With ‘Pillar’, Rainbow Chan Offers Dreamy (And Club-Ready) Diasporic Pop

Rainbow Chan's second album layers her many loves -- club music, traditional Weitou-language folk songs, synth-pop -- and lets something new form in the friction.

Rainbow Chan

Rainbow Chan’s second album, Pillar, covers a lot of ground. Oceans too, since Chan’s made a point of travelling from Sydney back to Hong Kong roughly every year or so.

You can hear it on Pillar, an experimental pop album that layers her many loves — club music, traditional Weitou-language folk songs, electro-pop — and lets something new form in the friction.

“I feel like this album is the connecting the dots,” she tells me. We’re sitting next to each other in a café in Sydney’s Chippendale, a suburb which in the past decade has transformed from a near-abandoned industrial enclave off Central Station to a space where luxury high rise apartments sit atop a boutique shopping mall.

Behind the café there’s an artificially implanted ‘street hawker’ styled ‘Spice Alley’, which serves authentic any-Asian food. It’s with these layers — of accessing the ‘real’ through the ‘fake’, if such distinctions can really be made — that Chan, whose family left Hong Kong when she was six, wrote Pillar.

Back in Australian music journal Swampland‘s second issue in 2017, Chan chatted with fellow Chinese-Australian electro-pop musician Marcus Whale about decolonising their own perceptions of music. That meant, in part, feeling unafraid to explore big ideas and contrast sounds, the two having just collaborated on Whale’s ‘1888’, a song about the persecution of Chinese immigrants during Australia’s Gold Rush.

Chan had also released her debut album, Spacings, which we recently named one of Australia’s most underrated albums. A break-up album through and through, we said it was “filled with empty air and longing to overcome it”. Three years later, Pillar, as its name implies, comes from a much more grounded place, even if its cross-genre, cross-continent influences aren’t as compact. But why should it be?

“Even though I think sonically it goes everywhere — like, really fast BPMs to almost a capella tracks…that’s indicative of my personality,” she says. “I’m not a very static kind of person, I can go from zero to a hundred. [Pillar] captures that.”

Getting Grounded

When I ask Chan what changed between Spacings and Pillar, she laughs and adopts her best Valley Girl voice to say, “well, some people call it Saturn Returns”. Astrology is annoying — but more often, it’s annoyingly relevant.

Chan has been a fixture of Sydney’s electronic music scene since 2012, when she won FBi Radio’s Northern Lights competition, sending her to Iceland. Long Vacation, her debut album a year later, set Chan’s sonic palette — dreamy, terse-then-warm synth-pop that flirts equally with elements of contemporary classical and traditional Chinese soundscapes. The title of opening song ‘In A Foreign Tongue’ alone stands as almost a thesis statement for much of her music — the inevitable disconnections between people, whether romantic and colonial.

On Spacings, that disconnection reached new depths, even on a club-ready song like lead single ‘Work’. It’s not exactly surprising to learn from Chan that she wrote it from a space of “quite bad anxiety”.

“It was a survival tool,” she says. “It was like, ‘I am really so sad that I just don’t know what to do with all this pain, and I have to write about it’. It’s nice that this album has a broader perspective… Who knows? Maybe in the future I might write another terrible heartbreak thing. Hopefully not.”

“I’ve always been a romantic person [but] I feel like there are much broader issues at the moment.”

The switch happened after 2017 EP, Fabrica, a continued moving on that was fuelled by retroactive realisations and frustrations. On ‘The Creator’, she sings with quiet fury, listing off the ways she was undermined — a conversation many of us have had in our heads, as it’s often futile to confront exes. But when the chorus arrives (“You did not make me who I am/Who do you think you are, the creator?”), it becomes an anthem.

“Coming out of a relationship, getting through that, and the effort it takes to rebuild yourself,” she says, “I felt if I spent more time in thinking about that relationship, it wouldn’t do myself justice in the moving on process… I’m a bit more in-tune to my needs that are beyond romance.”

“I’ve always been a romantic person [but] I feel like there are much broader issues at the moment. Maybe because I do feel so supported and so loved by my family, friends, and my partner that it’s not something I’m constantly chasing after anymore. I’m very grounded in that sense. I can focus on lots of other things.”

‘I’ve Been Waiting For A Long Time’

Chan has many pots on the boil — she’s not just ‘Rainbow Chan’, which, yes, is her legal name.

She’s also Chunyin, a super-speed club music alter ego, and DIN, a collaboration with Alex Ward of Moon Holiday. Then there’s her exhibitions as a visual artist, which she somehow manages to juggle alongside a masters of fine arts, in which she’s examining the culture of fake knockoffs — something she shrugs off in conversation as ‘performance art/music based’.

It’s clear, listening to Pillar, that she’s no longer oscillating between influences and projects, but merging them into one. The album’s as much a sonic shift as it is an emotional one, though, of course, the two are intertwined.

“I got to a stage where I felt like I had established my voice,” she says. “Also, I was less preoccupied with thinking about what other people needed to…just not caring as much about what people thought about my music.”

‘Lull’ might be the best example. It’s a reimagining of a lullaby sung in Weitou, a dialect spoken by the indigenous people of Hong Kong. Beginning with Chan’s a capella voice alongside her mother and aunty, a syllable or two soon trip and loop into a hyper-speed club song. Talking to Chan, it’s clearly Pillar‘s centrepiece.

“[I’d] endeavoured to sing in Cantonese and Mandarin for [Pillar], and also Weitou, which I’ve been trying to learn recently, and reconnect with my heritage in that sense,” she says. “The album was created across cultures, quite literally, and across time spans in the sense that there was a lot of inter-generational collaborations as well because of the folk music.”

Chan’s own mother didn’t know these songs well enough to teach her them; under British rule, there was a push to modernise and unite under Cantonese, meaning much of Weitou was lost. During her visits, Chan sought out community elders, women in their 80s and 90s, to learn more about their traditions, and lives.

“[To connect] through music,” she says, “and have [these layers of time] physically and tangibly in front of you, and see these existing parallel stories of women from 100 years ago, things that I can resonate with and see happen to me,” she pauses. “It’s quite chilling.”

“[To connect] through music and have [these layers of time] physically and tangibly in front of you, and see these existing parallel stories of women from 100 years ago, things that I can resonate with and see happen to me… It’s quite chilling.”

Elsewhere, songs like ‘Melt’ combine two disparate feelings — assimilation and romantic submission — into one ethereal ballad. It’s only in chatting now that Chan notes the irony of the title given how formless Pillar can sound.

“On the liner notes [of Fabrica], I described myself as a cloth, a very tired cloth,” she says. “At that point, all I wanted to do was just lie on the floor and cry in my house. There was something really beautiful about that. I really needed that space. I really needed to go through the emotions, and the anger, and the pain to learn from things like that and to become stronger.”

“The message and the mindset during the time I was writing that is, ‘Yes. I am strong. I am going to get through this,’ whereas Pillar, that as a word connotes something that’s very stoic, very singular, almost foundational, egotistical; something like that. But, really, the sentiment is actually very soft. It’s like tenderness is the key… You need to downfall of that pillar to really [become] a pillar. You need to fall to enable yourself to actually rebuild.”

Rainbow Chan’s second album, Pillar, is out now. She will play across the East Coast this August.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.