If you want to express longing in music, make a dream pop song.
Cocteau Twins understood this: everything they created drowned in near-cataclysmic yearning, and in their amorphous sounds and Elizabeth Fraser’s oft-unintelligible words, we were allowed to long for whatever we wanted in each song’s ephemerality.
Expressing such a sense of longing is something that Tāmaki Makaurau’s fine purveyors of dream pop, Phoebe Rings, have exceedingly achieved in their new single, “아스라이 Aseurai”.
The band’s leader, Crystal Choi, was thinking of her grandmother, who sadly passed away around the time she was writing the lyrics; that her grandmother had been largely separated from Crystal for a significant part of her life made the emotions stirring behind the songwriting even stronger.
Maybe that’s why Crystal wrote it in her mother tongue of Korean, wishing to pull closer to the grandmother she’d hoped to have spent more time with on earth through song and shared language. It also helped that the song being in Korean “resonated more naturally with the melody and the content of the lyrics,” according to Crystal.
As the musician pondered in an interview with Rat World, though, sometimes Korean songs are better at revealing introverted emotions than English ones. In the same interview, she admitted to finding the translated English lyrics to “아스라이 Aseurai” as “so cringe.”
Crystal has lived in Aotearoa for longer than she did in Korea, meaning she speaks perfectly half-and-half between English and Korean, but when it comes to art, a distinction emerges: “I can read news articles and stuff, but when I read novels… or poetry… it takes a long time to read in English,” she revealed to Rat World.
Crystal is not unique here: with few exceptions, artists always express themselves more fully in their native language. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” after all.
The end result of Phoebe Rings’ song, for this listener and other English-speaking listeners, is similar to Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven or Las Vegas” or “Cherry-coloured Funk”, but through limited language skills rather than not being on Elizabeth Fraser’s alien wavelength: the impressionistic mystery of the words allows to source our own meaning in the song.
This all sounds overly poetic, and the heart and meaning behind Phoebe Rings’ song will inevitably appeal to the poet, but the song’s sound is, crucially, inviting.
Rather than sounding akin to Cocteau Twins’ ethereal effects, which can make one prone to enervation, “아스라이 Aseurai” is decidedly light and breezy, relaxing into its disco-shimmer grooves at a pleasing pace, offering comfort and cosiness. Lush strings – played by Charmian Keay and Kathleen Tomacruz – enhance the arrangement. There’s a reason that the song was a staple of the band’s live set for two years before its official release this month.
The Auckland quartet – Crystal is joined by fine local musicians Benjamin Locke (Sea Views), Simeon Kavanagh-Vincent (Lucky Boy^), and Alex Freer (A.C. Freazy) – have only one self-titled EP behind them, but with the band being one of the first recipients of NZ On Air’s New Music Pan-Asian Fund, there will hopefully be a follow-up record on the way soon, regardless of “아스라이 Aseurai” being billed as a standalone single.
Phoebe Rings’ “아스라이 Aseurai” is out now.