There’s Something About Susan
No cybernetic form can exist without its organic component. To that end, Susan, the ideal woman born of trending tags and datamined user behaviour — a yamato nadeshiko for the post-PRISM era — depends on Becky Freeman, also known as Sui Zhen. Sui has been playing since she was a child, but Susan began manifesting herself in filenames only a couple of years ago. The ghost has emerged from its shell and the result is Secretly Susan, a seductive record of love and longing which will stretch even beyond the apocalypse. If the world is ending, Susan’s bringing the Pocky.
Becky Freeman was a teenage raver. On the weekends, she’d call a number and peel outta her culdesac in the north-western suburbs of Sydney, where the streets were called things like Rivendell Way and Timber Grove and Bushy Glen, to meet up with her friends and the boys with the stuff. They’d done the readings, they knew what they were taking and where they were going, and at six or seven in the morning, whoever drew the sober straw would drive ’em home. Back to the comfort and safety they valued so much. “The raves were terrible music — happy hardcore, really bad — but some must’ve had decent music that I was into, like, ‘Whoa, I really like repetitive electronic music!’”
In 2015, Becky’s better known as Sui Zhen, a broadly conceptual electronic musician and performer, but the foundations were laid in her pubescent years. A strong music and arts program at her high school meant she’d cycled through jazz training and guitar to drama by the time HSC was over and a childhood spent dreaming of living in video game worlds from Sonic to Abe’s Odyssey set roots which grew into a love of artists like Eizin Suzuki.
His record covers not only left an imprint on a teenage Becky but whose work, she found out a few weeks ago, was the inspiration for Green Hill Zone, one of the Sonic levels of which she was so enamoured. “I’ve probably been interested in absorbing these similar influences for a very long time, and not been really aware of where it’s come from, but it might be that the things I’m influenced by are interconnected anyway.”
“It might be that the things I’m influenced by are interconnected anyway.”
And now she has Secretly Susan. Give it a spin and Susan is a hypnotizing record, supporting familiar touchstones of love and longing and regret with eclectic arrangements. You hear Becky’s breathy vocals and you might hear Grimes or Ellie Goulding but Sui Zhen is closer to Micachu & the Shapes as electronic music on a different tangent. John Titor would call it world line convergence; this thing which seems of this world, but couldn’t have come from it.
Other worlds, one which resemble ours but aren’t, are exactly what Sui Zhen is exploring here, and this is where just listening to Secretly Susan proves about as useful as playing the demo version of some sprawling video game. You might glean some sensation from the songs, but what’s going on behind the scenes — and expressed elsewhere — is what really does it for anyone who gets sweaty at the mention of the so-called ‘bibles’ of their favourite fictional universes. Watch the videos for ‘Infinity Street’ and ‘Take It All Back’ and you get the sense that something ain’t quite right. Rooms and outfits exist in plain colours, the sun appears irradiated, the water is sickly and seems unreal, and in ‘Infinity Street’, Sui appears entirely alone.
In the ‘Take It All Back’ video, though, Sui is gone, and there’s a women with blonde hair, bright blue eyes and vivid red lipstick. Hello, this is Susan.
“I started connecting my interests in digital doppelgangers and our representation and misrepresentation with our online selves, the kinds of commonalities. You can look at a hashtag on Instagram and pull together these collective anxieties and emotions and shared experiences that people have… and pull a personality out of that. She’s a combination of all that metadata, as a person. And that fit with the mannequin themes. I was really enjoying this simulacra of human expression that exists. Mannequin faces I really like, ‘cos they’re so vacant, but also sometimes poignant.”
Like the Uncanny Valley.
“Pulling them all together in one world, Susan manifested.”
On the outside, Susan is the model of a modern woman. And she lives in a hell where none of it mattered.
Susan was not created; she emerged. “I looked at the files. I started calling things, like, ‘susan1’ before I even knew what I was doing. Then I looked at the names and the descriptions recently and I went through the notes I had from my previous albums, when it was like 2013, 14, and she was evolving m the background in my subconscious.” Susan is beautiful, neat, meticulous. On the outside, Susan is the model of a modern woman. And she lives in a hell where none of it mattered.
“Susan lives in a post-apocalyptic world, there’s no water on Earth any more.”
The first time I met Becky was at Howler as 2014 waned. We were both early adopters of a new social network called Ello, touted as Twitter for the privacy concerned, and reaching for things to say I’d told her I was getting into Jonathan Lethem. Lethem’s literary kinfolk are sometimes said to be folks like David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, but his ideas are rooted in Dick.
New York is featured heavily, but not the New York of Bushwick trendpieces; Lethem’s New York is vaguely unsettling and sometimes terrifying, recognizable but with the terrible consequences of modern life dialed way up. In Girl In Paradise, Lethem’s New York resembles Susan’s world; nobody can go outside because the sun is preparing to die and the Earth’s water, where it still exists, has become toxic.
Becky told me to read Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s influence on Becky’s work is more conceptual. “It goes back to the reading and stimulating my mind with people that’re commenting on the digital age and its effect on us. William Gibson, those types of things. I share a similar view of the world and therefore in whatever depiction of the world, I’m operating in that same space, in my own way, contributing to that same conversation. ‘This is my take on this.’ At least in the concepts and the way I write stuff up, it’s all influenced by that kind of stuff.”
“It might be one idea they’ve given me that I constantly wanna speak to or constantly wanna hark back to as this is the world that I want to portray. I feel like music is an opportunity to cut out all this extraneous shit and make your own world, so if you’re gonna do that, why not make it really cool? And not real?”
Besides the desert of the real, Secretly Susan is obsessed with the tactile. Water has always shown up in prominent ways in Sui Zhen’s work. Her first album was called Two Seas, named for a stint in Bahrain with an ex step-mum. Body Reset came out of a feeling of cleansing while on an onsen tour around Japan, rinsing off the grime left by a disintegrating relationship. Secretly Susan opens with rushing waves. There’s a lot of visceral touch and sound.
“I loved Abe’s Odyssey. That was a huge influence. These things you don’t realize you absorb, but like, that-“ she puts on Abe’s voice “-‘Follow me’ — sometimes I think that’s what ASMR is — ‘Come with meee,’ ‘Okay’, really softly spoken. The way he jumps and he lands, it’s like he’s really slow to bounce up again. I used to just get Abe jumping. I’d make him do stuff not related to the game and just say, ‘Follow me, follow me,’ ‘Okay’.”
In the ‘Infinity Street’ video, Becky strokes a fern plant while barely audible voices scatter in the background. In another scene, she stretches rubber gloves over her fingers and dips them into jelly made to look like a brain. Becky is obsessed with these perversions, the sensations that arise from ostensibly mundane settings, meant to evoke unsettling but… pleasant feelings.
Becky is obsessed with these perversions, the sensations that arise from ostensibly mundane settings, meant to evoke unsettling but… pleasant feelings.
“They describe it as a tingling sensation from the top of your head down your body, but I think it’s like how doctors, or when you’re in some kind of medical procedure, or wellbeing procedure, someone’s doing something to your body, they’ll describe everything before they do it. So they’re like-“ she drops into a whisper “-‘I’m just going to touch your ear now, and it’s going to be a little cold,’ and they’d talk you through it and you’d feel calm, like ‘Ah, that’s good, I don’t have to think for a while, I just have to be ready to receive,’ and so this is kind of what ASMR is essentially.” When she imitates those doctors, her voice sounds kind of like Abe’s. “You’re getting a greater sense of enjoyment from something you shouldn’t, you putting focus on it turns it into a desirable object.”
Secretly Susan was inspired by several relationships, but one particular blemish remains stubborn.
“My sound engineer, Todd Dixon, he’s like, ‘I’m so glad you’re releasing this album after you guys broke up,’ ‘cos when we listened to the album there were a couple songs that were directly about certain things. It’s good that there’s some distance because that could be awkward otherwise.”
Becky is talking about her breakup with Andras Fox, with whom she played as Fox + Sui for several years. “I think it was good that we did something together and put it out there. I’m really glad. I’ve had relationships before where I’ve made an album worth of material with someone and not put it out because something ended badly, or it just ended, and that’s an equally valuable part of a time in my life where I created stuff, so it’s a shame that a personal relationship could affect the release of stuff I’ve made in the past. I think at the time I was like ‘This is so twee’ and I was being silly, I was always in a silly mood when doing that music, so it’s kind of fun to have done something I was so carefree about and not even constructing. It wasn’t belaboured over. People still wanna buy that music and still ask about it.”
The way Becky talks about Teri, they sound in love — the kind of in love where reality has always separated them and the dream of love has become enough.
Another relationship reveals Sui’s love of collaboration. ‘Dear Teri’ was a kind of letter sent to the dynamite force at the core of Le Butcherettes. The way Becky talks about Teri, they sound in love — the kind of in love where reality has always separated them and the dream of that love has become enough. They met at the Red Bull Music Academy in 2010, when all their material needs were met and all they were required to do was explore and experiment.
“One of the most engaged and present performers in her artform that I’ve ever seen, and even if the music itself is quite prog-rocky right now and not really my thing to listen to, I could always watch her perform, ‘cos she’s so visceral. She really gets in her body and finds something to release. She’s really punk in that way. If that means she’s gonna keep singing but she wants to climb that thing, well then she’ll shove the microphone in her mouth and climb that thing while singing, and then hit the drum with her head — not kidding, she’s like that.
“She used to do a lot more with effects, or props. Get fake blood or get a pig’s head and bring that on stage. She absolutely obliterated the Red Bull audience when we were in London. We performed at this small little venue, she started with just a kick drum, a microphone and a four string guitar — I don’t even know how it was tuned — she was singing something, commanding people’s attention, then she just exploded some fake blood thing, slid on the floor, then climbed up the wall, all while singing this song. Could be an audience of 10, could be 200, could be 5000, she’d do the same thing. She’s one of the most enigmatic people that I have ever experienced.”
“We have this connection that makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing by following our passions and that’s the right decision. When we write to each other it’s like checking in that you’re actually happy, the people you have around you are actually good people. We have that kind of relationship. She’d written some songs and sent them to me, just weird expressions of stuff, so that was one of the songs I wrote back to her, and it became a bit of a more jazzier thing. It’s about these nuances in a relationship with someone that you really appreciate and they might not know it, but you wanna acknowledge that, something really special, something really small.”
With her most beloved collaborator on the other side of the planet, locating Sui Zhen’s scene in Australia is tricky. Her band now includes Ashley Bundang and Alec Marshall of Hot Palms and who’re also connected to Zone Out, The Ocean Party, Totally Mild, and their constituent groups, but none of them are operating in the same way as Sui. A few years ago, the most obvious grab was //THIS THING//, a community of electronic producers and beatmakers including Galapagoose, Wooshie, Baba-X, Harvey Sutherland, Kane Ikin, Electric Sea Spider, Andras Fox and the like. But like their sister label Two Bright Lakes, //THIS THING// has essentially disbanded. “They come and go, these things,” Becky said, after singling out Baba-X as being one of the best producers in the country. “It’s a good starting point for a lot of people to recognize what they want to do, what they like. It helps you to work out where you belong.”
One answer might be in NO ZU. “That’s one of the more recent times that I’ve felt like I’m a part of something.” Becky joined NO ZU already in the mutual appreciation club with Nicolaas Oogljes, and now co-NO ZUers Cayn Borthwick and Mitch McGregor join Sui on stage as well.
The other is Remote Control, whose local subsidiary Dot Dash signed Sui Zhen for Secretly Susan. When Two Bright Lakes started floating news through the backchannels that they were going to stop releasing new records, Sui Zhen was adrift. At the time, around the end of ’14, everyone was getting ready to close doors for the year. When business reopened, even though international labels had come knocking, her first instinct was Remote Control.
“I went in and had a meeting by March. As soon as I sat there I gave them a plan, like ‘This is what I wanna do, just wanna do vinyl and digital, have all these digital ideas and have this world I’m creating,’ and they were like ‘That sounds good.’ A month later they got the contract sorted out and I was like ‘Oh, this is happening.’ I looked at their roster and they’ve been such a consistent representative of all these international acts for so long. Really traditional in the sense that they run it like a business, but a business that still has virtue, choosing artists that’re dedicated to their artform. I don’t really feel like Remote Control has a scene, which is what I like about it, ‘cos it’s just going off people’s different things. Their attitude towards the music, as well: I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and they’d fill out the foundation of that, which is help with the publicity and help with the stuff you need help with. And it was very easy.”
After we talk, Becky sends me a couple links to the Dropbox folders where she keeps the concepts for her videos. Pulling back the curtain on these ideas risks getting caught up in the trivia — Becky explained that she writes in a way that a song can be interpreted in different ways. “I always write songs with the intent that it might mean something to me then, but it might mean a different thing later. I always structure lyrics so that I can access them from different points.” — but these are too rich not to share.
You’re not meant to see how this universe spins… You’re only meant to see its consequences.
In a folder called Becoming Susan, she’s saved photos of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation and Julianne Moore in Safe, in which a homebound woman carries out mundane tasks while developing multiple chemical sensitivity, where everyday household products become her enemy.
The treatment describes a future where “interplanetary travel is possible and the world is no longer the rich blue and green we once knew it to be.” If ‘Infinity Street’ reveals the world, ‘Take It All Back’ reveals the character: “Susan is a manifestation of meta-data, her personality has been cultivated from the collective anxieties, hopes and dreams of the digital public. Susan is also an individual, someone’s digital doppelganger.” Her memory is eroding and she is desperately clinging to whatever she can. She says things like, “They tell me I’m a Virgo. But I don’t know what that means,” and “I like big dogs. I don’t know what they are. But there’s a picture of a large one on my bedside table.” Deep in another document, it’s hinted that Sui exists in Susan’s world — that Susan is, in fact, Sui’s digital doppelganger. Susan says the person she admires most is Sui. Susan says the person she despises most is Sui. This is the conflict of the created towards their creator.
From here you can infer all kinds of possibilities, like that Sui left Earth and with it, her surrogate self, discarded as easily as forgotten social networks and old blogs. Without the source of her personality Susan only has whatever was imprinted on her during their connection, which is now decaying. There’s enough here for a novel, but that’s not the point. You’re not meant to see how this universe spins, or Sui would show you. You’re only meant to see its consequence.
To that end, Susan is a fearsome character. It’s telling that she’s mostly fully realized in the video for ‘Take It All Back’, a song which Becky says was written from the perspective of someone she wishes wrote that song. Secretly Susan is dominated by that kind of projection and the need to interrogate it. It doesn’t fuck with vintage questions about whether offline is more virtuous than online, but its speculation on where things are headed is pretty damning. Do we opt for isolation now, in the arcane, or later, in the failed promises of connectivity? On Secretly Susan, everyone leaves eventually, one way or another. Whether that’s for the this world or another, it’s bound to be spectacular.