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Interview: Helen Feng, Nova Heart
A talk with Beijing's most vocal vocalist about the Illuminati, institutionalized psychosis, why the music industry is fucked, + more
By Dec 4, 2014 Nightlife
Helen Feng is arguably the Beijing music scene's most vocal global ambassador. I mean "vocal" here on several levels. She holds strong opinions. She talks very, very quickly. She's talked quickly on MTV, national radio, more interviews than I care to count. In China, in Australia, in Madagascar, in her childhood stomping grounds in the American Deep South (Louisiana, Texas). She also has a beautiful singing voice. Feng's been active on the creative end of things through a string of projects (Free the Birds, Pet Conspiracy) that in retrospect feel like stepping stones leading her to her current band, Nova Heart.

Nova Heart — the band's debut full-length album, to be released later this month — is as grounded as ever in the senses and sensibilities of Feng, the voice. Following up 2012’s glossier Beautiful Boys EP, it's a dark but self-assured coming of age for both the band as a whole and Feng as a mature musician.

Helen's currently being pulled in a million directions, finalizing the mastering and design details of the album itself, casting and stylizing an accompanying music video (her directorial debut), and the overseeing the production of Nova Heart's official release event (next Friday, Dec 12 @ Yugong). I caught up with her for a talk about the deeper influences coursing beneath the surface of the album and the uncanny, Rorschach aesthetic visually framing its occluded sonic messages. The conversation only lasted about 30 minutes but like I said: Helen talks fast. Here she is on Nova Heart, the Illuminati, institutionalized psychosis, creativity as communication, why the music industry is fucked, and what she's trying to do about it:


SmartBeijing: How's it going? You seem spread pretty thin at the moment...

Helen Feng: I've never done a release before with this much madness. I've never done an album release before, so I guess that's probably why. [laughs] I guess it's my sixth release in life, but I've never been this exhausted, hungry, cold…

SmBJ: Well this is the first time you're running the whole show, right? The boss of every level of production. What have been the most unexpectedly challenging parts about it?

HF: The unexpectedly challenging part is how fucking perfectionist everyone is. I thought I was a perfectionist, but until you get to the final leg you don't realize that everybody is a perfectionist. When I was working with Warner Music, every time I tried to give notes Warner was like, "Oh no, we think it's fine." But now, I give my notes, and by that time somebody else already wrote 50 pages of notes. We're getting to the end of the road with [producer] Ed [Rodion]. I see now that Ed is much more of a details guy than me, and I'm kind of getting to a point of running this lone race. It's close to the finish line. Every time I think about slowing down, there's this guy behind me with a pointed stick. And it's good because I'm sprinting to the finish line but it's pretty damn exhausting. At one point or another, when it's running up on this deadline and the amount of work that's gone into it, I'm always thinking to myself, "Am I overworking things? Have I lost the energy?" And there are points in the revision process where I'm listening to it and I'm like, "Oh shit, this is overworked." But then you take one more step forward, and this is where I'm starting to realize it gets better. It's almost like a weird zigzag pattern to the finish.

SmBJ: What was the process between releasing your debut EP, Beautiful Boys, and putting out the full-length? What happened during this gestational period, in terms of refining your sound or clarifying your ideas? How did you know that you were done and ready to put this out?

HF: Gestational period is a good way to put it. [laughs] Yeah, it was a bit of indigestion at first. The EP was something that was between me and the producer. That was a couple of months in the making. I had written ten tracks and we picked the best four that had a relatively cohesive sound. It was still kind of searching for a sound. And that established a sound that was amongst a lot of different things that we were trying at the time. So we knew that we already wanted to get away from that by the time that we started the process of making the album.

Honestly, I don't think the EP was a definition of our sound. It was much more trendy, more what I was listening to at the time, what Ed [Rodion] was doing at the time. It wasn't a very mature definition of what we wanted to do. We basically wrote music before there was a band. So once you integrate the band, then it's a whole other story, and it's a story that's written by several people, not one. And it's a story that was written around the world. With the album you can hear a lot of those influences trickle in. The band on the EP was still a relatively unformed being, like a little baby. It hadn't really grown its features yet. International touring really helped. We were influenced by going to Africa, the experience of it, the sounds, the people that we met.

We were also highly influenced by what was happening in our lives. Being in our 30s, we had our mid-life crises. Like, "What am I doing with my life? I'm no longer a child, I'm no longer a teenager, I'm becoming an adult but what the hell does that mean?" The album was like a sponge of everything that was happening in our lives, all the thoughts that were going through our heads. As musicians, I think [drummer] Shi Lu, [guitarist] Bo Xuan and me, we were in a breakthrough period. Being Chinese, being Asian, we mature a little bit later than a Westerner. Maybe while you guys were 16, 17, 18 years old you were copying your favorite bands, and by your early 20s you were breaking through that phase and trying to grow beyond that, explore. We didn't really reach that point until our late 20s. As musicians we were still kind of like, "This is my favorite band, I really want to sound like them." Maybe there was some kind of accidental exploration, but around our late 20s, that really started hitting us. Now, as a musician, I would say for the first time I have a sound. Me personally. I think that Shi Lu has a sound. I think Bo Xuan has a sound. We have different sounds, and coming together is part of the backbone of the music.

So, the fact that it took this long to put out this album... I can blame it on scheduling, I can blame it on this or that. I use a butterfly analogy in the photographs, but yeah. We were just crawling out of our cocoon and that took a bit of time. And now, here we are. We're ready to dry our wings, and… well this analogy's going too far. [laughs] We're in that period where we have our sound. It's a unique sound. Maybe next album we'll already have a different sound, but at this moment I feel mature as a musician. And this is what we present to the world. This is what I think, this is what I feel, this is the story I want to tell, and this is sound I want it to have.

SmBJ: You've had a lot of different roles within the music industry in Beijing, including as a critic, a TV host, a radio DJ, and of course as a musician. Now it seems you're focusing more centrally on the creative aspect of it. What exactly is your objective? What are you trying to communicate and how are you communicating it through the music on this album?

HF: Well, actually I would say I'm not really that focused right now. Now I'm directing my music video, so that's my new exploration. That's something I've always had a fascination with. I never consider myself purely a musician. I'm someone who wanted to be a storyteller. Since I was little, I liked to write stories. I think music for me is a fantastic way of storytelling, as is filmmaking. That strand has always been alive.

But what I want to communicate now to the audience with this music and all of these different roles in the music industry is that the music industry is fucked. Everybody's so focused on it being an "industry" these days — because it's not making money — that we've kind of forgotten what music really is. And that goes back to my idea that it's from communication. People use music to communicate an idea, a feeling, a social cause, or just an emotion. And as a form of communication it can be quantified in certain ways. It can be qualified in certain ways. But in reality, it's a very personal, one-to-one thing between the listener and the communicator.

The music industry is basically built on trying to monetize that. And that monetization is fucked right now. There are so many things that are creating this horrible zone where money is going every way, it's going in the direction of IT. Who's making money off of music? Well, you know, iTunes is making money off of music. Which means that Apple is making money off of music. Computers are making money off of music, MP3 players are making money off of music, hardware is making money off of music. Are musicians making money off of music? No. There are so many different ways of trying to trick people into believing that certain communications are valid and certain communications are not, because they have to monetize what little, tiny bit of power they have. And that's in selling new trends.

The concentration is on getting people to purchase what is immediately new. Once it's been around for a couple of weeks or months, there's too much of it floating in the pirated sphere for it to make any more money for the music industry. Then, that artist has to be quickly replaced by something else, and that trend has to be big enough to create volume. So let's find another trend. OK, this year it's witch house, or maybe we're gonna do dubstep, but dubstep is shit, let's move on and let's talk about, like, tropical bass. [laughs] We find an obscure enough trend, but with enough people doing that trend to sell everybody on buying into that trend. So we get enough downloads off of a whole bunch of artists to qualify what would have been one older artist doing one good album in the old days. And then in order to make sure that this music stays around long enough and everybody has this music, and there's enough piratable material, then let's create another fast trend, and get rid of that original trend, and have everybody go in that direction.

That's the music industry now. But again, music is about the communicator and the listener. That has nothing to do with that bullshit. When I communicate something, I'm communicating to you, the listener. And it's something that I feel at this moment. If nobody can monetize that, it doesn't mean that it becomes irrelevant. That's why I'm against trends, against genres. Not because I don't believe that having a genre to help you define something is a bad thing; it's more like when that has become the only way we can make money off of music, it's a very cheap and easy way to disqualify artists, or push artists that aren't very good into the limelight, and then push artists that are very good out of the limelight because we just can't sell them any more. I've been around musicians since I was five years old, the last 31 years of my life. I see them struggling. I see them doing well one year, and I see them dying the next year. I see them being called irrelevant very quickly even though they're still writing good music. I see this machine, a meat grinder, and all these people going through it. And all of these critics and magazines, they've somehow bought into this fascist ideology that people are either good or bad, relevant or irrelevant. They've completely forgotten that it was always a personal communication between one communicator and one listener. Who fucking cares if it's cool?

SmBJ: So with the Nova Heart album: if you're avoiding the idea of genre, of easy classification, how do you describe the world this record inhabits? In talking with you about it before, you use a lot of visual and cinematic language to describe it.

HF: The cinema idea is because, first of all, I love cinema. The one thing I do for pleasure in life is watch a movie or read a book. I actually hate going to clubs. I used to love going to shows, but now I've seen so many shows that I've become progressively more numb. It takes quite a bit for an artist to really impress me. That's a bit of a crapshoot. For movies, I enjoy 99.9% of movies I watch on one level or another, because I'm so into the craft of filmmaking. For me, I've always been really passionate about that. Even though I'm incredibly tired, that I can participate in the process of making this world come alive is an incredible process. For me, it starts with the music. It creates the atmosphere, the fourth dimension. And from that it goes layer on layer on layer on layer, and by creating the music you draw this amazing pool of talent. And that's one of the reasons I was always so fascinated by filmmaking. It allows you to work with incredibly talented people, and it's such an energized and wonderful experience.

Specifically, with this project [Nova Heart]... First off, [album art / concept designer] Solveig [Suess] is an incredibly talented young designer. Not because she has some cool, hipster style, it's just her process. Her work process is so driven, so thought out. It means that the design world [around the album] can grow, not just be trapped in what I said before. Visual trends are the same as music trends. She's not into that. When we communicated about this album, we had a very similar way of looking at the way the art or visuals or music or anything should be communicated. And so what we came up with was kind of digging into layers of entrapment, artists feeling depressed because they're trapped in this system of monetization and qualification, of good or bad.

It's been kind of personified in the idea of the Illuminati, the secret society of people that controls everything in the world, pulling all the strings to make us powerless. But in reality this goes deeper. It's the way that society is structured, economies are structured, industries are structured, to leave the majority of artists and people powerless. And that's been personified in the Illuminati. So we decided to take some of the Illuminati symbolism — for instance, butterflies. She came up with this process, it was a long debate… She really takes any concept and runs with it, she's a very brilliant designer. So we took that concept, we worked through butterflies, we worked through Rorschach diagrams from the 1950s, psychoanalysis, which really tried to figure out what people were feeling to get into their subconscious. Then we went directly into people's subconscious through brain scans, which is what Solveig really brought to the table.

So here we have all of these explanations of getting into the under-layers of our feeling of powerlessness, and how that's affecting us. The actual, physical way it's affecting our brains. The ways we try to figure out our subconscious through things like Rorschach tests. There are so many layers of symbolism, all doubled and tripled and pasted and plastered on each other. Because it is all symbiotic, it's all tied together. And I think that is, for me, a pretty strong message to communicate. It's posing a question and making an analysis, but not necessarily giving you a perfect answer.

SmBJ: To extend that, how are you communicating this beyond the static graphic design? I think what you just said is pretty elegantly encoded into the design of the album art, and the tour trailer and the posters and all that, but how does this translate into the music and lyrics? To me, the music itself is populated by these ambiguous characters. Gender neutral, protean personality, confused and schizophrenic. How does that translate into a music video and live performance? A lot of the sounds on the record are sounds you couldn't necessarily do live, like weird post-processing vocal manipulations…

HF: We're thinking about it. The live performance on December 12 is gonna be kind of a raw show. From a visual point of view, we want to get away from a giant stage build. We're trying to get away from materialistic things. What we're doing is trying to create a space which brings the audience inward, visually. Obviously you're looking at a band, you're looking at visuals, but we want to create a journey where we can pull people down, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It's not to entertain them, like, "Oh, here's something interesting with the lights. Here's something fun." The idea is not just watching visual candy for the eyes, but to constantly make people aware that the atmosphere, the environment is being changed, and that the light, the actual story is being pointed at them.

The point is to try to get the audience closer to recognizing their internalized psychoses. As for the schizophrenic and psychotic stuff on the album... there's quite a lot of schizophrenic and psychotic stuff. Hopefully I'm not as schizophrenic and psychotic as that. The album really goes inside and pulls a lot of veils away. We've been slowly experimenting with that, with a relatively schizophrenic and psychotic show, or performance on my part, because of what we can't do sound-wise. I've never thought that a show should sound exactly like the album. You should give another perspective from what people hear when they listen to the album. So I'm not too concerned that they're not going to be exactly the same.

SmBJ: So you're working on the official release, which will coincide with a limited tour to close out the year. And you'll get this music video out presumably early next year. What is the plan going forward?

HF: The first tour right now is kind of a warmup tour. Because we're perfectionists. We didn't really get to do this tour at 100% percent. So we're gonna try to do it again next year, and do a much bigger, fuller tour, going to all the dirty nooks and crannies of China but actually bring a pretty heavily loaded show with us. For a Chinese audience, I think the show is really, really important as an explanation for what's going on. Because there's already so much confusion in the lyrics and in the music itself. It needs something to give the audience at least some direction into the rabbit hole. It doesn't need to be perfectly explained, it just needs clues, hints. But that's what we hope to bring next year, in March, April, or later on in the year.

Dive in when Nova Heart officially releases their debut album on Friday, December 12 at Yugong Yishan.

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  • 4 years ago Heatwolves

    Solid interview - looking forward to the show. Gotta disagree on one point...iTunes and computers are not the only way music is making money. What about artists that are selling a lot of merch and music from their own stores or Bandcamp and touring heavily? Hyperdub, Fool's Gold, Run The Jewels, and Mad Decent are good examples of this.

  • 4 years ago SamuelGreen

    Nice interview, btw if anyone at SmBJ can ask Helen to release (or re-release) a Free The Birds EP... that would be nice! FTB was a great project, sad to see I couldn't get a copy

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