"If you did a deep YouTube search of me, you would see what my current output is responding to," says Melbourne-based musician, producer and multimedia artist Becky Sui Zhen, speaking over brunch at a Fitzroy café. She's referring to the recent development of her alter-ego, 'Susan' – the blonde-haired, blue-eyed and stoic yet mysterious figure central to the aesthetic of her debut album Secretly Susan. What started as a light-hearted response to the bastardised attempts of many to pronounce Sui Zhen soon became something much bigger: Susan is both a drag-like simulacrum of pop culture archetypes and a response to the ways we construct our identities online.
"My notes for the album visuals sort of naturally evolved to become this alter-ego. It wasn't enough for me to just present as my everyday self," says Sui Zhen, who lists Cindy Sherman and Gary Wilson as formative influences in the creation of Susan. "I wanted to use Susan as a vehicle to discuss the representation of self and the ways we perform in our everyday existence, like on social media."
Travel deep into Sui Zhen's YouTube trajectory, however, and it's a different story – the Lynchian detachment of Susan is nowhere to be found. Instead, an equally talented but overwhelmingly more earnest and raw version of Sui Zhen can be seen strumming an acoustic guitar to the sounds of her characteristically immaculate vocals. It comes from an era she refers to as her "twee folky days" – a period she looks back on fondly for the most part, with the exception of one video she ended up petitioning to have removed from YouTube in the lead-up to the release of her album this year.
"I'd never done that before, but this was a video of me singing "Jane Says" by Jane's Addiction in horrible prescription sunglasses and this terrible jumpsuit," says Sui Zhen, laughing. "I was gearing up to release new music and this old video had way too many views, I was just a bit uncomfortable with it." The video ended up being taken down and Sui Zhen regained an element of control over her digital identity – a move not unattached, whether consciously or not, from the very commentary she created Susan to engage with.
These days, Sui Zhen has ditched the folk elements in favour of a more conceptual, experimental realm of pop. Secretly Susan delivers an exquisite arrangement of ten tracks incorporating the ethereal tonalities of futuristic Japanese synth-pop from the 80s (Sui Zhen cites producer Yasuaki Shimizu and his Mariah project as a major influence) and the poolside ease of a young Sade. But that's not to imply that the album is the product of pastiche: Sui Zhen has forged an identity, a sound and an aesthetic that are distinctly her own.
The album follows the release of two EPs, Female Basic and Body Reset, on Japanese labels in 2014. Though at this stage she wasn't outwardly experimenting with Susan, the idea of an alter-ego was already brewing and soon began to come through in her videos, which Sui Zhen (who has a background in film and multimedia) directs, produces and edits herself. By the time the video for the first single from Secretly Susan, "Infinity Street", was released at the end of 2014, Susan hadn't quite appeared – but an undeniable aesthetic (achieved with the assistance of hyperrealistic Melbourne photographer Phebe Schmidt) had started to reveal itself. It wasn't until the release of the video for the wistful single "Take It All Back" in August this year that Sui Zhen wholly committed to the role of Susan.
Susan isn't the first instance of Sui Zhen embracing a chameleonic side. In the late 2000s she worked regularly as a session singer for TV commercials. "I had to sing like whoever was 'hot right now', and would get asked to sing like Feist or Lily Allen or Lisa Mitchell. I'd get given really funny key words too, like they'd say 'we need this to be more 90s, more optimistic' or 'let's give it a soft, hip-hoppy female vibe' and I just had to go with it."
"This was a video of me singing "Jane Says" by Jane's Addiction in horrible prescription sunglasses and this terrible jumpsuit."
Switching in and out of different musical modes is something Sui Zhen does well. Her self-awareness and sense of clarity is arresting at times – she has a distinct ability to connect the dots in her life and analyse situations objectively. It's something she says she's learned from her job at Art Processors (the company responsible for developing the app used by visitors at Tasmania's MONA), where she uses technology to "design experiences" at museums, galleries and other institutions in the cultural sector. The links in her professional life to her musical output – where she also controls the overall, audio-visual 'experience' of Sui Zhen – are glaring.
"I've started to have more control in what I take from work into my music, and treating my music like work. But not 'work' in the way that musos bemoan their day jobs – work isn't like that for me. Work is a thing I do every day. 'Work' is just working at anything that I do," says the 30-year-old, who was a multimedia producer at Museum Victoria before moving to her current role at Art Processors.
"I also think taking the principles of my work into my musical practice has improved my music hugely. Like, I ask myself – how would you do this if you were doing it at work? Well, you'd plan, you'd have a research and development phase, you'd conceptualise something and by the end you'd have something that's really realised." A project manager at heart, it's clear that none of Sui Zhen's success so far is due to luck – it's something she's worked incredibly hard for.
Originally from Sydney, Sui Zhen moved to Melbourne five years ago and never really looked back. Since making the move she has played as Sui Zhen (solo and with her band Sui et Sui), with local band Hot Palms, with Melbourne producer Andras Fox as Fox + Sui, and more recently with local 'heat-beat' collective NO ZU. "You can be any type of artist you want in Melbourne," says Sui Zhen – and she would know.
So what of Susan? Is Sui Zhen worried she's locked herself into her alter-ego forever?
"There's another persona I want to explore, her name's Linda. I'll just start making new music and see what it sounds like. I don't always have to be Susan, do I?"
Sui Zhen will launch Secretly Susan at Shebeen, Melbourne on Saturday November 21.
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