Sui Zhen’s Losing, Linda is among this year’s most beautiful and enigmatic releases. Linda is the masked avatar through which this work explores self-identity and ghosts. Here we tug at the corners of that mask, examining the processes and intentions of the album.
Can you explain the origins of Linda?
Linda is a ghostly apparition of self — self with the absence of biology. Like if I were to feed an A.I. with all my personal data; not just incidental data but journal entries, letters, message exchanges, voice recordings, what would I get, and how accurate would it be?
By enacting Linda, through the creation of a physical copy using a silicone mask and a performer, reality is distorted, demonstrating the futility of such a pursuit. I wanted to explore the notion that, by projecting an idea of endless time, data, storage and connectivity down to the second, we demonstrate an unwillingness to accept mortality and value the finite nature of life.
Is the Linda mask custom-made? How did you find or make it?
The Linda mask is custom-made, taken from a plaster lifecast of my bust, and then moulding the negative and positive profile in silicone and painting it to appear human-like. I commissioned special effects make-up artist Edward Yates for the project.
Ultimately the mask is animated by the performer who wears it, so if they do not share the exact negative profile of my face, then the mask will be distorted over their features. Before embarking on this route, I had explored creating a digital 3D model, however that technology is in the hands of consumers already in many ways, with 3D face scanning recognition accessible via smartphones — it didn’t feel so interesting to do that for an artwork.
I spent about a year or two deliberating on whether to invest in the silicone mask, and attempted to make it myself together with my collaborator Katelyn Stefani so I could understand the material and the effect better. It became clear that for Linda to be manifested, I had to make the mask. Linda is a result of this collaborative process with performer, choreographer and mask-maker. I think in that way, it’s quite a unique character.
What is your starting point when writing a song?
In the last year or so, my starting point would be a mood. My studio is a short bike ride from my house so it’s easy to capitalise on this mood. Unless I’ve recently played a show and been lazy to set my gear back up, my equipment is pretty much ready to plug and play. I just need to find that mood and then start recording.
I have honed my process for demo-ing which means I am usually recording drum machine or instrumentation in a way that could be used for a final recording. I demo vocals with my ‘good mic’ so that I could always use the vocal if the take has the right energy.
I occasionally will still write a song completely acoustically, on a guitar or piano. But perhaps what makes me an electronic musician is that I have to get in there and start recording and producing from the demo phase, usually using synths and a drum machine — at least to get things started. I don’t know if it’s necessary to call that electronic music — maybe that is just being a ‘producer’.
Often the lyrics will need separate attention, but my approach to that is also performative. I will write a few ideas down, and then improvise around them until something feels like it connects. Same with the instrumentation. I demo a lot when I am driving on my phone as well. Less so these days, since I got busted by the cops for touching ‘voice-record’ at the red lights. D’oh.
What was the biggest risk you took in the studio while recording Losing, Linda?
That’s an interesting question. I feel like making the song ‘Being A Woman’ was the biggest risk for me. I felt so nervous before it came out. The spoken bit is straight from my stream of consciousness, but I feel like it cuts to the truth of what I was feeling.
Maybe the biggest risk is blending so many genres, and attempting longer song formats with a pop-style vocal that might test patience for the collective shortening attention span. I’m not sure. Every song is a risk. Everything you put out there as an artist, you risk judgement. But that vulnerability is also what connects with people most.
Losing, Linda examines our digital doubles. Do you feel comfortable volunteering your information to social media?
I feel uncomfortable, and yet I enjoy many benefits and convenience for sharing a certain amount of data online. I would like to not use Facebook — however, I am pretty intertwined with Instagram, and a lot of the audience I have probably finds out about my musical activity through those platforms.
I’m ready for something else but it is also where a lot of the music industry takes place these days. Perhaps if I wasn’t a musician participating in the business side of things, I would have an easier time of staying off social media in an unhealthy way.
Theoretically, I am not okay with my personal data being stored, shared or used for questionable purposes, for capital gain or so I can receive targeted marketing campaigns. And yet I am hyprocrite because I use those same tools to try to find and connect with potential listeners of my music. I think it is pretty dehumanizing to be reduced down to your quantitative data.
Your work puts you in the gaze of the public and your fans. What measures do you take to exert control over your own identity?
I invent characters or artifices that require a deeper look. If people are interested in instant gratification, or surface-level aesthetic beauty, they won’t necessarily find it upon first glance at my imagery. Outside of the album collateral I only post on social media when I feel the energy to, and when I have something to say. In that way, I control my identity because I don’t feel like I have to be anyone else online but myself.
It’s the same as any thought, idea or thing I put out publicly — I am very aware that it is public. There are things I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing, that are just for my close friends or family to know. I don’t treat social media like a diary, and I establish the same kind of boundaries I would with face to face relationships.
Given that these questions have been written in response to my idea of Sui Zhen, I must've missed something out. What do interviewers most often fail to pick up on in your work?
Actually, with this release, people are asking a lot of in-depth and astute questions. There’s not much I have withheld about the process. Ultimately I have fun doing what I do, and whilst I have felt sad and have explored darker shades with this music and imagery, I still wish to uplift people or bring a sense of ease to you. Being at peace with all the good and the bad, and finding a way to be playful within that.
When embodying a persona or character in your work, does your interaction with an audience change? How much of your alter egos do you bring to the stage with you?
It’s really difficult for me to perform the music as my alter ego, because it breaks the character to see me crouch over gear and emote so expressively. The characters are often simulacra of a person and not complete. Sometimes I project the characters with visuals, or enlist another performer, like with Linda.
I’ve performed as characters in the context of a performance installation, and in that instance my relationship with audience most definitely changed. In that context I am not being a musician, so much as this vessel of a being. It must be frustrating to try and interact with.
Are there any artists in your scene / local area you'd like to shout out?
Music seems to be exploding out of Australia at the moment. What's inspired all of this work? Or what has caused this global interest in the country?
I can’t answer that. But I am happy that you see it that way. There’s always a lot of music being made in Australia, maybe people are getting more savvy about using social media to get their work out there? Effective audience targeting? ;)
Losing, Linda is available for streaming and purchase here.
Interview conducted by Andrew O’Keefe