The Free Bird: Helen Feng on Music, Leaving Pet Conspiracy and Chaneling a Voodoo priestess

ah! Helen Feng… A favorite ‘daze crush and one of Beijing’s premier musical personalities winning multiple awards and accolades from the likes of Time Out and MIDI. I’ve been closely following her over the past year ( I swear it’s not stalking) and enjoying every opportunity to see her perform. Plenty of rumors have been going around the city since her disappearance from stage a few months ago following a foot injury at Strawberry Music Festival. I’ve heard from plenty of close associates that she was through with Pet Conspiracy for a while now but I have too much respect for her as an artist to fuel rumors!

Last Friday, following the Free the Birds performance at Zippo Hot List, I had the chance and the pleasure to have an extended conversation with Helen about music, life, leaving Pet Conspiracy, losing an original Free the Birds member etc… She confirmed the split with Pet Conspiracy and gave her OK to make it public after months of sitting on the info. She also took the time to sit down and answer a few questions about it all for my and your pleasure. Here is Helen Feng in her own words for not 10 but 11 questions!

1- What’s going on in your world? This is your chance to plug your stuff:

Working on a Free the Birds album coming hopefully early next year. It’s ambitious and we want it to be more mature than our work in the past and explore some new sonic territories.

I also have a company called Fake Music Media. The idea is that we do what management, promotions, and record labels do for their artists, a long term development strategy in one market (mainly China for now) and we do it as a service where the artists signs us, not the other way around. It’s kind of a new concept. We’re also hoping to do more projects to educate music professional on what the international standards and techniques are. A lot of things in China are fucked, especially for the artists, and I think for the first time, the underground music scene finally figuring out how to get organized, how to take control of their own destinies. It’s a really good sign and we want to do something to help.

2- “Free the Birds (formely ZIYO) ” is how you guys appear on flyers where ever you’re playing these days. You’ve gone on the record saying that the name change was a chance for the band to reinvent itself… is it working? or are you still feeling the shadow of ZIYO hovering over you?

Absolutely, it has to be a gradual process because we still have old songs. We have a name now which is hard to translate to Chinese. We have to stay play quite a bit because this is what we live off of, so even through disappearing for months writing an album in villa in the countryside is an interesting idea, it’s more of pipe dream.

But we just do it, little by little, and we stick to it, and maybe people will eventually start to recognize us again but as something new. Changes are difficult but necessary. I guess we just out grew it.

3- Why “Free the Birds”? I was there at 2 Kolegas for the christmas chindig last year when you were asking the audience about possible names! I don’t recall this one coming up.

Yeah I asked a lot of people. . . the ideas were funny but not that great. I guess I got inspired by the old man with the pigeons outside my window. I just liked watching him fly his pigeons 3 times a day everyday winter summer spring. There was something about that act that was like an act of love, repetative, committed, and genuine. And it was beautiful to watch.

4- You’re no longer in Pet Conspiracy and Mao Mao, one of the original members of Free the Birds, just played his last show with the band. how are all these changes affecting you?

Sometimes we don’t change until we are forced to change, but these changes only make you stronger if you chose not to let self-pity and negativity drag you down. And sometimes they give you new opportunities. I think for me, I have to believe in what I’m doing. If I don’t believe in it, if there’s something about it that makes me feel like I’m lying to myself, or I’m betraying my own nature, then I have to leave. I think many of the people around me are the same.

I think you have to go with your gut. You just know sometimes, that somethings not right but you keep doing it. Eventually it hurts your body or your soul. Either way, it’s better just to follow the compass you have inside you.

5- You’ve spent quite some time in Louisiana.. do you think that influenced your musical tastes in any way, shape or form? Can we expect maybe a Free the Birds version of “Jambalaya on the Bayou” ?

I used to go to New Orleans with my parents on the weekend when I was nine. I couldn’t get into the bars, and I used to hang out on the street just outside so I could here the bands inside but there was always so much music there. Its ground was singing with living breathing music like a stream that ran under the entire city. I miss Louisiana. There were a lot of racism and ignorance, but there was also a lot of warmth and just differentness. There was voodoo, and craw fish broils, and the most amazing scenery in the world. And the Jazz there was just different. I can’t stand most forms of jazz the way it’s played everywhere else in the world now, all technique and form. It’s so taken out of context and soulless. I think if you haven’t lived in the American South, you just don’t know what Jazz is. You’ll never know why the muffled trumpet drags and bends that note if you’ve never cast a fishing hook into a bayou and dragged out a length of spanish moss.

Being in Louisiana is something that helped me realize later in life that music is context. It’s a way for individuals to express what languages and visuals cannot. It’s a level of emotion and expression that’s much bigger deeper and harder to define than anything else out there and that’s why people are so devoted to it, like a religeon. When I get on stage, I sometimes feel like I’m chaneling a Voodoo priestess.

6- You mentioned that we should expect a Free the Birds record at some point next year. How is that coming along? Are you releasing it with a major label again or going the independent route like The Subs and so many other bands have done recently?

I don’t know yet. I spent the last ten years obsessing about the career side of my music, but for this album, it’s more about just getting what’s been eating away inside me down in recorded form. What happens to it after that, I frankly don’t know yet. I get to that when it’s done I guess. I know it’s not the smartest thing in the world, especially considering I’ve always been really keen on self-management stuff, but I have a feeling that the music inside me right now has it’s own path it needs to take, and I’m just a facilitator for it’s birth.

7- I’ve seen your name come up a few times and next to it the label “electro pop” is that a fair assessment of your musical direction/taste?

For Pet Conspiracy yes, but from the electro-side, I’ve always personally more into bands like LCD Soundsystem, or the Faint. I’m into Disco right now, but it’s kind of the taste of late kind of thing. Not a big techno or minimal techno or whatever fan, so for me Disco is kind of this very melodically based fun genre that’s just fun to dance to. Especially the new Super Soul Recordings label which has just some killer tracks that I’m completely devoted to. And just people like Moderat which create amazing tracks that are really cinematic and creates images in your head. I long term loves include Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Debussy, Gershwin, pre-late 90’s U2, Le Tigre, LCD Soundsystem, Fleet Foxes.

8- Word association: write the first word that comes to your mind.

* Beijing: Square

*Shanghai: Money

* Baijiu: Headache

* Yeah Yeah Yeah: Karen 0

* Punk: Mohawk

* Bourbon Street: Ironwork

* Polka dots: Housewife

9- What is the biggest misconception about Helen Feng?

That I’m cool. I am definitely not cool. Cool people terrify me.

10- You’ve been around for a few years around the music scene in Beijing/China. How has it changed since you arrived and what artists do you think deserve more recognition than they get?

It’s hopeful. I think Retros deserve some recognition for toughing it out and getting crazy with the sound colors. Zi Yue for amazing songwriting, Queen Sea for daring to change after all that success, the Subs for just being spectacular, Gouzi for being a live venue guru, MAO for being the first to set the standard for production, Cui Jian for being the godfather, and MIDI for starting it all.

11 – On the “gourmandise” side of things, what are some of your favorite Chinese restaurants in Beijing?

Pho Pho. . . yeah I’m Chinese but I love Vietnamese food. It’s also run by a friend who’s quite possibly one of the coolest chefs in Beijing.

There you go folks! Straight from the horse’s mouth!
Big props to Helen for being open about it all and allowing the story to come out officially on BeijingDaze. I’ve come out of the past few days even for fascinated by her and taken by her personality! She’s so bloody articulate and well spoken, on top of being talented and charming… with just an edge of danger!
One thing that was not covered in the interview is that Helen will be in Europe with Pet Conspiracy for their upcoming tour as her last commitment with the band… lucky Europeans get to see the last hurrah

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4 Responses

  1. isnt there a number 9 missing?

  2. Beijing Daze says:

    yup, indeed! 8 was in there twice!! thanks for the catch Max.

  3. Latifa says:

    Racism and ignorance? Pot calling kettle black.

  4. Jean-Marie Schloemer says:

    Great interview! Helen definitely is one of the highlights of the Beijing music scene, and while it’s said to see her leave Pet Conspiracy, I’m looking forward to seeing how Free the Birds is gonna develop!