When Kelly Dance moved to Hong Kong in 2013, she discovered a magazine called Science Fiction World in a library at the end of her street. As an Australian native, Kelly couldn’t read the words just yet, but something about the magazine hit her hard, imbuing her with a fascination for fantasy that she used as a narrative directive for the songs on her upcoming EP, “All That’s Gained” (out 4/8).
When asked what drew her to using sci-fi thematics in her music, she said “Sci-fi presented an opportunity to talk about the present—from love lost to critiques of the ruling Chinese party at the time—from the safety of an alternate reality.”
Sonically, this influence created an EP that’s largely narrative-led lo-fi folk, but it incorporates the some of the futuristic soundscapes of China’s extreme, Blade Runner-esque urban situation as well: tricked out synths, mechanical bells and wandering guitars all simmering beneath simple, unwavering melodies that contrast Kelly’s soft persona with her harsh, metallic storylines.
Today, we’re excited to premiere her new video for “All That’s Gained,” a song inspired by Chinese author Chan Koonchung’s That Fat Years, a novel set during China’s future Golden Age when a month of time is erased from collective memory save for a few people on the periphery who set out to find each other and the truth behind this lost time. “All That’s Gained” is about the relationship between the state and its rebels, but more broadly, about any relationship where knowing the truth results in sacrifice and hardship on both sides. The video runs with this thread by depicting footage from a Chinese music festival in which the stark contrast between the audience and the festival security team is exemplified in a silent battle between self-expression and cultural repression.
We also caught up with her to talk about what it was like to translate sci-fi into sound, what lessons sci-fi has taught her, and why using fantasy as a safety net to discuss current issues is a whole lot more effective sometimes than simply stating the problem and waiting for a solution.
Here’s the music video; scroll down for the interview.
The first sci-fi mag you read was in Chinese, and while you couldn’t read it, there was something that captured your attention and inspired you to seek out more. What did you see in that mag that stuck with you?
It was the cover that caught my attention, a dystopian cityscape that looked a lot like Hong Kong. I’d just moved over here and knew nothing of China – who their heroes were, what they were listening to, what it was like to grow up here. It’s not something that’s easily Googled, so I was in the library looking for English translations of Chinese magazines and publications. I came across Science Fiction World magazine and I just followed that thread.
What else about sci-fi inspires you or do you feel like you connect with?
Sci-fi feels like a logical extension from my folk roots. Folk uses metaphors about regular people to paint a picture of what it feels like to live in the world – our anxieties, hopes and dreams … like how the traditional tune “John Henry” shows us what it felt to be a working man in late 19th century America.
Likewise, science fiction creates metaphors using ordinary people in alternative realities to do the same thing. This connects with me because as a songwriter I’m less concerned with dates – what happened when – than how it felt and I try to convey at least some of that feeling through words and music.
How do you translate that into sound?
I mean the EP retains my narrative-led lo-fi folk roots, but incorporates the soundscapes of living in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. I’m not sure if you’ve been to Hong Kong but when you first arrive you take the express train into the city and you’re basically hit with a scene from Blade Runner – 1000 ft. buildings, neon lights and express ways. Certain records took on new meaning for me; electronic records like Radiohead’s OK Computer which talks to urban alienation and technology’s effect on the human psyche but also acoustic records like John Fahey’s Blind Joe Death which talks to the humanity beneath every seemingly alien place. So we tried to create something that sonically dealt with futuristic themes but also sounded organic and human; warm layered synths, mechanical bells, wandering guitars over simple acoustic melodies.
What sci-fi are you into today?
I’m reading Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. When I was touring 15 cities in China I asked everyone I met about science fiction and they’d all read The Three Body Problem – it’s the Harry Potter of China and a must-read! But I have to say the physics in the last chapter was beyond me so I’d say I’m more into the allegory side of sci-fi rather than pushing the frontiers of science.
Much of sci-fi has to do with the learning of lessons, or using fantasy as a metaphor to convey self-discovery. What has it taught you, or what have you learned about yourself through it?
That’s a really good question. I’ve dabbled in sci-fi and fantasy stories from China over the last 100 years – from the Jules Verne variety to present day. These stories have taught me that no matter from which country or century you belong, the blues are all the same.
You’ve said that “sci-fi presents an opportunity to talk about the present—from love lost to critiques of the ruling Chinese party at the time—from the safety of an alternate reality.” … Yet I think it’s almost harder and more beautiful to speak about the present using the allegory of an alternate situation. Why, for lack of a better description, use sci-fi as a safety net when you could just come out and say something?
I agree, I don’t think writers use allegory because it’s easier or as a way of circumventing censors. I think they do it because, not only is it more beautiful than just coming out and saying something, they show us – in all the complexity and ambiguity of a picture – how it feels to be living in their world. That we might gain something that resonates with ours, to know that we’re not alone and that our path is not a solitary one.
Lu Xun (eminent writer and arguably the granddaddy of Chinese sci-fi) wrote in 1926 about these ghosts living in Hell who complain to man that Hell is being neglected – the spiked trees have lost their glitter and the mandrake flower blossoms are pale and wretched – but in condemning Hell they became rebels against man and instead of restoring their good Hell they are further condemned to a more miserable existence. “The deep yet orderly wailing of all the ghosts blended with the roar of flames, the seething of oil … to make one vast, intoxicating harmony”. These few words tell us more about what it would be like to have been an outsider as an artist, writer and activist during early 20th century China than any history book.
Much of your lyrics are of the narrative variety. What’s your favorite type of story tell in your music?
My favorite kind of narratives are the ones that make you feel like you’re close to that character, that you know their story more intimately than your own, in as few words as possible. I love Springsteen’s My Father’s House, where we’re never explicitly told why he goes looking for his father’s house or whether they were close, we are left to fill in the details, and take on his story like it was our own.
Are you concerned at all that people will over-analyze the sci-fi angle in your music? Like I’m doing? Right now? :)
Well, it’s true that I’m new to sci-fi and I came across it looking for other stuff at my local library, but I’ve connected to these stories on a deep level and they have shaped my music but not because they’re sci-fi but because they emphasize the similarities in the human experience and that’s what I was trying, in a small way, to convey in my music.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
I’m attracted to the human voice. My first album was Aretha Franklin’s Gold; she made me want to sing, but my favorite record of all time is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks because like Springsteen he just feels his way through a song and takes you along with him. I’m also inspired by the English revival folk movement of the ’70s like Fairport Convention because I like the way they re-imagined those traditional folk tunes adding quite a lot of electric instrumentation but still making them feel sparse and dark enough so as not to lose the soul of the song.
The EP’s title track “All That’s Gained” was inspired by Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, a novel set during China’s future Golden Age when a month of time is erased from collective memory. Can you tell us about your process in terms of taking that storyline and making it something personal to you?
I try and look at the universal truth in the story. Like you said, science fiction is often a metaphor for something else. The Fat Years is a metaphor for collective memory loss in the way China deals with the events of its past and it presents a stalemate between the people and the state where each side is fighting for their own version of what they think is “right.” This could be extended to any relationship with opposing points of view in our lives and through history; husband and wife, anti-and pro-abortion lobby groups, Christians and Muslims etc., where there’s hardship and loss on both sides but we have to work together to have any success. And we’ve all experienced that in our lives.
The video for that song shows a pretty clear delineation between the state and some anti-cultural kids at a music fest. What’s the climate like in China right now in terms of self-expression through music? What are people listening to that they’re really relating to?
The video features kids having fun going nuts at the music festivals in China to show the stalemate between those now coming of age in China and a Government maintaining economic growth, peace and stability through strict control but it is meant to be a positive message about the excitement and empowerment of being a kid in China today – a feeling I really noticed when I was on tour. However, China is changing faster than any other country in human history so there’s bound to be clashes in opinion between the governing bureaucratic institutions and the next generation.
Favorite Star Wars film?
The Empire Strikes Back and anyone who says any different is wrong ;)