Victoria Cheong aka New Chance is the latest signing to We Are Time records, a label that seems intent on releasing only the most captivating independent music. Emerging out of the Toronto DIY scene, Cheong has spent the last decade or so creating a name for herself, thanks to her enigmatic live performances that both seek to challenge and encapsulate the audience. Outside of New Chance Cheong provides backing vocals for folk artist Jennifer Castle and New York post-punk outfit Chandra.
Cheong’s debut album Real Time is an exploration of just that, the flows and ebbs of the one thing we all wish we had more of. Soundtracked by a collection of songs that both exist in their own worlds whilst drawing aspects of the real world in to amalgamate into something that at its core will leave you entranced. Through elements of retro-rave beats, ambient synths and club-worthy samples Cheong has created an album that is ultimately fascinating, you never know which turn it will take next. We caught up with Victoria to learn all about its creation and her time as an artist up to this point.
Over what time and whereabouts was the album written and recorded?
About half of it was written before the pandemic and partly when I was performing and about half of it was written during the pandemic. I did all of the recording on my own at home during lockdown. So over a period of 9 months in 2020.
Did the lockdown give you a chance to work on ideas that you wouldn’t of had time to do otherwise?
I would have been on tour with other projects for most of 2020, but then obviously they all got cancelled and there was nothing left to do but to work on my own stuff. Which turned out to be a blessing in the sense that I’d been struggling to find the time for a number of years.
When writing songs you like to play them live to adapt them and change them based on that moment, did the last year without shows change the way you wrote the songs for the album?
Yeah totally, I ended up writing in the studio and I haven’t yet even figured out how to play those songs live. I also added so many vocal layers that I need to now figure out how to bring them into a live environment because it’s always just been me solo before. So it was a bit different and I learned a lot about recording because I’ve been a bit more of a performing artist than a recording artist in the past.
What was the biggest thing you learnt?
I think you can get away with a lot in a performance setting. In a way you just have to be very present which is its own thing and being with an audience which is its own challenge. On recordings songs are so different because you’re trying to achieve this idealised version of the song that represents it forever more. I just learned to get into all the details and to really flesh out parts and be a bit more dynamic with the instrumentation.
Do you think once you get back to a live setting they’ll evolve further than what they are at the moment?
I haven’t really imagined that but probably! They’ll have to be adapted and I would like to perform with singers so I would be open to changing arrangements and things like that to keep it interesting. I’m always open to re-interpreting the songs.
What do you think it is about that live space that allows that different kind of creativity to flow?
It’s the presence. You’re forced to present with whatever’s happening and when it’s over it’s over and never to be seen again. You’re just working with the energy of the moment and not trying to archive something.
You’re feeding off everything that’s going on.
It’s interesting too, having been not in those settings. Most of us haven’t been in those settings of being in a space with other people with loud music. Even just those simple elements are actually so complex. It’ll be interesting to try and step back into that, there’ll probably be a renewed sense of what all those elements contribute to. Especially after being on zoom or online and having that stand in for these real world experiences with audiences.
Are you excited or nervous to get back playing?
I think nervous because it’s been a long time actually. The last show I played was in December of 2019, so it’s been kind of a long time. I’ll have to rehearse and figure it out! Ultimately i’m excited and i’m sure it will give me something.
What was the main theme that you were trying to explore on the album?
The over-arching theme of the album is the title (Real Time) and as well as the artwork lends itself to this exploration of time. The cycles of time and our different kinds of relationships to it. It’s a pretty broad idea but I think it’s something that’s come up a lot, especially during the pandemic where our perception of time has changed. And that has something to do with our daily activities, it’s slowing down in some ways but then you go “Wow it’s been over a year since I played a show!” that doesn’t feel real. It’s this idea of “Real Time” and it’s not like I have the answer, it’s just a questioning around it.
The cover photo was a photo taken by your grandfather, does your family influence your art in any other ways?
It’s not typical for me to use my family in my artwork but it ended up being influential in this project. I had these bonsai scrapbooks of my grandfathers where he kept photos his plants and cutouts of magazines. I was fascinated by and felt connected to these scrapbooks because it’s such an interesting way to see through someone else eyes in a way. The photos that are on the cover are this night-blooming cactus that only blooms one night a year, so my grandfather would stay up to photograph it. I ended up reinterpreting these photos by turning them into cyanotype blueprints and using for the cover that show the bloom and the aftermath of the bloom, which is the wilting.
Is it the change within such a short time that captured what you wanted the album to represent?
On the whole it just represents a cycle. It’s just a very clean metaphor for the cycles of life and death. But its also something that’s relatable as a performer, the amount of energy that goes into a show that’s unseen not that glorified. The show, the big event, the production and then there’s the aftermath of that and to me all the parts of that cycle are interesting. And I think on the record the sound world is really just reflective of my personality, it’s very interested in a lot different kinds of moods and textures. Not just the kind of exclusive good looking ones.
How would you describe your sound? It incorporates elements of electronic music and ambient sounds but what do you look for when creating these songs?
That’s tough to say in a way. But any given song to me is its own world and I’m feeling my way through how to best represent that world in the greatest amount of transportive detail. So I do tend towards a lot of atmosphere and texture. I also just listen to a lot of different kinds of music and am interested in all kinds of different music, so I think as a listener of course I pick up influences from all kinds of different places. Which end up unintentionally being referenced in my music.
It’s a melting pot of influences for you.
I think so yeah. For example there’s a track where the beat is almost footwork inspired but then there’s another song that’s all vocals Bobby McFerrin style. Totally different but still a part of the magical world that I’m creating.
Is getting lost in those worlds something you try to achieve with each song?
I don’t think I try to achieve that but I’ve had people respond that way and say that it’s almost a world that you can step into and be in. And I like the idea that people are able to have that experience, that if you choose to get into it there’s a lot to discover. It’s almost like a multi-dimensional world. I really appreciate that but I’ve never thought about it consciously.
It’s more finding interesting sounds for you?
Yeah definitely and saying that “this is the feeling” so how can I flesh that out and what different sounds are going to help bring that to life.
For me personally the album has quite a meditative quality to it. Is that something you considered when writing it?
Loop based music lends itself to creating a hypnotic or meditative feeling. I’m sure that’s an influence in a way in terms of composition. But I’ve never set out to make something that’s specifically meditative. I don’t have much experience with meditation but I am drawn to the aesthetic of it and the idea of surrendering a certain part of the mind and allowing yourself to journey. I get the sense that meditation offers that but I don’t really practice! I would like to and I think it’s really called for in these intense times. To be able to use whatever tools are available to us in order to heal or find an inner strength, to cultivate a resilience both mentally and emotionally.
“Fallen” song has a lot of bird sounds and natural sounds playing throughout. How much does the natural world inspire your music?
The natural world in that sense is everything. I have such reverence for it, anything you need to know about music you can find in nature. Anything that you want to be interested in, wether it’s the voice and singing or just different rhythms. Just the sonic scape of the outside world is endlessly interesting, it’s more just a question of what your attention is on and what you’re listening to and if you’re listening. Which i’m not always but it does give me a lot when I put my attention to it. It’s so available to us but we tune it out a lot. “Fallen” has a field recording from Tobago first thing in the morning and it’s so rich with life and there’s so much happening that it’s such a busy living world even though it’s just a small island. It’s almost a representation of vitality and the interconnectedness of living things.
Did you go out and look for those field recordings or did you just hear it?
I wasn’t looking for it but I had my little zoom recorder with me on my one vacation of life haha! It’s just something you notice when you’re travelling, your senses are more heightened anyway and you notice all the differences that you would take for granted in your normal day. In Tobago in the morning which is the crack of dawn everything starts making noise and it’s echoing over the water, you can’t not notice it.
That was a world that you didn’t have to create, it was already there.
Yeah that was a world that I just put my voice in and I wanted it to feel like I was there.
Do you think over the last year everyone’s had time to reconnect with the natural world?
In Toronto now the hot ticket on a Friday night is now going to the hill and watching the sunset which I’m not sure as many people were doing before when there were more options and that’s a really beautiful thing to see. It definitely feels like a positive change in the sense that people are appreciating the world that we live in. It’s very grounding and we’ve needed to feel okay because the future feels so uncertain.
Does your work with other projects as part of the Toronto DIY scene influence your sound at all?
Yeah usually in other bands i’m a backup singer so writing different vocal parts, and all that stuff was very influential to the vocals on this record. Just learning how to put backing vocals into songs and also wanting that vibe, wanting the voice to be very present and take up space and have personality. Definitely from back up singing i’ve realised that audience really respond so immediately to singing and the voice. Backup singers are usually considered the least important members of the band in a way but I know from my experience at least that audiences really connect with harmonies, singing and just the voice in general.
What do you think it is about the human voice that’s so captivating?
It’s such a fundamental way of connecting with people. I tend to think of it as heart centered communication, it’s emotional. You can communicate so much through the instrument of the voice and it’s immediately received and understood as a human emotional experience.
It’s also a lot more adaptable than say a guitar.
There’s so much you can do to the voice in the studio now, just editing and treating it with autotune and that kind of thing. I’ve heard people that can just sing like that or imitate it, the human voice can just imitate anything. It’s just interesting how the voice can adapt and evolve to whatever the influential sounds may be that people hear. Like not knowing that it wasn’t autotune or some kind of effect but it was their voice working really hard to produce some kind of effect.
How long have you been a part of the DIY scene in Toronto and what is it about those communities that’s so important?
I’ve been a part of them for around 15-20 years and they’re so important as they’re place for nurturing and a place to grow. There’s also a lot of cross pollination and inter-connected collaboration available. I think it fosters community which is important otherwise you’re just like I was this past year, alone at home producing. I think the main thing is fostering artistic growth and experimentation in ways that can be surprising when you’re in it. It’s like a garden where different things are in bloom at different times and things pop up that you weren’t expecting and things influence each other. It’s alive like an eco-system.
There’s a lot of aspects of the music industry that aren’t like that all where it’s very compartmentalised and transactional and that’s just not a good feeling to be working in. The creative process is a whole other thing that requires certain conditions that the DIY scene provides. There are other entities that are just about making money off of artists that don’t know anything about that, or care! They don’t care how things become amazing or how someone writes a hit song. There’s some magic that you need to tend to and respect that takes more time than the system at large.
How much did they evolve you as an artist?
They definitely provided me with the space to try a lot of new things and experiment. I’ve been encouraged locally and that’s how I am where I am.
Do you think people have come to appreciate the spaces and communities more seeing as they’ve had to stop for that last year?
I’m not sure. In Toronto and a lot of major cities we’re under a lot of pressure to just make money and be able to survive so I’m not sure what people have been up to necessarily and I think people are making a lot of big changes in their lives. It still remains to be seen how everything will pan out so to speak. I don’t really know. I think people have fantasised about going to a club or be on a dance-floor and felt that loss. But you can’t even let yourself go their mentally at the moment because it’s so painful to think of just how much we’ve lost. As a performing artist where that’s my job I haven’t been able to do anything apart from small things online.
I can imagine small shows happening from now but it’s very hard to imagine these big shows happening but there’s so much beyond our control.
If anything what would be something you’d change about the music industry?
If it could be concrete and straight away then it would be how artists are compensated for streaming. It’s basically stealing. I don’t know the ins and outs of how to change that, it’s obviously legislation is the only way that companies are going to pay out more. The streaming situation for artists is just unsustainable for lots of artists, even ones who have lots of fans and streams. So that would be a clear thing I would change.
Real Time is released July 16th via We Are Time, pre-order here.