Today (November 25), Rainbow Chan releases her new EP ‘Stanley’. Though now available to stream, ‘Stanley’ is also available as a USB drive housed in a faux cassette – a novel twist that continues the songs’ themes of performative nostalgia.
Born in Hong Kong before relocating to Australia at age six, the self-produced Sydney singer has been releasing genre-bending art-pop for a decade now. She often pays homage to different facets of her heritage: She has sung before in the declining Cantonese dialect of Weitou to pay tribute to her maternal grandmother, while ‘Stanley’ was inspired partly by mixtapes made by her paternal grandmother.
Released through the artist-run London collective Eastern Margins, the new EP also draws from retro Mandopop and Cantopop and includes a Mandarin version of opening track ‘Heavy’. Chatting over Zoom from home, where she was able to continue teaching contemporary music practice at the Sydney Conservatorium during recent lockdowns, Chan peels back the release’s many vibrant layers for NME.
This EP is very much inspired by your family. What do your parents think of it?
“When I first showed them ‘Heavy’, they got up and danced a bit. My mum said it reminded her of the bossa nova they’d hear in the discos in Hong Kong in the ’70s. Because a lot of the songs are inspired by [the late Mandopop icon] Teresa Teng, who is my mum’s all-time favourite singer, they both connected very strongly with the music. Just this retro palette that they understood.”
The opening line on ‘Idols’ is “Going off my medication / I’m confronted by my uglier self”. It made me think of lockdown, when we all had to confront ourselves a bit more.
“Yeah, I wrote ‘Idols’ after the first lockdown, during the summer of last year. I’ve always been publicly open about my mental health [and] anxiety. I went off my medication for a bit, and I’ve since gone back on. But just dealing with internal anxieties and struggles, the isolation really amplified those things. Lockdown was this forced moment to reflect on values and connections. You couldn’t run away from a lot of your issues.
“‘Idols’ is about the accumulation of shame over a lifetime. There’s the baggage we collect, but also the confronting feeling of needing unconditional love. It’s like two sides of the coin… knowing that you have to be vulnerable and trust in that love for it to flourish, but you have all this fear that you’ve accumulated over your life.”
That’s some intense stuff.
[laughs] “The sound is quite pop-tastic. There’s a lot of colourful synth and it’s quite hooky. I always like to explore that contrast of pretty intense themes and lyrics with this seemingly bright and sweet sound.”
Can you tell me about doing a Mandarin version of ‘Heavy’?
“I actually wrote ‘Heavy’ with Mandarin in mind. I wanted it to sound like a Mandarin ballad, but I don’t have the language chops to do that. So I wrote it in English and later I enlisted the help of two friends, Entity 97 and Rice Yao, who were able to translate line by line. I’m in awe of their translation because Chinese is a tonal language, so you can’t just do a literal translation. You have to be able to carry the meaning [and] follow the melody in a way that doesn’t screw up the pitch of the language.
“Growing up hearing [individual] pop songs performed in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and English, that’s quite a normal thing. Teresa Teng did that, tapping into multiple markets. Through my childish eyes, I saw them as parallel universes.”
Last year you released the Lunar New Year-inspired single ‘Triune’. Is it important to you to continue these traditions?
“Yeah. ‘Triune’ is based on a folk song from my mum’s side of the family. That’s part of a bigger project about trying to conserve this indigenous dialect [Weitou] that’s dying out. It’s a lifelong work for me, like a PhD in the making.
“Not being able to travel back to Hong Kong the last couple of years, a family member passed away and I wasn’t able to grieve with the family [in person]. Being away from my birthplace [before COVID-19], there was an almost imagined feeling of exile. But it was for real this time: we couldn’t go back. I finally understood what it was like to be away from home.
“So I think these songs have depth or maturity that’s more pronounced through distance and isolation.”
Where did the EP’s title come from?
“I like that it sounds like an old man’s name, but it’s a place in Hong Kong. Stanley is a touristy beach suburb and resort town that has a lot of little markets. It’s quite dated. In the ’80s my parents owned a fashion boutique in Hong Kong and they would get their denim jeans from the wholesale markets in Stanley.
“I’ve only been there a handful of times, but this place had this aura of memory and familial ties. But also this tacky, memorabilia image too. I love to play with authenticity and inauthenticity in the way we have these ornamental things or souvenirs to try to make sense of our memories.”
Speaking of memories, you’re releasing the EP on a cassette USB.
“Again it was playing with this idea of performing nostalgia. We’re also able to put secret files on the USB, so I’m going to sneak some hidden things on there. Before we had the internet, [our family] would watch Hong Kong movies from this local video store that pirated movies on VHS.” [laughs]
“So we’d watch our favourite series, and I loved how at the very end it would fuzz out a bit and there would be the ending of another movie – and then another.
“That would be so exciting to me. So these USB cassettes pay homage to that and have offcuts of other things, whether it’s old demos of mine, phone recordings of [song ideas] and bootleg remixes I’ve done of Cantonese pop stars. They’re all unique as well. It’s like a little lucky dip.”
Rainbow Chan’s ‘Stanley’ is out today via Eastern Margins