Avant Garde in all the best ways, we delve into  ‘Sleepless’ with Sui Zhen

In a generous and candid chat, Sui Zhen shares her emotive journey with ‘Sleepless,’ a haunting melody of grief and resilience

Sui Zhen’s latest track, ‘Sleepless,’ isn’t just a tune; it’s a journey through the heart’s labyrinth.

In our chat, she unveils the track’s evolution, from a winter of grief to a collaborative symphony of resilience.

With a generous candid charm, she shares how life’s curveballs shaped the song’s narrative, infusing it with raw emotion and sonic depth.

From post-punk to spoken-word incantations, Sui Zhen’s musical palette defies categorisation. With a nod to her influences – from Bjork to David Lynch – she paints a vibrant picture of her artistic landscape.

In her world, there are no boundaries, only boundless creativity.

But beneath the avant-garde beats lies a deeper truth: the power of music to heal. Through her own journey of loss and rediscovery, Sui Zhen invites listeners to find solace in the rhythm of life’s melodies.

In her words and melodies, we find a comforting reminder: that even in the darkest nights, there’s always a song waiting to be sung.

sui zhen interview with happy mag

Happy: Hey Sui Zhen, ‘Sleepless’ is such a unique and deeply emotional track. Can you share a bit about how the song evolved from its origins in 2019 to the powerful anthem it is today?

Sui Zhen: The song first emerged as a vocal piece in the winter of 2018. My mother had died in February of that year and in the initial freefall of grief I devoted all my energy toward music making.

It was my way of coping at that time to her sudden absence. In some ways I was filling up the space for emotions I couldn’t face yet, without musical accompaniment.

It was the single event that made me feel most like a child, and both the sung section of the first few minutes and the spoken word passage were stream of consciousness.

I added some basic drum patterns and a melody on the Korg M1, and then built a kind of groove around this vocal part of just two notes.

Later, I would invite band mates Casey Hartnett and Andrew Noble to jam with me on the extended track. And we first performed that piece for the Music from Memory (Amsterdam-based record label) stage at Freedom Time Festival.

From there it grew and evolved with the live performances with my band for the Losing, Linda album era which included Liz Jansz (Punko) and then Jay Blynn (Dandelion Head).

Unfortunately we did not get to tour internationally due to covid, but we did perform and some special events in so-called Australia, and each set would include a rendition of ‘Sleepless’.

It was only after covid, and the sudden and unexpected death of my first son, Percy, followed by a year off of music that I found the will to finish the track in a recorded format.

During Percy’s pregnancy I added the lyrics for the second spoken word part – “am I no a dreamer?…where in this world is there space for my dreams?” – and so on and that final sung verse “Come on everybody!” – etc.

The last piece revealed itself after jamming with Phil Stroud for a year or so, I invited him to play kit on the final section of the track, working with Nao Anzai who helped me to arrange the piece, and mix and master.

I think that really completed it. It was ready after Phil played on it. And with all that is happening to Palestinians over these past six months, I felt it was an important time to release an anthem for those who have been denied the privilege of grieving.


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Happy: Grief and resilience seem to be central themes in ‘Sleepless.’ How did your personal experiences, especially the loss of your mother and newborn son, shape the direction of the song?

Sui Zhen: I may have answered this already, but I think those themes shaped the longer format of the song.

Because it was borne out of a stream of consciousness vocal exploration the form evolved organically and I resisted any urges to re-structure or edit those initial thoughts that came out.

I left it as it occurred when I first expressed it and in that sense, I feel like that has kept it true at least in the lyrical form, to my personal grief at that junction in my life.

The way we each experience grief is unique to our experience and to who we are, and all of our past experiences.

But there are common things that people who are grieving feel. Isolation, alienation, a want to be with the ones they are missing, loneliness, a cycle of what ifs, being unafraid of dying, awareness that life is short…, disconnection or hyper empathy,.. it can be some or all of these things.

I wanted to capture some of those feelings in the sound and atmosphere of the track.

The loss of my mother and son shaped the direction mostly in the openness for it to be whatever it needs to be for me, and whomever I am playing with in live performances.

There is enough form and structure to improvise around and in that sense, it’s a track that can grow and evolve each time it is performed.

It is open enough to hold space for whatever needs to be explored, expelled or tended to. In that sense it is a song that creates space for grief in my live sets and I have needed a vehicle for this, this improvisation to feel like my authentic self on stage since those events shaped me to who I am today.

Happy: The track spans a generous 13 minutes, which is quite unconventional for a pop song. What inspired you to break away from the traditional song structure, and how do you think this extended format enhances the emotional impact of ‘Sleepless’

Sui Zhen: The form is unconventional but it is also not a new thing to record longer jams, as so many artists before me that have inspired me have done so.

But I think perhaps it is unconventional in this TikTok, 15 sec drop off era of social media that we’re living through.

Where people are striving to make short listens that get more streams to boost their total streams and all of that.

In that sense it’s a bit of a protest against the pop song or pop hook format. This song cannot be summarised in a 15 sec clip.

And in the same way, grief cannot be contained to any time period. To one year or two years.

Grief is lifelong no matter what society or the systems that we’re bound by, allow for. And your grief will always be specific to you and what you need to do to help you carry your grief.

I think listeners or existing fans of my music appreciate that. And I think I have built trust with them, even if they don’t know me personally and I don’t know them, that they can come to my music and let themselves be open for those minutes, to connect with what I am saying.

I think that is the gift of authenticity in music, it can help you to feel connected to something bigger than your own experience.

Happy: Your music draws from a diverse range of influences, from post-punk to krautrock. How do these genres inform your sound, and what prompted you to blend spoken-word incantations with melodic hooks and a mix of electronic and live elements in ‘Sleepless’?

Sui Zhen: I have listened to a lot of music in my life, so these weren’t super conscious choices but I suppose just a natural reflection of the sounds and styles I have absorbed over time.

I think when I am in a stream of consciousness mode, this would be how most of my music would sound. It’s when I start to produce or consider things too much, they become pop songs, hah.

Happy: ‘Sleepless’ has been shaped by various collaborators and performers. How did their contributions influence the song’s narrative and emotional depth?


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Sui Zhen: I don’t think the narrative or emotional depth was influenced by the collaborators, it’s such a personal reflection of mine lyrically – it is more so the sonic landscape and the musical sound was greatly informed by those who performed on the piece.

Each person bringing their own sensibility whether it be in their choice of synth like Casey’s specific Therevox, or the way Andrew uses the Minilogue to the sound of both Liv’s Hofner bass and Jay’s atmospheric yet funkier bass – and of course Nao Anzai with his rich history and knowledge of production brought so much to the overall sound of Sleepless.

Happy: Navigating through the darkest moments of life is a profound exploration you mentioned regarding ‘Sleepless.’ How do you hope listeners connect with the song on a personal level, especially those going through their own difficult times?

Sui Zhen: It is my hope that people open themselves to the song as a safe container to feel those darkest thoughts and let them be released whilst knowing they are not alone in having them.

And they will never be truly alone in those thoughts – but that it is important to be able to feel and express these things and accept them as normal responses to adversity or hardship.

It’s the moving through them that I hope the song offers, to land with some tangible hope. It is hope that can alter our state to a lighter place so I hope that this song offers some hope.

Happy: Can you tell us about the recording process of ‘Sleepless’ and the role that Nao Anzai played in bringing out the depth and complexity of your emotional journey?

Sui Zhen: I went to Nao because I had toured with him over the years during my time in NO ZU.

Those tours were not easy, 8-10 people on the road for weeks abroad.

Nao was always steady and reassuring whilst also being direct and firm when needed.

I needed someone like that to help me finish the track.

He also knows my story and I enjoy spending time with him and feel it is an honour to have access to someone of his experience and calibre.

Nao understands my tastes and sensibilities artistically, so we have a shorthand when describing the indescribable nuances of music production.

He made helpful suggestions to tighten arrangement whilst also encouraging my to trust the original form. Then of course his magical skills of making it all work in the mix. I love Nao for that.

Happy: Beyond the musical expression, ‘Sleepless’ seems to transcend into a healing experience. How do you see the role of music in offering solace and connection, especially in times of grief?

Sui Zhen: Music can be so powerful and impactful on one’s emotional state. In that way it also needs to be engaged with consideration.

I think the brief time I studied music therapy (yet to complete the Masters course) that was one takeaway.

A piece of music might mean one thing to one person and an entirely different thing to someone else.

We have to be mindful of that. The way music and memory fuse is unique to individuals.

When music captures human emotions, expressed with authenticity I think it has the ability to emotional affect someone no matter of their taste and genre – if they are open to it and are listening without judgment.

And in that way, I think hearing someone else express things that are true for them enables us to see ourselves in that person and to feel connected.

It sounds simple, but I do believe that, feeling connected and less alone can be a saving grace in times of strife.

In that sense I think music has an incredible ability to offer solace and comfort in times of grief.

When my son died, I could not find any music that reflected my experience.

There are some obvious songs written about child loss but non really spoke to me.

It was in these other sentiments I eventually found my way back to music again.

Ted Lucas singing “I’ll find a way, to carry it all” particularly saved me at times. Sometimes the indirect lyric is more accessible, in enabling others to feel seen.

Happy: You don’t seem like anyone I’ve ever listened to; you seem to be out of the box, in the way that some of my favourite avant-garde artists are. Your music is deeply introspective, dismissing the norms. Who are your mentors, either artistically or spiritually?

Sui Zhen: I love this question. Growing up in the western world, I feel a lack of spiritual mentors however I have several artistic beacons whom I look toward for inspiration.

In my teens it was Bjork and Annie Lennox. Then Laurie Anderson, Arthur Russell, Sheila Chandra, Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

The authors Elizabeth Strout, Susan Abulhawa…spiritually Thich Nhat Hanh, Archie Roach, my mum and my son.

There’s probably more, but those are who I can currently summon in my mind.

Happy: What makes you happy? What is happiness to you?

Sui Zhen: Happiness is finding the present moment and gratitude for all that is well within it.

Happiness is as fleeting as that feeling of being present but when you feel it, notice it and allow yourself to love life, love yourself and love your loved ones harder because life is too short not to notice the times when you might have been happy, even if just for a moment.