Growing up in Vancouver as a Chinese Canadian hasn’t always been easy. I’ve always felt a taste of displacement as I tried to navigate between my Chinese roots and Canadian culture. Performer, collaborator, and songwriter FOONYAP can relate. She manages to seamlessly meld aspects of her background to create beautiful, ethereal sounds that are found in her latest album Palimpsest. I had the chance to talk to Foon about her journey into music and how exactly she mixes traditional Chinese sounds with folk and electronic.
HW: How did you get involved with music?
FY: My parents are Chinese immigrants. Many Asian cultures have their children take up classical instruments because it instills a sense of discipline. So in this vein, I started the violin at four. I didn’t have any choice, my whole family including my cousins all played either the violin or the piano. I entered the conservatory at eleven where I competed in classical music until I was seventeen. After this, I went though a rebellious period in my life where I discovered punk music and joined an indie folk band called Woodpidgeon. It was one of the first times I realized music could be expressed by my own voice. This eventually evolved into my first solo album Palimpsest.
HW: Why did you settle on the name Palimpsest?
FY: A palimpsest is a manuscript where traces of the original can be found. In my album, each song represents each moment in my own personal growth over the past five years. The overarching theme is growth and recognizing the difficult path I’ve gone through in dealing with the shame that I’ve held and how that’s impacted my adult life. Palimpsest goes back and re-processes those experiences, allowing me to gain a newer level of self-awareness.
HW: Your song ‘Fun Machine’ explores the notion of free will in relationships. Are your songs about the broader human race or are they more particular to you?
FY: They are definitely more particular to my own lived experiences. I’m hesitant to comment on the world as a whole because I don’t know all the answers and I’m extremely imperfect. As I gather more information, I often change my mind. I find that I tend to be more self-reflexive about what is happening and how that affects me.
HW: Each of your songs is so rich in their sound, how did you settle on your blend of folk and electronic?
FY: Most of the songs had iterations outside the studio, but when I went to produce the album with my partner I knew from the get go I wanted to use the recording process itself as a creative process. That’s part of the reason why the album took so long to record. I knew that the simple folk songs had space in them to be elevated by the electronic process. It’s definitely more experimental, I had a faint idea of the structure of each song when I went into the studio, but it was all about trying things to see what the song wanted to do, especially with the textures.
HW: Speaking of textures, in songs such as ‘Gabriel Moody’, it reminded me of traditional Chinese opera. Was this intentional? Can you expand on that?
FY: The performance mode of Asian culture is very graceful and introverted. I love how the movements are very lush and soft, it draws audience members into the world that the performer is creating and that is the mood I tried to express in the song ‘Gabriel Moody’. The song is about how I felt when I was falling in love with someone. I was drawn into such an intimate world and connection. The song mirrors the whole process of falling in love, it’s about the nature of reality - the transitory nature of reality that is heightened when you’re in love.
HW: What prompted you to then incorporate parts of your heritage in the music you produce after choosing to initially rebel from this practice?
FY: The music of my culture never felt like a strict or repressive place like classical music did. It spoke to me very deeply—the lilting rhythm, the tone, the sense of nostalgia. When making my own music, this came very natural to me.
HW: What aspects of your heritage have you used in your music and how was this done?
FY: The expansive sense of rhythm and tempo, I create music that flows easily as I allow the emotion of a song to propel it forward rather than the beat. I also draw on the tones and scales of classical Chinese music. I’ve also evolved to play the violin in my own style on my tracks.
HW: As a Chinese Canadian, how did you tackle notions of displacement while growing up in a city like Calgary?
FY: With great difficulty. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how diaspora communities try to hold onto traditional identities even more tightly and how that can happen because immigrant parents aren’t fluent in the dominant culture. They impress their values even more rigidly upon their children and it’s been really tough to admit how deeply that has affected me and my music making. As you become more self-aware, you feel like you belong and you’re in your home. However, sometimes people make you feel like you don’t belong and are constantly asking where you are from, while on the other hand not fitting into the traditional culture of your parents at home. I still struggle with it, but I do take a more global perspective on humanity and I tend to move more intellectually away from nations and sovereignty. We’re all operating on one scale.
HW: Is this why you decided to take the name FOONYAP?
FY: FOONYAP is my Chinese name which means forgive and forget. When I was in my early teens I was already feeling quite alienated from my family, culture and religion. I also knew deep down that I wanted to be an artist one day so I took an artist name really early on in life. It was a reaffirmation to myself that I would be an artist and have a voice.
If you want to be inspired by Foon and her performances, Foon will be coming to Vancouver! She will be playing at the Toast Collective on December 10th during the last leg of her Canadian Tour. Palimpsest will be released on October 21st and can be downloaded here.