Rainbow Chan Interviewed by Corin Illeto
Hair and Make Up Liz Sharp
Shot at Wicked Of Oz
Photography by FAINT
The first Rainbow Chan interview I read was a feature in Oyster Magazine a couple of years ago where you referred to your music at the time as “confessional”. Do you still see your music as confessional, telling of personal truths and experiences? I like to write from personal experiences. But over the last few years, I’ve expanded my themes to include diasporic identity and inter-generational trauma, which can be mapped onto wider conversations. I think as we’re dealing with several humanitarian crises around the world, as well as climate change, I feel compelled to tackle bigger sociopolitical issues.
Spacings was a breakup album through and through, which was right for my headspace at the time. But now, I’ve moved on and want to examine personal truths which exist beyond romantic love. It seems as though a lot of the titles from your album Pillar are connected to themes of the body and emotional states of the mind.
You’ve said that Melt is about how a bad romance could be compared to assimilation. Could you elaborate more on this? I’ve learnt that our bodies and minds are so intricately connected, we have to respect that psychological states have real life effects, even if they are not rational. So some songs on Pillar are a reflection of that conflict and the journey of overcoming.
When I was first writing Melt, it was about a person. But after sitting with it for a while, the lyrics seemed to resonate with stories about migration and assimilation. At the core of all relationships – between people or between the individual and society – is a system of power. Agency is not only an external, active thing but comes from internal, passive processes too.
So, I guess I was looking at how racism or sexism can be internalised by the marginalised person, which dissolves their ability to act or fight back. Reality then becomes warped as these fictions are repeated over and over again, until they are naturalised. It’s looking at shame and guilt from the perspective of the oppressed, which is something we don’t talk about enough.
There’s a really strong thread in the themes between your music and your art-based projects – interchangeability between the two. Would you say this is intentional? I’m interested in the intersection of art and music. Traditionally, people would have designated art to high brow and popular music low brow. But I think those boundaries are irrelevant in the age of late capitalism. Looking at the way that visual culture and popular music intertwine, we can unpack new perspectives on the commodification of all things – and how to make things ‘cool’, aka profitable. As someone who is an active participant in this type of aesthetic-driven culture, I see my practice as critically examining the circulation of power.
I can see this interchangeability particularly in the visual identity and themes that you create in your collaborations with photographer/director Hyun Lee who shot the album cover for Pillar. Can you tell me a bit about this collaboration and the team involved? Hyun Lee and I have worked together numerous times now and have developed a close, dynamic way of communicating. I love her style, particularly her idiosyncratic treatment of colour which makes her photographs are instantly recognizable. She shot the image for the Pillar album cover, which I am absolutely in love with!
The images also couldn’t have happen without my other collaborators: Al Joel who has an amazing eye for detail and risk-taking costumes, and Maggie Wu who has an ability to bring out enigmatic characters in me through hair and make up.
I think the way you sample live instrumentation is very unique, and a signature of your production style. In your Liveschool interview, you mentioned that you were attracted to ‘organic’ sounds that have been warped or digitized to the point where you’re not quite sure what the source is. I can’t help but think of the correlation between this idea and the themes of mis-translation in some of your non-music art projects. You’re right. There are definitely parallels there. I think as someone living between cultures, I always saw the world through multiple perspectives whether it be language, ideology or histories. Things exist on a spectrum for me, rather than binaries. I like to look at nuances and not absolutes. So you could say that there are similarities between a sampled live sound which is both organic and digital, and a Chinglish t-shirt. Both objects are hybrids and in that sense”they are more concerned with the process of re-imagining, rather than identifying a place of origin.
A lot of your performance art and visual art based work is about the phenomenon of counterfeit culture and knock-offs. Have you ever thought about what it would be like if someone made an unofficial bootleg cover of one of your own tracks. Who would it be and which song would they cover? If someone made a cool bootleg cover of my songs, I would be stoked! I’m interested to see how they might deconstruct and weave together certain signature sounds of mine. I’m intrigued by counterfeits that blend different luxury logos and designs into a new, innovative object. I guess it’s a form of remix culture! I’m not sure who would be counterfeiting my music. But if you, please tag me so I can repost it!
Speaking of covers, what is your ultimate karaoke track (solo and duo)? We Belong Together by – Mariah Carey. Who does’t love that epic finale chorus? As for the duet, there’s a lovely selection of old cheesy Cantopop songs made for this very purpose. Andy Hui and Sammi Chengâ’s legendary 1991 hit Actually, Do You Have Me In Your Heart is a fine example.
Though the golden couple of Cantopop was recently rocked by a cheating scandal on Hui’s end, which gives this fluffy karaoke classic a darker twist
When I’m inside your apartment, I’m always intrigued by all the souvenirs, acoustic instruments and knick-knacks lying around. My favourite is your noodle bowl pillow and also your butter yellow 70s tape player. Would you say that you draw inspiration from the objects you surround yourself with? Omg the noodle pillow is a souvenir from Alex Ward (my bestie and the other half of DIN). It’s so ugly but it is one of my most cherished belongings. I love “things”. Sometimes I like to imagine the life of vintage objects – how it came to be, who had loved it before, why it was given away etc. I’m trying to be more mindful with my consumption habits though, so I try to buy second hand or locally made products.
We’ve joked a lot about you eventually starting your own cooking channel. In all seriousness, if you were to produce a cooking show what would you call it and what would it be about? My ultimate dream! My grandma tells me all the time that as a kid, I would sit in the corner of the living room with my toys and pretend to have my own cooking show. It reminds me of that “No one: / Me” meme lol. I’m going to refrain from naming the show a rainbow-related pun (CC: Skittles) and keep it simple but true to my cultural heritage and interests. Obviously, the show would revolve around Cantonese cooking and history with modern Australian touches. I quite like the sound of Big Wok! which is Canto slang for when you’re in deep shit haha.
Another Rainbow Chan fact that no one might know is that you’re obsessed with the Australian TV game show Letters and Numbers. Where does this fascination comes from? Yep! I’m a big dork it’s true. I majored in English at university and have always enjoyed wordplay. There’s a sort of magic to un-jumbling letters. You know the answer is right there in front of you, yet you can’t see it at first.
It takes awhile for your brain to click. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I’m fascinated by that feeling of recognition. Like when you’re learning a new language and something in your brain just switches over one day. The threshold of comprehension is so amazing. By the way, I recently learnt from my friend Patrick (who is also a word-nerd) that ‘can’t unsee’ is an example of litotes -that is, when you use a double negative for ironic emphasis!