Mindy Meng Wang 王萌 And Sui Zhen: “This Album Is Earnest, There’s No Trying To Impress Anyone”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume Mindy Meng Wang 王萌 and Sui Zhen were lifelong best friends off body language alone.
Their shared Zoom window is one of pure homely comfort. The afternoon sun shines through the kitchen window, where fresh bok choy waits to be chopped up by the cutting board. Huddled at the table together, the two women nurse cups of tea and continually smile and laugh as they engage in conversation. When one makes a salient point, the other nods deeply in understanding. Everything about their pairing suggests a bond spanning decades. Yet, if just one email hadn’t been sent, their breathtaking, captivating collaborative debut album Origin of You might have never existed.
That email was sent by Joe Alexander, who runs independent label Music In Exile, which self-describes as “championing stories of culturally and linguistically diverse musicians”. Sui was contacted by Joe in 2019 about potentially doing a collaborative performance with Mindy. The former is a mostly electronic artist who has released several solo albums; the latter an accomplished player of the guzheng, a Chinese plucked-string instrument, who’s previously collaborated with composers like Paul Grabowsky and Tim Shiel. At the time, neither woman knew the other’s work.
“He seemed to think we’d be able to create something really interesting together,” says Sui of Joe. “I don’t normally agree to stuff like that with someone I’d never met, but I trusted Joe — and as it turned out, Mindy did too.” Sui and Mindy decided to meet for coffee to discuss the logistics of their performance at a Melbourne cafe; neither quite expected what followed.
“We must have talked for hours,” says Mindy. “We actually had to move tables once we realised this wasn’t going to be your regular coffee chat.” Not only did they bond over their Chinese-Australian identity, they also discovered that both were in mourning following the loss of a parent. What might have been a chance encounter between two like-minded musicians became almost instantaneously deeper.
“That significant death was really informing our lens of the world, and how we were approaching our music,” says Sui. “Mindy suggested that whatever feelings we were having, we should respond to them musically. She really drove that framework, and the conversation that we were having really continued into the studio.” At Mindy’s insistence, the pair began working on music straight away, which ultimately lead to Origin of You being fully conceptualised. With the pair’s knack for improvising, and their urge to tell the story of their families and their heritage, it wasn’t long before they’d created movements of music that were emotionally stirring and wholly mesmerising. Through this period of grief that at times felt unspeakable, both Mindyand Suifound a new voice through the album.
“You can hear the trust between us when you listen to this album,” says Mindy. “I think, in a way, the album is the sound of us providing comfort to one another. It’s an active response to an ongoing conversation.” Sui, naturally, nods deeply in understanding. “That’s a really nice way to put it,” she replies. “This album is very earnest, with a patient kind of honesty that’s true to a feeling. There’s no trying to impress anyone with musicality or anything like that. It’s a meeting between two people that have had to overcome something really big, walking through these difficult feelings together.”
Origin of You combines the distinct and resonant tone of Mindy’s guzheng with Sui’s subtle palette of minimalist programming and warm beds of synthesizer. Often without a backbeat, the slow-motion nature of the songs — particularly in its opening three-part, 24-minute suite — can feel like a freefall at times. For Mindy and Sui, the process felt more like a trustfall — each safe in the knowledge that the other would be there to catch them.
It was this bond that allowed Sui to coax Mindy out of her shell — normally solely an instrumentalist, Wang was eventually convinced to implement her own vocals on the album. “I felt very safe with her,” Mindy explains. “I felt comfortable enough to use my words. If it was any other collaboration, I likely wouldn’t have said yes at all. You’re conditioned to not show the part of you that isn’t professionally trained as a performer, but making this album became a very supportive environment and really encouraged me to experiment more.”
“I didn’t really know what the perimeters were when we started making this album,” adds Sui. “When I suggested that Mindy sing on a track, she was immediately like, ‘I don’t sing.’ The reason I persisted was because it was the song ‘Watch My Mum Dance’, and that’s really Mindy’s song. It’s a song that’s really a dedication to the mother as a role. Eventually, Mindy hummed the melody, which you hear on the album. It’s so delicate; it has the rawness of someone who doesn’t usually use their singing voice publicly. It was something I felt like we really needed to capture. Now, Mindy is singing more and more, which I think is a wonderful thing.”
Although Mindy and Sui have made an album that speaks directly to their own personal experiences with death, grief, motherhood and diaspora, the reception they’ve gotten from their first few live performances strongly suggest to the pair that Origin of You is something bigger than them. In bringing one another comfort and hope at times of great despair, they put the album out into the world with hopes it will extend that embrace to others that need it the most.
“Every single time we play this music, it’s a way to help us process these things,” says Mindy. “I want this music to remind people that we all have shared feelings as human beings. My goal in music is to make people realise that we’re inherently the same — no matter your cultural background, how you grieve, how you feel about love, how you feel about your family. If we knew how similar we all were, I feel like the world would be a better place. I want this music to be a sonic hug for people.”
“When people hear this album, I’d really like for them to stop in the present moment and be able to listen to themselves,” Sui adds. “What do you need right now? This is not a forceful record. It’s very gentle. There’s a lot of space in the music to be with yourself, and feel whatever feelings might come up. I hope it makes people compassionate — for themselves, for each other.
“When I first listened back to the masters, there was a track that I sung when I was pregnant with my first son who later passed away. It felt incredibly raw, and it was really hard, but I feel safe telling people who are engaging with this music about that. Grieving and loss are so alienating, and can set you on a dangerous path. If you’re part of a community, though, and you have that sense of belonging, it can set you on a restorative path to healing.”
Mindy nods deeply in understanding. “Sui’s mother and son, and my father… they are not with us anymore,” she says. “There’s something comforting, though, about knowing they would love this music if they were around to hear it.” Sui, responding in kind one last time, nods deeply.
Mindy Meng Wang 王萌 and Sui Zhen’s album Origin of You is available via Music In Exile. The album can be streamed and purchased on vinyl via Bandcamp.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster from Wollongong that’s currently being impersonated on Instagram by a scammer. He assures you this is actually him: @djywrites.
Image: WILK, @w_i_l_k