Helen, born in Beijing and raised in the US and Canada, has been a staple in the Chinese music scene since she moved back from Los Angeles to Beijing.
She founded Beijing-based indie band Free the Birds, formerly Ziyo. Helen started a record label, FakeMusicMedia, Chinese electronic group Pet Conspiracy and Nova Heart band, that make a mix of sexy psychedelic disco music with lo-fi ethereal pop vocals. Nova Heart played at Chinas most prestigious contemporary art gallery (UCCA), got invited to some of Chinas´ biggest music festivals, was guest at the Zurich Street Parade/Lethargy Festival, part of an MTV China special, and played a sunset spot at the main stage of Clockenflap festival in Hong Kong.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 02 issue
celebrating International Women’s Day 2018
China-underground: Can you tell us something about when you start to get into music? Did your family support you when they knew you wanted to start this career?
Helen Feng: My mother and my father grew up as childhood friends in Beijing, but during the Cultural Revolution, they were sent to Mongolia to a work camp. There wasn’t really that much to do there for two city kids. Herd sheep, break horses, dig ditches, and sit in a Yurt singing. They had big singing parties, sitting around a stove in a communal Yurt, drinking fermented horse milk, and singing revolutionary songs cause those were the only songs you were allowed to sing in those days. Mao Zedong is that sun and stuff like that, believe or not it was like mating call in the late 60’s. Anyway, my dad like the way my mom sang my mom like my dad’s singing, they sang to each other, they sang duets, they got drunk together, they fell in love . . . many years later, they had me.
As soon as my mom found out she was pregnant, she turned to my dad and said, I bet our child will be really musical. I don’t even remember when I started, but there always music in the house and I always had lessons with really nice teachers. My parents always encouraged me toward music but never forced. It was just hard not to notice the joy in their eyes when I did music, even if it was weird punky stuff with me dry humping a female bandmate, they would say,”it’s a bit noisy, but I like energy.” They never really complained. Once this shirt that I shredded a little too much did a Janet Jackson on stage and they were at the show, I think that was the only real time they ever criticized me. Something to the effect, you should choose your costumes better.
But they never coddled me ever, whatever I did they would say “good. . . but you could do better.” My parents were competitive athletes before the cultural revolution changed everything, so even in the arts, they set me up with an athletes mentality. The idea was always, don’t settle for okay. . . be better. . . and whatever you start, finish it. Even failing is better than the incompletion, cause you can’t learn anything from unfinished work，and you won’t learn anything from success or failure if you don’t give it yourself all from the get-go. That stuck with me. . . I’m a slow learner, and I’m slow at finishing. But I always do because their voices are in the back of my head just nagging away telling me to “try harder, and finish my sh*t”.
What are the ideas behind your songs? What do you want to tell?
Things that affect me emotionally. I struggled with depression so I wrote about that. I had certain private trauma’s in my life so I write about them. Some happier moments, so I write about them. I stream of consciousness lyrics, and I try and figure them out and make them make sense, so I can’t really explain my lyrical ideology. . . it’s whatever comes the fuck out. I write about my fantasy of who I could be. My internal world is like Faulkner filtered through the lens of David Lynch. It’s pretty F-d up.
But when it comes to the way they build up, I try to hide the details or rather zoom in on them so intensely that I don’t have to talk about it directly. Like you see a scene playing out, but instead of writing about two arguing over I don’t know some stupid shit, you zoom in on a small hand gesture that means sooo much, so much you can relate or feel, but you don’t see the scene play out but you can see the gestures and relate to that moment. Or perspective, the distortion of perspective through a human mind. Just like when you look at someone after you’ve cried, their face looks like twisted and warped through the lens of swelling tears. . . or when your drunk and stumbling through the street and all the lights have halos. That for me is emotionally warped perception.
I learn something about myself, about the way situations and humans play out, about our fate and how both futile and heroic it all is. I write about that. Sometimes, I see a story unfold before my eyes and I try and place myself also zoomed in on the details, or warped through the imagined perception of my subjects. I have this world in my head, where it’s like a fun glass mirrored room of everything, blown up, shrunk down, from ten different angles, and through the mind’s eye of different people.
Is there a song or more songs you are particularly connected? Are there any songs dedicated to someone or to a moment that marked a significant change in your life?
Yes, but it’s very private. You’ll have to guess.
What are the main challenges you face as a woman in making music in China?
Musically, not that many. When I started doing music here, I actually found it initially to be less sexist than in the U.S. I worked as a lower level worker in the Hollywood before I came to China, and I dealt with toxic workplaces where women were objectified and demeaned in small ways on a daily basis, but that was an overall accepted norm in L.A in the late 90s early 2000’s. I experienced nothing as bad as the stories I’ve been hearing, but it was enough to question my self-worth and understanding of what made me worthwhile as an individual. In China, honestly, I found more people to look up to at the time.
I worked radio, TV, and other forms of media alongside making music, and honestly, I pretty much only had female bosses here. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here, just it’s separated by class and profession and for me, I was lucky because I was in the right group of both in China. I had my protection so to speak. . . which I now know that even the top women L.A. were not even afforded. I never really encountered pushback as the band front person, or as a musician. I only started getting push back when I decided to become a label head and build my own business instead of just being a musician. I suddenly felt, like for the first time, even though I had a business degree and our projects were successful, for the first time since being in China, I had a peer which I respected ask me “wouldn’t you rather be having babies right now then doing this?” But yeah, be better. That’s all can think, that’s all I know. Nothing is more powerful, then being better.
What changes in the industry in China, compared to when you start to play music? Does this affect your way of creating music?
There is 1000 times more money now in original music then when I started. When I first started in early 2000’s it was mostly packaged pop stars, factory system artists that all did the same sugary sweet ballets, western pop knockoffs, or nationalistic anthems. Even these stars were seeing their paychecks cut by piracy and a lack of playing opportunities. Those who didn’t feed the mainstream system all co-existed together in a pool of burning rebellion. It didn’t matter that these bands were maybe a bit “derivative”, the need to communicated a certain dissatisfaction with society often bested any hopes of becoming big in the music world. So musical style aside, what was genuine and original was the energy, the anger, and the motivations.
Now there’s more money in the music industry than ever before. At the same time, artists are more confused. They get a lot of conflicting signals. . . and the best way to kill a rebel is not by fighting against the rebel, but giving them just enough to make them want more, and then telling them quid pro quo. The reality is, the barriers to self-expression in mainstream media is pretty much the same if not even a little better than before. But because most underground artists are not content in staying unknown and secretly even if they don’t say so want to make it, the self-censorship has gone up because they don’t want to close off those channels for themselves. I started at a time when getting rich off the music that we were making was not an option. But now, it is, and artists are conflicted. They don’t know how far they want to push their artistic expression if they want to toe the line, cross the line, or do the kind of music that will sign the checks.
I have to deal with that in artist development now, and man, when I find a person who knows what he wants whatever that place is, I feel like I want to kneel and cry and thank the heavens. Meanwhile, a bunch of investment people more apt at investing in large-scale real estate developments and payment APPs is coming into the creative industry with absolutely no understanding that this is not an industry that works well with “economies of scale”. They don’t understand what the tricky depressed conflicted and beautiful animal creativity really is, and how to properly support its growth. Vast amounts of all this money are wasted, but even this is changing. In China, decades move in years, and years feel like decades. If you want to do a separate interview. . . I can give you a 10 page paper on this stuff. For me, musically, I’m trying to cut out as much noise as possible but it’s not easy. I guess as we get older, we all reminisced about simpler days.
How important is it nowadays for women to make their voices heard in China?
Everyday is important for everyone to make their voices heard everywhere. . . if they have something relevant to say. I think in society we encourage speaking more than we encourage thought and action, and the amount of empty babble going out and polluting our thought space is immense and distracting. I know this is about China, but I have to get this off my chest.
One of the more disturbing things I noticed is this eagerness to replace Wonderwomen with Jane Doe. Honestly, some of the ways the coverage is going these days seem like for me the press is treating it like “oh no, this guy harassed me which means a lifetime of therapy. . . I’m so weak now cause I’ve been violated.” What I want to hear from the media is “Sure this guy harassed me but I’m still a F—ing champion and I’m gonna report his ass, move on with my life, go out and build my own Uber, my own Miramax, my own White House with my sisters (and a few good men too) accept not run by a–holes. If I could get a few more wonder women stories, as opposed to Jane Doe stories, then yeah I want to hear their voices. I want my future daughters to grow up thinking they are destined to run this world, not just be victimized by men. That they can D-I-Y. China and everywhere. But what’ hilarious is that when you try and introduce that angel of inspiration and not just victimhood. . . the media these days go, Oh no, we just want to know about that time you were, you know, touched, not about your 1000 accomplishments or how you were brave and tough and this sh*t barely phased you.
There ARE injustices that need to be out, but they can only end when women feel there is an alternative version of them out there. . . not the victim, but the champion. That’s another form of sexist repression. Just look at Oprah speech… .and how the press covered that speech. How they ignored her accomplishments and just focused on METOO. Like hardly anyone focused on the fact that she was the first black women to get a lifetime achievement award from the Golden Globes which was 80% of her speech, it was all about METOO…. that’s the greater injustice. So yeah, I want women to be heard, for the right reasons in China, and in the world.
“Sexy, provocative and confident, she’s perhaps more of a femme Jim Morrison, constantly feeling out the boundaries of appropriateness in order to nudge them that bit further.” USYD.EDU.AU
What are the main differences in playing music in China, compared to other countries?
That’s so hard to say. I mean this is such a general term you have to specify. Like versus South Africa, England, the United States, Iran, etc.If you want something distinctively different, well. . . there are a lot of Chinese people, like everywhere. All jokes aside, not much these days. I think a lot of artists that come here will find it very similar to touring the U.S. or Europe now these days, it’s really not as grungy and crazy as the old days of packing into standing only passenger trains. . . now it’s like high-speed rails and airplanes, decent sound systems, and good audiences sizes. But obviously we are more famous here, so I guess for us, it feels a bit more plush then when we go overseas and we’re as well known.
Can you share with us a story from the backstage?
Once many many years ago we shared a backstage with one of China’s biggest thrash metal bands. At one time the guitarist calls me over and says, you wanna join us for a drink. I looked over, and a bunch of muscular tattooed dudes with shaved heads or long shoulder length hair is sitting around a nice wooden carved Tea-set sipping daintily on Pu-er tea and commenting on the bouquet of this particular tea. I held up my bottle of Vodka and said how about we drink mine. They turned to me and said, “oh that doesn’t really go with the tea.”
Photos courtesy of Helen Feng