From exclusive interviews, live performances, special collections and more, we’re celebrating music all month long. We talked to the bands and artists playing our upcoming UO Live in Austin shows about their musical beginnings and the places they’re headed next. Click here to read more from our favorite musicians.
“I can’t imagine who I’d be without my creative outlets,” says Sui Zhen. The Melbourne-based musician, producer, and visual artist also known as Beck Freeman has plenty of outlets to get her by. By 30, she’d exhibited installation work, directed music videos, and established herself as a creative producer for museums and institutions throughout her native Australia. Yet it’s her 2015 solo album, Secretly Susan, that best sums up Freeman’s multitude of talents. On Susan, she explores the complex notion of identity in the digital age through dreamy, Sade-inspired electro pop and ‘80s-inspired funk. The songs are wistful, catchy, and beguiling, thanks in part to their mode of delivery—the whole record is sung by and for Sui Zhen’s doll-like alter ego named (you guessed it) Susan.
Through this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, dystopian Tumblr-chic version of herself, Freeman uses music to examine social media and the personas we curate online. It’s a heady, at times too-real undertaking, beautifully cloaked in some of the most charming pop music currently making the rounds.
Prior to her appearance at our UO Live in Austin Showcase, we spoke to Sui Zhen about alter egos, ‘90s movie soundtracks, and her love-hate relationship with the internet.
Words by Aly Comingore
What artists inspired you when you first started making music?
It was in the mid- to late-‘90s and I really loved a lot of Australian music, like Regurgitator, Jedediah, Spiderbait, TISM. On the global front, I loved Bjork, Vincent Gallo, Tower of Power, Smashing Pumpkins, Michael Jackson, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, the Forest Gump soundtrack, Alanis Morrisette, Ace of Base, A Perfect Circle… I could go on and on. I just loved music. I camped out all night for concert tickets. My first proper musical inspirations came from IMAX documentary soundtracks, specifically one called Temba - African Tapestries by Hennie Bekker. I was hooked. I loved the rhythms and the uplifting moods. The next documentary I saw was The Living Sea and it had a soundtrack composed by Sting. I loved the shit out of those recordings and didn’t ever imagine I could make mood-based music like that. There was a CD listening station at those Australian Geographic stores that had all this New Age relaxation music`. I loved it so much. I think listening to that kind of music really made me want to make music. I also remember staying up one night to watch the Jim Jarmusch film Night on Earth. That changed my perspective on what kind of art I wanted to make.
When did you first come up with the idea for Susan?
The idea of Susan was emerging early in the music production [for the last album]. During mixing sessions, I would take down notes and jot down things that came to mind. I have lots of time to daydream and visualize things with my eyes closed during the mixing phase. I loved the idea of observing my vocals as if sung by another character—what the lyrics could mean, and the different ways in which they could be interpreted. When I was looking back at those notes I came across a list of women’s names. The one I kept repeating was Susan. It was also a play on ‘Sui Zhen,’ my Chinese name, which would often get mispronounced as “Suzen.” I wrote the “Infinity Street” treatment as a short story about a girl named Susan trapped in a post-apocalyptic world where everything was a simulation of the real thing it once was, including her. From there the story grew, along with my vision for Susan.
How do you relate to social media as a user? What do you like about it? What do you hate? If you weren't an artist, would you get rid of it altogether?
I often bemoan my use of Facebook. Those aimless nights I lose an hour because the task I needed to do relied on someone’s message on Facebook. Then before long I’ve gotten sidetracked and forgotten what I came there for in the first place. The dark side of social media is its ability to disorientate you and make you care for things that don’t really matter in your life. It can also increase a sense of competition or comparison between individuals, placing undue importance on status symbols and lifestyle choices. On social media you don’t see all the other stuff—the difficult decisions, the different familial circumstances or emotional experiences that have lead someone down that different path from you, and it makes you question your own relevance and experiences. I think it can be an unnecessary window into other people’s worlds that you don’t really need to peer into. I also don’t think it does a very good job of reflecting the natural ebb and flow of friendships; it heightens everyone in your life and places them front and center.
But then on the flipside, I have moments where I absolutely love Instagram and Twitter. I love the poetics of Twitter, when one person’s stream of consciousness flows with another person’s in harmony. If Instagram was around when I was a teenager I could have documented stories in my imagination, but I didn’t have the tools to capture those fleeting moments at the time. … I share a bit of my personal life publicly and I feel fairly comfortable with it. I’ve started to post movies more than photos, just because photos feel more personal, but also less truthful. You can create any story around a photo, but often with video, you can’t really hide. It is what it is, mundane or silly. I’ve been enjoying documenting these little mementos that will float on into the ether and potentially outlive my physical self. My friends seem to stay up to date in my life that way, and while it doesn’t substitute hanging out in person, it is a great way to stay in touch when I am traveling a lot.
What about social media most fascinates you as an artist?
I am most interested in how people construct multiple identities online. Watching it evolve over the last decade is astounding—how the technology tries harder and harder to be your friend, to learn about you, learn what you want out of it, and then learn how to give you that or learn how to make you want something else. It’s challenging to manage several profiles: At what frequency do you engage with one over another? Do you use it strictly for business? Or personal? Or a mixture of both? The inspiration for Susan’s appearance came from certain profiles that were clearly manipulating their audience through strategic imagery and curated moments. Everyone does it to an extent, but some go to great lengths to make their digital persona seem larger than life, more perfect than is possible, and consequently empty of all the things that make you truly human.
I read an interview in which you said Susan is done, at least for the next album. Can you tell me any more about the project you're working on now?
I shouldn’t say too much since it still is very much in the works. But I have a new persona in the making. Her name is Linda and I am just finding her voice. She, like Susan, isn’t quite human and is a response to technological advances in artificial intelligence. Fingers crossed, you’ll meet her later in 2017.
Do you want to continue making concept albums?
I intended to write a concept album, but something significant happened in my family last year that shifted me onto another path. Instead of writing conceptually while I was on an artist residency in Japan, I used the time to process some complex emotions about life and death. I wrote lot of songs for personal expression and some of those will be on the album. There will be some conceptual motifs, and there is one song from the voice of Linda. Presently, it traverses lovers’ rock, R&B, upbeat electronic dance, and straight-up smooth Bossa Nova and Sade-inspired harmonies.
After spending over a year with her, are you sad to let Susan go?
I am not sad to let her go, because, nothing really ever ends, it just moves on.
See Sui Zhen this month at UO Space 24 Twenty for UO Live in Austin.for more schedules and information.