Canadian born Chinawoman has been in Berlin for the last thirteen months. In this short period of time she managed to stir things up in the Berlin music scene and create a strong following in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t always easy but her simple yet poignant lyrics, meticulously combined with melodies that are deeply rooted in her Russian heritage, did the trick.
If I’d have to describe her in limited words I would go for “charming”, “passionate” and “strong”. It was a real pleasure to talk to her a few days before she took off on tour as the support act for Patrick Wolf’s European tour.
In music terms how were things going for you after you moved to Berlin?
Chinawoman: It was pretty depressing. [laughs] When I came here I didn’t know anyone. I knew that in general there was some kind of audience, people who knew or have heard my music somewhere in Europe but that’s all. When I came nothing was arranged. I didn’t have an agency, I didn’t have a studio, I didn’t know anyone, so it took some time. I had to find a place to live, start meeting people. After a while I found an agency that started booking shows and once you announce you are here and people realize “Oh you are here. She’s now available” then suddenly there is an audience for the music. But the first few months I wasn’t sure that I did the right thing by coming here.
Who told you about Berlin?
Chinawoman: Just friends of mine who had all been here. They all said it was a great place and because Canada has an arrangement with Germany that allows you to get a visa for a year based on a youth exchange, I decided to give it a shot. You have to be at a certain age so I decided to do it sooner than later.
And right now? How are things going for you?
Chinawoman: It’s been a great year, a lot has happened. I play a lot of shows, making progress on the live side. I feel pretty comfortable.
Looking back do you find that the challenges you had to overcome by coming here benefited you in some way?
Chinawoman: I guess, for me it’s normal. I’ve always done that. A lot of people say “Oh how can you do that?”. After five years of doing one career I would move somewhere like the mountains and start again. I don’t see how else you could do it.
So what’s on the cards then? Are you planning to stay here?
Chinawoman: For now I’m going to stick to Berlin and release a third album. I also want the live show to get better.
What are your ideas for the live show?
Chinawoman: First of all it just takes experience. I think in the past year I’ve gotten better but it doesn’t happen overnight. Especially if you go from your bedroom to the stage and suddenly you have to perform.
But you have done shows in Canada?
Chinawoman: I did but not enough. I realise it doesn’t happen right away. In my mind I have an idea of what a great Chinawoman show would be like and it’s not there yet. It’s already reasonable but I would like to get it to that point.
Would you consider yourself an artist that easily connects with the audience?
Chinawoman: It’s easier in a smaller venue. In a larger venue it’s different. In a small venue you are together. In large venues you are under the lights, it’s about you. I don’t think I’ve learned to be completely comfortable to do that easily yet. When you can see people, you can connect with them. When you are alone on a stage it’s like you create the dialogue on your own and there’s no way to practice for it. You can’t rehearse for it. Rehearsal is really nothing, I feel. Rehearsal is the song and my songs are not that complicated so it’s just about doing the shows over and over. All you can do is rehearse in front of hundreds of people and all you get is that hour or hour and a half at a time.
Do you still get nervous before going onstage?
Chinawoman: I do but it’s getting less and less which is really nice. I realised this especially during this last tour. When you play every night it makes a big difference. Already after five, six shows you get into the routine of getting ready to go on stage. You know you’re gonna survive. Worst case is you’re going to survive and so you might as well try and do something interesting with it.
So how was your last tour?
Chinawoman: Well…besides the accident it was great.
Chinawoman: It happened the first day. What a way to start – in Poland no less! We had to push the first two shows and it ended up costing me. They took our van away and we were left with all our equipment at this Polish gas station in a small town. Then we were taken to a police station that was something out of a David Lynch movie. There was a woman asking the questions and a guy with this really old typewriter. She would ask the questions and he would type it out. He called his typewriter a computer. In his mind that’s what a computer was. We were there forever but in the end it worked out. We got to Warsaw the next night and Krakow got pushed. After the tour ended, I was happy overall. There were some good audiences and I was happy to see the progression. Playing every night made us get better.
Do you find that the Eastern European audience reacts to you a bit differently than their German or Western counterparts?
Chinawoman: They have different qualities. Germans and Austrians for example are a very attentive audience. The Eastern Europeans, they will sing and they will yell. They will yell dirty things and also talk. Sing and talk. I like it. I like both. I appreciate both.
I wouldn’t say that they like it more or couldn’t appreciate it more. If they know one word they will sing it over and over. All they need to know is one word and they are involved. I like it but at the same time, some of them can be loud. Which I personally do not mind.
You’re working on your new album. What stage is it at?
Chinawoman: I have a whole bunch of pieces. Some of them are more ahead than others. It’s at various stages.
When do you think it will come out?
Chinawoman: I guess it will probably be the fall of next year. Maybe I will release a single or EP before that.
Has living here in Europe/Berlin influenced you somehow?
Chinawoman: Yeah, I’ve been listening to more techno.
Are you going to incorporate it into your music?
Chinawoman: I’ve always thought of it as a good combination – mixing something a little bit more upbeat with something more melancholic. I don’t want to get too carried away but a driving rhythm carries you through. There’ll be more of that I think.
You seem to be very relaxed about the new album how do you compare working on this album with the previous one?
Chinawoman: I find that there are more distractions now. I kind of almost miss when I had a full time job and there was no Chinawoman, when it was just about the songs. Now it all requires more discipline. Booking live shows and working on whatever, there is so much other stuff than just the song. Sometimes I think “I’m gonna get another full time job and I’m just gonna make music”. It’s harder now because you have to switch your mind to get out from all the daily duties to do music. I guess it would be different if I was with a label and to have people take care of administrative things and all I’d had to be is a crazy artist. For now I do everything. I’m a bit of a control freak as well so I want to do everything.
Does it put more pressure on your creative process?
Chinawoman: Pressure? Not pressure. It’s just it’s the joy of creation vs. the business side of music. Somehow I feel like I always have stuff to do that’s not connected to the creative process. It’s always, like, I have to send this, do this, update this. It never ends. Sometimes I kind of would like to go back to that time when it was nothing but just you and your music. That’s a great time.
Describe to me what the creative process means to you? How do you feel?
Chinawoman: It’s a mix between a very ecstatic time and work. The beginning when you don’t have any expectations and all you’re doing is discovering some sound, is the best part. That’s that ecstatic moment but it’s only maybe 40% or even 35% of the entire process. The rest of it really is just discipline. After you have your pieces, you’ve got to sit and you’ve got to make it work. I know a lot of people that I think are really talented, but they don’t have this drive to complete. You can do creative writing, write 500 million journals but then you have to have the mindset to edit it all. Not everyone is willing to do that because it’s not that ecstatic part. It requires discipline. You have to go through the song over and over again because you want someone else to experience it perfectly. You’re thinking about other people at that point. I mean, it’s for you as well but you want other people to get it and you want to make a career out of it. Sometimes I’d just listen to a finished song 100 times and I’d be so happy that I finished it.
Then all the troubles float away?
Chinawoman: No. Then I have such a headache. Always whenever I finish a song I get the worst headache because I just sat with headphones for 10 hours every day. My head is killing me then.
Is it important to you to get other people’s opinions before a song ends up on an album?
Chinawoman: During my creative process I’m kind of almost superstitious about sharing it until it’s at a certain level. I don’t know why. I almost feel like there’s something that’s lost if you share it too early, it’s like letting the air out of a tire. It needs to be at a certain level, not a perfect one but a good enough one, before I will want people’s opinion.
I guess you’re so much in the process you can’t see outside it anymore?
Chinawoman: I trust in people’s opinions. If I play to ten, twenty people I can usually get an idea. I’ve also been wrong in the past, when I thought “This is just garbage. You should put it away”, and then the song was received well, and other times a song I played to five people who didn’t really like it became one of my more popular songs.
In your songs the lyrics are just as important as the music. How difficult is it for you to sit down and write? Is it something that comes naturally to you?
Chinawoman: Usually I write very little. I mostly write once I have the melody. I might have an idea for a song and I’ll just have a few lines and a very few notes that form a theme. When I have an exact melody that I think could be a song, I’ll go through my list of ideas to see which one of my themes suits this melody. Music is not inspired by text.
Your videos are shot in a homemade manner. What is it about this way of filming that attracts you?
Chinawoman: I just love homemade videos. I grew up with it. Somehow my father got a video camera before anyone got a video camera and I was obsessed with videotaping. I just love this footage of relatives, family events and all these kinds of similar things. It was because of this I decided to become a filmmaker and I did until I realized “You know I don’t want to be a filmmaker. What I actually like is this homemade stuff”. At one point I almost thought I should make wedding videos because I prefer it so much.
I’d like to use more of that. I have so much home video footage which I have to go through. I have pretty much most of my childhood and teenager years on video. I have endless VHS, Video 8, Hi8. I love Hi8 and mini DV cassettes plus more digital footage.
Tell me about that footage for “Lovers are strangers”.
Chinawoman: It’s my grandmother’s 75th birthday in Toronto. It’s totally authentic and it wasn’t set up or anything. That was quite a few years ago and I was this kid just walking around with a video camera, filming everybody. It was part of my my collection of the home video footage that I always loved. I thought of using it after I recorded that song but it took me years to finally go to the storage, find this footage and actually develop the idea.
Did your grandma live to see this video?
Chinawoman: She is alive but she doesn’t see well. Now that you mention it, I could probably blow it up in such a way that she might be able to see it. I tried explaining it to her.
The “Show Me The Face” album has several images, including photos of her, and I actually I came to her house and I said “Look it’s you here and it’s you here” and I thought she might like it but she said “