A Guide to Sui Zhen’s Losing, Linda

The artist walks us track by track through her new album.

“Another Life”

I wanted to capture the repetitiveness of life, an existential question — perhaps I was trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes, someone not truly living. Or someone who has stared death in the face. Then, there is a shift to into an uplifting mood — gratitude — like a glimpse of hope out of the bleakness of it all. When you do find meaning even for a fleeting moment, it’s there and it can change your perspective. I’d seen Air perform in mid-2016 when on tour with NO ZU in France. I was so amazed at how relevant and timeless their music sounded still 20 years after release. I wanted to pay homage to their cool and unassuming sound. 

“Natural Progression”

This is a somewhat robotic delivery of a mantra, “It’s a natural progression,” kind of grappling with the inevitability of mortality as well as the quest for progress away from our own human biology. “I’m growing hair, do I need it, any more… what’s a symbol so you won’t be scared?” I guess I am thinking about how quickly humans have industrialized society, and to what end? thinking from the perspective of something or someone who exists beyond the bounds of human biology — ghost or artificial intelligence. Thinking about these notions as simulacra to human life itself and the unrelenting persistence of humans to overcome their own mortality in the face of truly leaning in and understanding the impact of death. Saxophonist, composer, and collaborator Cayn Borthwick co-wrote the instrumental for this track — I love the tension and release created with the shift from 5/4 to 4/4 and am thankful he shared this track with me for the album. 

“Matsudo City Life” 

Musically, I was inspired by Annie Lennox in the Eurhythmics’ “Love Is A Strange”’ era, The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “Linger” era and Japanese City Pop of the late ‘80s. The mood and tone was probably a response to the dilapidated glamour entombed in the repurposed Love Hotel we were working within. It was called Paradise Air and on the floors below us was a 24-hours Pachinko Parlour. The walls of Paradise Air were made of very thick concrete to keep loud noise in, which worked well for us musicians. Each room was uniquely themed. We were assigned one with faded pink and red tones, a heart-shaped bathtub, and maroon carpet, while the room we designated as “the studio” was tiled with cool grey tones, marble and pillared. The city was what locals call a “sleeper town,” or bedroom community, which Salarymen would use only for rest. In some ways it was a city full of their dreams and empty of their reality. I liked this concept and played with this thought. It was intensely humid when we were there. For relief, I’d walked along the canals and spot wild koi feeling some kind of satisfaction from the quantity of koi I was able to count, the bigger the better. They are the dark shapes haunting the city in the daytime when its residents had emptied out. 

“I Could Be There”

An ode to my mother, Yih-Fye. I found it hard to reconcile being away atop mountainous Sapporo, Hokkaido indulging in music making while my Mum and family were far away grappling with her pancreatic cancer diagnosis. I had brought some small portable synths and drum machines with the intent to produce electronic music but on this occasion I had a strong urge to write with a guitar. I searched the grounds of the Tenjinyama Artist Studios. It was originally designed to host Sapporo Olympic Delegates, and much of the ‘70s semi-corporate flair but had been immaculately retained. On a particularly cozy rainy and humid day, one of the staff led me to a storeroom. From its depths they dug it out an acoustic guitar. I walked out to the hillside when the sun broke in the afternoon in the quaint parklands surrounding the studio, and stared out to the mountains in the distance. I wrote this song for my Mum, far away as I grappled with a feeling of helplessness, trying to figure out how to remain comfortably at distance. 

“Mountain Song”

In Daisetsuzan National Park, ill prepared and with a considerable fear of bears we climbed Mount Asahidake. During our ascent the mountain top had become shrouded in mist and light rain. We became disoriented and couldn’t locate the actual campsite. In the clouds of white we had climbed up and down that final 200m several times trying to avoid a vast expanse of icy snow that had we couldn’t easily cross. Backtracking, we found a pillowy patch of grass beneath a rocky shelf just below the peak around 2,100m. I had the beginnings of altitude sickness, real or imagined. It was a long-ish night. I thought about my Mum a lot, and about the kind of fear she would be experiencing. Mine seemed so tangible and yet easy to solve. I only had to climb back down the mountain in the morning to safety. Hers was on another scale. In my fear, I felt connected to her in that moment. The next day we descended; I took the final descent through the bear infested forests alone to feel that connection again. 

“Being a Woman”

When I started writing this song, I wasn’t fully aware of what I wanted to express. I had recently landed in Sapporo and had set about writing a song each day during my residency, and this sentiment started to emerge. I was very conscious of losing the birth connection between mother and daughter. I was also the same age as when my mum had given birth to me. Knowing how much I put off with regards to my body — for my music and professional life — it was all weighing on me. 

The song evolved after I returned back to Australia. Never content with the vocal, I kept putting the final session off — not quite ready to put the thought permanently out there. Even the word “woman” made me cringe a little. Should I say “womyn”? “Women”? I have always felt a bit alienated by it. I was having uncomfortable feelings; it was around the early #metoo era and I’d confronted some difficult truths about past experiences at workplaces and in bands. Upon reflection, I can now understand why it was difficult for me. My whole identity as a woman has never felt entirely relaxed. Like I was pretending sometimes, embracing at other times but generally not wanting to be so clearly categorized or defined. 

In recent times, I have settled into my own definition of Woman, leaning into the paths led by peers and role models who defy gender norms and convention. Riding my hormonal waves and learning more about them, being aware of those around me and their struggles in their own paths to understanding, identity — how invisible that can be but just how much it matters. 

Looking back now, I realize I was only fully able to acknowledge my queerness since Mum’s passing. I think there’s a lot of identity baggage that gets tied up in lineage. I’m still unpacking my thoughts around this — the sense of duty, obligation and function that comes with living in a female body which I find both heavy and powerful. I wrote this song to find the gentle and enduring strength to live life as a woman. 

“Different Places”

I suppose this could be considered the flip side to “I Could Be There.” I had reconciled being away. I listened to Kofi beats on repeat (made by Mad Professor) and tried to emulate them myself on the drum machine. I wanted to make a song dedicated to my love for Lovers Rock. Something full of hope and positivity, even if it was about something sad like being away or losing the ones you love. 

“Perfect Place” 

This is my favorite song I have written in a while. I don’t want to demystify anything about what it might mean for people now, but I think at its core, I wanted to capture the fleeting feeling of acceptance. When I asked my Mum directly about what was happening to her body, she told me that acceptance was like any mood — it came and went. Sometimes she was OK and other times it was more difficult to feel OK about what was happening. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have the awareness of your time coming to an end. I remember one morning when my sister and I were with her, she called us her two angels. I think it was pretty special to be there to care for her.

Sui Zhen is an experimental pop and performance artist. Her new album Losing, Linda is out September 27 via Cascine.