CERTIFIED Certified: Sui Zhen’s Experimental Pop Collects the Fragments of Digital Identity By Martyn Pepperell · September 19, 2019

Certified is a series on Bandcamp where we spotlight artists whose work we think is worthy of additional attention.

“I’m not so much interested in technology as I am in what it is doing to us—the emotional ramifications,” explains Becky Sui Zhen Freeman, the Australian experimental pop musician and multimedia artist better known as Sui Zhen. Speaking by phone from her studio in Melbourne, surrounded by vintage drum machines and synthesizers, she ponders the questions that sit at the heart of her artistic practice. “As someone who works in the intersection of art and technology in my day job, I think about this all the time. It weighs quite heavily on me because dealing with this sort of subject matter is one of the prevalent stories of today.”

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Losing, Linda, Freeman’s third album—and the video and photographic art that surrounds it—pairs these questions with soft-focus bossa nova, dubby lounge music, and shades of Japanese city-pop and post-punk. The result is a suite of delightfully skewed and airily sung pop songs about love, loss, and disconnection, where swirling lead synths, washes of pads, and subtle percussion conjure up a sense of atmosphere as vivid and unreal as watching a holographic sunset from the balcony of a haunted luxury hotel somewhere in the Balearic Islands. It’s her most perfectly realized project yet.

Losing, Linda comes four years after Secretly Susan, an investigation of online identity construction and representation, as explored through a carefully crafted avatar named Susan. All pastel-toned Dadaist music videos and photoshoots, unhurried vocals and shuffling drum machine grooves, Secretly Susan plays out like a psychedelic soap opera, suburban mundanity dissolving into the surreal. The fully-formed debut is a result of Freeman developing and honing her skills as a recording artist, multimedia arts practitioner, and performer for over a decade.

Sui Zhen
Photo by Agnieszka Chabros

“I didn’t really have a straightforward trajectory in my music taste,” Freeman says. “I had all these different phases I had to go through, and maybe at first, it’s best to just express yourself and see what works for you within your style.” (You might have trouble finding her self-titled EP, which she released in 2007 after she graduated from the University of Technology, Sydney, but you can track several of these different phases on her Bandcamp page.)

In 2012, she released a beguiling indie-folk album Two Seas, followed by a haunting dance-pop 7-inch titled Midriffs. Then 2014 brought Female Basic EP, an exercise in reframing the languid half-sung, half-whispered vocals and chuggy dub-infected rhythms of Japanese post-punk as a Balearic bossa nova dreamscape. “In 2014 and 2015, I started to get a bit more cohesive,” she continues. “This is going to sound really simplistic, but when I started looking at it from the perspective of making the sort of records I’d want to own in my collection, everything made more sense.”

When Freeman refers to “the sort of records I’d want to own in my collection,” she’s speaking as an open-eared record collector and DJ. Throughout the conversation, she references Scottish pop duo Strawberry Switchblade, French-Belgian bossa nova group Antena, Tracey Thorn’s pre-Everything but the Girl post-punk band Marine Girls, and Holly Herndon’s experiments with artificial intelligence. The press notes for Losing, Linda mention Sade, Japanese city-pop, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Anderson. Shades of all of these artists and acts come through on Losing, Linda and Secretly Susan, but they’re rendered with a distinct voice all Freeman’s own.

A critical factor in how her sound has coalesced is the way she uses elements of bossa nova to bridge the divide between the storytelling-based folk music of her early career, and the electronic genres she began exploring later on. “In 2012 and 2013, I used to go to Japan and look in the neo-folk section of record stores, which was where I heard Antena,” she recalls. “Hearing people appropriate the bossa nova style over electronic production really got me over the line. I saw it as a really good way to continue some of the songwriting styles I had started with and use drum machines in more of a complementary way.”

Sui Zhen
Photo by Agnieszka Chabros

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

As with Secretly Susan, Losing, Linda was constructed around an avatar, but this time, Susan was replaced by a digital doppelganger named Linda, who you can interact with through the album’s accompanying website. To create Linda, Freeman combined visual references from futurist not-for-profit charity Terasem Movement, Inc.’s humanoid android BINA48, and e-learning channel lynda.com’s founder Lynda Weinman, before asking her friend, choreographer Megan Payne to inhabit Linda on the album’s cover. She knew she was going to continue, as she puts it, “a lineage of inquiry into the conception of self and the longevity of where identities exist in the digital era,” but in August 2016 while she was on an artist residency in Sapporo, Japan, the act of creation was overtaken by tragedy when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; she passed away in February 2018.

Processing loss and grief in an era where fragments of the deceased can live on through social media profiles is a different beast. It led Freeman down a path she might have never travelled otherwise. Losing, Linda is ultimately an album about missing people after they’re gone, and what being gone might even look like in the time of seemingly limitless cloud-based storage. It also became a call-to-action of sorts for Freeman.

“I work as a producer for an experiential design consultancy, but I’m realizing that I need to make music a full-time thing for myself, even if there are commercial activities within that,” she says. “There comes a time when you think, well, you only live once. I’ve been more financially comfortable as an artist because of working day jobs, but I’ve sacrificed flexibility around taking advantage of opportunities. Maybe I need to take a risk, because I just want to make all the albums I have ideas for.”

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