Moving from Berlin to Shanghai means rethinking music for Rui Ho, who searches for a way to make her sound the most powerful.
The Chinese musician channels futuristic hyper pop, experimental music and identity politics on her album Lov3 & L1ght while addressing transgender love. In conversation with Kasia Jaroch, Rui Ho reflects on her return to China in March 2020, her encounter with the cultural scene there and the dreams and challenges of a non-binary pop singer.
Let’s start with your return to China. I would love to hear about your life there and about the way Shanghai influences your music.
It’s a significant change, to be honest, much bigger than expected. I came back because of COVID-19 and it has been pretty good so far. It’s a different place than Berlin, where I lived for five years and where everyone is taking their time. In Shanghai, there are so many exciting projects, but you really need to work and collaborate with many different people to stay on top of it all. It’s a lot of pressure.
So, apart from some collaborations with fashion brands, composing music for their shows, I haven’t really produced much here. But it was an interesting experience for me because I wasn’t really creating things with other people back in Berlin, it was mostly just my own work.
What made you start collaborating with others?
It’s just the industry here. People need bigger productions. Whereas in Berlin, people mostly focus on their personal projects. In Shanghai, there’s a lot of money around and people are interest-driven. Everyone has that business mindset. There are no government funded projects like in Berlin. One needs to see the results right away. Europe is quite protective of arts and music. You’ve got festivals and art institutions that invite artists to collaborate or buy their art, so artists earn money from that, so they don’t need to worry that much about the market as you do here in China. Projects happen faster in Shanghai, though. If you bring something new to the table, people are instantly interested and can’t wait to start working with you. But you never know what’s going to happen next, which is exciting but also frightening at the same time.
Does Shanghai also meet some of your needs?
It’s something that I’m still figuring out. I’m in the process of building up a dialogue with the audience here. In Europe, you get an audience that is appreciative of different kinds of art forms. They go to parties and expect dance music or go to festivals if they want more experimental sound. But it’s all new in China. You have a massive population that is also cut off from the global media. So, there are different media, trends.
Shanghai is like the place to be right now in China — because we have the freedom to go out and party or to organize festivals. So, it’s a good environment. People are curious and there’s an opportunity to make things happen. So, when I see new scenes emerging and and I can feel that people are happy with what I do, it feels great..
How do you establish a successful communication with the Chinese audience, then?
For example, I need to start writing songs in Chinese…which is not easy, trust me. The Chinese audience is not as well informed as in the West. Genre differentiation is a very western way of thinking about music, for a start. Here, people’s taste in music is based on what they hear in a supermarket or on TV. For instance, rock music is getting super popular again in China because of this one TV show, »The Big Band«. People are still trying to figure out ways to popularize electronic music here. One barrier is that the audience here is not that familiar with this music and doesn’t know how to appreciate a live electronic music performance.
Do you have any thoughts on the LGBTQ+ community? How does life look like in Shanghai for a transgender person?
The first thing to know is that the government doesn’t want society to change too quickly, so you can’t be too open here. But at the same time, as long as you don’t cross the line, the government wouldn’t stop you from doing what you’re doing. In the West, people express their political views because of the democratic system more freely, but I also know a drag queen who might be about to become the most famous influencer in China. It comes to show that, actually, you can be an LGBTQ+ person and have more freedom than you would expect. It’s a very different way of building up your social profile and artistic vision here. There are a couple things that you are not allowed to do in public. The tricky part is to know how to navigate these.
In the press coverage of your latest album, you mentioned that you grow through your music. Could you tell me about that personal growth vis-à-vis your albums?
It’s an interesting question. Not many people ask me about that and, yet, there’s truly a storyline. Every project I put out there is like a reflection of the stage of my life at the time. My first EP, 戰記, published via Genome 6.66 Mbp, was about the war I was having with myself when I moved from Paris to Berlin — I was switching from being a gay boy to being a non-binary and transgender person during that time. That’s why the music was so intense, with all that was going on in my life. I was also reconnecting with China at that time, so when Genome 6.66Mbp launched, I was super excited.
The next project, Becoming Is An Eventful Situation, is calmer and also represents a more introspective period in my life. I stayed in Berlin for more than a year and wanted to do something less clubby and more narrative-driven. It was around the time I started transitioning, I started to open up to people.
With In Pursuit Of The Sun, I intended to communicate a simple message: »You came here and you should dance. On my side, it’s very intense and you would feel it.« It was straightforward, the energy that I wanted to give back to the people at the club.
The last album, »Lov3 & L1ght«, is again an introspective one. It’s not simple at all, what with all the storyline behind it. I was very particular in the arrangement of songs to emphasize the narrative structure. I used my voice and I think I succeeded in creating a complete personality on the album. I wanted to show myself from so many different angles. Also, the idea was to make something that people would understand, hence the poppy style and straightforward lyrics. In the end, I still feel that the project is a little overproduced and a bit too complicated, but still, that’s me.
What is the meaning of the non-normative title of your latest album?
I wanted the sound and the whole concept to be futuristic. The hyper pop genre was a huge influence. It also feeds from the internet culture and writing. The 0/1 system is important too.
Is your album also futuristic with regards to its concept? It’s about love, but love can mean many different things.
The most important theme running through the whole album is being a transgender person and the possible ways to find love within the internet and IRL. I think, talking directly about love as a transgender artist is quite a futuristic topic. You can’t avoid talking about identity politics while talking about transgender love.
If you listen to Britney Spears’s songs, you don’t have to think about the politics behind them. The greatest gay icons in the history of pop were always biological women, but now it’s changing. Dorian Electra or Lil Nas X are pushing the boundaries, and they can’t avoid being political. Taking hormones, modifying your body, transitioning — it’s such a futuristic concept! At the same time, it’s a very challenging process for a transgender person. The album is about that. I wanted to make something simple for everyone, but there’s always something highly complex going on in the background. When you look at the future, you’d expect it to be about diversity. The album takes on these issues.
Does your last album reflect your personality on the musical level as well?
You see a lot of artists continuously changing their artistic language. I feel like that’s happening to me, too. There are all these genres I like on the album. It could even be selfish on my part that I want to put everything I like into one project. I intend to create a dialogue with the audience, so I need to be more selective in the future, maybe (laughs).
»Lov3 & L1ght« uses a lot of vocal effects – what role does voice transformation play in your music?
It’s the biggest thing that’s happening on the album. It has to do with my transition. I already felt that I’m transsexual at a very young age, but I decided not to pursue this, primarily because of my voice. You can do everything else physically, but the voice is the most challenging thing to feminize. It has been a big struggle. As a child, I wanted to be a singer, but my voice was the biggest obstacle. I was taking hormones for a year, but I stopped because I felt that if I cannot change my voice, I won’t bother with the rest. I have taken classes with a voice coach, who helps me with my vocal transitioning, and a lot of topics that we discuss are to do with how to make my voice a female voice. »Lov3 & L1ght« was something I wanted to make for a very long time. With that autotune, it still doesn’t make it what I was hoping it could be. But it’s a long journey. I hope the audience will have the patience to wait until I find something that I feel comfortable with. My music so far shows the process, which is also an exciting way for people to discover me as an artist. I’m still trying to figure out what I want my voice to be artistically. If you’re a transgender musician, you have to face these questions. It’s a process, always.