With her second album Pillar, Sydney producer and songwriter Rainbow Chan looks beyond the heartbreak-inspired pop of her early releases to create a raw and intuitive body of work that reclaims the ‘disappearing’ Weitou language and culture of her mother’s family.
“Spacings was a breakup album, and so the lyrics played a bigger role in its creation,” Chan says of her 2016 debut long player. “I was writing to survive, even though that sounds really dramatic, while Pillar was written over a period of time when I was doing a lot of rebuilding. So emotionally, I think I was more open to explore production techniques in the creative process.”
In the years since 2013’s Long Vacation EP Chan’s creative horizons have broadened to include the world of contemporary art, creating installation and performance works that explore mass culture, language and the diaspora. Then there’s her other musical project Chunyin, where Chan has pursued gritty, experimental and largely instrumental electronic sounds. There has always been overlap between these parallel identities, but that cross-pollination is more evident than ever on Pillar.
“While I love pop music, there’s a limitation in its format due to time constraints,” she explains. “A pop song doesn’t lend itself as easily to social critique or nuanced, longer conversations. So, these other creative avenues have been an interesting way for me to extend my musical practice — I see them as complementary rather than disparate.
“I think Pillar encompasses themes and stories that exist beyond romantic love; since we’re dealing with several humanitarian crises around the world, as well as climate change, I felt compelled to tackle bigger socio-political issues. For instance, many of the songs reflect ideas around diasporic identity and intergenerational trauma, which can be linked back to a lot of the research I did in my visual art practice.”
Those ideas coalesce in several moments across Pillar where Chan places her matrilineal cultural heritage front and centre. “One of the tracks, Lull, sees me reimagine a lullaby from the Weitou language, a dialect spoken by indigenous Hong Kong people,” Chan explains. “My mum, Chui Ping, is a Weitou woman — she can be heard in the phone recording at the start of the song alongside my aunty Choi Lin and myself.
“Weitou culture is rapidly disappearing, as elders are passing away and there are hardly any younger people continuing their traditions. So two years ago, I asked my mum whether she could start teaching me the dialect. Rather than seeing this Weitou lullaby as a sedative, I see it as a reawakening. What’s more, by reworking my heritage into a euphoric club track I want to show that Weitou is very much still here.”
Chan has a keen grasp of melody and harmony, but incorporating the language into her songwriting took work. “Writing and singing lyrics in tonal languages is really challenging,” she explains. “Your melody has to follow the pitches of the language — the music and the words are inextricably linked. This can be a completely foreign concept for speakers of non-tonal languages, and it’s certainly given me a stronger admiration for people who can do it with ease!”
Chan’s reclaiming of her Weitou heritage extends to Pillar’s artwork and imagery. The visual side of Chan’s output has always been both playful and considered, from the latex-and-leather androgyny of 2016 dance floor filler Work to the ongoing conversation with the films of Wong Kar-wai seen across many of her music videos.
This time around she enlisted filmmaker and regular collaborator Hyun Lee – Chan starred in Lee’s 2017 short film Asian Girls – along with stylist Al Joel and makeup artist Maggie Wu. “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 instantly recognisable.
“We wanted to capture something modern that also harked back to my heritage, so I incorporated a Weitou farming hat and a flower tassel which was hand woven and gifted to me by one of my elders in Hong Kong,” Chan explains. “These important relics were then worked into a contemporary aesthetic through costuming and the pearlescent 3D text that spells out the album title, designed and created by Craig S-R. I’m super proud of the visuals.”
Chan’s diversifying output has made visits to Adelaide less frequent in recent years. While this makes her Friday 4 October performance as part of Half Strange Festival something of a rare treat, Chan says looking beyond the music industry’s cyclical mix of recording and touring has been liberating.
“I guess I’ve realised that I can’t be a full time ‘rock star’ type of artist who’s always touring and recording back to back,” she reflects. “It just doesn’t interest me. I’ve got too many different interests, and I think I would get really bored if all I ever did was music. I have a much more holistic and multidisciplinary approach to my creative endeavours now.”
And for the listener, it’s a chance to engage with the full spectrum of this particular Rainbow.
Half Strange Festival
4 – 6 October