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Rainbow Chan

Rainbow Chan

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Wednesday 14th August, 2013 2:33PM

Rainbow Chan is a kooky singer-songwriter from Sydney, who writes inimitable songs that somewhere in-between CocoRosie and Bjork, but are quite different at the same time. She's will release her new EP, Long Vacation on September 30th, and is celebrating by playing two New Zealand shows this weekend. UnderTheRadar caught up with Rainbow to discuss her forthcoming EP and what we can expect from her live shows this weekend.

You're a classically-trained musician. Tell us a little bit about your musical background, and how do you think this classical training has affected your sound?

My older sisters learned piano so I was exposed to music from a young age. It was only really in Grade 4 that I started music properly because I wanted to be Ayukawa Madoka from the anime series Kimagure Orange Road. She played sax so I chose that as my band instrument at school. After that, I took up classical piano, joined a choir for 8 years, taught myself guitar, and try to learn new instruments still. My newest acquisition is a lever harp! With any creative discipline, I think understanding the theory or fundamentals enriches your palette and control. I mostly turn to my classical training when I build harmonies and chord progressions.

When did you know that you wanted to go down a more popular music-oriented route and how did your sound develop from there?

I've always been writing pop music, but for a while I was trying to challenge myself in making really really whacked music. Maybe trying a little too hard. Some of the songs didn't sit quite right with me. Coincidentally, I recently started re-watching some 90s Japanese TV dramas from my childhood and remembered how much I loved their soundtracks. I felt like I wanted to write music like that - a little J-pop, a little RnB – but still inject many strange sounds. I feel the Long Vacation EP was a return to writing songs rather than making small experimental studies. Perhaps my sound now is a more refined and extended version of those little experiments.

You were born in Hong Kong and then moved to Australia. How do you think the confluence of these two cultures has affected your approach to music and the resulting sound?

My family immigrated to Australia when I was six but most of my family still live in Hong Kong. Growing up, there was always Chinese pop culture in the house but I wanted nothing to do with it as I wanted to assimilate. Having travelled back to Hong Kong in the last few years and reconnecting with the place, I really appreciate the little quirks that Asian culture has, whether pop or traditional. I think it comes across in my songs in a nostalgic and subtle way but it is more pronounced in the overall aesthetic.

You get compared a lot to CocoRosie and Bjork: do you think these are fair comparisons and do you admire the work of these artists? Who would you cite as your major influences, and what, outside of music, influences you?

I haven't listened much to CocoRosie I have to admit, but I do remember when they came on at a party and thought it was one of my songs or something. Bjork, on the other hand, would be one of my favourites of all time! (I even wrote my Honours thesis on her album Homogenic). I admire her unique vision and the malleability of her voice. I try not to fixate on specific people as influences anymore but I tend to think of key words of how I want my music to sound. At the moment, I like the concepts of grainy, warped, spliced and reversed. Outside of music, many small and mundane things can inspire me whether it be the company of friends and family, eating damn good food or obsessively Googling where I can pick up free retro furniture.

Tell us a little bit about your songwriting process: does it start with a theme, or a sound and how do you work on it until completion?

I normally start with one key word and build lyrics off that. I'll write the song on guitar or piano first and then build a beat on Garageband and Cubase. It's then a long and tedious process of deconstructing the song and reassembling it again with a mix of organic and electronic arrangements. There are also different steps to achieve certain tones like feeding layers through tape or a Roland 404 then mixing it back into the song. I guess I put in a lot of effort in the production but ultimately I want the song to stand alone and be performed unplugged too.

You have a new EP called Long Vacation, tell us about writing and recording it.

The songs on Long Vacation arose after writing an entire album's worth of material that was too dark and incoherent for my liking. Things started to change when I fell in love again, moved out, finished uni. I felt quite liberated and wrote “Skinny Dipping” based on a true story, and then the more upbeat songs just started to flow. I didn't really make an effort to steer it that way, it just happened. I recorded the entire EP in my wardrobe or at a friend's house so it was very DIY but all the more lovely for it. I think the overall EP is glued together by narratives of failed romances and sonically by a grainy sound. My Korg Sigma synth also ties the EP together. My favourite part of the EP is probably the opening of “Haircut” because the warped harp reminds me of a soundtrack to a bad science documentary from the 80s that would be played to highschoolers, and on VHS.

You're now based in Sydney, which isn't particularly well known for having a 'music scene'. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think Sydney has a strong music community and if so, what is going on over there at the moment?

I think the Sydney music is lovely and quite strong. I know I can look locally for great talent and awesome gigs. I mean, even just by tuning to our community radio, FBi Radio, you will always hear cutting-edge stuff. I would say I'm mostly inspired by local artists rather than international acts because they are your friends and you feel if they can achieve great things, so can you. It's a humbling feeling. Some of my local faves are Golden Blonde, Sui Zhen, Moon Holiday, Thomas William and Jonti.

You're coming over to New Zealand to perform two dates: what can we expect from your live performance?

It's a one woman show! I'll be bringing my loop pedals, samplers, synths and karaoke style dancing. It's going to be fun and a tad sentimental.

You have a really strong visual accompaniment to your work. Can you describe some of your visual influences and your thoughts on the marriage of visuals to music. Tell us about some of that crazy, ocean-influenced artwork and video clips.

It's interesting that you say the ocean is a theme because I am actually quite scared of the sea and was never a beach goer. My mum would only allow us to play on the sand and go ankle-deep into the water. With that being said, I do love the visual power of the ocean and it made sense to do a beachside video for “Skinny Dipping”. My good friend Becky Freeman (Sui Zhen, Fox + Sui) conceived and directed the clip, draping a naked me in dead seafood and creating a make-shift pearl-diving goggle out of a dumpling steamer. The aesthetic influences I'm turning to at the moment are block colours, double denim, and classic Asian popstars such as Momoe Yamaguchi, Meiko Nakahara and old school Aaron Kwok.

What are your future plans over the next 18 months or so.

Write an album, tour, travel, collect more field-recordings, learn to play a real bass for my younger sister's band Okin Osan, destress, successfully maintain a windowsill herb garden, marry James Blake.


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