ChaCha interview

Our 2012 archive interview with the producer and singer

After a triumphant return from the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid last year, Alexander Barlow checks in with Shanghai chanteuse ChaCha to find out what’s coming up in 2012. Portrait: Benoit Florencon

In January 2010, Time Out profiled local musician ChaCha for our Shanghai launch issue. ‘I’m not that good really,’ she told us nervously at the time. ‘My level’s not that high – I still have a lot to learn.’ Two years later we wait for the singer in a café and she arrives with an almost business-like self-assurance. ‘Sorry we’re late,’ she says briskly as she takes a seat next to her manager and husband (co-founder of The Shelter, Gareth Williams). ‘I’ve just been sending my a cappella to a producer and it takes ages.’

We start by showing her the article. ‘Back then there were so many questions’, she says smiling. ‘I wasn’t really sure of what kind of singer I could be – or whether I could even sing professionally.’ Now, though, she’s much more confident of her talent; happy, at last, to call herself a musician (she quit her job late last year to go full time). ‘It was very confusing, I was struggling,’ she says. ‘Then suddenly, it happened, it opened up’.

‘It’, of course, has been a heck of a ride. ChaCha has not only cemented her standing as one of Shanghai’s most feted underground singers, but has performed in Europe, produced tracks with the likes of Hyperdub head honcho Kode9, Finnish dub maven Desto and produced her debut album as AM444 with Amsterdam producer Jay Soul. Last year, on her second attempt, she was inducted into the coveted Red Bull Music Academy, a two-week workshop in Madrid for some of the world’s brightest up-and-coming musical talent.

Time KODE9 & MC Spaceape- Feat. Cha Cha by chachachina

For musicians worldwide, RBMA is a huge deal. But she waves away the significance of being the first ever mainland Chinese to enter the programme. ‘It didn’t matter,’ she says. ‘There were all kinds of nationalities there. We just thought it was like the most amazing high-school party’.

Days were scheduled with lectures and workshops before performances in the evening. ‘We partied pretty hard. I was getting two hours sleep a night, max,’ she says. Again, it’s a stark contrast to the shy, pixie-sized songstress we met in 2010. ‘I like being quiet and staying in listening to music,’ she said demurely back then. ‘I’m not a party girl.’

Chacha performing in Madrid as part of the 2011 Red Bull Music Academy

But despite now being comfortable in a club setting and the obvious highs of the past two years, the singer insists she’s stayed grounded. ‘I’m not proud of anything I’ve done just because it was with a big name from a big label,’ she says. ‘I don’t care about that.’ Instead, it’s Eye Wonder, the jazz-tinged, trip-hop EP released last year with Jay Soul as AM444 that she says is her most important work to date. ‘It was all so confused. Before I was working with different producers in different styles. If you put them altogether, there’s no concept there, nothing that represents ChaCha’s music.’

As a self-proclaimed devotee of trip-hop before reggae and dub, Eye Wonder was, she adds, the album she always wanted, and needed, to make. ‘For the first time I had 100 per cent freedom. With Eye Wonder I released a lot of things I’d been carrying with me for a long while,’ she says. ‘When it was finished, I felt I could go forward, lighter.’

AM444, 'Eye Wonder', video courtesy of Fly Films.

Currently working on tracks with Jamaican rhythm-section legends Sly & Robbie alongside Beijing’s MC Webber, the offers from big-name producers keep coming in. But it’s AM444 that will be the focus of 2012 with another EP out later this year. It will, she hopes, help her connect with a local audience that she laments as mostly indifferent to homegrown talent. ‘It’s a strange feeling,’ she says. ‘Yeah, I’m happy that lots of Western people are interested in my music. But I’m a Chinese singer, I sing in Chinese. All the stories hiding behind my lyrics, if you can’t understand them, you can’t understand my music,’ she says. ‘I need that connection with the audience – and foreigners can’t give me that.

‘That’s why I also want to concentrate on building the local scene this year,’ she adds. The evolution of The Shelter gives her hope that tastes are broadening. ‘When I first started gigging there, it was 95 per cent foreigners,’ she says. ‘But four years later, it’s half and half. That’s major progress.’ There’s still a deficit she’d like to balance, though. ‘More Chinese are following the Western scene,’ she says. ‘They really go for the big DJs [that come here]. But when some really fresh Chinese musicians come along, nobody cares.’

这已经不是第一次/This is Not the First Time- ChaCha+Webber王波 by chachachina

To this end, South meet North, her pan-China beat invitational dedicated to showcasing unsung musicians from across the country, will be her other main project this year. ‘It’s not just a show,’ she says of the event that debuted last September at The Shelter and MAO Livehouse. ‘I want it to be a learning experience. I want to show there’s more to Chinese music than shitty Hong Kong pop.’

Throughout the interview, ChaCha speaks passionately about her upcoming projects. But she shuffles uneasily at the thought of being described as a success, or even the idea that she’s become a leading beacon of Shanghai’s underground scene. ‘I don’t like to promote myself,’ she says. ‘You know, I’m not going to sit in front of a computer all day asking people to like me – I want it to be more organic.’ Instead, it seems, she’s navigating her talent on her own unhurried terms. As we end, she smiles broadly and leaves us with the same endearing sense of underplayed, sotto voce optimism as the last time we met. ‘I’m just lucky’, she insists with trademark modesty. ‘I’m just doing the right things at the right time. Hopefully things will work out, little by little.’

Eye Wonder is available at
Hear more from ChaCha at