By Jocelle Koh
Photos by Leah Jing McIntosh
When we last spoke to Sydney-based musician and visual artist Rainbow Chan, she had just released her 2019 album Pillar, an experimental club sound LP that strikes up a conversation regarding the artist’s heritage and sense of belonging between various cultures.
While her identity has always been at the forefront of her works, her latest album Stanley presents this connection to her experiences, upbringing, and yearning for Hong Kong in a new light.
While Western pop culture has its own slew of balladeers throughout the ages who have waxed lyrical about the art of love time and time again, it’s not often that the genre of retro Mandopop ballads has been revisited with a keen ear such as Rainbow’s.
Influenced particularly by the Mandopop and Cantopop divas of the ’80s and ’90s such as Faye Wong and Teresa Teng, Stanley is a deconstruction of the signature retro Mandopop sound, only to be reconstructed by Chan in a degustation of musical firsts; with her own touch of flavour added steadily throughout.
“I love like picking out these essences of like, influences, but then instead of a straight replica, I always like to inject a little bit of my own style or so kind of subvert or challenge some of the conventions. So I think with this particular one, Stanley, I mean, I was writing it during, you know, a lot of lockdowns and isolations with COVID happening, you know, and I think for me, I felt very homesick because I wasn’t able to go back to Hong Kong and visit my family. And so I was listening a lot to Teresa Teng, Faye Wong, and a lot of divas from my childhood… “
Also referring to the influence of the pandemic on her work, COVID-19 not only caused feelings of nostalgia and homesickness for Rainbow, but its physical restrictions on her also played a part in the creation of Stanley; a more singer-songwriter-y/bedroom pop kind of album.
“Because clubs weren’t open I felt like I was writing a lot more introverted songs that were for the bedroom… because I think with the previous album I released, Pillar that was very club-oriented… But with this one, I really was writing with a guitar, with a piano and stripping it right back, and then building the electronics on top of it.”
As for why Chan chose the name Stanley in particular for the album, while seemingly plucked out of thin air, it was in fact a homage to an anecdote nestled deeply in the singer-songwriter’s romanticised experiences of Hong Kong.
“I like the name Stanley because it has this kind of old-timey feeling to it… but it actually refers to a little beach town in Hong Kong. My parents in the 80s; before I was born, they owned a fashion boutique, where they would sell American jeans and Western kind of style clothes. And they would pick up their fabrics and their clothing wholesale from Stanley because it’s like a market town as well… I remember going there a little bit later on when I was a kid and just really kind of liking all the souvenirs and all the trinkets in this place… this idea of souvenirs and ornaments and things that we accumulate over time…I felt like that was…a nice metaphor for these old pop songs that I’ve become obsessed with. And they kind of become dated over time. But you love it for that nostalgic and retro feeling.”
While it can be argued that many of Rainbow’s works are love letters to Hong Kong in their own way, Stanley in particular feels like the most overt one she’s written to date. Listening to the album is akin to putting on some rose-tinted glasses and entering a timeless fantasy of Hong Kong past, which is exactly what Chan intended for this record.
“I think because by turning in towards my very specific childhood memories, it is a way to create a bubble or refuge of something that I can preserve… it’s almost like I’m trying to disentangle my sense of Hong Kong from everything that’s happened. And just trying to create this fantasy – really, it’s a fantasy because it’s an escape. And I think it’ll be interesting for me to (see) how I relate to this body of work over time. It’s sort of an open-ended book at the moment, and I think it’s cool to see how other people have related to it in different ways.”
And given the recent more tumultuous times Hong Kong has fallen onto, this preservation work that Rainbow has done seems even more meaningful than ever. Truly a masterclass in musical escapism, we had to dive deeper into how Chan crafted the songs on this album to attain that perfect mix of personal experience and homage to a time past. She shared her unique approach to crafting the lyrics and melodies for the album:
“I think with this album, I actually was always a bit more disciplined with it because I created exercises for me to do to try and get better and better at it, I think. So lyrically, I was doing exercises where I would think about certain pop cliches, words like ‘love’, ‘promise’ or ‘dreams’, and I had to write 30 other ways of saying that word without using that word. And so all a lot of images came up, which I think a lot of Chinese pop, there’s this really strong sense of romantic imagery, either to do with nature, flowers or the weather… So I was trying to challenge myself to build up a library of those types of metaphors.”
“And then in terms of the melodies, yeah that definitely took me a while because I had to try and find suitable chord progressions, and then even just my singing style, I think changed a little bit because, with the Divas, I think when they sing, they have a slightly more pure tone, and then a little bit more nasally as well. Like the way they project has a slightly brighter sound… there was a bit of role-playing… as well. There were certain demos, but I really was seeing, like, just pretending to be to raise a tag and then back, later on, to just make it sound like myself and not completely someone else.”
Just like there are method actors, Rainbow seems to have taken on the role of a method musician, in order to precisely pinpoint the feelings and techniques that were used in the golden Mandopop era. Yet at the same time, by drawing deeply from her own stories of love, loss, and childhood experiences, she has created something beautiful, emotionally moving, and timelessly relevant on top of these technical masterpieces, something that invites listeners to participate in their own way.
“I think for me, I always try to write from a position of my own stories and my own heartbreak because I feel like if I write about something else as the starting point, it feels somehow disingenuous…mainly, I think a lot of the songs on Stanley (are) about distance, and about change and loss…and grief… I feel like other people have experienced the songs in different ways, a multitude of ways that I hadn’t thought about previously. And there’s a sort of invitation there for the listeners to inject their own memories and feelings.”
Describing the first single off her album, “Heavy” as feeling like a “freshly broken heart”, there were many such powerful moments throughout the record. As a single with the most direct ties to Cantopop connotations, from the over-dramatic moments of flair in the arrangement to the poetic yearning that can be found in the lyrics, Chan walked us through how the song came to be; almost akin to a neon sign flickering to life.
“This one started off with one of those exercises where I thought about how to say a broken heart in different ways. And one of the first images that came to my head was this neon sign flickering… And, of course, a lot of the signs… have been dismantled… So I was just thinking about that being a really beautiful metaphor for something that’s obsolete and broken but has this really tender glow at the same time, and I thought, well that, to me really actually feels like a freshly broken heart. So that kind of was the springboard for the rest of the song. And I just thought about these really specific moments in my life where you’ve just been broken up with… it’s just as simple as bumping into someone that you love and you can’t be with… in the most mundane place… And that that is like the heaviest thing…”
She also had a really intriguing story behind her song “Idols 偶像”, which contrary to its enthusiastic, poppy exterior belies a story intertwining shame, crises of faith, toxic relationships, and perhaps the hope of the perfect one.
“So I have anxiety, and I was like, kind of going through this strange time coming off this medication, but then feeling like I had to go back on because I was just struggling… but then I started thinking about, the shame that we accumulate over time over our lives and all these different things that somehow eat away at us. I remembered this memory of when I was in primary school… this religious studies teacher told me that my parents would go to hell because they had a buddha in the house… And so I was very traumatised by that because I was so young… and then from there, I just thought about growing up and this idea of idol, for me that kind of translates into ways that I’ve idolised like, bad men, and then got myself into bad relationships…”
Chan has previously described the song as “if Teresa Teng and Gwen Stefani had a kid”. A delicate story that draws from such disparate elements, one can almost feel each of the different threads reverberating with friction, pulling at the seams and threatening to unravel with an almost playful insolence.
But then the converse or the inverse of that is actually when you’re confronted with love, because at the same time, when I was writing the song, I met someone that I think is my soulmate. And then the extremes of having all this shame, but then being met with this incredible power of love. And the tensions that actually creates…like, how do you keep it going? How do you actually overcome all this fear and pain and suffering you’ve had all your life to actually welcome love into your life? … It was actually really therapeutic to write because it wasn’t this very simple version of what love is… But ultimately, you know, hope it’s a happy ending. (laughs)”
The most exciting thing about our conversation with Rainbow was being able to dig behind the moving cogs of her mind and try to make sense of her unique brand of artistry. All at once technical and emotional, it’s clear why her music has the capacity to tell stories that are like none we’ve ever experienced.
Drawing on the complex intersection of nostalgia, grief, distance, and love in the context of retro Mando/Cantopop, Chan almost makes it seem easy. Managing to intermingle her own experiences with her fantastical reimagining of Hong Kong, the album is a time capsule whose meaning changes at every juncture, and with every listen. But what is unchanging, is the unique expression of time, love, and tenderness Stanley stands for.