Sui Zhen connects on a deeper level
Melbourne-based musician Sui Zhen – otherwise known as Becky Freeman – is set to release her latest longplayer, Secretly Susan, this August. We have an in-depth conversation with her about it:
Hi Becky. Firstly thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said and secondly, congratulations on the new album.
You are very welcome. And thank you ☺
You spent some time in Japan not so long ago. Did some of your experiences there find its way into your new release?
It’s hard to say how those experiences may have impacted this release. I think most of the songs were written and recorded in a separate mental space to this suite of songs whereas some of my cassette EPs fed off those experiences more directly, in a sensorial way. Visually however, things I’ve seen and felt on those trips to Japan have influenced me. When creating the world for this album to inhabit, I took lead from some of the space and places I visited (Teshima Museum, Onomichi, Osaka). I think it’s important to experience other peoples’ complete creative visions whether it be a bar, a clothes shop or an artwork. Lots of care and attention is paid to personal space when it is limited, like it is in dense cities so the curation of your own content and ideas becomes more pronounced. I think when over there, I’m reminded to take pride in everything that I do, and to do it well, no matter how big or small the task. So, perhaps I’m saying, I formed a complete vision and approach to fulfill this release for the public, and yes, Japanese culture helped motivate me to do that.
Your limited edition Body Reset prints were distributed by the Japanese Eskers label, was this something you had a direct hand in or were your creative visions assisted by musical experiences in Tokyo and local artists?
By prints do you mean the actual poster art? I love those. They were designed by Mogollon, a design studio based in New York City. Tim McGregor who runs Eskers got in touch with Francisco & Monica for the cassette artwork and they’ve since become supportive fans of my music as well. Tim has a great vision for the creative projects he takes on, whether events, music releases or artwork, he’s about quality not quantity and supporting the things he’s really passionate about. He allows artists to do their thing without much interruption, so I think great things can happen when there’s no pressure to do anything prescribed, just to have a deadline is enough sometimes. Mogollon also did wonderfully gentle psychedelic visuals for Courtney Barnett recently – a bit of trivia for you.
I met Tim through a designer friend, Eloise Rapp (rapp.com.au). She’d lived in Tokyo and was connected to a scene over there. Everyone I’ve met at my shows in Japan has been incredibly supportive and respectful. I know the record store owners who sell my music and take great pleasure in visiting them and selecting records from their collections to DJ. It’s the best musical exchange when it’s so personal and direct. You support each other’s livelihood in earnest. That’s something I feel is undervalued in Australia at times. Less so in Melbourne, but definitely culturally within Australia, there’s not the same respect for choosing to do one thing, and to do that one thing well, to become an expert.
By comparison, how conducive has the Melbourne scene been for your music?
Melbourne has been very conducive to my music making. Firstly, I met a label (Two Bright Lakes) to work with, they put out a release in 2012 for the Fox + Sui project after I’d lived in Melbourne for around a year. That was my introduction to the music scene. From there I met wonderful musical compadres and eventually started collaborating, lending my voice and instrumentation to projects here and there and subsequently found musicians to play in my band. About half the musicians I work with now are original Melburnians, and the other half are from everywhere else in Australia. That’s pretty common I think.
I self-released some music and met more people, bookers, radio hosts and built a network fairly quickly. There’s lots of venues and events to take part in here in Melbourne, if you’re out and about and you have music you want to put out, you’ll start finding people to work with. I loosened up a lot when I joined NO ZU. Having a bigger band to be a part of feels very natural to me and that was a moment where I felt that I could truly call Melbourne a home. I like working in that way, or participating purely as a musical activity. If I can have that in a city, it can be a home to me.
I also work with HTMLflowers, a kindred spirit. I’m protective of these relationships because they ebb and flow in life, and it’s an honour to be able to collaborate with others. Living in Melbourne lays a great foundation for musical process and playing regular shows, but I think everyone should branch out to keep their mind fresh from time to time. It’s a platform to get your project together and dream large. Currently I have the pleasure of working with Remote Control and have recently started working with a manager too, so I have a lot to thank Melbourne for.
The visual medium means a lot to you, what is it about imagery that appeals to you so much?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I got cold feet when I was a late teen, and switched out of my film production course to do creative writing instead. I ended up doing mostly electives from media production anyway, but for a long time I took the backseat with filmmaking. I’ve dipped my toe in and started to direct & produce my own videos in the last few years. The visual medium is one of the most primitive forms of communication. Humans can interpret and understand pictures faster than written language. And sometimes there are no words. It’s not dissimilar to music. With visuals there’s subjectivity and interpretation, – you can let your feelings tell you something this is saying. I like being able to stimulate audiences in that way, leave things unfinished or undefined so they fill in the rest and are able to participate in making meaning. Imagery is another form of expression I pay more attention to than making music, it’s not as effortless as music making is and perhaps it has to be more considered, because I am still learning the craft. It then feeds back into music and teaches me new ways to approach my projects. I am currently finishing of a post-grad design course, I think learning design principles – that’s probably shaped my approach to the visual medium more so. I love imagery because it’s so nuanced, the slightest change in facial expression can alter the whole world I’ve created.
Do you feel a symbiotic relationship between art and music as a general form of artistic expression or are you a musician first and foremost?
This is a question I flit between week to week. I would comfortably say, I am a musician first and foremost. But that would be to negate any onus to be a video/visual artist as well and perhaps within a creatively led career it’s easier to focus on functioning in one industry before spreading yourself across others. In reality the processes are inextricably linked and share the same components; research, concept, iterations, editing, refinement, experimentation, completion then critique & reflection. And other times, it is mood based self expression which may take shape in music or other formats.
What does music give you that nothing else does?
Music gives me the strongest sense of self and affirmation to not take life so seriously all the time. It comes so naturally when it comes, just like breathing. Anything that is that effortless and pleasing to others and myself has to be the right thing to be doing, I think.
On a technical level, what is in the kit, and have you acquired any strange or odd instruments that make their way into your arrangements?
Nothing so strange! Pretty classic set-up for a ‘electronic pop producer’ and pretty minimal too. I use ‘traditional’ equipment, and am less into found sound unless used as a ‘sound effect’ e.g. waves, birds an so on. I feel like I am quite conservative in that way. It involves less post-production. Doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not how I’ve always worked. On Two Seas, I pretty much used heaps of weird ‘world’ instruments, a Quattro & a Chinese Moon Guitar etc. Nowadays I’m straight up, give me 4 things and I’ll work on a song.
I’d like more of everything! But that’ll always be the case. I want a 101 synth, Mini Moog (hah! Imagine), 707 and 727, 606 all of which I’ve had my hands on in the past in ‘shared studio’ arrangements. I also still want a telecaster or some sweet guitar, coupled with a Fender Twin Reverb (OG). But it’s good having limited equipment, there are less decisions involved.
Roland TR-808 Drum Machine (original with midi modification, looking to get 32 banks of memory installed too!)
Roland Juno-60 Synthesiser
Korg M1 Synthesiser (my workhorse!)
Wurlitzer Piano (the beige & brown student model!)
Roland Space Echo Tape Delay (borrowed)
A bunch of electro harmonix guitar effects pedals (Holy Grail Reverb, Voice Box)
A bunch of boss guitar effects and loop pedals (Chorus, Delay, EQ)
Tube Screamer pedal
Line 6 Delay
TC Helicon Echo & Voice Double vocal effects units
Q-Chord gathering dust ☹
Assortment of percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, acoustics guitars & other crappy keyboards and ‘toy’ instruments I rarely use
Peluso Condensor Mic, Shure Beta 58s & an assortment of other shitty ones
VOX guitar amp
Bass guitar (unnamed brand, mustang size)
Electric guitar (a Les Paul Jnr rip off I got in Redfern years back)
SPD-SX Sampler for backing tracks & additional drum sounds
Korg M1 (the actual thing, working on the soft-synth iPad version…)
TC Helicon Vocal Effects units (Doubler & Echo)
Guitar Amp (whatever is around, preferably a Fender Twin Reverb eh)
You are primarily a solo artist but you collaborate with a great many musicians, how do you find the working relationship when pairing up others versus working independently?
In the writing process my instincts are to write alone and finish the song melodically before inviting others to contribute so there is a solid structure for someone else to vibe on. But then, I’ve been making music for a couple of collaborative projects lately and that is similarly intuitive and natural when you’ve got a good rapport with your collaborator. It becomes a dialogue, more of an exchange. Both are integral to my musical world. I love being a backing singer/instrumentalist just as much as I love being a front person leading a band. In the future, I’d like to try song-writing or producing for other people too.
It is always interesting to see what cover songs an artist chooses and how they reinterpret the original. Your B-side to Midriffs included Gratitude by the Beastie Boys which was an inspired choice and in my humble opinion the best b-boys song in their extensive catalogue. What drew you to this track?
I am an old Beastie Boys fan girl. I think I was 14 or so when they came out to Sydney and played the Hordern Pavillion, with Resin Dogs and Avalanches as a support. I wore their horrid merch t-shirt which was bright orange for the Hello Nasty tour where I stood right up against the fence at the very front. I know several of their raps and Gratitude just seemed to lend itself more to a reinterpretation lyrically then the others. I used to sing “I don’t know” by Adam Yauch which is perhaps a more obvious choice. I love covers. But I don’t do them enough. Recently I sang Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye for a MIFF panel on the 808 doco. You might see that on SoundCloud one day 😉
What does Secretly Susan say about the stage of your life you are at right now?
I’m comfortable, I still dream large and I have other things I do besides music that I am also passionate about. I feel like I am getting a lot of creative satisfaction out of every aspect of my music making right now. Because I am involved in the visual world that the music sits within, it feels like it’s a fully realised vision for this album. My aims are to continue that into the stage show as well. I’m comfortable that I’ll be performing and recording for the rest of my life, so there’s no rush to do anything hastily. I’d like to continue to develop personas for my Sui Zhen releases along with videos and then hit the club with more minimal, dancier vibes in Sui club sets and collaborations with other producers. There’s so much to do within a music career. I’ve learnt that the more of myself I put into the concepts and the production the more rewarding it can be and the people seem to connect on a deeper level.
Was there a desire to push yourself in a new direction with this album or was it a culmination of songs and sounds that have been with you for some time and only now just seeing the light of day?
These are songs and sounds that have been with me for some time. If I purely stopped at making the recordings, there wouldn’t have been a cohesive visual accompaniment to the overall project as that also needed time to evolve and be refined. My desire was to make it a fully realised piece of work, and to consider each component whether it’s an image or a sound. In the time this has been in the works, I put out a couple of EPs (Body Reset & Female Basic) that were completed in a much shorter time frame. Some projects you have to be slow and steady with, and this was one of them.
Is there an increased self-confidence with each release?
Yes, definitely. I think that should be the aim – to learn from the last and to keep questioning your approach to get the most fulfillment from what you make. That way you’re always learning and it shows in the evolution of your music. You need the risk of making mistakes to make anything interesting I think.
Listening to Take It All Back, do you write in an autobiographical/confessional manner or from a fictitious, 3rd person point of view?
I write from both. When I write a song, I am expressing myself, emotions I am feeling and so on. But I am also crafting something beyond that moment. That may involve third person points of views, or moments I’ve observed other people experience. Lyrics have to retain meaning for a long time so I can continue perform the songs and still connect to give an honest performance. So I leave an openness to the lyrics, or channel it into a narrative. This way other people can bring their own meaning and interpret the song so it is relevant for them. With Take It All Back, I wrote from another person’s perspective. It’s a song I wish was written for me.
Infinity Street is a dreamy little track and I hear soft jazzy touches of Stereolab in Dear Teri, were you listening to any particular artists during the writing /recording period that helped you lean towards the minimal electro pop stylings of Secretly Susan?
It’s probably more the culmination of music I’ve listened to in my lifetime. Hah, to be that broad. I’m constantly listening to music that’s new to my ears, (but might actually be old 80s jams or what not) and taking in elements that I like and would like to experiment with. It’s hard to say, I think I’ve gotten to that point where I think within the song-writing process, that’s where I contemplate and express ideas and thoughts on any given issue. I use lyrics to direct those thoughts into some kind of narrative or to give songs an emotional tie in for people to take hold of. I was listening to Sean Nicholas Savage, Telegraph Avenue, Dip in the Pool, Sandii now come to think of it. I have a great respect for artists write songs that can exist with varied instrumentation be it drum machine and synthesisers or guitars or both! That to me, is a good song. Electronic dance music is different in that way, it can be more repetitive and groove based. The subtlest subtraction or addition can alter the mood. I’ve been listening to dance music since I was mid-teen at underage raves alongside traditional classics like Fleetwood Mac – all of these genres for music have seeped into this album.
As an artist evolving emotionally and musically from album to album, do you find it hard or even redundant performing some of your earlier material when the person you are today maybe completely different from the person you were when you first put pen to paper?
You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I still like some of the folkier stuff I’ve written. It’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t perform it with any regularity, and perhaps my first EP (from 2007) is not going to be performed ever again. I’m okay with that. I think evolving as a musician means there’ll be stuff that feels irrelevant. I am probably the same person but just have better methods of executing my ideas, so they retain relevance for a longer time. I feel that with this current album, Dear Teri is one of my favourite songs I’ve written. I hope I love it for a long time. That’s the goal isn’t it?
What does the rest of 2015 have install for you and can we expect to see you touring across the land?
You will! I have Bigsound in September, popping over for CMJ in October which aligns nicely with a museum tech conference I am speaking at in USA in November (a moment to put my nerd hat on). I’ll then be gearing up for NO ZU’s next album release, before coming back to Melbourne to play my Secretly Susan album launch November shows and celebrate! There’s a couple of exciting collabs on the way with HTMLF Flowers & Nic Oogjes in our project Opal E. I am really keen to start working on the next LP. In the meantime you’ll catch me at summer festivals throughout December and January. Stay tuned for show announcements which will be listed on my website.
THANKS FOR THE INTERVIEW!
Sui Zhen‘s new album Secretly Susan out on Friday 28th August via Dot Dash / Remote Control
Interview by Courtney Dabb.