Sui Zhen is charming Australia with her quirky new album Two Seas. I recently caught up with this singer-songwriter to chat about the new release, her forthcoming tour, and what comes next.
You’ve just released your debut album Two Seas. What can you tell me about it?
I wanted to make an album that would be comfortable to listen to. Songs that speak to you on a personal level, that hopefully can live a long life with the listeners. I really focused on the songwriting ahead of instrumentation and experimentation; I wanted to practice the rules before breaking them. The role of ‘Arranger’ was really important on this album and that’s where Tony Dupe weaved in his wonderful magic.
I believe you did plenty of travelling while writing and recording the album. How did those adventures influence Two Seas?
The biggest thing I took from those adventures was how to maintain inspiration for the music I was making. Sometimes you write songs ahead of your actual experiences, and it takes time to find their meaning for you.
A year filled with farewells, departure gates and an overall sense of longing for people and feelings that had come and gone certainly fuelled my passion for the songs. It’s like Charlie Brown says, “I say too many goodbyes and not enough hellos!”
Though I’d written and recorded most of the songs prior to travelling, when I was based in an old shop in Redfern. I went to the Red Bull Music Academy in early 2010 (RBMA) just when I’d finished the first mixes and spent the rest of that year overseas visiting friends and family. It was important to take time off the production side of things to get perspective on the album as a whole, and to make that decision that it was ‘finished’.
I hear you’ve been working on this album for the last few years. Why did it take so long to finish?
That’s a good question. RBMA was a catalyst for some big life changes. I went there with a near complete debut LP and left with heartbreak, new love, a new band and a whole lot of travelling ahead of me. I became a little side-tracked with ‘life’.
When I returned to Australia in late 2010, I worked on other arts projects until I was able to move to Melbourne mid 2011 and settle down somewhat. I became a partner in a start-up web-channel (InFrame.tv) and finally set about release plans for Two Seas.
I believe that when you were visiting your family in Bahrain you finally decided the album was done. What was it about your time there that led you to that decision?
I was demo-ing a lot while I was away from home. Mostly using Garageband and the laptop mic making Grimes-esque pop songs. It was when I had about twenty new demos that I decided it was time to draw the line with the album, give it a name and call it done.
I was staying with my step-mother in her apartment that looked out over the ocean ahead of a sea of other luxury apartment/hotels. It could have been a really sterile environment but the handful of friends I met there made it a home of sorts, with our nightly pool parties on the rooftops. It was the first time I felt enough distance from all the emotional drama of the start of the year. I learned that Bahrain literally meant the meeting of ‘two seas’, and it stuck.
You worked with Tony Dupe on the album, who’s produced for so many great people like Holly Throsby and Jack Ladder. What did he bring to your sound?
I can’t thank Tony enough for giving me the album I wanted. Early on in our collaboration I’d said I wanted to make something that could be performed solo or with a band. I didn’t want the songs to be co-dependent on the production.
We worked together from Redfern to Berlin for most of the tracking phase. I would send him a bunch of stems with vocals, q-chord, accordian, double bass, trumpet, electric guitars etc. He would then pick a strong vocal to work from and build the arrangement up from there. He added clarinet, cello, more guitar and I think even a trombone. Sometimes there would be just one ornamental flourish used from each take. But within Tony’s arrangement, it would make the song complete.
He’s an amazing producer to work with. He takes time to learn about you so he can bring your personality to the forefront. And he gives you an album that you will love for years to come.
Your music seems to have so many influences that it defies classification. How would you describe it?
Haha. I think you described my personality; I am very curious and I love music of all genres but I am very specific about which artists I choose to follow. I wanted to focus my Sui Zhen music into a more stable position, so it doesn’t try to encapsulate all the influences I‘ve absorbed, as that can become confusing for listeners.
With this album at least, I’ve hoped to accompalish folk-pop, alt-country, lyrical and melodic songwriting. With the next, I’ll be more adventurous and will include re-worked versions of those garage-band demos I mentioned.
I thought the video for your single “Little Frog” was just gorgeous. Did you have much to do with that creative process?
Yes I did. I created the animation with some help from my siblings to sew a few clouds here and there, and adjust the fringe on the girl to make it appear like wind was blowing.
It’s the result of an all encompassing craft experiment started back in 2008 for Even Books. I didn’t do much with the animation at the time and it sat quietly on a harddrive for a couple of years before I re-edited it to “Little Frog” just last year.
In my other life I am a videographer working predominantly in VHS and stop-motion animation.
You’re preparing to tour Two Seas later this month. Are you looking forward to bringing its songs to the people?
Most definitely. It’s been so wonderful to hear the feedback so far, especially from community radio stations. It’ll be great to perform now that people will be more intimate with the songs.
You’ve played both solo and full band shows in the past. What can fans expect at the upcoming shows?
For most of the album launch shows I’ll be performing as a three-piece with my brother Dan Stanley Freeman and long time collaborator and friend, Joe Gould. We’re a really close band and have a lot of fun with our on stage banter.
The support bands are hand-picked, with Jessica Says and Emma Russack duo-ing as Elva in Melbourne, Carry Nation joining us in Sydney and Newcastle and Epithets in Brisbane. Fanny Lumsden is doing the whole tour with us and she’s charming. Plus there’s more!
Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
Fox + Sui will release Taboo EP in the next couple of months on Two Bright Lakes. We’re then planning an LP later this year.
I’m also hoping to put out another Sui Zhen release in October, fingers crossed!
See Sui Zhen on her album launch tour at the following venues:
30 May 2012 – The Grace Darling Hotel, Collingwood
1 June 2012 – The Lass’O’Gowrie, Wickham
3 June 2012 – FBi Social, Kings Cross
6 June 2012 – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane
13 June 2012 – Yours and Owls, Wollongong (Free)
14 June 2012 – The Front Café & Gallery, Canberra
Image used with permission from Positive Feedback