On being a musician and creative in Aotearoa
As your average Joe, everyday music consumers, our interaction and understanding of the music industry is fairly cloudy—largely influenced by the portrayals of musicians we see in films and media. This week, we spoke to Auckland-based neo-soul musician and creative, Crystal Chen, to hear about her experiences creating and releasing music, navigating the industry, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Tell us about how you got into music.
“I’ve always loved music. Apparently when I was a baby, I would kick in my mum’s stomach and when she would put on music with her Sony Walkman tied to her belly, I would calm down. Even as a kid, whenever I would listen to music, I would pretend I was in a music video, as both the star and the director.”
“In high school, I became a classically-trained singer and joined choirs and did shows like the Big Sing. I also experimented with different instruments. I tried the violin, the flute, the guitar, the xylophone, the trumpet, and the keys. I remember hating the violin. If I knew what I know now about the intersectionality of music genres and classical influences on modern music, I would’ve definitely kept up the skill, instead of being forced to play songs written by old white men hundreds of years ago.”
“But playing classical music wasn’t my thing. The training is super intense and it’s not creative at all. You have to play note for note and get the timings exactly right—no room for error, or creativity. I remember getting so bored in choir that I started harmonising randomly. The conductor instantly knew it was me and he told me off in front of everyone. It was a real ‘fuck this’ moment… .”
“Then I started making my own music on GarageBand and YouTube Beats and writing songs on my guitar. I knew that this was a bit of me and a way to express myself. The hard work pays off, and you can see that as you grow as an artist. It is a reflection of the people you work with, shows you play etc. This allowed me to see that this was legit.”
What are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
“Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of NZ music, digging through a lot of Tom Scott’s discography with his past bands like @Peace, Home Brew, Average Rap Band.. And a lot of Jazz-influenced sounds like The 25th of January mixtape by Lucky Lance and Christoph El Truento. I also really love MOKOMOKAI’s self-titled EP. In general, the all-time faves are Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lauryn Hill, and Aretha Franklin. In terms of production, I really love OutKast and their influences.”
“A lot of the time, my inspiration comes from films. I look at something as a whole in terms of visuals and sound. Aspects of my daily life and conversations I have with people will also inspire my songs.”
Tell us about your latest single, let’s kiss, not fight, what the process was like creating it, and your inspirations for this song.
“This song came to me instantly. It’s one of those that you write in 20 mins, in my case – it was right after a fight with my partner at the time. The rest is pretty self-explanatory if you listen to the lyrics, I kind of went on a roll. I worked with Christian Tjandrawinata on it, and he let me record without a click-track and go from 6/8 to 4/4 to really accentuate the ebbs and flows of an argument, which I thought was pretty special. I also love the bossa nova groove.”
What’s your experience being a multimedia creative, and how do you blend different art forms in your various projects?
“I recently have been thinking about the different mediums that I use in my creative projects. They can all exist on their own as a single photo or a track but it’s super special when they intersect. An example would be creating a music video for a song or films that combine all three elements of visuals, music, and writing. In terms of how do I blend? I guess that stuff comes naturally when one medium inspires the other.”
What lessons have you learned while being in the music industry?
“The music industry is actually what I want to stray away from. I want to create without the stain of thinking what has commercial success or if it will fit the radio. There will be people who want to put you in a box and I have found it fun to prove people wrong in that sense, steer their expectations away. It’s cool that way because you eliminate the people that don’t fuck with you and attract the people who do, and that’s where it’s at.”
“I think also, you have to be okay with being broke. I’m a film-photographer and musician, ‘stay broke, shoot film’ and ‘stay broke, make music’, are sacrifices I’m happy to make. When you get that paycheck though, for solid, genuine hard-work, it feels really good. For musicians, there are a lot of expenses such as studio fees, production, session musicians, mixing, mastering, then visuals and marketing, but there are always ways around it. It’s financially unsustainable and it’s sad that music is many people’s side hustle, when they wish it could be their main hustle.”
“I definitely feel this unspoken power imbalance as a female POC musician in a predominantly white cis male dominated industry. Sometimes I feel it when I walk into a room, I used to feel the need to prove myself before a session, which is shitty because no one should ever feel the need to do that. It’s also shitty that in some cases, underprivileged individuals need to work twice as hard to get the same opportunities as others and I see that a lot in the industry. I just see that as a cue to work harder rather than it being a limitation—and it’s nice because then the respect is earned rather than it being handed to you. It’s all shifting now though, and with hard earned work, it’s really cool to see more women and POC on the rise, in the film industry too.”
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into music? Anything you wish you could share with your younger self?
“My advice would be to just do it! Try it and see if you like it, if it sticks with you… if you love it and if you get lucky, congrats! Now you have a new way of expressing yourself. If I could share anything with my younger self it would probably be that ‘hey curious one, you are doing everything you have dreamt of doing. Try everything. You are able to do more than one thing, even if you fail, that’s a good thing. Know that being an Asian woman is a driving force. It’s really a blessing that has been disguised until you discover that it is an important part of your identity.’ There is definitely a lack of representation and I want to prove to myself that being an Asian woman won’t limit, but instead empower me.”
“I wish that younger me could see me in the future and know that it’s possible. You can be angry and pity yourself that you have to work twice as hard as you to get the same opportunity as someone else. Or you can prove people’s expectations wrong.”
What keeps you motivated to keep making music?
“Honestly, it has been quite hard for me this past year to keep motivated, but my throat gets itchy if I don’t sing for a while. I think what keeps me motivated is being inspired and getting out what I am itching to get out of my head. Although I don’t make music for money, there are so many things that make me feel grateful for what I do, including working with people who I’ve admired for so long and earning their respect.”
“Also the feeling of being on stage, it’s an incredible feeling. Once you’re up there, you’re in this zone, you discover another version of yourself that only comes out when you’re on stage and I’m like ‘I love this bitch!’ You just wanna have a good time and give people a good time, you’re in this flow state. That’s what I live for. Nothing else matters in that moment. I’m very grateful for my band when I’m performing, the effort as a whole is so rewarding.”
What can listeners expect to hear next?
“Hmm, I really don’t know. I might put out a 5 minute storyline song that I rap in, or a 70s soul kinda track, or a really sad one, who knows.”