The enigmatic singer Chinawoman is set to play the city for the second time this month.
Published: June 22, 2011 (Issue # 1662)
SERGEY CHERNOV / The St. Petersburg Times
Chinawoman made her local debut earlier this month, and returns this weekend to play Stereoleto.
Chinawoman is Michelle, an elusive Canada-born, Berlin-based singer-songwriter with Russian roots.
Not much is known about her, except for a few scarce facts disclosed by the singer since her first album, “Party Girl,” was released in 2007.
Her mother danced with the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet in the 1970s, a fact reflected in Chinawoman’s song “Russian Ballerina,” which was intended as her gift to her mother.
Raised in a Russian neighborhood in Toronto, she grew up on a mix of Russian and European music, and lists Soviet gypsy singer Nikolai Slichenko and Soviet-Russian pop star Alla Pugachyova among her influences, together with PJ Harvey, Hole and Peaches.
She spent some time as a television director and is into classical films, listing her favorite director as Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
Last year, Chinawoman followed “Party Girl” with “Show Me the Face,” which she described as “classical European ballads, sentimental melodrama, euro beats, sultry mysticism and one-woman rantings.” Its songs include “God Bless My Socially Retarded Friends” and “Woman’s Touch.”
Earlier this month, she made her Russian debut in St. Petersburg.
Backed by guitarist Diego Ferri and drummer Robin Thomson, Chinawoman, who plays guitar and keyboards, performed a one-hour set of her strangely touching, sad songs sung in her unusual, low voice at the Avant Piter music event at Kosmonavt.
She returns this weekend to participate in the first night of Stereoleto on Krestovsky Island.
This week, Chinawoman — whose recent Eastern European tour was called “Seeking Russian Bride” — took time to answer a few questions from The St. Petersburg Times.
Q: You played your first concert in St. Petersburg (and Russia) earlier this month and now you’re coming back to perform at Stereoleto. What were your impressions of the audience?
A: Based on the rowdiness of the crowd in most of the other Eastern European countries I’ve been to, I was a bit surprised to find the people in Piter kind of reserved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I myself am typically reserved when in the audience.
But then it was also a festival show, and therefore less intimate. Because of my roots and all the emotions and nostalgia surrounding my performing in Russia, I think it would be appropriate to do something more solo where the sentiment and vibe could be fully indulged.
Q: What were your impressions of Russia and St. Petersburg? Did anything surprise you?
A: It was my second time in Piter and first time in Moscow. Unfortunately, I find that when touring, it’s all about being in the best physical and mental shape possible, so exploring the city isn’t a priority.
However, we did get a full day in Piter before our show, and a good friend of mine who writes the St. Petersburg Lonely Planet guide was in town and took us around to some great spots.
Definitely the city’s rift between people with money and people without got my attention again, particularly while we were eating in a fancy garden restaurant, which felt kind of strange to me.
Q: Perhaps I should ask you about your reasons for staying incognito, because it’s one of the first questions a lot of people have.
A: Like I’ve said before, going incognito was never an intentional decision. I simply made my music available online, and never made a point of writing about my personal life in a bio or anything, simply because it never seemed relevant to me.
Q: Could you tell us as much as you can about yourself? What did your parents do, and when did they leave the Soviet Union? Was your mother really a dancer with the Kirov Ballet?
A: Yes, my mother danced with the Kirov and also worked as a choreographer and ballet mistress after receiving a masters in choreography from the Leningrad State Conservatory. My father is an electrical engineer from Leningrad. The two met at a food market in Leningrad, and lived there until they left for Canada via Italy in 1975.
Q: I read that you grew up in the Russian neighborhood in Toronto. What was that like? What language did you speak with your family?
A: I grew up speaking Russian with my parents at home and also went to Russian Sunday school where I acquired some basic writing and reading skills. There’s a big Russian community in Toronto; you can drive 20 minutes down the main strip (Bathurst Street) through neighborhoods populated by Russians. I always enjoyed the Russian restaurants, markets and parties, and generally felt sentimental about my family’s culture — more so than most other children of immigrants did.
Q: What made you start writing music? What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
A: I never would have imagined I’d be working in music, as it was never my interest or intention.
I always had a good ear, however, and would figure things out by ear on the keyboard we had at home.
We had an old Kimball organ in the basement of the house where I grew up, and I must have been a few years old when my mother taught me how to play a very rudimentary version of “Listya Zhyoltiye” [“Yellow Leafs,” a Soviet pop hit from the early 1980s].
It was only in 2005 that I started hanging out with musicians and became curious about the songwriting process. It was my best friend who told me to create a MySpace music page while we were browsing the site. He said, “Make a page and then maybe it will motivate you to write a song.” So a week later I had written and recorded my first song, and it was a few core friends and family who responded really positively who pushed me to write more.
The music I grew up with at home — Russian, French and Italian from the ’70s and ’80s — is my formative music.
I’ve been into many kinds of music and continue to expand my tastes, but old European ballads are home for me.
Q: Where did the influence of Soviet pop come from, and is it really that significant in your work?
A: My parents didn’t have many Soviet records actually. Mostly there were a series of “mixed tapes” that got passed around the Russian community and of which every household had a copy.
So I grew up with a number of cassette tapes labeled only “pesni” [songs], which I must have listened to thousands of times. Like I said, I only attempted to write my first song many years later in my mid-twenties, at which point the influence of that formative music became apparent.
Q: In interviews, you have mentioned you were a television director and wanted to be a film director. Did you make your videos yourself?
A: Yes, all my YouTube videos I made myself. I’ve worked in film and television in several professional capacities, where my job was to make something that looks really polished, using high-end motion graphics, fast-pace, etc. So when it comes to my own videos, in a sense I go for an anti-pro approach, for the homemade style that I’ve always loved, using loops, simple cuts, etc.
Q: For how long have you lived in Berlin? Why did you move there?
A: I’ve been living in Berlin for eight months and it has provided a great base from which to tour while living affordably in Europe. It has ultimately allowed music to become my primary career, and allowed Chinawoman to evolve from what was predominantly a recording project to also being a live act.
Q: From “Party Girl” to “Show Me the Face” — is there an element of growing up? Where are you moving to, musically?
A: The songs on “Party Girl” do capture that youthful angsty lovelorn disillusionment, whereas “Show Me the Face” moves toward a broader adult disillusionment. I’m not sure that “Show Me the Face” is necessarily a moving forward as there are elements from both albums that I prefer. I don’t know where I’m headed, and I’ve learned that what is best is that I continue to surprise myself. Therefore the less I know about what’s coming, the better.
Chinawoman will perform alongside Ilya Lagutenko’s Keta, Club des Belugas and Zenzile, at 10 p.m. on Saturday at the Stereoleto music event on Krestovsky Island, at 6 Yuzhnaya Doroga.