By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei announced plans on Monday to release a heavy-metal album that he said would "express his opinion" just as he does with his art.
The burly and bearded Ai said 81 days in secretive detention in 2011, which sparked an international outcry, triggered his foray into music.
"When I was arrested, they (his guards) would often ask me to sing songs, but because I wasn't familiar with music, I was embarrassed," Ai, 55, said in a telephone interview. "It helped me pass the time very easily.
"All I could sing was Chinese People's Liberation Army songs," Ai said. "After that I thought: when I'm out, I'd like to do something related to music."
A court in September upheld a $2.4 million fine against Ai for tax evasion, paving the way for jail if he does not pay. Ai maintains the charges were trumped up in retaliation for his criticism of the government.
The world-renowned artist has repeatedly criticized the government for flouting the rule of law and the rights of citizens.
Ai's debut album - "Divina Commedia", after the poem by Italian poet Dante - is a reference to the "Ai God" nickname in Chinese that his supporters call him by. "God" in Chinese is "Shen", while "Divina Commedia" in Chinese is "Shen qu".
Two songs are about blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest last April and subsequent refuge in the U.S. Embassy embarrassed China and led to a diplomatic tussle.
One song on the album is called "Hotel Americana", a dig at the U.S. Embassy for sheltering Chen. Another is "Climbing over the Wall" - a reference to Chen's scaling of the walls in his village to escape, and Chinese Internet users circumventing the "Great Firewall of China", a colloquial term for China's blocking of websites.
Ai said he was not worried about government persecution for his album, which will be out in about three weeks. But he is gloomy about the prospects of it being sold in China, saying he will distribute the album online "because music is also subject to review" in China.
Ai said his time in the recording studio did not mean that he was moving away from art.
"I think it's all the same," he said. "My art is about expressing opinion and communication."
Ai said he was working on a second album, with pop and rock influences, that he hoped people would sing along with.
"You know, I'm a person that's furthest away from music, I never sing," Ai said. "But you'll be surprised. You'll like it."
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)