The Enduring Diva

Posted by Pete DeMola on 10. Nov 2009

BEIJING, Nov 10 - Gia Wang is one of the most decisive figures in China's music scene, rising to fame in 1998 as a teenager with the all-female punk band Hang on the Box, which rattled the country with their feminist, sexually-charged lyrics and rebellious punk ethos.

That thrill ride, in addition to taking them to the States and Japan, landed them on the cover of the American news magazine Newsweek twice in 1999, the first (and only) Chinese band to do so in its 76-year history.

But since the band's disintegration in late-2007, the 30-year-old has kept a low profile, dabbling in contemporary art, freelance writing and playing occasional gigs with Girl Kill Girl, the trio who rose from the cinders of Hang on the Box.

"I've been resting for a while," said Wang as we drank Tsingdaos at Luce in early-September after she returned from a marathon recording session at A-String Studios. "I'd been doing hardcore rock and roll before," she said, "and decided to stop limiting myself to only that genre."


Touching upon elements of bossa nova, minimal tech and trip hop, this effort, her first release since Hang on the Box's 2007's swansong No More Nice Girls (Scream Records), is an attempt to tackle many genres that the innovative musician feels have been overlooked by domestic talent.

She started writing the melodies and lyrics last February, hooked up with a Xinjiang-born producer (23-year-old Huang Wei in his first production credit) shortly thereafter and entered the studio in August, laying down 10 tracks in 20 days of hardcore recording.

"This is a step up from rock and roll," said Wang, adding she feels as if the new songs are more mature and are increasingly dialed into her inner self than past work.

The Brilliant Gia, which will see its release on Modern Sky Records, sees her grounded in more accessible, almost gentle, territory after the experimental weirdness (rambling jam sessions soaked in empty space and repetitive vocal tics) that characterized later-era Hang on the Box and the subsequent Girl Kill Girl project, which is now on hiatus.

Album highlight "Bubbles" is a swinging, upbeat and densely-layered track with a wandering piano background and a coy guitar track that emerges between tripped-out hi hats and triumphant shards of brass.

And it contains, surprisingly, actual singing.

"I've been experimenting with new styles of singing," said Wang, describing how she has paying more attention to the melody and small vocal details that come along with writing slower songs.

"Deep ability is needed to express beautiful melodies," she said, explaining that she received songwriting help from Huang Wei and Girl Kill Girl bassist Niu Fangfang.

On "Bubbles," she sounds confident, even brash, which is a style that actually works for her. It's a welcome departure from her trademark speak-sing cadence, which despite making an appearance in "Beijing English," her collaboration with acclaimed Acupuncture Records producer ELVIS.T, remains in the background on this 10-song effort.

"We're good personal friends and very tight," she said on how the unlikely collaboration kicked off with the Taipei-born producer. She brought him a beat, admiring his style of dense and layered compositions of minimal tech, and it grew from there.

Wang said that she was heavily into the Beijing club culture in the late-1990s when it first took off, but never had a chance to explore it musically. "I always wanted to do something like this," she said. "I wanted to capture that 'buzz' feeling of being younger and getting out of the club."

Sonically, ELVIS.T succeeds in doing so, with his chop-and-slice layout of her distorted vocals over rubbery synths and slightly-dirty beats.

Her lyrics have also mellowed out with age.

Here, Wang has less social issues targeted in her crosshairs ("What is Shanghai?/Rich white cock and hungry yellow chick," she sang in 2006's "Shanghai") and the explicit sexuality of the past ("You take your hands and rub me sweet/"I'm soft and wet getting ready to go" from 1999's "OoOo") takes a backseat to more tender and humble sentiments.

"My home is side of lake/That little frame house/Do you want to meet me dear?" she croons in "Lake" over gurgling water and a classical guitar, while in both "Lost" and "Leaving the Cafe," lyrics are centered around a narrator looking to answer elusive questions.

The latter song is rooted firmly in the bossa nova tradition, anchored by dueling flamenco guitar work and quiet, almost-vulnerable vocals while "Sick" adds a subtle warm electric piano to the formula, making its inclusion in a shadowy film noir flick not entirely unreasonable.

True to form, the record doesn't really sound like anything else out there: a notable carving on the Chinese music scene's sonic barometer, for better or worse.

The Brilliant Gia, much like all of the Capricorn's work, remains an acquired taste: like erguotou or cavorting with sketchy characters. For the uninitiated, it may be difficult to swallow, but all provocative records are like that until the palette realigns itself.


While she didn't comment in terms of the relationship between her ambitious project and the efforts of her peers in the underground music community, she believes that in general, most Chinese bands still tend to follow Western trends instead of their hearts, and that the demand being placed upon this country's independent music scene by foreign interests far outweighs the supply.

"Beijing needs more music created from the heart and from life," she said, "and not just for the sake of being in a band."

However, she did praise the Re-TROS, Carsick Cars, Snapline and former band mate Yang Fan's post-Hang project, Ourself Beside Me, for their innovative and progressive work.

I reminded her that she'd get flack in both the press and music community for her ostentatious album title.

"I consider it a complement," she said after a pause, "that they are focusing on the music as opposed to personal things."

Gia will perform on Sat, Nov 21 at MAO Live House. Dream pop dude Ding Ke will support. Show starts at 9pm, 60 RMB at the door, 50 RMB pre-sale and students.

You can listen to tracks from the record here.

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