Don’t call her the Queen of Beijing Rock, Helen Feng is way more interesting than that. Lead singer of Nova Heart, a solo voodoo-disco project turned 4piece psych-rock band, Helen gives the lowdown on Glastonbury, overt and covert music video sexism and the postindustrial confusion vibe of Beijing’s music scene. I’m calling it, Helen’s answers to my straight-down-the-line email Q&A questions could be the most interesting bunch of words to yet grace the fledgling pages of WildnFree.
Hello Helen! How did Nova Heart evolve into the band it is today?
I guess mostly on the road. It started as a straight 4 to floor disco project between Ed Rodion and I. We did a lot of international touring in places like Iceland, all over Europe and North America, and parts of Africa. It just kind’a felt like we were picking up little pieces of everything we touched. We are all not teenagers anymore, so we were also going through some serious life stuff, some emotional stuff, and it just all bled together.
We were doing a lot of random recording, and then Ed went back to studio and just started meshing it together, our live sound and the studio sound, and it just went back and forth for years like that. Eventually we settled on letting go of the idea that we were a band and getting more into the idea that we were storytellers that told a story that was as emotive as it was completely hard to understand, because it was about the stuff that was creeping underneath the actions of the outside word but more in our heads. Like a movie playing beginning to end with all the beats and scenes of a film as opposed to an album. It kinda finally tied it all together and that’s how it came out.
Tell me about your recent Glastonbury performance. What did it mean for you?
Playing it didn’t mean as much to me as actually just being there. Shows are the same, every stage is important even if your playing to no one. I liked the festival for all the weirdness outside of the main stages, so I had a great time at Glastonbury. I think it meant more to people around us that we played it, and we knew of it’s importance, but we didn’t grow up in the UK so we weren’t part of that legend.
I think everyone thinks along the lines of career these days and not experiences. I like the experience of playing every time, but I loved the experience of being an audience member more at Glastonbury. We’ve got more attention because of the festival, that’s good, but I think releasing the record was more important to me so far as personal benchmarks are concerned.
Lackluster No. is a beautiful, dark, slightly eerie song. What’s it all about? What was the songwriting and production process behind it?
This was one of those tracks I pretty much wrote completely at home with a simple drum machine beat and midi keyboard playing out the guitar and bass lines. It wasn’t really meant to be a track for Nova Heart, just something fun I was writing by myself, but one day I just thought maybe we should try it in the set. The guitarist and bassist picked it up in ten minutes, and the drummer added some singing. We performed that night, and it was kinda cool to have a slow minimal number that was more rhythmic and inundated with sounds.
We performed it for two years before recording it with just that simple drum beat, bass guitar and one backing vocal. When we finally went to the studio with it, Ed managed to get the manic depression feel out of it, which worked for the story I wanted to tell. The song is about a lot of things, mostly to do with pro-creation. I always tell people it’s about seeing a pregnant girl at a club dancing with a big belly, but that’s a lie. Yeah I saw that, but it’s not what it’s really about. Sometimes half-lies are nice cause they are often more palatable then the truth.
The video for Lackluster No. is incredible, a dark exploration of pregnancy and birth. What ideas and themes were you aiming to express? How was your experience of directing the clip?
It was amazing to works with a mostly female crew except the gaffer and the cinematographer who incidentally occasionally plays guitar for the band. We were all standing around one day at a production meeting complaining how women are often treated like ‘half retarded’ on film sets. There is a subtle or sometimes overt sexism, and this pervasive idea that we are not as organised, or more emotional, and less focused then men doing film, yet we shot the thing in two days in a super tight schedule with minimal drama.
It was probably one of the most efficient crews I’ve ever worked on, with super minimal drama. You start realising that everyone is capable of creating drama on set, but it’s often blamed on women, like ovaries make us stupid. And when men bring drama, then it’s more about their artistic temperament.
You’ve been called the ‘Queen of Beijing Rock’ and the ‘Blondie of China’. What do those labels mean to you?
Someone says something, and it gets repeated. It allows the brain to take short cuts so it doesn’t have to form it’s own opinions. It doesn’t mean that much to me, it distracts from the music because people are expecting something they don’t get. I’m an actor in a show, I’m a musician, and I go on stage. It’s a profession and these labels are kinda weird for me. I would love to hear someone call a doctor, the King of Rhinoplasty, the Dr. Seuss of Paediatric Care in Melbourne! Kinda stupid, yeah?
What’s the music scene like in Beijing? Where do you fit within that scene? What is the experience of being a Chinese band in the West like?
Beijing is pretty happening and pretty confused at the same time. People don’t know what to rebel against so they rebel against themselves. Or, they sell out happily and await their next big concert in front of fans holding LED signs spelling out their name, so they can see their own name in the audience and go “Hey, you know who I am, cool!” There’s quite a lot of festivals these days, sometimes it feels like there are more festivals then good bands, but there’s tons of opportunities to play. If I had to describe a Beijing sound, I would call it Postindustrial Confusion. But yeah, the word ‘post’ definitely has to be in the title.
You’ve just finished up a European tour. How did it go?
Good, always good. We are like gods on acid. Actually, this year has been the year where we bounce around so much with long breaks in between, followed by sporadic bursts of activity and mania that it doesn’t even feel like touring, just one long head trip. We are not doing a traditional tour, and it’s cool. We toured so much the last few years that this is kinda refreshing. I’m also currently spending a lot of time in Berlin.
You toured Australia a couple of years ago, will you be heading back soon?
2016. . . we overdosed in 2014, so we are going to only go on an even number.
Enjoy this dark journey through childbirth in Lackluster No, it’s super creepy but totally compelling: