Helen Feng: Electro Pop Nova Heart's Ethereal Star

By Yinmai O'Connor, July 5, 2024

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Psychedelic electronic pop group Nova Heart formed all the way back in 2011, and quickly gained an underground fanbase.

Then, last year they took part in the third season of rock variety show The Big Band, placing second. And, just like that, they have gone mainstream, becoming well-known throughout China.

Born in Beijing, Nova Heart frontwoman Helen Feng moved to the United States when she was six years old, later earning a scholarship to the University of Southern California to study business and music, before returning to China to work for MTV. 

Feng has been in a number of bands, including electro-rock outfit Pet Conspiracy, but this recent renaissance has truly showcased her talent as a singer and songwriter.

We caught up with her after two sold out nights in a row in Beijing, before she headed off for the rest of her seven-city 'We Wear the Mask' China tour.

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Photo cred: Killarb

The show on this tour is a big production. How was the concept developed and implemented?
The concept was a mix of mine and [director of the show] Ding Dong's. I came up with the original concept, then he added stuff to it, then I added stuff to it.

So, it kind of grew out of that first; I mapped it out for him, then he made it much more professional.

Then we brought it to the technicians, and they did their own creative bits. A lot of the creative stuff was centered around my original concept, so I had to kind of oversee a lot of stuff.

The mask came in later. It was during one of the creative meetings we had, and then we made that the central element of the whole show.

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Generally, everyone involved is pretty on top of their game so far. Almost all of them on some level work with major artists. So they're all coming on board because they like working with us.

The VJ works on really, really big productions and is on a cut-rate that was specially done for us. Normally, nobody at this live house level can afford such a group of people.

All of the visuals were tailor-made for us for this show. Everything you see, a lot of 3D stuff was generated just for this show. Every creative involved in this is Chinese. So I'm pretty proud to be part of it. And that there's so much talent locally based.

We carted in almost 90% of the lighting ourselves. It’s like two trucks full that we will be shipping to the different cities, because for certain things like the lasers that we're using, it's very specific. They are huge lasers.

We pretty much have to have a sold-out show to break even. It's something that five, 10 years ago wouldn't have been possible for a show like this.

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How did your parents accept your desire to be a musician?
They didn't have to accept my desire. I think they've been implanting me with this gene since before I was born.

Both my parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution. They were sent down to Mongolia and music is how you court in Mongolia. And it’s your entertainment. Everything in your life is just singing.

They both had apparently what were considered the best singing voices in their troop. They knew each other from when they were growing up in Beijing, but they didn't fall in love until they were in Mongolia.

My mom and my dad always joked that whatever child they have, that child was going to be into music.

So pretty much from as young as I can remember, my family surrounded me with music; my dad bought me a piano when I was only four years old –  which was unheard of in China at that time – and that was my start with my music education.

So, there was not one second of my life where I felt like my family didn't encourage me in that respect.

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Can you describe your song writing process?
I write them vocally and, because I know how to play the piano, I also use Ableton Live and other apps.

You can use midis to create pretty much almost every instrument, and I have a pretty decent rhythmic understanding, so between those things I can pretty much do a composition.

I normally just start with the foundational composition, and then I leave space for other people to put their input in.

So maybe I start with what the basic chords will sound like, maybe a few melodic hooks for the general direction or themes, and then the most important thing, of course, is the vocal line.

Maybe without the lyrics, I 'Bono it,' which is just like I sing gibberish, and then lay over the chords and the melodic structures that I made, and then I just kind of eliminate and add and eliminate and add until something kind of feels right.

I give it to Bo Xuan, because for me a piano chord just has a different feel than a guitar chord, and he adds his inventive elements. I find like those dissonant notes from that, and then I kind of build on top of it. 

So, it's like a really organic process with different people working on it. Normally, I have at least one writing partner, but some tracks I just write completely on my own.

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Do you feel your songwriting style was changed since motherhood?
Yeah, I think your brain changes. There's literally a very powerful change that happens to your brain, and I think prior to having a child I was really, really zoomed in on details so much that I would lose the line of everything just in my life in general and everything else. 

After having a baby, and having to deal with a baby where you're multitasking full time, you also have to keep this darn little thing alive and healthy and growing and hopefully not traumatized.

This entire time you're trying to figure this out, and being a single mom, and also trying to figure out the other elements in your life. Sometimes stupid little things like ‘How do I take out the trash?’ become so complicated.

What I realized going through my songwriting process is that your brain is a muscle, and you can learn to train it, and having a child trains the brain if you allow it to.

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How did being on The Big Band affect your career?
It's a breakout show and it kind of made people who are just moderately well-known into stars. 

I think we were on the third season. So that also affected how much it changed things since people had already gotten two seasons of this and it wasn't as fresh as before.

But we got second place on the show, and it was a bit early for us to go on it because we had just reformed, but at the same time, it's allowing me to pay for my kid's school.

It's allowing me to do this tour with this big technical aspect. We don't have to dread and worry about making money and putting all of this effort and time into the technical side.

It's allowing me to have a pretty decent life in China right now.


We Wear the Mask Tour

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[All photos are courtesy of Nova Heart]

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