The London-based artist and FKA twigs collaborator talks about how taking a break from music and exploring her Chinese heritage influenced her new record
Like so many, the past year in lockdown has been a destabilising experience for Lucinda Chua, whose latest EP Antidotes 2 sees her rise from the ashes of her isolation to grapple with themes of identity and selfhood. “I think maybe I’d spent so much time focusing on my growth as a musician, I forgot that there was a person underneath,” she says.
The London-based singer, songwriter, composer, and cellist, who previously played in FKA twigs’ live band, is recognised for her spellbinding music. There are quietly powerful sweeping string arrangements and patient piano melodies that place as much emphasis in the space between sounds as the notes themselves. They are slow and delicately placed, rewarding a listener’s close attention with its textures. Her music unfolds gradually, with an intimate sense of both yearning and purpose – give them time, and their secrets will rise slowly to the surface.
On Antidotes 2, which follows 2019’s Antidotes I, Chua expands her unique sonic vocabulary, with subliminal textures. The project comes after a nine month hiatus where she stopped listening to and playing music entirely, instead, using the time to think about who she is outside of her artistry – “to question why I do what I do, how I find meaning,” she explains.
Keen to explore her Chinese heritage and to reaffirm her identity, she used embroidery to chronicle her learnings. “Ancient culture was my utopia,” she says. The result is a jacket decorated in colourful threads depicting mythical creatures and elemental symbols. She wears it in the music video for “Torch Song”. Set against the industrial backdrop of the Tate Modern Tanks, the hypnotic, one-shot video simmers. Against a swell of a delicate piano arrangement and with quiet resilience, Chua declares: “I will hold the candle for no-one”. “For me, this song is about rebirth and finding the inner strength to rise,” Chua says.
Below, Lucinda Chua talks the new terrain of Antidotes 2, unpacking her Chinese heritage, and drawing much-needed boundaries.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
Lucinda Chua: I’ve been told it’s like slowly getting into a warm bath.
Growing up, who and what influenced your sound and trajectory as an artist? What were those earliest inspirations? What music was played in your house?
Lucinda Chua: My dad played a lot of Nina Simone and Otis Redding, they were two very strong voices from my childhood. From my mum it was Pink Floyd and Jean-Michel Jarre, music that was quite spatial and explorative, like a movie or a book. I have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of chart music between 1996 and 1997. Some of those pop songs really got into my musical DNA there are so many gems from that era.
How have you been adjusting to creating music in the pandemic? How have you been coping?
Lucinda Chua: I took a very big break from making music, I think that’s how I coped. The year before the pandemic, I was travelling on tour a lot, writing, rehearsing, performing, and recording pretty non-stop. It was a big shock adjusting from that life to lockdown life. At the start when all the shows for the year got cancelled, I kind of launched into “I’m going to use this time to make an album”, but I think in reality, I was a bit burned out, and it took me a long time to give myself permission to rest and to figure out how to take care of myself. I think maybe I’d spent so much time focusing on my growth as a musician, I forgot that there was a person underneath.
I was fortunate enough to be put forward for Artangel’s ‘Thinking Time’ grant which was a total lifeline. I used the time to think about who I am outside of music and to question why I do what I do, how I find meaning. I went on a deep exploration of my Chinese heritage – learning traditional recipes, watching films, discovering ancient Chinese hairstyles, listening to audiobooks by East Asian authors, reading about Taoism, feng shui, learning to play Go. Ancient culture was my utopia. I taught myself to embroider by hand and it became a way to document the time. Being able to manifest something and watch it grow gave me structure and purpose. I started by embroidering my own dragon design, then a rabbit, fish, phoenix, snake, they became mini eras. I sewed all the creatures onto a black bomber jacket, I loved the idea that the time could become a garment I could wear.
When I started working on the visuals for the Antidotes release, it felt right to wear it in the music video for ‘Torch Song’, which is a song about feeling invisible. Being seen in the jacket felt like a reason to come out of musical hibernation. That shoot was my first time playing music in front of anyone in over a year. I directed the video myself, something I’ve never done before, and the performance is live – just a single take thing. But the jacket was like my suit of armour, it gave me courage and strength.
“Being raised as two halves, it can be hard to feel whole and sometimes I don’t know how to reconcile my identity. But I’m learning to accept it rather than fight it” – Lucinda Chua
What does your personal style and aesthetic say about you?
Lucinda Chua: Getting to author my own identity has been really important for me. Within my family, I’m the first born child of interracial parents. Less so now but definitely growing up, the things people would say about my appearance sometimes made me feel like a collection of parts that didn’t belong to me. Being raised as two halves, it can be hard to feel whole and sometimes I don’t know how to reconcile my identity. But I’m learning to accept it rather than fight it. Getting to have a visual identity as an ‘artist’ has been a way for me to explore the duality and the fluidity I feel within myself and a chance to be seen and believed for who I am inside. I can draw a boundary and be like ‘this is me’ rather than just feeling stuck with the label of ‘you are this’.
Also, I just really love making things! There is so much pleasure in having an idea or a visual in my head, and then figuring out how to do it. I made my own wings for the ”Until I Fall“ video that was directed by William Kennedy, they started out life as a cardboard box, some white feathers and PVA glue. We shot all of the angel scenes on location outdoors in the park, there was a little kid watching us from afar who pointed at me and said, ‘look mummy, it’s an angel!’ and I really felt like I was an angel!
What’s the inspiration behind Antidotes 2? How does it relate to its first iteration?
Lucinda Chua: Making this music has been my antidote, it’s been like living inside an alt-world I got to design and build. I have found so much freedom in the process of creating it - from writing and recording the songs to making my own costumes and dreaming up the imagery. I work quite intuitively, I don’t really think about a listener or an audience. But I hope that the philosophy resonates with people, and I hope that the people who need it can make their own antidote too.
With Antidotes 1, it was fun exploring the space and the terrain, like walking through different landscapes. With the production I would approach it like a film, except because it was audio, the story could be anything – a narrow corridor leading to another door opening onto an enormous sunrise melting into a very deep hole filled with a little whisper. Sometimes I’d have like 100 tracks in the session, so many layers on layers, I’d be three ensembles playing over the top of eachother with names like ‘ambient strings’, ‘drunk strings’, and ‘crying strings’ just to get one transition. With Antidotes 2, I didn’t feel the need to flex so much. I wanted to do less but take more risk, so I put myself inside it. I lived in those songs a lot longer before recording them, playing them live so they had time to grow before I made a recording. And then I took a lot of the scenery away, edited out all the tricks I did that were ‘cool’, until there wasn't anything left to hide behind. That was way more scary and exciting.
Who would you recognise as your peers right now, and what of their work do you respect?
Lucinda Chua: I worked very closely with Nhu Xuan Hua on the artwork for Antidotes. From splashing around with a spray water bottle in my kitchen-living room testing out ideas, to shooting the cover image totally drenched in the studio whilst listening to the Queen of The Damned soundtrack. I admire and respect her deep commitment to really living the work and I feel so proud of the imagery we created together. Alex Morris and Yerosha Windrich of BON played an integral part in helping me find my sound on “Until I Fall” which has totally shaped the way I think about creating music. I’ve spent so much time hanging out with them and their two cats, sharing food, swapping stories, and just talking about life. They are dear friends, mentors, and spiritual council.
Bianca Scout is an enormously talented multi-disciplinary artist, we have worked together on the movement and physical performance of both my music videos. I reached out to Tim Wan, who designed my logo, which interlocks the two Mandarin characters of my Chinese middle name. It was such a pleasure to work with him, he really took the time to listen and understand where I was coming from before guiding me step by step through a very clear design process. He helped me find my own meaning in a symbol I inherited but can’t read, and it felt like opening a door. And from life pre-pandemic, I can’t really get to the end of this interview without showing a whole lot of love to FKA twigs and the musical family I spent time with for the Magdalene tour – Kelly Moran, Lewis Roberts (Koreless), LJ Howe, and Cy An.
What ideas do you have for future work?
Lucinda Chua: I think I’m ready to start a new chapter. I just love learning new things and meeting new people. I hope with the lockdown ending I can go out and explore a bit more, live some new adventures, find new inspiration. If I can do all that, and eat some nice food, then I will be very content.
Lucinda Chua’s Antidotes 2 is out now via 4AD