Self-Portrait: Sui Zhen

Only in hindsight does Melbourne-based producer and vocalist Sui Zhen note how musical an upbringing she had. Aside from late night car drives with her mum soundtracked by Annie Lennox’s dulcet tones, she played trumpet from an early age and sang in the vocal ensemble and choir at high school. As her teenage years loomed, influenced and encouraged by her siblings, she picked up guitar and bass, finding inspiration in bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Janes Addiction.

Being accepted into Red Bull Music Academy in 2010 was a real turning point. Surrounded by other aspiring musicians and producers, she felt truly at home. This was when she really began to take ownership of her sound. 

Her breakthrough came in 2015 with the release of Secretly Susan. Conceptual in its format, she explored technology and its impact on humankind, realised through beguiling vocals and her singular blend of styles like bossa nova, dub, pop and lounge. Toward the end of 2019 her follow up came in the form of Losing, Linda. Building on her analysis of existing in the digital age, she takes on a ghostly digital alter-ego to examine real life struggles and the idea of striving for perfection.  

Alongside a mix of 100% original unreleased material, in this interview Sui Zhen traces a life spent immersed in music and the important lessons she’s learnt along the way…

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

I have a vivid memory from childhood of a late summer night out in the Sydney suburbs listening to my Mum crank Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass”. I recall us dancing in dim light, really letting our emotion flow out. Looking back I realise it had become a post-divorce anthem for my Mum. It expressed something she could fully relate to. From there my eyes were open. I experienced a visceral response to music and started to understand the emotional release it could provide.

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

I didn’t think it was particularly musical though, reflecting now, I suppose it was. I picked up the trumpet at age 7 or 8 and continued to play in orchestra, concert band and jazz bands until about grade ten. I also sung in the vocal ensemble and choir throughout my primary and high school years. In my early teens my brother took a lead role in my musical education, my sister too. He would lock us in his room and make us listen to albums in their entirety. It was psychedelic in many ways allowing your mind to focus solely on listening with all the free time childhood allows to give it all your attention. We were kids who camped out for concert tickets overnight, bought all the merch, watched RAGE, made mixtapes from the radio, learnt how to play our favourite Smashing Pumpkins songs on guitar – typical 90s kids.

My brother would also encourage me to find my own musical role models. At thirteen or fourteen I started learning guitar, and then writing songs to record on a four track tape machine. The trumpet got put aside and I left the orchestra. At fifteen I started to perform roles in the school musicals and joined some teenage post-rock bands singing songs inspired by LSD experiences. I started going to raves and discovered electronic music. My parents led different lives – a barrister and a scientist – though I think if given the encouragement and opportunities I had they might have made more time for creative pursuits, that’s why they were chill about us following our dreams. We were taught to work hard, study hard (the Chinese family motto) and then, you can reward yourself. I have to thank my Mum and family for being so encouraging from an early age.

What led you into music production?

My path to producing music; buying software, hardware and actively learning techniques has been slow. Though I always have had an innate curious technical bent I am by nature not a precise person but lean a lot on my organisation, research and improvisational skills to get through life. I perform. The term engineer felt more mathematical. Could that really be me? At first it was due to role models and internal biases. I simply did not realise that I could be in the engineer or mixing seat. I did not see myself in other engineers I had come across. Though I did know a few female DJs around the Sydney warehouse party scene. Slowly but surely with each project I worked on, I observed, listened and learned. I hung out with DJs, producers and engineers, worked as a session singer, saved up to record in commercial studios and my interest and obsession with gear and equipment grew.

Eventually in 2010 I was selected for the Red Bull Music Academy in London. Through the culmination of my songwriting, club music experience and evolving tastes, I found myself amongst like-minded folk from all around the world. Doing just as I had done, teaching themselves the way to pursue their music. I realised each person has their own musical path to follow. Doesn’t matter if you weren’t schooled formally, had long forgotten how to score sheet music, never took to theory – you could too pursue a musical path on the cusp of the digital music revolution. It was a life changing experience. I’ve spoken about it before so I won’t labour the point but truly, a turning point for me to start taking the reigns of my own sound.

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

There are so many producers and artists whom I admire. Inspiration is constant, just listening to music at home makes me feel – inspired. But taking that inspiration, understanding it, dissecting it and turning it into a reference to be able to let it influence my production is more of a process. I listened to a lot of Mad Professor records to dissect the feel of dub-inspired jams. But I did not live the same experience as the voices I hear on those tracks, I am from suburban Australia from a Chinese Malaysian family. I cannot make reggae! I am also a laptop producer. The music is going to sound very different. But I love that space. I love to try and perform dub mixes on my tracks albeit as an amateur. Interpreting these influences and seeing how they might touch my own productions is a lovely challenge.

I also love Sade, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Arthur Russell and the New York art and music scene of the 80s. On the housier tip, I enjoy A Guy Called Gerald, Larry Heard productions plus pop stars like Annie Lennox, Book of Love and then calmer music by Eno is cliche, but he was so prolific so there is much to learn there too. I’m a massive CAN, Neu and Dunkelziffer fan. I love Japanese city pop and productions by YMO crew, Haroumi Hosono etc. I also love contemporary producers like Palmbomen, my pals Tornado Wallace, Roza Terenzi, Cale Sexton, Sleep D and crew like that from my neighbourhood. They inspire me so much on a day to day basis.

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

I like to do some exercise before hitting the studio. Often it’ll be a long session with a lot of time spent seated. After a jog or a swim I’ll hit up some snacks, usually carrying a thermos of filter coffee or oolong tea, 1L coconut water, popcorn, fruit and my guilty pleasure is beef jerky. Though I’m trying to kick it! Once I’m in, I’ll set-up any gear if it’s not already ready, light some incense get the lamp vibe happening. First I do this little Qi Gong routine I’ve held onto from martial arts training, I wish I had more time for physical pursuits. But I’ll do that as a kind of spiritual cleanse. I’ll then peruse the internet following any stray thoughts or ideas for some stimulus, and to get lyrical threads happening to help inform the music I’ll make.

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

I usually have some parameter or limitation for what I am setting out to achieve with a jam. I have recently been interested in minimal expressions — reducing my ideas to their core and allowing enough space to explore that idea in its entirety without clutter. I’ll stream of consciousness play or vocalise ideas and see what comes out. I record all of this. My process is very much married to a production process of documenting, reviewing and re-performing or articulating. I improvise a lot in this space but good ideas stick and through reiterating them, something worthy of further exploration emerges. I rarely write music away from my recording set-up these days. Though, sometimes I’ll get some moments on a guitar, piano or driving in the car and find something… I usually rush to record with my phone just incase it works out to be something.

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

There is a place for perfection and impulsion in my process. I love sketches and early demos, they are like journal entries. I think you can probably hear it in my output. Losing, Linda is a case of striving for some kind of perfect execution of an idea. I worked with an engineer on the mix (Haima Marriott!) who has a brilliant ear for detail. He knew multiple methods to achieve the production style I wanted for each track and we tried out a lot of techniques. Whereas some new material I have upcoming is going to feel a lot more loose and incidental. I’ll probably mix a lot of it myself because I want it to have a raw feel. Though, even with first takes or sketches there’s a conscious choice to use them. And that notion is deliberate. It’s still a considered performance and would require a recording approach to achieve that particular aesthetic.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

If it’s started with a melodic or lyrical idea I’ll hold onto it until I get a basic rhythm pattern down and set a bpm. Regardless of whether I add drums later, I usually like to start recording with a tempo in mind so it’s easier to work into later. A lesson I learned from an engineer friend who was often stuck piecing together old demos of mine unable to align them to any grid. I have almost exclusively used 808 kit to create the initial drum pattern. Once down I’ll lay a few other instrumentals – maybe synth lines, chords, or a bass line. Then once there’s enough of a bed I will try some vocal ideas to lock down a guide vocal idea. Even if complete I like to see it through and push until I arrive at something with promise. Then I’ll take a break.

If I’ve got the whole evening free I’ll do another session on vocal tracking, with some experimental takes too. After this it’s usually good to do a bit of a mix and bounce down a demo to take away. If I’m still inspired I’ll have a quick improv session and record something completely new before I leave just incase. Then it’s lights off, pack down and walk home listening to the demo on the way. Listen again with headphones. Make some notes. Then leave it for a couple of days to revisit with fresh ears. Usually the bulk of the idea arrives in that first session. It can be obsessive and solitary but very satisfying.

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

I’ve never really had a technique for sampling pre-recorded material. Recently I have sampled news excerpts to try and make comments on the dire political state Australia is in. I am definitely interested in field recordings where appropriate and sampling my own voice. But I guess that still could be considered original material. In a previous project, Fox + Sui my collaborator Andras would sample using an MPC to make our instrumentals. I have been thinking of it lately though, as I love laid back 90s hip hop like Digable Planets. I also love Standing On A Corner out of Brooklyn, though their sampling is more self referential. Be cool to make some tracks with that approach.

What’s the most important bits of kit that make a Sui Zhen track?

Roland TR808, Juno-60, Korg M1, Minilogue, Memory Man Delay/Chorus, Space Echo Reverb, Sound Toys, Fender P-Bass, Fender Electric Guitar (various!), Chorus pedals, more analog delay pedals and TC Helicon Doubler & Echo for voice.

This mix is comprised of 100% original Sui Zhen material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

Each track in this mix marks a special moment for me. They represent some collaborative work, commissioned scores from the past 18 months that I am really proud of and some original unreleased material bi-products of Losing, Linda or jams I haven’t yet revisited to flesh out further.

  • 01 Entrance (Corin Ileto, Becky Sui Zhen & Casey Hartnett)

This was from a commission from Art Gallery of NSW for their Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage exhibition, the score was delivered off an app which was spatially aware and cross faded into original musical responses to exhibition themes or artworks as the visitor moved throughout the space.

  • Soft Future Part Two (Sui Zhen)

This piece is from a solo synth performance I took part in at Sydney Opera House. It’s an improvisation I mixed and now listen to amongst other tracks from this same period to help me focus when I need instrumental music without too many distracting elements.

  • Equal Night Intro (Sui Zhen) and Equal Night Melody (Sui Zhen)

These two are from a commission for Castlemaine State Festival opening night themed Equinox. It accompanied a live participatory dance event produced by Deep Soulful Sweats choreographic legends Bec Jensen and Sarah Aiken. Imagine this whilst watching 500+ audience members heave through a dazzling field surrounded by oversized inflatable planets manoeuvred by a school dance troupe.

  • Holiday Feelings Part One (Sui Zhen)

Another artwork commission for Beth Dillon & her crew at 110% for their installation performance Holiday Feelings.

  • Tora Sample – Sans Soleil Re-Score (Sui Zhen, Cayn Borthwick, Andrew Noble)

This is from my re-scoring of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil film. My most special and tender project as I was deep in grief after losing my mother to cancer. This was my first musical project I did after that experience.

  • Always Lonely Remix by Sui Zhen (Mouth Tooth, Sui Zhen)

A remix for dear friends Max Turner and Rhys Mitchell of Mouth Tooth. Highly recommend checking out their music video for the original song! It’s legendary.

  • Natural Progression Remix by Sui Zhen (Sui Zhen)

My own remix for live solo clubbier sets.

  • 01 March Demo 2015 (Sui Zhen)

Something from 2015 archives! Never released… there’s more if there are any takers 😉

  • What Do You See There? (Sui Zhen)

As above but from 2016

  • Guitar Jam 06 (Sui Zhen)

Sometime in 2018 I believe…. Maybe going to be on my next release with Cascine & Dot Dash.

  • Chi Energy (Mindy Meng Wang & Sui Zhen)

A most special and unique collaboration with Mindy Meng Wang Guzheng player. This was recorded moments after our first meeting, as we got to know each other through a shared experience of losing parents, intercultural life and music as our saviour.

  • Stayin’ In (Sui Zhen)

I think I wrote and recorded this in Garage band when I lived in Sydney around 2011 just before moving to Melbourne. I can hear it in the lyrics and it sounds like I am singing from the perspective of my old house in Redfern or Surry Hills. So earnest and raw, but I wanted to include some of this side of me too.

  • Trees & Flowers Cover – Strawberry Switchblade (Sui Zhen)

One of my favourite songs covered specially for this mix. Hope you enjoy!

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

I support Holly Herndon this Tues 21 Jan at Melbourne Recital Centre. I have a couple of bushfire relief shows in Melbourne and some Losing, Linda special shows in a couple of months. I am heading to SXSW in March 2020 with my full live band and then on tour with Banoffee to play New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I am hoping to then visit Europe/UK mid-year armed with a new release of more experimental stuff.

Grab tickets for Sui Zhen’s USA shows.

Tracklist

01 Entrance (Corin Ileto, Becky Sui Zhen & Casey Hartnett)
Soft Future Part Two (Sui Zhen)
Equal Night Intro (Sui Zhen)
Equal Night Melody (Sui Zhen)
Holiday Feelings Part One (Sui Zhen)
Tora Sample – Sans Soleil Re-Score (Sui Zhen, Cayn Borthwick, Andrew Noble)
Always Lonely Remix by Sui Zhen (Mouth Tooth, Sui Zhen)
Natural Progression Remix by Sui Zhen (Sui Zhen)
01 March Demo 2015 (Sui Zhen)
What Do You See There? (Sui Zhen)
Guitar Jam 06 (Sui Zhen)
Chi Energy (Mindy Meng Wang & Sui Zhen)
Stayin’ In (Sui Zhen)
Trees & Flowers Cover – Strawberry Switchblade (Sui Zhen)

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