Track By Track: Sui Zhen
Songs inspired by Malaysian monsoons, Karen Dalton and old shops in Redfern – Sydney-reared, Melbourne-born singer Sui Zhen (aka Becky Freeman) talks us through her new album ‘Two Seas’, which was recorded with Tony Dupe (Holly Throsby, Jack Ladder).
With this first album, I took a “learn the rules before you break them” approach. I wanted to practice the art of classic songwriting, so that I could perform solo or with a band or even a cappella and the songs would still work. Once I learned how to do this, I could start to experiment and get a little weird.
‘My New Friend’
It was raining lots in Sydney when I wrote this song. It reminded me of the monsoon rains in Malaysia where I have family. There was some flooding outside the drainpipe near my front door so friends would show up with soggy socks. Deep down, I’m quite sentimental - for friendships that have come and gone, family I wish I saw more of, for the old and lonely.
My sister calls this her song. When I play it on stage I hear her gasp from the audience, “It’s my song lah.” That’s her voice you can hear a little muffled down the phone line – “I need your help lah” – the “seven hundred but she only has fifty” refers to a huge architecture project she was working on. I did cycle to her house and knock on her sill too, something I wish I could still do. There is an earlier version made by my old band Little Hat (with Jamie Lloyd) which is much slower and more electronic.
‘Cupboards and Sand’
I used to live in an old shop in Redfern [Sydney] that had a loft bed above a walk-in cupboard. It had seen better days, but felt strong still so we put a bed on it and made it homely with some paint and carpets. Late one night there was a terrible crash and the loft collapsed. I slid right down off the bed into the cupboard. I wrote the song on a Cuatro, a South American guitar about the size of a baritone ukulele, inspired by Joanna Newsom’s adventurous melodic lines.
My sister was doing a film project on Juanita Nielson and Eugenia Falleni, how their lives intertwined across different decades but in the same locale. So I spent some time trekking down the far end of Kings Cross, Potts Point and into the Harbour late at night - then down to Ruschutters Bay among all the boats rubbing up against each other making a chorus of bellows and honky sounds. We would wander around King Street Wharf when the huge ocean liners were docked there. I recorded of lots of these boat conversations to make a bed for this track. Eventually I recorded horns as a kind farewell or salute to those great ships.
I wrote this song while half watching Kurt Russell in Big Trouble In Little China. He is the “man on the TV, screaming things”. I like the pace of this song. I wanted a tighter more energetic song to break up the ballads and melancholy. The rhythmic “oh oh oh oh, oh oh” was all throughout the track in the initial demos, but [producer] Tony Dupe waved his magic wand so now it comes in ever so subtly. This track is testament to Tony’s craftsmanship as an arranger, though I could say that about all these songs.
‘Happy To See You’
It’s hard looking into the eyes of someone you love and seeing that they don’t recognise you. Their eyes are just glazed and vacant. But you love them still. You have to. Whenever I sing this song I imagine a Helena Bonham Carter-type character (think Frankenstein) digging up the skeleton of a dead lover and stringing it together to accompany her at the dinner table, to sit by the fire, then finally to bed where she eventually wakes to a pile of bones and dust to do it all over again. There are all these creepy stories of widows doing strange things to keep the memories of their loved ones alive, like the Korean man who encased the body of his dead wife in papier-mâché complete with painted facial features and all. Undying love. Creeepppyyyy.
My brother introduced me to [Brisbane singer] McKisko after touring with her, and I was entranced. She’s so patient with her songs. She really invites you in, leaves a little space of emptiness for the audience. I needed a meditative song to create some space within the album. Even those little in-between moments can be dramatic, and suddenly desperate – like when you realise you’ve just watched five seasons of a TV series in one night.
The title is a reference to the Ottoman sultans. A friend had just visited Turkey and sent me a photo of a “Golden Cage” – the part of the palace where the young princes had to live in solitude, they have everything they could ever want except to be free, and so it goes. This track really lets the Suzuki QChord shine. The instrumental is primarily a live take fooling around with its sound effects channel. I experimented with a few different mics for this track - my favourite being the M-145 Crystal mic. It sounded really tinny and crackly. But it was refreshing to hear a different vocal tone after singing so carefully in all the other tracks into an uber-senstive tube mic. It made me approach the remaining vocals a little more loosely.
‘To Keep You From Falling’
This is my ‘romance’ song. It’s a departure from the melancholy into something more joyful. There is a lot of longing throughout the album; navigating through changing perspectives, long distances and fare-welling the familiar for something unknown. I suppose Two Seas reflects that moment of change and seeks to celebrate it.
This is the “parent pleaser” of the album. I took influence from lot of Karen Dalton’s ‘Something On Your Mind’ – so this is my version of a country ballad.
‘Two Seas’ is out independently today.
SUI ZHEN LAUNCHES ‘TWO SEAS’
Wed, May 30 – The Grace Darling Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Fri, Jun 1 – The Lass'O'Gowrie, Newcastle, NSW
Sun, Jun 3 – FBi Social, Sydney, NSW
Wed, Jun 6 – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, QLD
Wed, Jun 13 – Yours and Owls, Wollongong, NSW
Thurs, Jun 14 – The Front Café & Gallery, Canberra, ACT