rainbow chan on revealing her heart and finding her groove
Ahead of a national tour for her new album 'Spacings', the musician shares her thoughts and obsessions.
If you've ever seen Rainbow Chan in action, you'll know that as a performer she's entirely mesmerising. Originally from Hong Kong and now based in Sydney, her sound is equal parts cool, sweet and compellingly unique. Through her music Rainbow tells personal tales of love and life via a patchwork of genres and production techniques resulting in moments of smart, soulful electronic pop.
Her soon to be released debut album Spacings demonstrates how far Rainbow has ventured creatively since her 2013 EP Long Vacation. With a national tour on the horizon, we caught up with the classically trained musician to discuss revealing her heart to the world and her impressive personal style.
i-D: Spacings is looking at heartache. When you write about something like this, are you creating stories and situations or drawing on real life events?
Rainbow Chan: I always start with something that I'm feeling. I tend to absorb other people's emotions easily when I'm listening to their stories. These songs vary from autobiographical recounts to an accumulation of things that my close friends and I have gone through recently.
I'm always interested in the fact that songs are often written when feelings or thoughts are very fresh, but obviously as you go through recording and touring those feelings recede. What is it like playing a song again and again, when the part of your life it relates to is over?
There is definitely tension when I'm revisiting the memories within a song. You're tapping into a heightened emotional state, but the memory becomes increasingly narrativised the more you sing about it. There are certain lines on the album which still make me well up with tears. But I like the idea that once these songs become other people's interpretations, their origins and meanings become diffused and reshaped.
You have a tour for the new album coming up. When you're writing, are you thinking about the fact you will have to get up in front of strangers and perform?
I don't like to think about that too much because it freaks me out... strangers feeling that they "know me", my most intimate thoughts and feelings. Yet, that is the paradox of being on stage. I have had various strange encounters with audience members—sometimes patronising, sometimes fetishistic, at times really lovely—but I guess that comes with making pop records and having your face and words being circulated online and elsewhere.
As a performer, how do you think you've changed since Long Vacation? And how is this visible on the new album?
I used to be quite self-conscious that people would assume I didn't produce the music because of gender biases towards women and electronic music. I would try to multi-task and play all these different elements live. As I became a bit more established and more confident in my voice, I wasn't preoccupied with "proving" myself to anyone anymore. With the new album, I am happy to sing along to a backing track or with my band and concentrate on connecting with the audience, and not on pushing heaps of buttons.
You've had a really loyal following since 2012's Northern Lights. Is there a responsibility to balance personal growth and creative experimentation with maintaining elements of your music they've become invested in?
I don't write music for a following. I write and do what excites me at particular points on my life. I wouldn't even be surprised if I quit pop music one day to become a historian or something else entirely.
That would be a shame for music. Do you listen to your music when you're alone?
If I find myself doing that too much, I get out of the house and go for a walk without headphones.
Over the years you've also become really known for your style and visuals, tell me about how aesthetics are important to your work.
I really love the aesthetics of late 80s and early 90s East-Asian pop icons. As I moved to Sydney from Hong Kong in the 90s, I have a certain structural nostalgia for these types of retro cultural references. Obviously, these styles are pretty outdated now but I find them to be playful markers of my heritage.
Rainbow Chan, Work
I love how that informs the look of your videos. What are you most excited about for this tour?
I'm pretty excited about the special guests we have performing on each leg of the tour. I'm also looking forward to playing the entire album with my live band consisting of myself, Corin and Moon Holiday. I feel very empowered when they join me on stage because they are such solid and talented artists.
I don't want to finish this interview without talking about your style, because it's pretty great. Do you work with designers/stylists? Do you have a relationship with anyone in particular?
I worked with Ivan Cheng and Kurt Johnson for my last video clips respectively. They were both amazing! But normally, I just style myself which could be described as Josie Packard meets potato sack?
Right this second, what are you obsessed with?
A report of a Chinese company making soy sauce by extracting amino acids from human hair clippings! I'm currently obsessed with looking at Chinese food and safety hazards and how the circulation of these stories mythologise China in the global imagination.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Jonno Revanche