Rainbow Chan is Challenging Gender Stereotyping With New Music Project, Chunyin

Features. Posted 2 years ago

Courtney Sanders
Rainbow Chan photographed by Ellen Virgona and styled by Charlotte Agnew for Catalogue.Rainbow Chan photographed by Ellen Virgona and styled by Charlotte Agnew for Catalogue.

In an article we published today, Catalogue contributor Kat Patrick discusses the difference between issues and between culture. Issues are singular and finite, while cultures are multi-dimensional and infinite.

Within the music industry (and all cultural industries, too), there are issues, and there are cultures, and the issues often result from the cultures. Within the music industry, there is a culture of misogyny, there are issues that result from this culture, and these issues have been discussed at length over the past year or so. In an interview with Pitchfork, Björk highlights her experience with women being considered less competent musicians than men (and she’s fucking Björk!). On every news site everywhere, writers are using Miley Cyrus to debate whether the sexualisation of women in pop music is subjugating or liberating.

One issue, which results from both the culture of misogyny in music and the discussion of the culture of misogyny in music, is that women musicians are discussed as women first, musicians second. As a feminist who interviews female musicians, I innately want to discuss the culture and the issues, in order to try to change the culture and the issues, but I know I’m playing into the culture by doing this. By highlighting gender I’m making it about gender, but if we don’t discuss gender now, will we ever be able to stop discussing gender in the future? Gah! I would never ask a male musician what it’s like to be a male musician, but that’s arguably because we all know exactly what it’s like to be a male musician, which is kind of the problem.

Enter Rainbow Chan, a Sydney musician who started a side-project, Chunyin, to undo the gendered way we discuss electronic music created by women. It also explores the merging of Chinese and Western cultures – just casually. The first single is called Softcall 101, and is named after a buzzer she was given in a restaurant in Japan with the brand name Soft Core 101 – there’s no reason these cultural layers can’t also be fun, right.

Courtney Sanders: You have a new side-project, and there are so many layers! Where did the idea for this side project come from?
Rainbow Chan: I guess I wanted to make a project that didn’t necessarily present my face or identity. The Rainbow Chan stuff is very confessional (the songwriting is based on autobiographical things), so I wanted to explore other ideas that weren’t bound to personal experiences and emotions.

C.S.: While it’s not about exploring your personal identity, it is connected to identity in a couple of important ways, one of them being gender. You’ve said the project is an opportunity to represent women in dance music.
R.C.: Yeah, I think that was another motivation, because I would find that people would talk about my music in very gendered terms. People would describe me as a ‘Sydney darling’ or ‘chanteuse’ or ‘quirky’ – words that are gendered and infantalising.

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Rainbow wears Sportmax jumper and skirt.

C.S.: ‘Quirky’ and ‘kooky’ are such gendered words! I read an interview with Miranda July recently, where she discusses how infantalising the word ‘quirky’, which she gets called it all the time, is. A review of her new novel, The First Bad Man, described it as ‘strenuously quirky’, and it’s not ‘quirky’ at all!
R.C.: Yeah, I think it’s just a convenient term to slap on top of anyone who is a little bit strange, or doesn’t fit inside a neat box. It’s just a term of convenience. In Internet journalism and writing, there’s limited space to get people’s attention, and I’m not hating on people for using convenient tags, it’s just the nature of the environment.

So this project was about writing music that resisted easy terms. If you listen to it, you can’t really tell whether it’s written by a man or by a woman. I didn’t want to use my womanhood as a tokenistic thing. It was about writing something from an anonymous point of view but at the same time representing that female voice.

C.S.: The second layer to the project is the exploration of East Asian cityscapes. How does one go about turning cityscapes into sounds?
R.C.: I had this idea of writing really quickly; of trying to push myself to sit down in one sitting and produce one track. When I was writing this, about a year ago, I was travelling in Japan and Hong Kong, and I was into the idea of writing in transitional spaces like hotels or airports or little cafes – the environment matched the goal of the project, to write really quickly. Some of the sounds I’ve used in the song are samples from those spaces, too.

I wrote this song in a hotel room in Tokyo, and the name of it is in reference to this funny looking little buzzer I got when I was at a Japanese restaurant, waiting for my food to come. It said Soft Core 101, that was the brand of buzzer, and I really liked the aesthetic and the font of this tacky-looking, ‘90s piece of technology. I was also seeing someone who was travelling a lot as well, and I thought about these fleeting interactions we have with people; the communications we have across the internet, and this little buzzer, communicating across the restaurant. Just how increasingly virtual our interactions with people are.

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Rainbow wears Sportsmax jacket.

C.S.: Yeah sure, it’s a fascinating and terrifying subject. How did writing more quickly affect the song?
R.C.: There’s a certain sense of recklessness and liberation by not thinking about the eventuality, but about the process. The Rainbow Chan stuff still has an element of incorporating experiments into the songs, but there’s always this sense of refinement, of taking time to really make sure every single layer is as perfect as I can get it. I guess, like, because the Rainbow Chan project is a wider reflection of my personality and my grand narrative, there’s a certain sense of emotional investment in those songs which translates into the investment in the production of them and the refinement of them. With the Chunyin stuff, there’s a certain sense of playfulness and letting go of that control, and trying to make things with a certain set of parameters and constraint, in terms of time and emotional investment, but still create something that I find interesting.

C.S.: I’m interested in your observations of the interactions between the Chinese and Western cultural signifiers. What are the big observations you’re interested in exploring?
R.C.: First of all, within this idea of what it is to be Chinese, it’s very multi-faceted, because there are so many disparate Chinese communities worldwide. I haven’t really been to mainland China before, so I feel there are little tensions and differences within that term alone.

What I’ve noticed between Western and Chinese interactions is that since China opened up their economy in the ‘80s, there’s been this rapid adoption of Western ideas, but it’s not a full emulative model; they localise it and incorporate it into their own values. So there are uncanny look-a-likes, but they’re not quite there. I’m obsessed with counterfeit goods and brand piracy, and absurd ‘Chinglish’ signs.

Chinese is quite an interesting language, because individual words can signify a lot of different meanings, so idioms in Chinese are often four word phrases that can symbolise heaps of different things. Trying to apply that to English, or trying to translate that from English to Chinese, you come up with hilarious Fortune Cookie-style phrases.

I really enjoy looking at where these miscommunications arise. My family speaks Chinese and my grandparents don’t speak English, so I’m in the middle of a lot of these misunderstandings. Sometimes I feel quite sad that I can’t communicate that well with my parents or grandparents, but these communications are also valid and can be bonding if you look at them with a light-hearted perspective.

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Rainbow wears Sportsmax pants and Issey Miyake pants from Irreversible Vintage.

C.S.: Back on the representation of women in music: are there any barriers that are specific to music that you think are stopping women get ahead?
R.C.: I think it’s internalised: no one’s actually gonna be a dickhead and say, ‘you’re a chick, you can’t make music’. It’s a two way relationship, too. There should be more support networks to encourage girls to make this kind of music, and then people, like bookers, should be more mindful of that. It’s not that cool to have a sausage fest. It’s going to take effort on both sides, but I think creating safe spaces so women don’t feel like they’re being intimidated in those environments is important. It’s going to be an ongoing, slow change as we educate ourselves across the board.

I do realise what I was saying before is a paradox: trying to be anonymous but still promote the female producer. It’s more about trying not to premise the project on me as a female individual, singing my heart out. I don’t want to invalidate my other project, either, but I want to make a work that can be judged in a non-gendered way, because there is a lack of my voice and my face in it, and can be understood afterwards as a work by a female artist. It’s about taking the immediacy of the gender bias away.

C.S.: I totally get it, but it’s annoying, and a symptom of our time, that you have to consider removing your gender from the work so that it can be judged in a musical way first and in a gendered way second. I feel like this is not a conversation male musicians have to have with themselves. Not to take anything away from what you’re doing, because I think what you’re doing is important, and it makes the work multi-dimensional, but it is so frustrating to think that men don’t have to consider this. The comment you just said, where you wanted to do something where you’re not ‘singing my heart out’, speaks to this. It’s like: dudes sing their heart out all the time but it’s never like, ‘oh he’s really singing his heart out’.
R.C.: Yeah, that’s exactly it. When I make the work, I don’t mediate it in this way where I’m like ‘I’m going to do it in this way so I can get this response’. Most of the time, when I make my music, I’m doing it because I’m in that moment. With this dance-oriented stuff it’s the same, it’s like: I’m writing in this hotel, I’m just channelling these thoughts and ideas into this thing. When it’s out there in the public domain, and people are making sense of it, there are these interpretations you have to deal with.

I think it’s a really complicated topic that needs a lot of unpacking. I don’t know if I’m pulling it off, but the gendered thing should be the second level of processing. I want the song to be processed as pure sensation from the musical sounds and the materiality of the sounds, and then there can be something to accompany that afterwards.

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Rainbow wears Christopher Esber dress and Vans shoes.

Rainbow Chan is playing on 29th October at Freda’s in Sydney, supporting synth-pop artist Corin.

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