It isn’t every day that I hear music from a badass Asian female artist. As we constantly fight for diversity across all fronts, it’s clear that even the music industry has a long way to go. With that, it’s important to branch out and listen to music from all types of artists and Che’Nelle is one of those artists that you need to listen to immediately. When I started listening to her music, I was completely awed by her powerful voice, sass, and confidence that she carries. I got to chat with her about some personal issues such as Asian representation in the music industry, how she got into music, and her new EP, Calm Before the Storm.
TYF: I come from a very conservative Asian upbringing and I was wondering what your upbringing was like and how your family responded to you wanting to be a musician?
Che’Nelle: I was born in Malaysia and then moved to Australia when I was ten. But we visited Malaysia often because my dad still worked there and had a karaoke business. He started the business when I was around 5 or 6 and that karaoke stage became the place where I learned I had a passion for singing.
High school was ok. I went to a Catholic high school pretending I wanted to be a super grade A academic student, haha. I was not the stereotypical Asian although I so badly wanted to be. I tried but my mind was always distracted by music. When I would fall asleep, I would constantly envision myself being on stage every night while the sounds of my mom and brother fighting were constantly in the background. It wasn’t often a peaceful house but when it was it was great in its own way.
My mom had a hard time adjusting to the new Australian ways of living and my dad was busy working his butt off to send us money. My parents’ relationship was broken and my although super talented got himself into trouble often. Those were my teenage years.
I had such an interest to learn and become knowledgeable in different cultures outside of Malaysia and Australia. I wanted to be open, communicative and expressive. I wanted to break out of the whole internal ways of dealing with problems. Songwriting allowed for me to explore that openness. Although I still find a lot of that suppressive way of thinking and feeling is still ingrained in me, I do cherish it and still find it beneficial at times, especially in business and personal settings.
My mother encouraged me to compete in singing competitions when we moved to Australia, I’m so grateful for that because she helped me with recognizing how shy I am as a person but my love for performing was louder and the only way to break out of that shyness and build confidence was to get up and sing in front of people lol I can’t say I was a natural. I had the talent but I had to train and develop that performing skill.
At 14, my mom allowed me to join a band and every weekend, I would be singing at small pubs and clubs. I was in that top 40 band oil when I was 20 years old. kinda crazy. My mom also pushed me to audition to get into WAAPA which was the music academy at Edith Cowan University. I wasn’t educated musically and didn’t even picture myself getting in but I did. They take 3 singers in a year and I got lucky that year and took me in as the 4th singer.
Growing up, I had a lot of support in terms of the encouragement I got in wanting to become a singer. When I began songwriting, it was a little harder for them to process what kind of career I could possibly gain from that. My dad had always wanted to be a singer so he was stoked that I loved singing and my mother loved singing too as she was the one that sung me to bed at night. She didn’t sing typical lullabies like twinkle twinkle little star and other songs that were similar. I remembered one of the bedtime songs coming from a sad movie. It was a song about a woman getting cheated on; this is probably why most of my songs consist of deep, dark love stories. Haha!
So despite all of the cultural differences and explorations, I was lucky to be encouraged and supported by my family.
TYF: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got discovered in Japan? What was that moment like?
Che’Nelle: When I released my first single in the states, “I Fell in Love with the DJ,” I was doing a radio tour. I think I did almost 40 states and at the end of it, I was told the song was not picking up and everything stopped. Just like that, I thought my life was over. However, Japan kept reaching out and even wanted an album. I completed the album, Things Happen for a Reason, with an aim to release it in Japan and Europe. I was asked to come out for promo and when I got out there I realized how huge the song was out there. It was crazy! I will never forget getting out there the first time. Wow! Everything from the people to the country itself was like nothing I have ever experienced.
TYF: As an Asian artist, what sort of challenges do you think you will face when breaking into the U.S market?
Che’Nelle: I have no idea. People will always find something to talk about, hate about, create obstacles about. I just got to make sure I don’t create those things for myself. I got to think of myself as just someone who loves music and has a passion to sing and perform. I have to continue to think of myself as a songwriter and inspire the world with my music. But that is not to say that I don’t take pride in where I come from or that I don’t love my culture. I just don’t want to have it used against me and would like to be embraced for the music I create.
TYF: I truly believe we need more Asian representatives in the entertainment industry. How will you and your music impact the diversity in the music industry?
Che’Nelle: I am half Chinese and half Indian and from a place called Sabah, Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia. I think it’s freaking cool because I haven’t heard of many artists who are from Malaysia go out to America, Japan, Europe etc. and do what I do in the way that I do it. So if I could be some sort of an example that dreams like mine are possible then I can truly say that that’s why I was put on this earth, to bridge the gap between east and west. There doesn’t have to be a separation. People who have dreams like mine can do it too.
I don’t really know how my music will impact the music industry. All I can go off by right now are how my fans and new listeners are reacting to my music and I’m grateful. It gives me hope that I’m on to something and I’m blessed with being able to live out my dreams. My music is diverse and has many influences and as long as people can relate to my stories then I’m on the right path. My journey has its own shares of struggles but its exciting and worth it at the same time.
TYF: Speaking of your fans, I heard that the fans of the JPOP music scene are very passionate. Can you describe your fan base?
Che’Nelle: They are so loyal, so sweet, so full of love and I cherish them now and forever.
TYF: Who are some your favorite JPOP artists that I have to check out ASAP?
Che’Nelle: AI, Crystal K, juju, Thelma, and Matt Cab.
TYF: Do you have any crazy fan stories that you’d like to share?
Che’Nelle: Not really, haha. Japan is quite a conservative country so the ‘crazy’ stories are quite normal in fan world, I reckon.
TYF: What would you say are the major differences between the Asian music scene and the U.S music scene?
Che’Nelle: Japan, for example, is known to be 5 years behind when it comes to music. 90’s R&B is still quite massive out here and a lot of Jpop songs is pretty much that with just a lot of extra sugar on top.
America is definitely way more experimental and thinking out the box and breaking new sounds happen way more than the music scene in Asia. Asia loves Karaoke; it’s a karaoke world. Ballads are still a huge part of the music scene.
TYF: Speaking of the U.S music scene, what made you want to break into the U.S market?
Che’Nelle: It wasn’t just the U.S, it was the world I wanted to break into. When I was discovered on Myspace, I got flown to New York and that was when I signed my first major label deal. it was so surreal. I didn’t know where to start or how to think. I do know that I can adapt and go wherever my music takes me hence why I been in Japan so much. Taiwan is another country that plays my music heavily. However, this year, I released new music with the aim of having it spread globally. Something inside of me said it was time to spread my wings beyond Japan.
TYF: Let’s talk about your new music. Tell us a little bit about your new EP, Calm Before the Storm?
Che’Nelle: It’s a batch of music that I like to call my ‘appetizers’. When I left the label to create music from scratch, I was figuring out what sounds and frequencies I wanted to naturally create. These songs showcase a lot of my personality. They show the fun me, sad me, excited me, encouraging me, sexy me, cheeky me, inspired and soul-searching me, haha. I titled it Calm Before the Storm because of there’s a ton more music that I can’t wait to release. The main course is coming!! Haha!
TYF: You touched base and told us a little bit about how the music in your new EP differs from your past music. But can you tell us a little bit more.
Che’Nelle: The music on my new EP is way more authentic, thought out, connected, risky, more substance and just more me. In all honesty, my past music was more like experiments and I basically went by what my managers thought was best for me.
TYF: Will you be going on a U.S tour in the near future? If so, which cities do you plan to visit?
Che’Nelle: Not yet but it’s in the works.
TYF: How do you usually warm up for a show?
Che’Nelle: Sleep, work out, and maybe do some vocal scales. I also drink some warm tea and stretch, haha.
TYF: If you could set up a playlist to listen to while on tour, what songs would you include in your playlist?
Che’Nelle: Usually when I’m on tour, I’m mostly listening to my songs because there’s always something I want to change or add. Or I’m practicing my Japanese songs because I don’t speak the language and want to always be prepared.
To learn more about Che’Nelle and her music, check out the video below: