Unlike other young singer/songwriters whose debuts are clouded by songwriting credits, the heavy hands of over zealous producers and record label pressures; the impeccably attired Sui Zhen has cut her own path. On the eve of her first East-Coast headlining tour in support of the independently released, Two Seas, she chats to Tone Deaf about taking her unique folk pop across the border.
“Touring overseas is pretty expensive and there are just too many places in Australia I want to explore first,” says Zhen, and exploring is the operative word. Sui Zhen is not only making the predictable Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane stops, but also Newcastle, Wollongong and the nation’s frozen capital.
“I think sometimes those places can be the most fun to play,” says the half-Malaysian, half-Australian singer, “because somewhere like Wollongong doesn’t have the same rush of bands every week as the larger cities do, so it has a lot more of a community feel to it.”
The smaller venues might suit Zhen for now, the lo-fi production on Two Seas finds that perfect balance between the chamber-pop of Nouvelle Vague and the sparse folk-soul of Mazzy Star and Cat Power. The record is named after Bahrain, the country whose Arabic name literally translates to ‘Two Seas.’
Discussing her home-made production sensibility and evolution as an artist, it is impossible not to mention her collaborative partner: local producer and RRR presenter, Andras Fox. A partnership that began at the illustrious Red Bull Music Academy in London 2010. Fox & Sui, a moniker they would later coin, were instantly drawn to each others’ musicality and creative approach.
“It was kind of amazing,” recalls Zhen, “I remember when we met and we were showing each other music, I was blown away by how close our musical brains were, it just seemed obvious to make music together.”
“We share the same love for weird characters in music, like Gary Wilson” she continues, “and Andy is quite inspirational in his constant obsessive search for new and interesting sounds. It just begun with him sending me instrumentals he made, and I just assumed I was allowed to sing on top of them, so I sent them back with vocals and it went from there.”
What began so auspiciously in London has only continued to grow here in Australia, with Fox & Sui playing the Sugar Mountain Festival earlier this year as well as locally supporting James Pants and tUnE-yArDs.
Reflecting on her time spent at the extremely selective and exclusive Red Bull Music Academy, that brought her and Fox together, Zhen is humble in its effect on her career. “It was a big turning point of my life. Prior to London I had been quite jaded about being an independent artist, I was cynical about interacting with the industry and I guess I had lost my youthful optimism. But Red Bull Music Academy was not just about making myself a better artist technically, it was about meeting people who were producing music at every scale who were passionate about just producing it for the sake of it.”
In a curriculum that included lectures from the likes of Mark Roson, Roots Manuva, Busy P and Joe Goddard (in one year alone), Zhen came to appreciate the art of collaboration. “Everyone was equally respectful of each other’s processes and ideas,” she explains, “whether that was these superstar lecturers or students.”
“I came back to Australia renewed and the entire experience gave me perspective and inspiration,” she says. “Even today, two years later, if I have a day where I feel uninspired, I write to someone I met or collaborated with there and it gets me going again.”
Red Bull Music Academy enforces an Oscar Wilde-ian aesthetic in its graduates, an “art for art’s sake” philosophy that lends itself to autonomy, control and perfectionism over the creative process. So it is no surprise to learn that the young chanteuse’s album has been three years in the making, with tracks like ‘Little Frog’ developing grey hairs next to her more recently written material.
“I only chose songs for the album that I would be comfortable singing for a long time,” explains Zhen, “I didn’t want to get caught out not wanting to play songs down the track because I didn’t like them lyrically. I wanted my lyrics to be abstract enough not be clichés and personal enough so that they invite people to relate to them, it’s a hard balance to find.”
Many opportunities lie in front of the singer, but for Zhen, it’s more a choice of which one to take. An international tour? The Australian festival circuit? The highly anticipated Fox & Sui album? “How about all of the above!” She jokes, “No. Everything hopefully in time, but right now I’m concentrating on my first tour.”
“I want to build up a base here first before I try anything in the U.S.,” she cautions, “but hopefully that will happen in time. As for the festivals, I am open to invitations,” she laughs. “But I think the next item on the agenda will be an album with Andy. There is momentum there and [local label] Two Bright Lakes is keen for something to be released soon, so hopefully after my tour we can finish writing and release it later this year.”
It’s clear we have caught the talented Sui Zhen at the edge of something, it will be clearer after her appearance at The Grace Darling this Wednesday what that ‘something’ is.
Sui Zhen plays The Grace Darling in Collingwood on Wed 30th May with Fanny Lumsden & Elva, tickets available at the door.