As an avid cultural anthropology and semiotics enthusiast, nothing annoys me more than artists who don’t know the origins of their craft. That is not the case for Sydney-based singer/songwriter and producer Rainbow Chan. And not only does that make her far cooler than the average musician but, also, a lot more fun to talk to. Chan enjoys blending traditional, including “folk” and “classical,” instrumentation with the most postmodern and synthetic musical devices for a sound that often rings of pleasantly eccentric lounge music from another planet (that could satisfy the most novice listener or the most adamant music snob… it’s very easy to enjoy, but there’s a lot there). Her debut EP, Long Vacation, is out July 30th on Silo Arts & Records. I recently got a chance to chat with the songstress about her debut and all of the quirky particulars of her aesthetic.
Izzy Cihak: Your career in music is still relatively new. What have been the highlights, thus far?
Rainbow Chan: I won FBi Radio’s Northern Lights Competition in 2011, which took me to Iceland to collaborate with local artists there, perform at Iceland Airwaves Festival, and watch numerous amazing international artists play (including my favourite, Björk!) Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to continue making music and be involved in various creative projects. One highlight was playing a Virgen Acrolyte in Karen O’s psycho-opera, Stop the Virgens, at the Sydney Opera House last year. It was a pretty surreal experience, hanging and learning from an all-star cast. I was quite chuffed when Nick Zinner told me he liked my music and my live set!
IC: Your debut EP is set to drop at the end of the month. What can be expected of the release? You seem to blend a cleverly quirky mix of musical genres and types of musicianship.
RC: There are five tracks on the EP, which all have quite a nostalgic quality to them. I’d been watching a lot of 90s Japanese dramas and loved their theme songs, often some type of J-pop/RNB fusion and very syrupy! I realized I wanted to write a set of songs like that, transforming my personal experiences into the soundtrack for an imaginary J-drama.
I love blending organic and electronic sounds. I like playing saxophone, harp, and kalimba, and enveloping them in layers of synths, electronics, and field-recordings. I listened to a lot of 50s golden oldies and Chinese songs when I was young, but I also loved Britney and Mandy Moore, haha! Being trained in classical saxophone, piano, and choral music also confused me even more, so I think I’ve just naturally amalgamated these influences. I guess the simplest way I describe my writing process is that I like to write pop songs, then deconstruct it and reassemble it again so it doesn’t fit perfectly, but there is newfound beauty and interest in the result.
IC: Are there any other contemporary artists that you feel are doing especially interesting or inspiring things?
RC: I love the duo Brothers Hand Mirror from Melbourne, Australia. They make wonderfully infectious tape loops and sincere raps. Their production is grainy and unique. They know how to get people dancing with their grooves and their artworks are also incredible! I also absolutely love Empress Of from Brooklyn. I only discovered her recently, but her “Colorminutes” videos immediately captivated me. Such a haunting voice and warm production. Her song structure is also completely whack and amazing; the chord changes are unexpected and fresh. She’s the bomb for me at the moment.
IC: What were the biggest non-musical influences and inspirations behind Long Vacation?
RC: The aesthetic for Long Vacation stemmed from my Japanese drama binge and my crushes on J-pop stars from the 70s and 80s. I was showing my (very non-techy) mum the wonders of YouTube last year and she asked if I could search old Chinese and Japanese singers for her. I came across Momoe Yamaguchi and many others and became interested not just in their music, but in their fashion style, the elaborate stages, their ridiculous dance moves. I’d also rediscovered an anime, Kimagure Orange Road, I used to watch as a kid. The illustration is gorgeous and the soundtrack is nostalgic. The female lead, Ayukawa Madako, was the one who inspired me to learn the sax, because she rocks a good solo or two in the show. I guess when I think about it, these things are the nexus of Eastern and Western pop culture in the 80s and 90s. I identify with that back-and-forth dynamic between two worlds, being an Hong Kong immigrant who grew up in Australia.
IC: I quite like your music videos. What do they draw inspiration from? Do you have any particular favorite visual artists?
RC: My videos often use old, or lo-fi, technologies, in conjunction with digital, because I think that visually represents the music I make. For the latest video, “Skinny Dipping,” conceived and directed by the amazing Sui Zhen, we were inspired by old films and the pixie haircut I had at the time. We referenced various classic Japanese filmmakers, like Juzo Itami and Yasujiro Ozu, as well as a stalkerish fan-video for Momoe Yamaguchi that I found on Youtube. Wes Anderson-style shots made their way into the clip too.
As for visual artists, I love Bill Henson, Stan Brakhage, and Katie Paterson, who doesn’t work strictly visually, but she translates the natural world into poetic installations. There is one work that I adore where she recorded three glaciers in Iceland and used the glacial waters to press ice records of the field-recordings. I’m a complete sucker for works that merge nature, art, and sound – I find them very inspiring.
IC: What are your hopes and plans for the second half of 2013? Any chance of a US tour or a full-length? If so, what can be expected of either?
RC: I will be working on my next video clip, which I want to turn into a short film. I’ll be touring and playing OutsideIn Festival at home, which I’m really excited about, because I’ll be collaborating with some fine musicians, including Jonti (Stones Throw), Polographia, and many others to recreate The Avalanches’ Since I Left You live! I’ve already started working on new material for a full-length, but that won’t be out ‘til 2014. Lastly, not sure if I’ll make it to the US for a tour yet, but let’s keep the dream alive! Perhaps you guys can show me around and give me tips on the best food in town when I do?!