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Rainbow Chan on her new record 'Pillar', the importance of playfulness, & reconnecting with her Weitou heritage

20 August 2019 | 11:01 am | Michael Stratford Hutch

Multi-dimensional vocalist, songwriter, producer and mixed-media artist RAINBOW CHAN has released Pillar, her second full-length record. The highly-anticipated follow-up to 2016’s Spacings LP, Pillar is both a welcome continuation of Rainbow’s eclectic alternative pop, and a distinct deviation from past work.

The record’s ten tracks sound like a watershed moment, in which all of Rainbow’s various interests and influences mesh together, creating something vibrantly, daringly original. Celebrating her heritage and culture like never before, the record strikes a keen balance between club-ready beats, pop formats, and acapella abstractions.

As Rainbow writes, “Pillar is a record about movement. With movement, comes change. With change, comes a multiplicity of truths. These ten songs were written amongst a constellation of languages, times, locations and lives, further exploring my East-Asian heritage with songs flowing effortlessly between English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Weitou (Cantonese dialect), as a way to de-centre the Eurocentricity of language in pop music”.

I had the great privilege of sitting down with Rainbow to discuss the record, within the broader context of her practice as a whole. We spoke at length about the process behind Pillar, including the incredibly moving story of how Rainbow has reconnected with her mother’s heritage, the Weitou people of Hong Kong.

You’ve only done one show [in Newcastle], but how’s the tour been going so far?

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It’s been really good so far. I usually feel a lot of pressure around album campaigns, because you have this expectation that it’s “make or break”, but for this one I’ve alleviated some of that pressure of myself. I’ve been keeping my life quite normal and busy, and doing other projects at the same time - it feels much more integrated into my life. It’s nice to have the dates spread out so I have a normal work week and then tour on the weekends. I do feel quite lucky in that everyone around me has been very understanding and supportive of my schedule. I’m trying to look after my mental health. I think people don’t really talk about the creative industry and how the metrics for success are so arbitrary, so subjective.

It's pretty rigged!

It’s all algorithms! To have some sort of normality amongst all of this promotion is really important. The show in Newcastle was really sweet, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the tour. There’s a few more elements this time. Al Joel, an amazing production and costume designer who worked on my last couple of video clips, has extended that visual element and costume element into the live show this time. There are a few stage ornamentations that draw from the visuals of the videos, and the photoshoots. It’s nice to tie things together. My sister Rose [aka Okin Osan] is playing flute and backing vocals and electronics in the set. It’s nice having a travel buddy.

Getting into a discussion of Pillar, the first thing I noticed upon listening is how overall, this record seems grittier and grainier than Spacings, and even last year’s Fabrica EP. Where Spacings had this wonderful sheen to its production quality, Pillar on the other hands feels more tactile and immediate. Was this a conscious decision, to depart from previous material, or was it a series of happy accidents?

Well, the record came together over the course of three years, which seems like a long time to be writing, but funnily enough it didn’t feel like it was a long time. I was doing so many other things at the same time! I released an EP under Chunyin, started a project with my best friend Alex Ward as DIN. I think those things definitely contributed to the sound in Pillar. There are more obvious references to dance or electronic music, with these footwork-inspired, really fast club beats. I embraced that although I’m a vocalist, they don’t have to be singer-songwriter style “songs”. There are also elements in Pillar that are acapella, drawing it out into soft and whispery territory. It was a matter of feeling confident enough to have the contrast as an aesthetic choice. Maybe in the past I was a bit more worried about genre, trying to make Rainbow Chan this pop project. I think the reason why Pillar came out a bit grittier was because the songs directed the project, and the songs were inspired by a lot of travelling I did. There are sonic differences in a lot of the songs because they were literally recorded in different geographies, in different “studios.”

Under a blanket…

Yeah exactly! And on different equipment I had access to, like an iPhone. There are all these organic elements to Pillar that give it a bit more spatial depth, I guess.

It’s an eclecticism that comes through prominently, and it’s really satisfying. It has this diaristic quality to it, and I don’t mean that in a sophomoric sense. I mean in a very genuine, emotive, and affective way.

It’s almost a bit scrapbook-y.

That’s a great way of putting it.

I’m moving away from romantic love as being the primary source of inspiration - a lot of the songs are about family or intergenerational relationships. That really opened up the way that the songs developed. I always used to think that pop songs sound contrived if they’re not super emotional. If you’re trying to tackle wider issues, it becomes too didactic, and I wanted to veer away from that. The collage-y nature of the songs helped to create an abstraction which then the audience can read into it. Things like interviews and other supplementary platforms I have allow me to explain the intent behind the works. That’s really helpful. The songs can still be songs, but there’s this larger narrative I’m trying to tackle.

I think collage is the most accurate word for what you’ve done. The record displays an incredible versatility in terms of songwriting and production choices, and you’re exploring all of these different voices, almost like character play. It also feels as though for the first time you’re incorporating a lot more of your other projects’ sounds into the mix too. ‘For A Long Time’ and ‘Lull’ are magnificent, Chunyin-esque bangers, and I can hear a bit of DIN’s influence on ‘CSR’. Did you set out to be more incorporative, or did things just blend together naturally?

It was quite natural. When I make music as a demo I don’t necessarily have the project in mind, I just come up with a beat, and sing if I feel it needs singing. I let the songs dictate me this time. Rather than curating it - “That one’s too weird for Rainbow Chan, the audience wouldn’t get it” - I realised I can do whatever I want, I can take more risks. For example, I was really worried about choosing ‘Lull’ as one of the singles, because it’s in a different language. It’s not even in Cantonese, it’s in a rural dialect! No one will know what I’m talking about. It’s not melodic, it’s super-fast, it’s not easy listening! I was like, “Oh man, this is going to be quite out there for some people. It’s going to shock some people.”


It just felt so right. It felt like… What’s the point in writing that song if I didn’t give it the light that it needed? It’s based on this dialect Weitou, which is spoken in Hong Kong.

Predominantly in rural areas, right?

Yeah, by the first settlers of Hong Kong, who I’m descended from through my mum. Because it’s a disappearing language, I realised if I made the song and didn’t give it the platform it needed, it would be sidelined. I said, “Fuck it” and made it the single to celebrate it. If people don’t get it, that’s fine. I’m more confident in establishing the rules and hopefully the people that get it will love it.

There’s this intense pressure within the industry to be consistent, to have a “project” that is digestible, that is accessible. There’s something very scary, sure, but very powerful about disrupting that.

I feel like it comes with getting a bit older as well, and seeing much wider issues outside of my own ego.

There’s a sense of perspective.

Yeah, and it’s humbling. If people don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world. People just carry on, and do the best that they can. It felt like the right choice for me at the time.

I note that you’ve used a number of more oblique compositional strategies in the creation of the record, with songs feeling more angular in their construction. Building entire tracks from samples of saxophone, voice memos, fragments of weird electronics… Do you always come at composition in this more sideways manner?

I think it’s always been a part of my thinking. Even when I was a teen and writing songs on guitar or piano, I would be way more interested in trying to create sounds out of the instrument that weren’t traditional. Sticking something on the piano string and getting a sound out of that, making it percussive rather than melodic. With the guitar, tapping on it and making it the drums, or plucking the harmonics. For me, it comes out of exploring, rather than technical or rule-based creation. I think angular is a good way to describe this record. I worked a lot on the computer, doing a lot of cutting and pasting, playing with the technology and how I could exploit different elements of the software to bring out particular idiosyncratic sounds that I wouldn’t hear acoustically.

I feel as though there’s a few distinct forces at play in this body of work: otherness, loneliness, and togetherness. The push and pull between these forces, particularly as someone of diasporic identity, seems to have been the genesis for a lot of the material. How would you articulate the overarching concept(s) of the record? Even if there wasn’t one to begin with, what do you think it’s become?

I think you really got it. I say that it’s a reflection of multiple time and multiple geographies. I mean, I was literally falling in and out of love in different places of the world, negotiating my identity. Am I Chinese? What are the nuances of being Chinese and diaspora? These questions really shift your sense of belonging. When people see me and go “She’s a Chinese person”, and I go “Yes” and internalise that, that’s very different from me going to China or Hong Kong, my so-called original place. I don’t feel like I belong there either. I finally accepted that I am in this position of duality, of being hybrid, and that’s fine! It can be challenging, but at the same time it’s more rewarding, being able to unite as well as realise there is a sense of isolation. So, you’re totally right - the balance between loneliness and community or togetherness. In the songs, like 'A Horizon', I talk about this idea of finally coming home. That was loosely because I was in this whirlwind romance at the time, and instead of calling me Rainbow, they would call me “Chunyin”, pronouncing it correctly, so there was no need for me to explain anything. I just was. It’s such a micro thing but…

It’s big, too.

When you’ve embodied that stress and insecurity your whole life, to not be questioned at all is really refreshing. That’s one example. Also choosing to write songs in Cantonese and Mandarin was a huge step. I was worried that English-listening audiences wouldn’t get it, but also that Chinese audiences would think I’m not pronouncing things right, or I’m getting the grammar wrong. I find now that it’s been a really good step. It’s opened up a lot of conversations, including with people in the diaspora, so it’s something I don’t want to hide or downplay. I want to be true to my lived and embodied experience.

You used the word nuance a little while back, and it made me think about how the way you’re read by other people can rob you of how you wish to write yourself. It’s really disempowering, and hard to confront because it’s not this overtly discriminatory thing you can react against, it’s encoded. Yet at the same time, you realise it has this huge effect once you know it’s there. Putting your nuance forward and owning it, that takes a lot of courage. I think people are like “that’s not a big deal!” But it is. It’s working directly against how you’ve been conditioned.

I know at the same time I’m very privileged on a global scale, but you still have to respect your traumas and the way that things feel for you. We’re only human, only subjective, fragile beings. Art and music are really gentle, yet powerful and mobilising ways of dealing with this stuff. I can start this conversation and then it has this trickle-on effect. In the past I didn’t appreciate or actually see this. When I make these things I’m literally in my cupboard! It’s not glamorous, but it’s really rewarding to have maybe a younger female-identifying person of Asian descent coming up to me a few years later saying “I really appreciate that you’ve done this. Because of that visibility, I feel like I can participate.” Extending that conversation, I hope that my music is an invitation, rather than anything that makes people feel excluded or that they’re not cool or smart enough.

I think that invitational quality is absolutely there, and it’s a very fun record. Capitalism conditions us to think of fun as this childish, pejorative thing but like… Why are you alive? You want to have fun, right? And this playfulness feels confident in a way that’s not about ego, but about intentionality.

Thank you for that. I’m quite a bubbly, playful person, but it doesn’t mean I’m not serious, or that I’m not intellectual in terms of what I think about. I do think that the delivery can really change the way that the message is received. I was a saxophone teacher for primary school kids for ages, and that was so rewarding to me. They ended up teaching me so much, to see things with fresh eyes. I’ve more recently been collaborating with elderly people, these women from the [Weitou] village who can’t read or write, but they’ve taught me so much, and in an exchange I’ve also brought their stories to the fore, and created platforms for them. Working with people from all backgrounds and ages…

It’s that intergenerationality you were talking about.

I think that’s been a really mind-expanding journey.

The visual identity of this record seems quite differentiated from that of previous material. You’ve released a few video clips, for ‘CSR’ ’Pillar’, and ‘Lull’ respectively, with an amazing team including Jack Jen Atherton, Al Joel, and Haruka Sato, amongst others. They reminded me of your work in the visual arts sphere, such as your recent exhibition at Cement Fondu, on counterfeits, fakery, and bootlegging. How did the visuals for this record come about?

Part of taking more risks in my practice is collaborating. I really love it, but it took a while to get to this position. For one thing, being a woman in a male-dominated industry means collaborations haven’t been from my own wanting to. It’s always been seen as me lacking something, therefore we need to get a male collaborator onto the scene to address that deficit.

Fuck, that’s awful.

Yeah, it’s so gross. But this was before everyone was woke.

The wild years of the mid-2010s!

I think through doing all these different projects, and being lucky enough that people have listened to what I’ve put out there, my voice is quite intact now. I’m comfortable enough to relinquish some of that control. Working with close collaborators who I really admire and who I have a continued relationship with, you develop that vision and voice together.

There’s a synchronicity there.

Yeah. Being able to trust each other is so important. For instance, Hyun Lee, who takes a lot of my photographs, including the cover art, we’ve worked together a lot now. We have these shortcut ways of communicating, to bring out a certain vibe. I really do feel that on top of the music, I owe a lot to my collaborators. They really help to not only aesthetically support me, but emotionally as well. That’s paramount to the creation process.

You need to feel safe in order to take your most bold creative risks.

Yeah, and feeling like I’ve got the power to say no to something, and that they’ll respect that. That comes from maturity and mutual respect for each other’s craft.

This idea of having multiple generations involved in a project is really wonderful, but it’s quite sadly uncommon. It’s really enriching to engage not just with your peers around your age, but those younger and older than you. You sing with your mother, Chui Ping, and aunty, Choi Lin, on ‘Lull,’ which is formed around a Weitou lullaby. Your mother also contributed a voice memo to the beginning of ‘Roof’. Why was it important to explore and incorporate elements of your heritage like this?

The Weitou songs were more of a personal project, I guess. It wasn’t spoken in the house. Every now and again I would hear my mother speak to her sister on the phone, and little words would come out. In Hong Kong itself, it’s not really spoken anymore. In the 60s and 70s there was a huge push to modernise, with a huge influx of mainland Chinese people after ’49 when China became Communist. Hong Kong really shifted from village life to Blade Runner within a generation. There’s only 18,000 people in the world who can speak the language, and I think there’s a complacency because people see it as quite similar to Cantonese, so there’s no need to learn it. There’s no merit to it, either because it’s seen as a lower-class thing. A lot of the people who speak it are in diaspora communities, people who migrated to England, Canada, South Africa… Those enclaves end up continuing the tradition. I approached my mum and said, “I want to do this” and she said that I should learn it through music, because that’s a really immediate way to pick up on the language. And the songs are so integrated into the lifestyle, it’s a holistic picture of what the music’s functionality is. There’s a spectrum - not everything is sacred, not everything is instructional.

Again, it’s nuanced. 

Yeah! And what I didn’t realise was that these songs were sung by women. Because the men were taught how to read and write, whereas women passed on knowledge through an oral tradition. All the girls in the villages would hang out, usually in a widowed lady’s house, and she would be the elder that taught them to sing, embroider, cook, and in return they would cut wood for them, carry water from the well. Everyone was looked after. A lot of the songs are really sad, super anti-patriarchy, but knowing that that’s their fate. You sing as a way to protest, because it’s this ephemeral form. Everyone can add bits to it… It starts off as a song one girl has written, but through the collaborations and embellishments that each girl adds, it becomes this repertoire, that unites the community of women.

That’s honestly so incredible.

Hardly anybody has a knowledge of this stuff! A lot of it is anthropologists from the 70s.

Anthropologists have a different perspective on it though. A lot of it is purely documentative.

I have to jump in now before the firsthand, primary sources pass away. It’s a critical moment to engage with this community of that heritage, and to also present it in a way that’s traditional but also modern. To have it be documentative, but then through other ways. Like ‘Lull’, it’s not this stuffy thing in a museum that no one wants to listen to, it’s instead this lived and celebrated thing. I think for the next project I really want to take this idea further. It feels like a critical moment in time to just play with this intergenerational collaboration more.

I study linguistics, so it’s particularly fascinating to hear that someone is engaging with this archival process but in a way that we’re not taught. “Saving languages” is an inherently problematic idea, because who’s going to teach it, who’s going to speak it, who’s going to read it? Why do you invest all these resources into saving a language when in reality, maybe the only people who are going to profit from it are white academics? You can’t just approach language as this thing you punch into a file and like “Well, that’s the language saved!” It’s so much more complex. To hear that someone descended from this group is engaging with it in this emphatic, emotionally grounded way is so heartening. It’s exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen! 

I think the emotionality of it is something that was quite unprecedented, in the way I received it.

I imagine it would have been so intense.

I was bawling my eyes out after the first day! Seeing the hospitality of the women when they met me, they put a traditional hat on me and said, “You’re one of us!”

That’s such a pure energy.

They’re so loving. I’ve been back now three times, and every time I see them their smiles are so gorgeous. They teach me new things, like how to cook, how to weave tassels… It’s is an ongoing relationship. What’s really beautiful for me, is the idea that I am now able to sing these songs to my niece or my future child, and my mum potentially would have heard them as a kid. She didn’t know how to sing these songs, but I’ve completed the cycle again, by re-learning it and teaching it back to my mum, so that my kid can listen to it. It’s this cyclic thing. Tradition isn’t just a straight line…

It spirals.

It’s got to be ongoing.

It exists in dialogue.

Totally. I just feel really blessed to be having this journey, and to have a platform to talk about it.

I think one of the most enriching experiences you can have as a person is to feel like you’re a link in a chain, as weird as that sounds. Because of this neoliberal, individualist bullshit we’ve grown up with, you think you want to “transcend” your traditions and your heritage, but in reality, you can’t build on nothing. Not many people have it, but the chance to really intentionally reconnect to heritage. That’s a connectedness that you can’t get from anything else in human experience. That’s huge.

It’s certainly given my work a sense of directionality that I didn’t really feel in the past. The picture is now so much bigger than myself. At the same time, it’s a lot of pressure, because if I don’t do it, who will? I mean, there are people doing it in Hong Kong, but the more the merrier.

You put this record out independently, and you’ve spoken before about the interactions between authorship and power. Especially when you’re someone between identity categories, to put forward your own narrative is quite difficult, and radical. With that in mind, why did you decide to release independently, and what were some of the rewards and challenges of doing so?

The challenges are obviously financial, but it felt right. I did approach labels, but it was quite late in the game. I already had a timeline like “This is when it’s coming out, this is when the tour is”, and just because of the nature of the lag with industry, it just didn’t match up. It was another big jump to say I was going to put it out myself and see how it goes. The Weitou stuff is quite personal, so I wanted to make sure that it was getting delivered to the audience properly. Having the authorship was very comforting, to know it wasn’t going to misconstrued by a third party. Also, having multiple conversations with my collaborators to make sure that the images and sounds would be respectful. In a way, I see this album as an investment in a much longer career. I feel like I have a bit more bargaining power for the next project, if I approach labels. Like, “This is my vibe, are you with it? How can you continue to support me in this?”

It’s that idea of authorship again. “This is my narrative”.

Yeah! It was super powerful to do it myself, even though it’s really hard. People have responded really well. It’s been so rewarding for it to have come off my own back.

Rainbow Chan's Pillar is available now - buy/stream here.


Friday, August 23

The Chippo Hotel,

Chippendale, Sydney

FB Event/Tix: here

Photo by Hyun Lee