Jennifer Zhang, aka Jen Z, is a popular content creator turned musician actively chasing her passions while juggling the demands of two careers. Zhang started her JENerationDIY YouTube channel at 15 years old. Growing up in Vancouver, B.C., in a home with Chinese immigrant parents, she didn’t see herself represented in the media. So equipped with no real knowledge of becoming an influencer, Zhang put herself out there creating the kind of content she felt was lacking.
Now, ten years later, with 2.69 million subscribers on YouTube alone, Zhang is going after her dreams of making music. An endeavor that, like DIY crafting, has been part of her life since childhood. In 2022, she put out three singles writing about topics such as bed rotting, insomnia and love songs for singles—pop music, which she said is for anxiety-ridden girls like herself.
I sat down with her before her performance at this year’s Chinatown International District Block Party to discuss how making music has allowed her to dig into her authenticity.
Patheresa Wells: Take me back. When did you first discover your passion for music, and what prompted you to start your journey as a musician?
Jen Z: My parents put me in piano lessons when I was six. A joke between my friends and me is that it’s kind of like an Asian rite of passage being a child of immigrant parents. Obviously, as a kid, I hated doing lessons and having to practice after school instead of hanging out with friends. And so, I basically have been playing piano ever since. I’m so thankful my parents forced me to do that because now I’m reaping the benefits.
All throughout elementary school and high school, I joined choir. So, I always loved singing, but I was such a shy kid growing up. Even when I was given the opportunity to have solos, I would be so quiet…And it wasn’t until later in my late teens that I became more confident in myself and started to put out some original music and covers.
PW: Have you ever had conflicts with your choice to pursue a music career? If so, how did you navigate them?
JZ: A little bit. Because I originally started as a YouTuber doing diy videos, I had some conflict with my parents in starting the channel because I was a little 15-year-old, and they’re like, what are you doing? They’re really supportive of the whole YouTube thing. But I think when I transitioned to music, there was a lot of friction within my audience. I think because it’s such a complete 180 of the content I used to do. But I kind of had a strategy. I’m going to do this gradually, so people get used to it. Because long term, it is something that I want to do…but now so much of my audience is so supportive. And it’s great to know that a lot of them found me through music.
PW: Who are some of the key influences and inspirations that have shaped your music? Who are you listening to now?
JZ: I love my pop girls…love Dua Lipa. Recently, I’ve been really into the old, 2000s pop rock girls Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and Hilary Duff. And getting back into Coldplay. So just a lot more like acoustic sounding indie rock, pop rock, that kind of style.
PW: You have a significant social media presence through various platforms. Maintaining a social media presence and pursuing music simultaneously can be demanding. How do you handle the challenges of juggling both aspects of your creative work?
JZ: This is a good question I’m still trying to figure out. I think it’s been a slow but gradual process. A couple of years ago, I didn’t have any balance at all, at least in my professional and personal life, because it’s so intertwined. I definitely wanted to do more music stuff but was stuck in old content I knew people wanted from me. So, it was a choice between whether it was more important for other people to like me or for me to like myself. And it was an internal struggle for a long time.
I was at the age where I was like becoming my own person and growing into adulthood myself. So that was a tumultuous time. But now it’s my quarter-life crisis moment, so I’m kind of just of the mindset of going with the flow. Whatever I want to do, I’ll just do that. I only have this one life, so might as well do what makes me happy.
PW: In many of your videos, you craft, upcycle, and DIY, including making your own clothes. Crafting often starts at an early age. Did you inherit your love for DIY from family members?
JZ: I taught myself how to braid my hair when I was three. I’ve always been crafty and loved making things with my hands. It kind of grew out of necessity because my parents didn’t have a lot of money when they came here. And a lot of toys or things that other kids could buy I couldn’t afford. So, I kind of just had to make it myself. I’d make birthday gifts and little toys. And that grew into a hobby, then luckily grew into a job.
It’s fun for me to make things and see things in real life created from my brain. And it’s been cool to combine the DIY aspect in music. Now for every show I’ve made my own custom outfit… That’s something that I like tying into my music because it’s a little bit of a throwback and a tie-in.
PW: In your music and online presence, you speak about existential crises, social anxiety, and going to bars alone. How does it feel to be transparent about these things with your fans?
JZ: I think when I was younger, it was a lot harder. I was presenting myself the way I thought people would receive it. I was a child, so I didn’t know who I was. I looked to my idols and people I liked watching on YouTube to kind of indicate how I should present myself. I’ve realized over the years that interacting with regular people in real life rather than looking to these people online has helped me be more myself on screen. Just investing in my personal life. Now I’ve built such a good relationship with my audience that I feel safe showing such vulnerable aspects of myself, and I know that they would never judge me for something that I say that’s just authentically myself…
PW: On your social media, you mention that your song “How to Love” is for “The girls who get the ick when the person they like starts liking them back.” For the ones who don’t know how to receive affection or avoidant attachment style. What prompted you to write the song?
JZ: It actually was a specific instance where I was in the situation where I like this person and then suddenly when I felt they might reciprocate feelings, I was like, oh, I don’t want this anymore. I’m running away; this is too real. So, I think it’s a song for people who want to relate to love songs but can never get to that point where they even get into that situation. I like writing songs about things that aren’t as talked about. And I think because my experiences align with that. I haven’t been in a relationship yet. I want to see more of those kinds of songs, so I decided to write them.
PW: Have you ever been to Seattle’s Chinatown International District before? What does performing at a festival focused on AAPI artists, music, food, and culture mean to you?
JZ: I probably have…when I was a child, so I’ll have to ask my parents. But in recent years, with COVID and everything, I don’t think I have.
I’m excited about the food the most. I feel like food in Asian culture is a love language. Whenever I go home, my parents always ask me if I’ve eaten, or they’ll always cook me food. So, I think that part of AAPI culture will always be a big resonating part for me. And I’m honored to be invited to perform at this festival because it’s a strong part of my identity.
I think growing up not being able to see many people who looked like me on screen. I didn’t know it at the time because I was a child, but it always felt like I didn’t belong in this kind of entertainment/music space. I have to shout out my 15-year-old self because she had the bravery to start. I just stopped waiting for someone to give me an opportunity and I was like; I’m just going to make the opportunity myself. So, I’m happy to see so much more representation in the world now.
PW: For those who may be coming to the block party but aren’t familiar with you as an artist, what can they expect from your music and performance?
JZ: They can expect a fun time with a lot of bopping and dancing. My music is definitely for pop lovers and anyone who is just in for a fun time.
PW: And you’ll be making your costume for this performance as well?
JZ: Of course, of course!