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2023 SXSW Festivals Interviews Music

Interview: Breaking the Machine with Helen Ganya


Like many others, when I teeter on the edge of an existential crisis, I often wish so very badly to fly to some far-off foreign country, scrap my identity, and start over with a fresh blank slate. Facing the tough reality that all of this requires money that I do not possess, I disable my Instagram account instead… only to return a few days later (begrudgingly, of course), but nevertheless with a lightened spirit.

Helen Ganya. Photo by Nicole Ngai.

Helen Ganya has accomplished the musical equivalent of that. Since her rebrand from her old moniker Dog in the Snow, Ganya has returned with her third album polish the machine with a renewed vision of what it means to be connected to your roots. The singer is no stranger to a good ol’ existential crisis — for her, it just means taking the time to evaluate and re-evaluate what’s truly important, especially in the sense of reconnecting to your Asian heritage.

Hot on the heels of her new release, revealed to be her quarantine project, Helen and I spoke at SXSW about Asian otherness, touring with Mitski, and the patriarchy.

Helen Ganya at SXSW. Photo sourced from Ganya’s website.

Last time you were here was 2016 with your friend’s band Fear of Men. How has it been different since seven years ago?

I was set to play SX in 2020, but obviously that didn’t happen so it has been a huge chunk of time which I didn’t really expect… but it’s been good so far, we’ve only just arrived yesterday so I’m still getting to know what’s happening, and I’m having my first show today. But it’s nice to be back.

Before you were Helen Ganya, you were performing under a different alias, Dog in the Snow. Can you tell me why you decided to go by something else?

Dog in the Snow was a name I took, basically inspired by the end of a book by Franz Kafka called The Trial. I think at the time I was just trying to think of something to separate myself from the music. After the pandemic, what I realized was… things had affected a lot of us in the UK and a lot of us in the Asian community. A lot of Asian hate had come through COVID. I just felt it was so difficult and quite traumatizing; I felt like I wanted a bit of representation, so I thought if I wanted to see it, I should be part of it as well. Ganya is my Thai name and I just thought that it’s an act of showing some form of representation.

Did you feel like your previous alias succeeded in separating your personal identity from your music?

It didn’t actually. I feel like my music is quite personal. Even if it’s not always about myself, it’s still something that comes from you, so it almost didn’t really matter. In a lot of ways, Dog in the Snow came with a lot of expectations that some people thought was influenced by a Belle and Sebastian song, or some people thought it was a folk-y name. And when I realized none of that is actually how the music sounds, actually just going by my name made more sense.

How is the music under your own name different from Dog in the Snow?

The themes are similar, but as opposed to my last album which was about environmental destruction, this is more about the humans within that. It’s really thinking about the idea of oppression: what is your act of rebellion within the system, what does that mean? Are you continuing on the system or are you doing things that diverge from that? Sometimes they end up being the same thing. I hit my 30s and I had a bit of a moment where I was thinking, “You’re meant to have kids, or who you’re meant to be.” Especially as a woman and part of the Asian diaspora, I was thinking about these expectations — what it means to be this identity. Musically, it’s exploring more lush sounds; my previous album was a little more distorted. [polish the machine] blends more synths and creates more of a palette and a universe.

What about the book inspired the name?

Kafka was one of the first authors where it was interesting to think about systems, existentialism, and the world outside of yourself. That’s always something that I try to think about when I song-write, in a way it comes naturally when you’re thinking about the personal and the universal. My new album is called polish the machine, so I always like to think of the system’s ways. And I think he’s quite good at depicting one man’s struggle versus the system and that I find that tension quite interesting… capitalism, patriarchy, all the stuff kind of goes together really.

What are your acts of rebellion?

Back in uni I studied climate change. It was only a year’s course but it made me identify the power in our systems. Why can’t humanity act over something that is existential and really going to ruin livelihoods? Going back to uni and studying this gave me a sense of understanding. I’m also on the music committee of EarthPercent, a new organization run by Brian Eno. It was this idea of trying to get musicians in the music industry more involved within climate change. Being part of these different things have given me more meaning and understand how music can play a bigger part in change.

Helen Ganya – polish the machine, out now on Bella Union.

Can you tell me about polish the machine?

I started writing it mid 2019 on-and-off. I was also waiting for my last album to be released. Then 2020 happened. I mainly recorded and produced it with my co-producer Robb Flynn; that was the lockdown project. It was quite good because we had no deadline because the world had shut down. When you work remotely, you don’t feel like you have to get everything right because you can work a few hours, stop, then come back to it. It probably took about two years to do that.

“young girls never die” has the most to do with womanhood. There’s a certain celebrity who… I saw this graph where he continues to age but the girls he dates remain at the same age. Collectively, young girls never die. We’re kind of replaceable in the patriarchy’s eyes. I also thought collectively we do rot inside, having to live up to these expectations and standards over time.

“delicate graffiti” is one I quite enjoy playing live. It’s based around this myth I learned in school — and I don’t know if it’s true or not — but that [during the construction of] The Great Wall of China, people who died working on it were put into the wall. I found that such a strange image and that line “delicate graffiti” comes from a Patti Smith line in a book — this idea that so many experiences happen in rooms and houses… if only the walls could talk. Also, the idea of repression and feeling like you want to be released in some way — that’s my favorite at the moment.

What do you look for in your own dating life?

What I find difficult in this realm is there’s such expectations for us to be a certain way. Previous dates I’ve had so many terrible experiences, basically about my Asianness more than anything — being taken to an Asian buffet when they find out I’m half Asian, just really silly stereotypes. It’s getting better for sure but I’m working on it.

Do you often experience racism in the UK?

Only in the UK, to be honest. I grew up in Singapore and I’m also half Thai so I spend time there. They don’t see the Thai-ness until I say something because I can speak Thai, or they see me eat something, but I’m definitely white-passing in Asia. And then in the UK, I’m pretty much just seen as Asian, which is really disorienting.

The past few years especially has made me realize how unacceptable some of these situations have been in my time in the UK. The way I’ve changed that is to be part of more Asian communities. I’ve met so many Asian artists through a collective formed called ESEA Music, which is East and Southeast Asian music, because the idea of Asia in the UK is seen as South Asia.

“ESEA Music meet-up at SXSW.” Photo sourced from Ganya’s website.

Do you see yourself staying in the UK long-term?

Ask me after the next election.

I know that you’ve opened for Mitski on tour. How did you connect with her and what was that like?

From what I understand, she picks all of her supports and she asked Fear of Men to go on tour with her for Be the Cowboy. It was amazing. Getting to see her play every night was such a treat, and having an audience that looked like you. There were so many young Asian American girls there and I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” At my shows, white middle-aged men is the demographic in the UK, but I’d love to see more diversity. I think the indie world in the UK is still weirdly skewed to that demographic, which isn’t a problem, but I’d love to see more diversity.

Mitski has managed to find that audience. That was really inspiring. It was so nice to meet her… she was lovely. She had a whole suitcase full of tea! She cared a lot about her health and staying fit for the tour.

What does self-care look like for you?

One of the best things I’ve done for myself in the last year is to go on regular seafront runs. I live in Brighton so I live by the sea. I’ve found that regardless of the weather, however cold it is, going out there… I know it sounds boring but it has helped a lot… running.

Just having time to play music regardless of your day job and not have an outcome is always something that I appreciate. I’m quite a solitary person; I love reading and just taking time for myself. Ambient music currently, so like Brian Eno — just music without lyrics. I’m currently reading Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee and it’s a dystopian book based in the UK where a family decides to move to Margate. Not entirely sure what happens after that.

Could you tell me about repolish the machine? What made you choose the cover art for the EP?

It’s three remixes: two different versions of songs, and a Thai version of the title track from polish the machine. I thought it’d be a cool way to give the album a bit more life and a different angle. I wanted to do a quieter version of the songs. There’s a remix by mui zyu of my track called “birdsong” and I love it. It’s the last song on the album and it’s a sad ballad and she’s tapped into almost like… going on a journey to the end of the world. [It’s] really expansive, glitchy, and interesting. She did such a good job.

I really like a suburban nightmare. I like the idea of melting, so on the album there’s a bit of myself kind of melting into the front of the door and I went with a blue-pastel palette. I decided I like quite a stark color and having something quite bright and slightly disorientating about it — a kind of Lynchian surburban nightmare melting into the landscape.

Do you not like the suburbs?

I don’t mind the suburbs, it’s more like what they’ve come to represent in society. I do like urban crawls. The idea of moving away to be super comfortable in a bubble and not paying attention to the world outside… that can be comforting and important sometimes but there’s something quite claustrophobic about it as well.

This interview was conducted by Nancy Jiang in-person at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March of 2023.

Header photo by Nicole Ngai.

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