Helen Feng, the Queen of Beijing Rock, the “Blondie of China,” has been making waves in the Chinese music scene for almost two decades. Here she is, above, with her Beijing-based electro-pop trio Nova Heart, with the multilayered song My Song 9. Try to watch that video without looking away — I haven’t been able to.
Music is in Feng’s roots. Her parents met at a work camp in Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, where they fell in love after singing revolutionary songs in their free time. “Mao Zedong is that sun and stuff like that, believe it or not, was like mating call in the late 60s,” Feng said in a recent interview with China Underground. “As soon as my mom found out she was pregnant, she turned to my dad and said, ‘I bet our child will be really musical.’”
Feng grew up in North America but moved to China in the early 2000s, first Shanghai and then Beijing soon after. Innovative and avant-garde, Feng has founded and fronted numerous bands — Ziyo in 2004 (renamed Free the Birds in 2010 after it changed musical directions), which is one of China’s longest-running indie bands; the pioneering electro-group Pet Conspiracy in 2007; and, in 2011, Nova Heart — in addition to creating her own record company, FakeMusic Media.
Nova Heart very quickly gained prominence, and has toured the world, playing at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap Festival and the UK’s Glastonbury Festival (the first Chinese band to do so).
Nova Heart’s sound, as described on its website, is “a mix of sexy psychedelic disco with lo-fi ethereal pop vocals. A sinister disco beat buried under haunting soundscapes evoke images of naked ghosts dancing under a slightly run down mirrorball in an old, soon to be demolished Beijing hutong.” What strikes me the most is the sweetness of Feng’s voice, how disarming it is and how genuine — and how intense.
“My parents were competitive athletes before the Cultural Revolution changed everything, so even in the arts, they set me up with an athlete’s mentality,” Feng told China Underground. “The idea was always, don’t settle for okay…be better…and whatever you start, finish it. Even failing is better than the incompletion, cause you can’t learn anything from unfinished work, and you won’t learn anything from success or failure if you don’t give it yourself all from the get-go. That stuck with me…I’m a slow learner, and I’m slow at finishing. But I always do because their voices are in the back of my head just nagging away telling me to ‘try harder, and finish my sh*t.’
“But yeah, be better. That’s all [I] can think, that’s all I know. Nothing is more powerful than being better.”