Fiona Soe Paing - Asian influence leaves its mark

Fiona Soe Paing is giving directions to the recording studio she uses. Eleven miles outside Turriff, where she’s lived for the past five years, we pass through the village of Pitsligo and reach a café in the middle of a field, the not inappropriately named Lost Café. Here, in a facility converted from the hull of a trawler with sound booths created from giant industrial drums, Soe Paing lays down some vocals before emerging for a vegan lunch.

This Dr Who-like setting in deepest Aberdeenshire is perhaps an unlikely location for the creation of a strain of world music that might best be described as Burmese electronica. But Soe Paing’s endeavours are beginning to create waves.

She’s already come to the attention of the late Charlie Gillett, the great musical adventurer who gave first British airplays to artists including Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita and who included Soe Paing’s song Tamin Sah Pade on one of his esteemed Sound of the World compilations. More recently she’s also received a tweet of approval from one of the kings of synth-pop, Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode, and had enthusiastic reviews and Radio One airplay for her Tower of Babel EP.

Which is not bad for someone who only really got into her stride as a musician when music technology began to become more generally affordable over the past decade and who would be the first to admit that her Burmese lyrics might not stand up to scrutiny by a native speaker.

“Charlie Gillett picking up Tamin Sah Pade was a huge boost and a total shock,” she says. “I put it up on my MySpace page and he somehow found it and liked it. But I think he might have mistakenly thought I was Burmese when what I do is really just use Burmese words as a sound. I’m not trying to sing in Burmese, just looking to convey a feeling. I’m actually quite worried that someday someone’s going to pull me up on my pronunciation.”

Soe Paing’s father was Burmese. He died when she and her brother were very young. She grew up on the outskirts of Aberdeen with her Scottish mother and apart from playing elementary piano as a youngster, she had no real thoughts on a music career. Her background is in performance art, having studied at Aberdeen University for a year before moving on to the London School of Contemporary Dance.

“It was really through dance that I got into music,” she says. “When you’re choreographing a piece you have to get to know the music you’re dancing to so intimately and that made me think about trying to see if I could make my own music.”

After college she sang pop with an all-girl band and had an acoustic group with cello, violin and guitar before drifting around for a few years and living in New Zealand. When she moved back to Scotland she hunted high and low for a band that might share her musical vision but in the end she turned to computer-generated sounds.

“I have a keyboard but I’m quite impatient – and a bit lazy, to be honest - and if an idea comes to me, I want to get it down immediately,” she says. “So discovering an affordable laptop with a virtual keyboard was a godsend. I use the Logic sequencer programme and I’ll put down a rough vocal with the internal microphone and once I’m ready to add the final vocal I go off to the Lost Café, where they’re been incredibly supportive.”

The idea of singing in Burmese came after she realised that she had a habit of slipping into a fake American accent when singing in English. She has been to Burma – on holiday some years ago – but after her father died, all contact with his family was lost. So in trying to maintain a connection with her father’s roots, she brought a Burmese phrasebook back from holiday and turned to it to provide lyrics for her electronic songs.

“The other thing about singing in English is that you can put a very definite picture in people’s minds,” she says, “whereas, if you just give them a sound and suggest a feeling, they can form their own impression of what the music’s about.”

Her preferred modus operandi is to collaborate with film and visual artists. Tower of Babel comes with a DVD featuring animations by New Zealand artist Zennor Alexander and artwork by Phil Thompson and her ambition is to work in venues where sound and vision can be presented together without audiences expecting some sort of stage show.

“I’ve done gigs but I’m not a band and I don’t jump around, so when there’s just me and my laptop, it looks like I’m answering emails,” she says. “I’m working on a single and I have enough material now for an album, so I’m hoping that the attention Tower of Babel’s been getting might interest a record label, and if that happened it would be ideal to take the music and images on a tour of art house cinemas. That’s where I really want to be.”

From The Herald, December 19, 2012.

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