Interview with Helen Feng, singer for Nova Heart
by Alexander Chow
1. How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard rock music before?
So there’s this road, it’s dark, and you can see the markings pass toward you and you’ve been driving for a long time. You’re starting to be tired, and just as your eyes start feel heavy, a person flies through the air and you hit him. He explodes all over you windshield, in colors of yellow and purple and green and silver. You get out of your car, take a piece of an old t shirt from your trunk and start to wipe the gunk out off the windshield. You can’t see the body. You suddenly notice there’s a girl standing in the headlights. She’s kind of cute, and she’s calling out to you. You start to walk toward her, when a giant truck runs down the highway, and almost plows you over. You feel dizzy from the rush. Your knees go weak and you have to lie on the ground. The girl is suddenly on top of you, breathing into your ears, telling you stories you don’t want to hear. It’s very sexy and very wrong at the same time.
2. What bands or musicians have influenced your songwriting the most?
Nina Simone’s more angry stuff. “The Other Woman”, “4 Women” , “Mississippi Goddamn”. 60’s Morricone-scored spaghetti westerns. Anything by Johnny Jewel. I used to listen to a lot of Tori Amos as an angry teenager. Some of that probably sunk in at one time or another.
3. As a lyricist, what do you draw your inspirations from – any favorite authors or poets? Do you find that your lyrics have a consistent, cohesive theme, and if so, what are the themes in your writing?
Nothing really. I’m not super into poetry. I write what I observe, what I dream, and stories about people’s lives real or imagined. Sometimes, it all blurs together.
I think about something, build a simple backing and start improvising on top, both words and melody, and it would sometimes come out as nonsense and sometimes it would be quite a logical thought. Then I start doing some weird psychoanalysis shit about what the fuck I just did, like staring at an ink blot, and usually something emerges from that. A lot of times it’s more triggered by my environment. For instance, I lived in a transsexual/transvestite red light district in Rome when I was recording, so changed one song which had been coincidentally titled “Beautiful Boys” to be about the prostitutes working my street. I improvised random thoughts of weird imagery and it became “Ethereal.” I was recovering from a completely disturbed evening and that became “My Song 9.”
4. I know your songs are in English. But do you find singing/writing lyrics to be harder in Chinese or in English? Since Chinese is a tonal language, do you find that to be helpful or an obstacle when singing in Chinese? Or does it not matter at all?
Definitely harder in Chinese. There are more limitations to writing in the language, because in order to clearly express something, Mandarin Chinese has four fixed tones that must be sung or else the audience has no idea what you’re singing. So the tones have to work with the tonality of the melody. It’s also a very straight language of 1 syllable 2 syllable clusters that form words with these fixed tones. It cuts down on the expressiveness a lot, but I find i can still do it. It just takes a bit of the fun out of the writing.
5. What do you think of Beijing’s (and China’s) music scene compared to other countries?
It’s a scene with tons of potential that often disappoints. But just when you think you’re ready to give up hope that it could be any better, something unexpected happens and it keeps you hanging on for that much longer. Hard to compare apples to oranges when it comes to other cities, it’s still behind but the opportunity to do stuff here is still greater than elsewhere, especially interesting underground stuff. There is a commercial slant, but there’s still enough of an underground vibe to keep it from going into this super pop oriented culture pit. There are more pretentious people than innovative good people, and there’s a lot of really derivative stuff, but I guess that’s true about New York, Paris, or any major cultural hub. Still, compared to those cities the overall skill level still needs to be taken up a notch, as does the creativity. I bitch because I love.
6. What other cities in China, other than Beijing, have good music scenes?
Shanghai has a good music scene though mostly expat run and populated. Beijing is definitely more local in its music scene. Chengdu has a great music scene, and they seem to like electronic music more. Wuhan is a punk rock town. But there are a lot of good venues opening up all over China now, and where there are long established venues, a scene starts to grow. I think the next 5 years is when the regions in China will start having their own personal musical identities, like the difference between Nashville and New York.