of five; not long after, her family moved to the United States, settling just outside of Detroit. Her piano, a gift from her grand-uncle, traveled the 9000 miles to their new home.
Continuing her classical training in the Midwest, she earned prizes for piano, flute, and voice in regional competitions. But it was her first year at the University of Michigan, where she studied literature and theatre, that shifted her musical paradigm: she broke out of her mold and began to play the guitar. "It was like anarchy," she says. "For the first time in my life, I wasn't limited to the notes a composer told me to play. I was improvising instead of just reading music." Two months later, she was writing folk-pop songs evoking artists like Over the Rhine, Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens, and fellow Chinese-American Vienna Teng. A few years later, she was touring throughout the Midwest and East Coast with a guitar and keyboard in tow. She moved to Chicago and began collaborating on projects ranging from a commissioned piece for Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre (with composer Christian Matjias) to the film Chase + Mello.
Recently, the singer-songwriter began exploring her roots, fusing elements from traditional Chinese music with her signature blend of folk, pop, and jazz. The result is a musical brew in several languages that draws influences from sources as disparate as Han Dynasty literature and Americana. In Spaces Between, traditional Chinese melodies hover on top of lush layers that take a cue from Philip Glass. The two-thousand-year-old guzheng (zither) punctuates alt folk guitar. Erhu (Chinese violin) joins an understated piano trio, adding a melancholy, haunting note.
But this synthesis of world cultures takes a back seat to Moon’s earthy songwriting and soulful vocals. She continues to wrestle with themes of brokenness, identity, redemption, and hope, delivering every note with raw conviction: “Beauty is born in the midst of struggle, in dark nights that seem like they will never end, in the moments when we try to communicate with each other and fail. Because it’s when we stop trying, when we give up, that we become impenetrable – and we lose something of what it means to be human.”
At times epic and impassioned, at times quiet and introspective, Spaces Between reveals an intense honesty. “There are so many things I struggle to articulate in normal conversation,” Moon says. “But with music, there’s an immense freedom, even requirement, to drop our pretenses and reveal the mess.”