Chinawoman is Michelle, a Toronto-born musician with Russian roots who moved to Berlin nearly a year ago. Her music evokes images of Soviet Ballrooms of the 80s and Douglas Sirk melodramas, and she’s been compared to Leonard Cohen, Nico, and Angelo Badalamenti. But for all the grandiosity, you wouldn’t expect that both her albums were produced and recorded in her bedroom. I met with her on a gloomy Friday afternoon in Kreuzberg to talk about her music.
Why leave Toronto for Berlin? Toronto has a strong local music scene, and Berlin is so focused on electronic music.
CW: I was in Toronto and kept getting invitations and interest in Europe rather than in Canada. I’d get an invitation to play in Poland for instance, but it would be so expensive to bring me and my band there, and so in order to fulfill those expenses we would have had to play a massive show. So it was really more practical.
Most of your press has come from Slavic countries. Why do you think there was so much more attention coming from eastern Europe? Was there something that North Americans weren’t grasping?
CW: I think it’s just how the story has unfolded. There is something obviously familiar to eastern European countries when they hear my music, but I would never say North Americans don’t get it. I guess it’s easier to appreciate what’s not in front you. I think there is an audience for my music there, I feel like it’s just going to happen later.
There’s a clear nostalgia for Slavic music traditions in your music. What did you grow up listening to?
CW: My parents were newly arrived immigrants when I was born, and my first language was Russian, so I did grow up listening to the big 70s Soviet stars, but also to the Italian and French. People like Alla Pugacheva, Adriano Celentano, and Charles Aznavour.
I also saw somewhere that you list Fellini and his longtime composer Nino Rota as your influences.
CW: It seems like a lot of filmmakers have their partnership composers. I wanted to be a filmmaker actually, and worked as an editor for the past 10 years, as well as making short films and spending a fortune. I eventually tried to write a song and found it was not only cheaper, but much easier to get a good result.
Do you see some influence of film in your music then?
CW: The things I couldn’t express through film I find easier to express through song. There’s probably some cinematic approach to the way I make music.
There’s been a revival of Slavic music in the past few years. Do you see yourself as being connected to this?
CW: There’s obviously a Russian influence in the music, but I don’t make ‘Russian music’ or intentionally infuse Slavic influences. The chord structure and the approach are there in many of my songs, but in others not. There will always be something reminiscent, but it’s not my mission to make Soviet music ‘fresh’ again. I want to surprise myself as well.
What does contemporary Slavic music sound like then?
CW: I’m not entirely sure what contemporary slavic music would be. I feel like a lot of current Russian bands, for instance, are trying to look for themselves. They sound like they’re trying to fit into Western music, rather than basing themselves on their own musical foundation. Russians living in Russia want to move forward musically. I grew up immersed in these sounds, but removed enough from it not to be self-conscious, so I can fully indulge it. It’s a time capsule approach.
Chinawoman’s next performance is Wednesday, September 3 with The Hidden Cameras at Heimathafen Neukoelln.