‘Sui Zhen’ (pronounced ‘Sue-ee Chen’) is 27-year-old Becky Freeman’s Chinese name. She uses the name as her musical alias, but gets called ‘Sui’ by friends and fans. “It’s just a way that I could keep using that part of my name,” Becky tells us. “I wanted to make it important. Otherwise it would just be buried in my passport. I get called it by people who don’t know me very well, but also by people who know me really well. It’s affectionate.”
Although it’s been five years since Sui Zhen launched her self-titled EP in late 2007, she’s since matured her approach to making music, and at the same time garnered a dedicated following and support from indie radio stations including triple j Unearthed. With the release of her new album and a tour to support it, you’ll soon be hearing a lot more of Sui Zhen’s ‘folktronic-pop’ sounds and the enchanting songs she wrote whilst growing up in Sydney.
Originally from Castle Hill, the singer-songwriter made the move to Melbourne along with friend and fellow artist, Andras Fox, whom she met during the two weeks she spent at the prestigious Red Bull Music Academy in 2010. “We became close and we started making music together,” says Becky. And, as well as releasing her new album Two Seas this month, we can expect to hear of an EP from the pair calling themselves Fox + Sui, later in the year.
Music wasn’t the sole reason for the big move south, says Becky. As an independent, unsigned artist, Sui Zhen was looking for a day job too. Working as a creative producer for a web channel, she explains that she enjoys spending time away from creating music as it helps her to gain some perspective: “I like to do otherwork. It’s completely different to the musical part of my brain.”
Her work, which involves creating short films, also explains her music videos – she makes them all herself. They’re enchanting to watch, just as her eerie, delicate, vocals are to listen to. She treats her videos as a separate world by trying to listen to her own music objectively before creating a storyboard narrative. In the music video that she made with her friend Imogen Heath for ‘Big and Small’, the two of them spent hours creating origami dinosaurs. When asked why, she just laughs. “I was really obsessed with dinosaurs at the time.”
Charming and cute, but perhaps creating her own videos is also a practical, financial decision too. After shopping around for a music label, Becky decided to remain unsigned and to go ahead with the release of ‘Little Frog’ and Two Seas on her own. “I hire the people that I need to,” Becky confesses, “distribution and publicity, for example. But I pretty much do the rest myself.”
“I think the Red Bull Academy really calmed me down about being in a rush to get all of my music out in my twenties. It took me a while to start writing songs that I thought were mature enough to put all that money and energy into – I’m quite comfortable about that now. With the first EP [2007’s Sui Zhen], I was kind of pigeonholed in this cute, girly pop thing, and it didn’t really feel like me. That’s just what I sound and look like. [But] I’m not that twee. There’s light and dark in life and I like to represent that as well."
She credits that maturity to her short time at the RBMA. At the time, Becky had been working full-time in Sydney, session singing, singing on jingles and trying to write her album. “I met such amazing people [at the Academy], and I just felt so comfortable and confident about making music a part of my life in whatever way I could.”
Becky then travelled to Europe where she had time to finesse Two Seas at her own pace. She listened to her songs on bus trips and planes, steadily “culling”, as she put it, to form the 10-track album. “Sometimes I write songs quite intuitively and just follow the stream-of-consciousness path, and create that little narrative throughout the song, but it might not gain meaning until later. ‘Little Frog’ is a really a special song for me. When I was writing it I was living in Redfern, and it’s about living your life in a really small locality – a pinhole existence. I was imagining all the different stories happening in this one little area. It’s what I want to do with my music."
When we told her that one reviewer had described her music as “healing” she was quite flattered. “That’s really cool,” she says, laughing. “This sounds like I’m being a bit ‘adult-contemporary’ but I do like easy-listening music. I don’t want to make music that aggravates or drains your energy. Saying that, I do want to play in a punk-rock band one day. But it’ll be pretty mild punk, coming from me."
Two Seas is out now.