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French Concession: A Synthesis of Sentiment

French Concession: A Synthesis of Sentiment

French Concession is the solo art-pop endeavour of the Kiwi electronic songwriter, artist and producer Ella Chau Yin Chi, who in recent years has called both Hong Kong and Sydney home. Following numerous EPs she’s just released an album entitled ‘The Garden of Synthetic Sentiments’, billed as a collection of re-constructed memories from youth – bright city lights, tiny apartments, relationships and lost human connections.

In 2018 French Concession released her ‘Empress’ EP with the Wellington-based Ball Of Wax label, toured Europe and Japan, and also performed The BethsFuture Me Hates Me at that year’s APRA Silver Scroll Awards. Soft and dreamlike, in places ‘The Garden of Synthetic Sentiments’ sees her artful and typically experimental sound moving closer to radio pop music. Written, produced, mixed and with art by French Concession, it comes with a sublime immersive video for Sentimentos Part 1, also directed and animated by the wildly creative Ella Chau. NZM asked about her process.

You’ve released several EPs in recent years. Was delivering a full album a major artistic goal for you?

Actually, I have released five EPs over the past 10 years! This time I thought I should try and make an album to see how it feels to produce a few more tracks under a theme. It’s definitely a more challenging process than making an EP, because you’re forcing yourself to dig up feelings about the same subject for a longer period of time. I still find EPs of 5-6 tracks powerful enough to reach the same goal, and easier for both the artist and the audience to focus on.

Do you think of your music as an art in itself, or is your art represented in the fact that you take full responsibility of all aspects of the process, including artwork.

In my opinion, art has to be perceived by others, and most of the creative process is hidden away from viewers. Only the completed music, music videos and artworks are seen by people. So I am not sure if doing everything is art itself, but there is definitely an art to it.

Why did you include the two remix tracks the album?

The two remixes on the album are from indi and Junus Orca respectively, of the track called End Of Time. These two remixes are strong in their own visions – indi’s remix forms an magical landscape with ethereal vocals and future beats – and Junus Orca’s remix is a sonic art piece featuring a deep water recording of an erupting volcano. I hope to give their work more exposure by including them on the album.

Do you collaborate well with others?

I enjoy collaborating with people on the same wavelength as me. Occasionally I remix music from my musician friends and feature on their tracks, but real collaboration is hard to come by these days. For me, collaboration happens more in video production. In a production team, we have to put aside our egos to achieve a vision. Even if the vision is mine, on the shoot, everyone has an influence on how its done, so it is a very collaborative process.

TGoSS is generally less experimental sounding than your previous work. Does that reflect you finding your ‘French Concession sound’?

Some tracks in TGoSS are more pop oriented such as End Of Time and Far Away, but I generally don’t think the rest of the album differs so such from my previous ‘Empress’ EP. Tracks like Sentimentos, Tower Lisa and 2 x 4 are still on the “experimental” side for me. I think this album does summarise the French Concession sound, but I am ready to depart from this dream pop style a little in my future releases.

How does your creative process generally work?

I start tracks quite randomly these days, it can be vocals first, synth melody, an instrument sound or a beat. I will keep adding ideas and layers to it until, if I’m lucky, a song takes shape.

Once the form is there, I depend wholly on my intuition for the development. The process is always this loop – make changes to track > take a break for some time > come back and listen > add or change something. The first listening after a break is the most important and holy moment in the creative process. It tells me all I need to know, what to do or change in the coming hours before the creative juices are over and I need to take a long break again.

Depending on the track vocals can be the first or the last thing I do. For tracks with no vocals such as Sentimentos I started it as a “classical” piano composition and later assigned the different parts with synth instruments and played with the automations. The piano score of this piece is available on Bandcamp for purchase as a track or as part of the album.

How long does a ‘quick’ song take to complete?

On rare occasions, when inspiration strikes, I can hack out the form of a song in an afternoon and fine tune it within a week. Unfortunately, most songs are tedious to produce. For remixes it’s much faster. Most of the time I would finish a remix within a few days.

What gear do you use to create your sound? 

My sources of sounds are my Roland FA06, samples from my DAW, Animoog on iPad, my MicroKorg and some other random software and synths. The violin bowing sound on Waves is real. I played and recorded it myself in my Waikuku home. The piano in ‘Sentimentos (piano version)’ is real. I invited a Hong Kong musician Marstn to perform on that track. In the future, I will release tunes that feature more real instruments.

Do you ‘see’ visuals at the same time as you construct/perform your music, or is video conception a quite separate part of your creative process ?

Yes and no. With some songs, the visuals are there in the beginning, and even drive the development of the song. But for others, I may not see a clear picture, and if it deserves a video I just need to treat it as a separate part of the process. I have always seen French Concession as a music and visual project, with music as the core.

What does the video for Sentimentos seek to convey or illustrate?

The video of Sentimentos hints at the concept of the album – revisiting past memories which may be re-constructed by our own mind. This idea arrived when I was revisiting my own memories for this album, and wondered how much of them were my own imagination. I have also been reading a future history novel called the Mars Trilogy, and the author Kim Stanley Robinson sums it up well ‘…no one would ever untangle that knot, no matter what they had seen or thought they remembered seeing. No one could be sure of anything that far in the past, not even of their own memories, which shifted subtly at every rehearsal. The only memories one could trust were those unbidden eruptions from the depths, the memories, which were so vivid they had to be true…’.

Is it the same message as the song itself?

Yes, Sentimentos = synthetic sentiments.

Since the ‘The Garden of Synthetic Sentiments’ is about revisiting the past, what are some of these memories that were featured on the album? 

A lot of these memories were from my teenage years living in British Hong Kong. Despite the album title ‘Synthetic Sentiments’, the songs are genuine to my own memories and feelings. For example, Tower Lisa and 2 x 4 illustrate my young self living in a super dense urban environment, dreaming about the future and the world. Knowing what has been happening in Hong Kong in the past decade, I felt that it was necessary for me to capsule some of my memories and feelings of what it was like living in the golden area of the city. The fact that we could dream about the future positively back then, is something that is not possible nor happening for the current young generation of Hong Kongers living under a totalitarian government. It is astonishing how fast things have changed in our lifetime.

How do you picture people listening to your music? With focus or as a background?

I have not thought about this, but focus would be nice. I myself always listen to music in concentration, unless it’s long form dance or ambient music.

Your artistic name used to be written French_Concession but has become more simply French Concession. Why the change?

So the story is that I started experimenting with electronic music with a friend called Sam. He is a geeky person and insisted that I use an underscore so that people can search online without finding results on the place called French Concession. (Actually it made no difference, lol.) Sam bought me my first condenser mic and we made music together for a year. I thought I’d keep the underscore to commemorate his role in my musical journey, but then I realised some digital platforms back in the days don’t allow the use of an underscore so I gradually stopped using it. Cheers to Sam.