I am not easy to impress, especially when it comes to music, but there are those moments in life when you hear and watch something extraordinary happen…that moment when you stop talking and move closer to the stage, only to be mesmerized by a voice and energy coming from a singer…. that was my moment of discovering Nova Heart.
I remember the first time I saw the small, petite woman, named Helen Feng dressed in a red dress, standing on the main stage of the Clockenflap festival in Hong Kong, back in 2011, sharing a stage with the likes of Santigold, The Cribs, French Horn Rebellion and Bombay Bicycle Club. That was one of the first live performances by Nova Heart and had me elated for the rest of the festival, as I had finally discovered a new band. The strangest thing was that it was not your usual London or New York band that I had discovered but a band based in Beijing, China. Their lead singer blew me away from the first moment I watched her perform on stage. A few months later, I saw them play at Hidden Agenda, a small, dark warehouse venue in Hong Kong. Helen Feng, the lead singer of Nova Heart entered the stage, looking as if she came from a different world, completely unaware of her surroundings, as if she was in a trance and the moment she started singing, the crowd also fell into a trance, fascinated by the incredible voice of a woman who went from almost shyness into a woman who wrapped herself with the microphone cord as she was jumping to the beat of the song…
Fast forward three years, and I found myself in Beijing’s historic building named Yugong Yishan, home to Qing Dynasty royalty, warlords and the occupying Japanese army in the 1930s, watching a legendary Russian band, Mumiy Troll…only my date for the night wasn’t the legendary 90’s Russian band but Helen Feng from Nova Heart.
The same feeling of complete silence that you get from watching Feng perform on stage, the same thing happens when she talks, just about anything…you don’t often see me speechless but when Helen Feng started talking about music, politics, life, bands, I was afraid of saying anything, as she was something else… intelligent and hugely entertaining, Feng is full of opinions on American imperialism, Chinese politics, music business and the identity of the Beijing underground scene, just to name a few. Not only is she the lead singer of Nova Heart, she also acts, writes, composes and is overall multi-talented.
I decided to interview Feng, because as much as I wanted to keep secret about Nova Heart, I had to bring the ‘heart’ to the people and tell them about the talented Helen Feng.
Feng, born in Beijing and raised in the US and Canada, has an energy rarely seen in a female. In today’s world where singers and pop bands are getting chosen on a reality TV show such as ‘The Voice’, where not much creative atmosphere for music is asked for, and a lot of the music industry appears hollow, it is refreshing to see a band that gives me hope that there is something more. If I would compare Feng to anyone, it would be to the legendary Patti Smith or Janis Joplin. I would be inclined to say that after watching Feng perform live, she took me back to the early days of the New York band, ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ and their lead singer Karen O. Provocative, confident, smart, sexy, constantly going to the limits of appropriateness in order to push even further, Helen Feng seems like a sister of the YYY’s singer.
Outrageous antics, honesty and energy that she brings to her live shows is so irresistible. Helen Feng, doesn’t like to be put in a box and called ‘alternative,’ the sound of Nova Heart is more a blend of electronic music, rock music, psychedelic and cinematic music. It isn’t the music for your average night out at the club; it’s the music for what happens after you leave. The lonely walk home, taking you through a mental state of confusion (My song 9), pulling you into the night and leaving a mist of being completely forgotten or unknown, filled with unfulfilled sex desire (Beautiful boys). It’s the kind of music that you can listen to day and night and never get bored of it. Her songs are reassuring proof of a musical depth that matches Helen's expanding emotional range.
Judging from their ‘dark’ sound, it was no surprise to hear that she had met her band members in a legendary Beijing bar, called ‘Get Lucky’, actually a whore house that also hosted live shows for bands. As Feng told me, it was one of the few places where you could see a relatively big band. In fact, the night she met her band members, 14 bands were performing, each allowed three songs with the evening starting at 9 p.m. and ending around four in the morning. (You would draw straws to see what the playing order was, and if there was one really famous band, they got to pick if they were playing first, second or third because whoever played at the start had the most audience.) 14 bands playing in one night and on one stage meant that at least for one part of the evening, the room in the Beijing’s ‘Get Lucky’ bar was packed with people. The room in which Helen Feng met the group, that was later to become Nova Heart.
Feng was no stranger to the Chinese music scene though. Since she returned from the States, she has played in one of China's longest running and most popular band named Ziyo and renamed it Free the Birds in 2010 after changing musical directions. In 2007, she co-founded the seminal Chinese electronic group Pet Conspiracy. Within the next three years she sang the theme song for Hollywood Blockbuster The Mummy III, won several of the most prestigious Chinese Music Awards (Midi & Chinese Music Awards), hosted the Vice Creators Project and co- found FakeMusicMedia (with her partner Philipp Grefer). Nova Heart started at the beginning of 2011 and after only six months into their existence, they had played at China's most prestigious contemporary art gallery (UCCA), been invited to some of China's biggest music festivals and were guests at the Zurich Street Parade/Lethargy Festival, part of a MTV China special.
Despite not having released any albums, Nova Heart have already toured all five continents and they are the first Chinese underground band that has achieved this.
In the last year, they released their EP in Australia on Indica Records and in France on Believe Digital. They followed it up with a main stage performance at Trans Musicales in France, toured Australia three times, including Woodford Festival in December 2013 and all over the world. From your regular European and North American music venues and festivals to places like Ulan Ude in Russia, Iceland Airwaves and even as far as Madagascar.
The psych-rock band is loved by critics, the art and fashion crowds, gay men, punks, regular kids, hipsters, electronic and indie music fans in China and the West. They are the first Chinese band to get high rotation on Triple J in Australia (the Aussie answer to BBC’s Radio One) and have been featured in NME (UK’s New Musical Express Magazine) and the Rolling Stone magazine and even collaborated with French filmmaker, Vincent Moon (Arcade Fire). Helen Feng’s constant need to push even further will get Nova Heart to release their long anticipated first album on 12.12.2014 in China on FakeLoveMusic. The international release will be in 2015, due to different labels handling the release of the record. The band is getting ready to play a few shows at China’s October Festival Season before their album release and we can expect a huge China and World Tour in 2015.
There is no doubt in my mind, as well as anyone that has heard and seen Nova Heart perform live, that their sound is the future of China’s music, as well as THE band that will make it big and no longer be able to be kept secret…Even before their debut album release, they’ve already made an impact on the music scene and more is to come….You can listen to the full interview with Helen Feng; talking about China music industry, the discovery of ‘lipstick’ and how she may only work with you if you have great abs(!), right here recorded @ historic Beijing’s Yugong Yishan venue.