Interview – Sui Zhen

There will always be something undeniably charming about the hiss of the playback on a cassette tape.

For those old enough to remember the heydays of TEAC, that slight, mechanical wheezing contains the memories of hours sat next to giant stereos, capturing the latest craze single from the radio, or making mixes from CDs to give to friends for their birthday.

It’s that lingering nostalgia that has seen the resurgence of tapes as a physical medium – thanks to record labels like Burger in the USA and Rice Is Nice in Australia – and also why the hiss of cassette is a texture that continues to sneak its way into modern composition, as evidenced by the latest album from Sui Zhen, Suddenly Susan.

Sui Zhen (pronounced “Sue-ee chen”) is a Melbourne artist with a knack for making the dated and kitsch seem modern and poignant. Her deconstructed pop tunes sound like they were stolen from John Hughes’ car stereo in 1986 – zooming synths, syrupy vocals, plodding bass lines. But she also absorbs world music and elements of electronica into the fold to produce a rich and sonically diverse sphere of influence, that gradually reveals itself from track to track across the beautiful album.

Channel [V] chatted via email with Sui Zhen about the music onSuddenly Susan, the diversity of her songwriting, actually getting benefits from corporate sponsored talent programs, writing songs in the mail, and – of course – how she got that lovely tape hiss to happen.
[V] : I first heard and fell in love with your music after you released ‘Take It All Back’. That’s such a stunningly simple, yet warm and textured song. Did you know you were onto something special when you finished recording it? And did you record it to tape – if not how did you get that gentle hiss in the recording?

SZ: That’s so nice to hear. I never know if I am onto something that will work for others in the same way that it works for me. There’s so much that can come in between someone connecting with a song that I keep my expectations modest, and try to be patient and hope that it finds its audience. We recorded a cassette tape player hiss onto a Tascam Reel to Reel recorder, and that mixed with the hiss of the Roland Juno 60 so we could get a (in my engineer Todd Dixon’s words) “a complicated, deep and textured hiss.”

The aesthetics of the colours and design for the album and single releases and the videos are really striking. Are you responsible for all the design and artwork as well? I did notice you’d directed both videos.

Yeah, I did the design & artwork for the cover, singles & posters you may have seen around. The colour palette was well defined ahead of shooting, and I drew sketches of the kind of shots I wanted or found image references for the layout, mood & tone I wanted to achieve. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Phebe Schmidt for the images. The design largely lets that imagery speak for itself so a lot of the aesthetic a result of our collaboration. Video-making is another outlet for me, it’s great to finally marry the two mediums into one project.

The three singles you’ve released – ‘Take It All Back’, ‘Dear Teri’, and ‘Infinity Street’ – are really clearly defined from each other, and cover a really broad range of sounds and approaches. Does the record pack a lot more surprises across its entirety?

I think each song encompasses it’s own sonic terrain. Maybe due to the particular synth used, live percussion versus a drum machine or the mood it conveys. I sing about death, love & loss and our growing dependence on the internet. Maybe after a few listens when the lyrics soak in, it might be surprising to understand what the songs are actually about. Sometimes the happy melody isn’t all that it seems.

That being said, ‘Take It All Back’ is the closest song to a straight up pop composition. It reminded me a lot of someone like Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – in that it’s clearly pop, but it’s been deconstructed to its elements so that it feels like something completely different. Would that be an accurate assessment of your approach to that song?

I am glad you are enjoying this song so much. The original demo for this track is pretty minimal, and not much changed in the arrangement during the recording process. I focused more on the vocal performance and making sure I hit all the right moments and sang the lyrics honestly with heart. The approach was to tell the story with my vocal, and allow space for contemplation. It’s probably also influenced by the studio set-up I had at the time – I was writing more on the Juno 60 and programming the beat as the first step as opposed to writing melody on guitar first. In this way, I set a moody scene with the instrumental to perform vocals over as the final addition.

How do you present this music live? I saw a snapshot where it looks like just two people on stage. Is that the full set up? If so would you ever consider expanding to a full band?

I perform with a live band and also solo. It’s flexible, because it needs to be. For the listening parties & in-store I played recently, I had Ashley Bundang (Totally Mild, Zone Out) on keys, percussion & backing vocals. Alec Marshall (Hot Palms) on guitar, bass & samples and the newest addition of my bandmates from NO ZU, Cayn Borthwick on saxophone & Mitch McGregor on Congas. It would be amazing to play each set with the full band, but that is not always possible due to the expenses involved. When solo, I perform with backing tracks on keyboards & guitar. It’s a different experience for me, and sometimes I feel I can connect more deeply that way because it’s just me and the audience. If I am playing in a club I might amp it up a bit a play remix versions of my own songs that are more uptempo and better suited to that environment. It’s fun to play with the songs in this way.

You always hear about up and coming artists taking part in these talent scouting programs like the Red Bull Music Academy, but you’re never quite sure how much of an effect on their careers they have. Whereas yours seems to have had a significant impact on your career – introducing you to both new influences and new collaborators. Would you agree?

It did have a big impact on me personally, though it’s not the same for everyone. I responded really positively to being introduced to and having the opportunity to collaborate with people from such a diverse range of countries with such varied styles. Attending lectures from musicians including Steve Reich, Mark Ronson & Cosey Fanni Tutti was eye opening. Learning their different approaches to music and the commonalities we shared in our approach to living a musical lifestyle was reassuring. I came back confident that I would continue to make music for my whole life, and that there was no need to be in a rush about it. We all create our own path within our musical career and looking after other areas in my life would be integral to enjoying and sustaining this, because I need to feel healthy and engaged in all aspects of my life to work really hard at something. The Academy also taught me to never stop asking questions and learning new things to inspire my music. I started to recognise my own taste and style a lot more objectively (if that is possible) after I came out of that experience.

‘Dear Teri’ arrived out of a letter-song exchange you had with the singer from Le Butcherrettes. Explain how that process worked between the two of you and are there any more songs set to be released from that exchange – on either of your ends?

I’d love to work with Teri on a specific project. I think our exchanges were more so intended just for each other. They may not be so relevant to others – but then who am I to say what will resonate? I’ve never showed many people. We actually made a funny video shot in the grounds of a housing estate in San Diego. It was for a demo we made in her walk-in wardrobe when I visited in 2010. I think the lyrics made mention of a Pro Hart painting, Pandas and sung conversation between us. Perhaps I will upload that one day.

You’ve also recently started DJing as DJ Susan. How has that endeavour influenced you as a creative person, and are you taking cues from the tracks you play and how audiences react to them and saving that knowledge for how you’ll approach your own music going forward?

I am more actively seeking new tracks to play since DJing which in turns shapes what may influence my own writing. I had thought I might make a techno-house record cos I was listening & playing lots of that music when DJing, but at the core I think I am at best a songwriter and I’ve been hooked on Sade and people of that calibre, who write universal songs that span decades and still remain relevant. DJing is quite a separate mental process to writing and performing my own music. It’s about sharing something special with other people. It’s such a rewarding challenge to keep the dance floor happy, but also not compromise on your own selection. I think DJing has been a really positive addition to my life, it keeps me a lover of music, connected to the reason I do it in the first place.

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