Chinese Whispers And Other Short Stories: Nova Heart in Conversation
Dubbed everything from ‘China’s Blondie’ to a ‘femme Jim Morrison’ Helen Feng’s fragile, world-weary croon belies the cocky showmanship that follows only a split second after. Her electro-pop Chinese outfit Nova Heart‘s music is just a more visceral representation of the same innate bipolarity—a mass of synth-swaddled subtlety that never fails to wire an audience to a dance floor.
I was lucky enough to not only watch their riveting performances twice during our IOMMA adventures but also spend a fair bit of time just getting to know them. Perhaps this is what made it easier to cut through the pre-ordained bullshit that tends to accompany more impersonal interviews.
Though it was intended to be so (and I did everything in my power to veer it in that direction) this is not an interview about Nova Heart as much as it is about striving for individualism in a country that usually tries to snuff it out. Feng peeled away China’s layers using her understanding of it through the arts in an incredibly unique way; using everything from the exploration of Beijing’s thriving underground punk rock scene to being shot at outside raves as ammunition. Make no mistake, this is but a chapter of her story. And it will leave you wanting more.
Mandovi: We heard you almost became a pop star once, what changed?
Helen: It sucked.
Mandovi: What about it sucked in particular?
Helen: Chinese pop stars are just picked by record labels, developed and then their songs are written for them. Not that different from the Western model except usually, they’re less talented! A lot of the times they use auto tune so they can get them to sound good during recording but they just lip-sync when they’re doing it live. So they can’t sing, they can’t dance, they just look good and are pretty useless at everything else.
Mandovi: Was that your experience with Chinese Record labels too?
Helen: No we actually got signed to Warner. Umm..actually we got signed with two other bands. One was like kind of pop punk and the other was kind of, more electronic? More like Sigur Ros? Ok no that’s too experimental, more like Royksopp. They were a bit like a Chinese Royksopp. So Warner was a bit different, they actually had a good reputation of picking up people who were interesting, it didn’t matter whether they looked good or not. We were really young at the time and a lot of people were approaching us, Universal, Warner, some other smaller ones I guess because our stuff was more friendly, kind of crossover. We only had like 10 tracks at the time. Things did change a lot after signing though.
Mandovi: How so?
Helen: Well we’d only been playing in like shitty venues across Beijing and stuff and we got this random opportunity to play for Motorola alongside all these pop stars and all the label heads were there and that turned out to be like the best show ever so there was a lot of interest and at the time, we were all like ‘Let’s sign a major’ but as soon as we did our carefree days were over. They wanted us to be a certain way, have a certain look, we were completely repackaged. The thing is though we were really broke and we wanted our stuff to release because they weren’t giving us any living expenses and we couldn’t even play at the shitty gigs we used to before. And there was no investment towards our recording either so it was like what the fuck, you know?
Mandovi: Which brings me to mainstream Chinese pop. Why do you think it remains so under the radar internationally?
Helen: Because it’s terrible? It’s so crap. There are a lot of musicians now, a lot of music festivals too, like 100 or more every year and sometimes there are like 7-8 festivals just around Beijing with average attendance. This year 30000 sold out after the first day and people were just packed in. The festival explosion means a gig explosion and performance fees have gone up too. Some artists have floated up over time and lot of them have been around for a good 20 years. Now they’re headlining festivals!
Mandovi: Sounds like a lot of avenues have opened up for the Chinese indie artist then?
Helen: Definitely. People are starting to get away from pop music. Mainly because its quality just keeps going down. I mean there was some good stuff in the ’80s and then the ’90s it got a little bit worse but since 2000 it’s just been rapidly downhill.
Mandovi: And is this sort of underground movement limited to Beijing or has it spread?
Helen: It’s everywhere now. I mean we just did a national tour and we’ve toured in the past, like small mini tours. We’d go and there’d be a venue for 200 people, 20 people show up, the drums are like raped together for everything, all the cables are busted, there’s no sound guy, no amps and now there’s professional-sized venues in at least 10-15 cities so there’s a real tour route now.
Mandovi: What’s the local reception like?
Helen: China is international now but there’s an interesting trait in our audiences. Like we have a lot of international bands coming down. For example: Panic! at the disco could only pull in a crowd of about 3-500 people whereas a Chinese local band who you’ve never even heard off can pull a crowd of 5000 because it’s local. It’s still a more locally-based scene.
Mandovi: That’s amazing.
Helen: Yeah, it really is. Surprisingly, even we make most of our money out of touring in China.
Mandovi: So is it the same for you’ll? Better reception locally than internationally?
Helen: We were actually kind of laughing about this. Like when we go overseas the reception is actually pretty good, especially if we go to major cities. Ironically, in China in the expat scene we’re not as well-received as we are in the local scene.
I think that’s because most of the bands you see in China are kind of derivative. So they’re always like the Chinese version of blah blah. You can see their influences immediately, sometimes it’s almost a carbon copy of something else but a lot of those bands are moving on now, being original because they couldn’t be before. In the last 2-3 years you can see the progression even with us. People are starting to look for something unique. Expat audiences are starting to fall behind because a lot of the time in the past, they were bringing the culture into China but with the internet, the local kids have a whole new sense of freedom. Chinese kids sort of live in a bubble where information comes at the same time so they might like a band that came out in 2002 or they might even like something that’s just come out, has no following but somehow, they’ve managed to download it. (laughs)
Mandovi: It sounds like China’s really home for you now, what prompted your move back? (Feng was born and brought up in America)
Helen: I got a job offer from MTV but i didn’t really like working for them because at the time, they were making me do really shit work like go cover absolutely talentless boy bands but i did eventually manage to put the first punk rock band on MTV and then the office politics drove me out anyway. It was holding me back from what i wanted to do but right before leaving i discovered the Beiing underground which made me want to stay.
Mandovi: Ah, the infamous punk rock phase.
Helen: (Laughs) I didn’t actually get that into it, I was just happy I was there.
Mandovi: So was there a huge culture shock?
Helen: Well a little bit but I’d been going back since I was 9 so I’d already seen the development, I just didn’t know as much about the scene because I was too young. I had to look a lot harder than I was.
Mandovi: Let’s digress to your music now for a bit. You have a reputation of being pretty politically aware and motivated, does that seep into your musical process?
Helen: Do I? Well honestly I try to keep politics out of my songs. A lot of the stuff that I write about is ridiculous shit that’s going on in my brain, it’s more philosophical. I do like Chinese politics though, I mean do you watch game of thrones?
Mandovi: Are there people who don’t?
Helen: (Laughs) Great. Ok so Chinese politics are exactly like that but with uglier people, it’s awesome. Legitimately the same thing. So if you can imagine them to be slightly better looking, it’s actually incredibly entertaining television. It’s funny because everybody who has opinions on China like ‘oh it’s like this or that’ they don’t realise they only see what we want them to see. Internally, it’s just a fucking mess. And people don’t realise that the Chinese youth are really not passive, they’re not just passively receiving their political environment!
Mandovi: Ok, topic change. Who are your biggest influences?
Helen: [incomprehensible and animated Chinese chatter ensue between Feng, guitarist Zhong Can and bassist Bo Xuan]. David Lynch, Stanley Kubric. But Lynch..his music is really bad but it’s so funny…crazy clown time! And Bo says he loves the shakers they use here at Reunion islands. But yeah, Classical music too and the Chromatics. Love them. Seen them twice and they’re better live.
Mandovi: This started as a solo project though, do you still think of it as that?
Helen: It was when it begun but definitely not anymore. Our drummer’s not here because she plays in two other bands and she’s touring with one of them but we have everything programmed and there’s actually another invisible member, our producer Rodion. He’s pretty brilliant and works with us on all of our tracks. We met in Istanbul and he actually lives in Rome but it works.
Mandovi: Considering you’ve built yourself up in an equally nascent scene, what advice would you give to upcoming independent artists?
Helen: Well when we first started touring internationally, everyone was telling us we had to have more ethnic elements. The truth is it’s not really about ethnic elements. It’s more about if you’re creating music that’s unique. People will want to kind of lump you into a some kind of stereotype as an artist because they feel if they can do that then you’re just fitting into their expectations. The truth is that the artists that are generally the most successful are the ones that defy expectations and so if you become a cliche of yourself then you’re not going to be successful. Just be yourself. You don’t have to be a New York band or a California band, just take all the things you listen to, that you like and you appreciate, piece it together with the parts of your life that make sense or don’t make sense and that is what makes you unique. It’s not the fact that you’re using a particular instrument that they haven’t seen before or makes you seem cool because they can’t place the instrument. They’re just going to move on to another artist. That’s the hardest thing.
And also if you want to be international, if you want to get out, you have to realise it’s two sided…a lot of times the things that pay you the best are not necessarily going to motivate your career the most so you have to do a lot more showcases. You have to perform as much as you can before you get your feet on the ground to really understand stuff. It’s no longer enough to do music, you have to create an entire package for yourself as an artist but don’t expect other people to package you. You need to do it yourself with the talent that surrounds you and you should put as much creativity into it as you do into your music. It’s also good to get advice from people. I’m actually a booker as well, my boyfriend and I have a booking agency back in China and we actually create a lot of tours for international artists so I can tell you from a booker’s perspective what works and what doesn’t work. It’s really important because if we can’t promote you then we can’t bring you down because we’re going to lose money.
It’s funny because a lot of bands just don’t have their shit together. They may be amazing but the thing is promoters can get a turnout. What they need to know is that you’re going to be good when you get there and a package is the only thing you have to prove it no matter how good you may be!
Mandovi: That was really good advice so I’ll stop there. Just tell us what’s next for Nova Heart?
Helen: We’re doing another album in August, doing another tour of China, a few small shows in Europe and then we release the album. Then we wanted to do some sort of of weird, experimental kind of music video, we do really elaborate stuff usually. Like I said put as much creativity into everything you do, including your packaging.