The process of making music comes easier to some than it does for others. Many of us start out making art with trepidation, approaching a project with naivety and with our walls still up, as we gingerly try and understand this new way to communicate. Some of us slave away for years, hiding our brilliance and our shine, while we watch others rush right into the spotlight, that mediocrity and false sense of superiority all too apparent.
So it might strike some as humbling to witness the way Adelaide- and London-based musician and artist Tracy Chen approaches her work. Transparent, fluid, and remarkably intentional, the result is often fluttering, tinkering little songs that carry themselves with a kind of structure and strength that should not be underestimated.
The emphasis is on sampling, and on found objects in sound—tiny pieces of magic that are patched together with a casual but purposeful twine. But the truth is that Tracy's first proper "release" is still incoming. In the meantime, Chen has garnered worldwide attention based on a few songs alone.
Noisey: Was there a big moment where you first thought "I can be a musician" in a way that felt real or significant?
Tracy Chen: I think this is something I realised gradually and continue to realise, rather than there being just one moment that did everything for me… I find that the case with most things, it's often a continual process and its ongoing. The main thing has been learning to trust myself and the sounds I was already making and feeling rather than thinking I had to reach a certain "level" or quality before uploading tracks.
When you were younger were there any musicians or pop stars that particularly affected or influenced your music?
Probably lots of different people but I guess I was pretty influenced by folky singer-songwriter type artists I listened to when I was 15-16. I really liked Laura Marling, Feist, and I listened to Cat Power's covers record a lot. I think I responded a lot that whole guitar-calm-atmosphere kinda thing and wanted to do that. I guess I still respond to similar things.
What was the first song you wrote?
First song I put on Soundcloud was "Dirt." I remember making that and layering things I felt sounded nice, making this thingy in about 20 minutes and kind of realising, "Okay, cool. I can upload this." I was maybe just starting to feel okay about what I was doing. What I'm doing is just what it is and I feel it's valid so it's fine—thats how I feel during the process. I was with Sione [Lonelyspeck] when I made that actually, and they helped play guitar. That was nice.
Has your process/focus changed much since making "Dirt?"
I think I've become more confident [in] trusting whatever ideas I hear in my head and doing whatever I feel.
Being a musician is often a great privilege: access to lessons, instruments or cultural influence are often only afforded to a select few. Do you have any advice for anyone who may want to get into music making but might not feel like they have the resources?
I'm not sure if I can really speak for anyone on this—my family didn't particularly come from money—but I've been lucky to have a lot of support from Mum. I guess she's kinda gone out of her way to give me access to certain things? That's something I'm grateful for. That being said I did mostly teach myself instruments and software, using chord books I found in the library, internet tutorials and stuff. With piano I'd just find my own ways to memorise chords and figure out what worked together since I wasn't really learning much theory. I guess it's about exploring, and maximising what you do have and making things work for you as much as you can. There's never just one way of doing things and skill is just a small part of making music… You don't need a ridiculous amount of skill to make music that's nice to listen to, that's a personal thing I find.
What kind of themes and emotions do you find yourself gravitating to at the moment when you're creating something?
I don't think there is anything particular, it's just whatever I feel and care about at the time I guess. Like the last voice memo I uploaded, I thought of the words when I was feeling stuff about a friendship, those lyrics are all kind of about communication… My song "Eggs" is called that because I was having a nice time making the song on the floor at a friend's place where I ate eggs sometimes. Normally my vocal samples are from me singing random stuff on the spot but I felt like singing the phrase "see you again" because Jinyoung from [K-pop boyband] GOT7 covered that Wiz Khalifa song and I'm in love with Jinyoung. So that's like a combination of small fun feelings which don't necessarily relate but I don't think they have to. A lot of the time there isn't really a theme, just making whatever makes me feel a thing. I think that's still valuable.
What was it like seeing GOT7 live for the first time? What's so great about them?
I think K-pop generally is a really easy thing to get into. There's constant output with music releases, shows, fandom activities and projects, so there's always something to engage with. The way it's all produced, you're made to care and get excited about seemingly inconsequential stuff like a member sneezing or something. It's glorifying, but that's the way it's intended to be so I guess it's okay. It's fun to get excited easily and to have a space within fandom for that to be honoured instead of being judged. When it comes to social media, I don't necessarily feel like I have to separate my fan-girling of them from talking about my other creative pursuits—these things can exist together.
But yeah, seeing GOT7 live was affecting in good and bad ways. I think I felt heavy about how far I travelled to see them (in Toronto) but I still enjoyed myself, I think. It's hard to explain how they make me feel and I like to keep it as a more pure experience.
Do you have plans for collaboration with anyone in the future? Jinyoung is an acceptable answer.
There are lots of people I'd be happy to collaborate with but no one particularly. Oh actually before I leave the UK I'd love to do something with faeriey (London). I love her voice and style and just her. I'm generally pretty happy doing my own thing and if the right thing comes my way then cool. I'm pretty open. It might be nice having someone work on production with me, just to try it.
You collaborated with Imogen Heap recently, which to me seems like a very natural fit, and you've also attracted the attention of other pretty big producers.
Yeah, it was a really nice week. I really enjoyed spending long days songwriting and gradually putting things together with the other artists on the residency, not really knowing where it was going, just learning to be okay with the fluidity and short time we had. That seemed like a big part of it. It's hard to expect anything particular or consistent when you're working with 10 other people and it was good learning to accept and navigate that. Imogen worked pretty hard helping us bring it together towards the end which we all appreciated. She was really lovely and easy to work with too. I felt pretty comfortable bringing up things I didn't like about the song, creating a dialogue, joking and flopping around in the studio… She seemed to respond well to that which was really encouraging.
Follow Tracy Chen on Soundcloud.
All photos by Jonno Revanche.