While largely unknown to American audiences, the television drama “You Are My Sunshine” has become an overnight success in China, reaching 6 billion views since its premiere in January. The popularity of the program has contributed to the success of Shan Gao, a student in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development Master’s of Music in Songwriting, whose two songs “The Road Not Taken” and “All Stars Are Falling On My Head at the Moment I Meet You” became number one hits in China after being featured on the show.
Gao, however, said she started writing what would become hit songs not to become famous, but for more personal reasons. During her junior year of high school, Gao wrote her first song “The Road Not Taken” for a student movie. As a freshmen in college, she wrote “All Stars Are Falling on My Head at the Moment I Meet You” as a birthday gift for a close friend. It was only when Gao’s producer introduced her work to the music director of “You Are My Sunshine” that her songs started attracting attention. Nevertheless, Gao still retains a sense of relatability when she writes her music.
“I really enjoy writing songs and creating emotional connection with people through my music,” Gao said. “I am a very nostalgic person, so I always want to snap those moments that make our life different.”
As an independent singer-songwriter, Gao creates music that draws inspiration from indie-folk, jazz, electronic and pop music. Steinhardt graduate student Suri He praises Gao’s songs for their ability to capture her emotions.
“Every time I listen to her music, I feel like I am totally falling into it,” He said. “The melody is so unique and the lyric is really saying something to your heart. It is hard to forget once you listen.”
Gao’s music career started in high school, when she formed her first band. After high school, she attended Peking University in Beijing, where she studied advertising. Drawing on the knowledge of media and branding she got while studying advertising, Gao has developed a unique perspective on today’s music industry.
“The digital media has changed the game entirely,” Gao said. “It is hard to cut through the clutter, but it is also a time that great music wouldn’t be buried. So the key is to create compelling music.”
Despite the offers of Chinese record companies who were willing to sign Gao as a contracted singer, she ultimately decided to pursue her passion for music in New York City. Phil Galdston, a faculty member of the Steinhardt film scoring and songwriting program, described Gao as an uncommonly talented songwriter who is musical, innovative and curious.
“To write lyrics in a language other than your own requires ability much greater than, for example, writing a good essay or technical paper,” Galdston said. “The lyrics not only have to make emotional sense, they have to sing.”
Thanks to the abundance of inspiration New York City provides, as well as the songwriting program at NYU, Gao said she is experimenting with new sounds and ideas as she works on her next hit.
“I love New York, the music culture here is more open and advanced,” Gao said. “I am currently learning more electronic and R&B, and trying to collaborate with my friends to write new songs. Hopefully, we can have our music show next semester.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 6 print edition. Email Lingyi Hou at [email protected]