Charlie Chan Shoots for the Stars | FilmInk

Charlie sat down with FilmInk to talk about their career, and biggest project yet – a record-breaking 52-album collection entitled Constellation, set to be released in weekly instalments.

You have been playing music for over fifty years, and now you are releasing fifty albums in one year (under the collective name of Constellation), is this a coincidence?

“I’m releasing 52 albums! (laughs) Sorry to mess up the analogy! I had never thought about it like that. I improvised and recorded all of these compositions as sketches when I started in film and TV projects, and I had no intention of ever releasing them. During COVID, I reengaged with being a pianist, as it was a way of keeping myself centred, but I was also performing online just for fun and to help others. I literally came across a bunch of hard drives with so many recordings, I sort of dismissed it all as ramblings. Then, there was a moment – my studio engineer said, ‘Let’s take a peek at it all’, and I was humbled by that younger version of myself. I was just banging away at the piano, trying all these kooky nonconformist things. It was exhilarating re-acquainting myself with it all. Some of the performances are amazingly raw, and the compositions all have subtle types of concentration on a kernel of an idea. Seeing them develop in those recordings is something really special. I actually loved the process and was proud of myself for being so disciplined.”

You started playing the piano at the age of three and refer to it as an escape. At what age did you realise that it was more than an escape, but your life’s calling?

“I was working in a music shop (as a school holiday job) and I was playing the piano that was in the shop, it was an electric grand, a Yamaha CP70. I felt so cool playing it, as we didn’t have anything high-tech at home – just a garden-variety upright piano. Even in the ’70s, having instruments at home was not that commonplace.

“I used to stay back late and keep at it until they kicked me out of the shop. I remember doing this at Brashs in their synthesiser department in Melbourne and they eventually gave me a job, which for a fourteen-year-old kid was pretty amazing. I felt that I was already being called to the (digital) tools and I couldn’t stop that trajectory – it was forming into a career. People would come into that shop and it was like being in a musical Disneyland, with lots of flashing lights and interesting sounds coming out of PAs set up to impress the customer.

“Those were the heady days of the Moog Prophet, the Rhodes Fender, the Yahama DX7s, and everything electronic in music technology. All the instrument manufacturers were bringing out synths and this store was the biggest one in Australia at the time. Touring musicians would come into town and you’d hang out with them in the shop. ABBA, Split Enz, Colin Hay from Men at Work, and even Sammy Davis Jr came in to check out pianos. I got some of my best jobs playing in the backline of some pretty cool up-and-coming Aussie bands in the early ’80s because I had so much access – I met so many amazing musicians in that job.

“I met my heroes and was encouraged to experiment, visit their rehearsals, and do setups with them. Then on weekdays, I went back to school with my pigtails and gingham uniform. I played classical double bass in the school orchestra and focused on maths (which was my favourite subject then). Honestly, it all just happened by osmosis.”

As a child, you busked in Melbourne’s CBD with your siblings under the banner of The Chan Clan. What songs did you play, and did you have input in the song choices?

“My well-meaning but bossy father was the one who pushed us to all play together. I first learned the guitar and then my brother did. We’d all argue about the songs; my brother wanted to busk playing Led Zepplin but I was into ABBA, and eventually, as I got older, Jean Michel Jarre, Weather Report, Grace Jones, Prince, Laurie Anderson, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Dad would say ‘This is a hit, learn this song.’ so we were playing John Denver, Neil Diamond (who I met eventually) and lots of songs that were popular on the radio then. We made a lot of money playing hits.

“Then one evening at home I heard a pianist called Keith Jarrett on the ABC and he was playing all this improvised solo piano music, and at that moment, my life turned – I knew I had to play like this and project my own ideas into the world with a piano. The music I heard was the Koln Concert, it’s a very well-loved seminal recording and is still topping the charts nearly 50 years later. From that one performance, I realised that the piano held so much appeal to me that I never looked back.”

In your early teens, you played in-store keyboard demos for Yamaha, which led to a huge increase in sales. Do you think your prodigious talent led to many disappointed parents?

“I loved performing. I used to say that I hated performing but when I contemplate it and am honest with myself, I truly and absolutely love taking the audience with me somewhere in a performance. I love seeing how people connect to you when you play them something they remember or when they are hearing something new for the first time – it is amazing.

“Back then, selling portable organs and keyboards was a delightful and energizing job. I had no attachment to the outcome of sales, and I don’t know if I really understood it, but I did well at it. I played like my life depended on it. I played so many songs, I learned them all by heart. I learned them super fast in the mornings, and by the time the shop was closing, I had become an expert at the hits that week. That’s how I developed my ear and my ability to emulate just about any song I’d heard. I think it was a lot of learned behaviour for me, playing those songs and working out how to make them sound good on a portable organ.

“Parents are always disappointed when they decide to draw comparisons. I wasn’t the best player in the world, but I truly enjoyed showing off and performing. When I was playing the hits of the ’60s, and ’70s, I was bringing back all those memories for someone. I saw it as an opportunity for me, not a chance to sell something to someone. I apologise to all those kids who were forced to play their little wonder keyboards purchased by their parents and couldn’t quite get into it – forgive me!”

You were still in your early teens when you started working on Young Talent Time. Was that your first exposure to the entertainment industry? What were those years like?

“I pestered Television House which made Young Talent Time to let me come for work experience. I spent a lot of time writing them letters. When they eventually said yes, I worked with Greg Mills, the musical director (who was once a heartthrob), who then introduced me to Johnny Bowls (also a previous member of Young Talent Time), who was studying piano and orchestration at the Melbourne Conservatorium and was the in-house copyist.

“I learned to be a copyist from that work experience, and I just got better and better at it. I then found a teacher who taught me how to orchestrate and began writing for small ensembles. Even at a very young age, I had the chops to write out all that music for everyone to play with me.

“I met a lot of stars from Australian TV this way. I was pretty annoying at that age – I imagine them trying to grapple with this annoying kid – but to this day, I am always grateful they let me come in, sit in the studio, and watch them make, record, and produce the music for the show. It taught me everything I need to know about making music in the business and the technical side of recording too.

“I didn’t really know that I was in the music business – I thought I was just going to meet Jamie Redfern – but I had to make myself useful, so they’d let me stick around. I was a musician, but I didn’t expect to be discovered or go on any of the talent shows. There wasn’t a place for me, there was no synthesiser school, no how-to compose for film & TV or theatre schools then. You could go to the conservatorium and do the classical thing, learn how to play a classical instrument, do an undergrad degree, or you could become a musician playing for an established ensemble in clubs. The options were different, and they were polarising: be in a rock band or learn to be an orchestrator by going through triple degrees at Uni. It’s a very different landscape now.

“My exposure to the industry was a sense of freedom then. The chance to make something new. It was an exciting time. Also, I was an anomaly. I was female and into technology, I was androgynous, I played more than one instrument (ten or more in total), I was Asian, and I was a lesbian. I was a complete ripple, the trifecta of diversity back then.”

Did you find it difficult to transition from contemporary to classical music?

“There wasn’t so much of a transition as natural attrition. I wanted to be respected for good musicianship and I could only do that if I was working within some sort of creative infrastructure. You have to do the time, trip over your scales, and learn about Bach and the classics. You have to be very uncomfortable playing pieces you don’t know how to play. You need to really learn. Make loads of mistakes. This is the process of becoming good at an instrument.

“One day, I was finally signed to Sony Classics on the Masterworks Label in Australia. I remember waking up and saying to myself ‘I am on the same label as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Horne.’ I had to respect where I had landed.”

You started recording solo albums in your twenties. What was the biggest challenge of working on your own?

“After playing in lots of bands and producing a lot of other people’s music, working on my own was quite liberating. Taking the music where I wanted it to go, experimenting, and finally taking the time to understand what I was doing. I think as creatives, we often don’t get the strength of our own convictions because there is too much riding on the outcome. Once, I was just making stuff for the sake of it, but then things changed for me.

“I recorded my first solo piano piece (which was released by Sony Masterworks) for the sheer joy of playing the piano. I broke out of composing compositions that were no longer than 3 minutes 30 seconds. Some of them were 8 and even 12 minutes long. Playing the piano solo and putting it online for people to enjoy is very raw and I always feel a bit naked. I’ve loved doing it, and I now realise that I am pretty good at understanding what is needed. My biggest challenge is always editing and curating what I do. I think the piano series in Constellation is a great way to focus me and my audience.”

What was your first work composed for the screen? What was your process?

“My first big break came with Me, Myself, I, a feature film directed by my friend, writer/editor/director Pip Karmel, which starred Rachel Griffiths. She and I had a wonderful time rifling around in each other’s music collections.

“I spent a lot of time with her working through all the music we liked and didn’t like, and our reasons. I wrote a lot of my own temp tracks and experimented with the placement of the chord structure for her title sequence – it had such a wonderful arch, leading the viewer to understand the context of the opening sequence with the music. We had a truly enjoyable collaborative experience.”

Do you have a favourite piece of scoring work?

“I loved working on the TV series Killing Time, produced by John Wild and Jason Stephens. We had an amazing working relationship. I sat down one day in front of one of their story arcs, which ran for about 4 minutes 30 seconds, and I improvised the music for it without stopping. I then moved it back 6 frames (as I was delayed with my transitions) and it was spot on emotionally. It was an uplifting and affirming experience. It helps that the performances were amazing on screen, you get a lot of help when the ensemble cast is great. You can hear the tone of the music and they lead you to it. I really loved working on it.

“I also really enjoyed Last Drinks at Frida’s, I composed the music for producer Lois Randall, director Bjorn Stewart and writer Kodie Bedford – all brilliant and talented humans. I wrote a song that was performed by Ursula Yovich, ‘You Put a Spell on Me’. It was a great experience working with such extraordinary people. We recorded a 1920’s 3-piece jazz ensemble, and I also got to be in the film as the Chinese piano player (alongside the band that recorded the music with me). It was scored with drums only in some parts to emphasise the PTSD and racism that the returning indigenous soldier experienced.

“It’s a collaborative experience working in film. The ensemble is collected from many departments. It’s a good feeling when you are a part of it all.”

Your new collection Constellation will see a new album released every week for a year. This makes it the largest release of albums by an artist ever. What made you undertake such a feat?

“There were so many tracks (600+), and I was looking at the best way to do it. One album a week had a good ring to it. And I wanted it to be linked to astronomy on some level because we live in a world guided by nature. Going around the sun once and releasing all 52 albums in an orderly fashion felt right and naming them after a constellation that is visible each day the album is released sounded so perfect to me.

“The works were already recorded, they just needed to find friends. Each of the compositions is also matched to a star by intensity. A chance for us to understand the night sky and connect to that time of the year with music and that specific constellation.”

Where or what do you derive the most inspiration from when making music?

“Nature is where I get my inspiration. I would then say meditation is in second place, and then the screen is in third place.

“I have spent a lot of time listening to nature, composers like Mahler took a lot from nature. Composing the ‘9th Symphony’ while at his summer house on a beautiful lake. Where his music describes the lake and the forest. The Beatles wrote the White Album while meditating in an Ashram.

“We seek the experiences that we have enjoyed the most and replicate them as soundtracks. It’s probably why I am a screen composer: I absolutely love setting the tone and enhancing the mood of what is on screen. You can make an enormous but quiet contribution.”

In 2022, you came out as trans non-binary. What effect has this personal journey had on your creative life?

“I spent a long time trying to understand what it all meant. Sony put me in a dress to market my music, and myself with it. I am not really that person in makeup with a frock on, that fits a typical version of what we see as a classical composer: serious and well-dressed. I’ve really begun to understand myself and my strengths as a creator by coming out and being my authentic self. I didn’t ever see myself as gendered. I felt that I didn’t belong in either checkbox.

“Now I see myself making music that is not gendered, but I know I am definitely athletic in my composition sometimes. My piano is a beast that takes some power to get going. I feel the amount of energy it takes to play long shows on the piano. After all, it’s a percussion instrument. When I am playing, I am not analysing the music in the way I used to. I am making music that makes sense to me and the audience. I think it’s forced me to stop thinking about what the outcomes are going to be.

“I think I felt a lot of shame for a long time being anything other than what the marketing department told me to be. Thank goodness to everyone who inspired me to see myself as I really am. My life and creative experiences are now enhanced, and I feel more connected to myself.”

Lastly, if you didn’t find the piano, what do you think you would have done with your life?

“Music is essential to all of life. It’s everywhere, from the patterns of the rain to the movement in the traffic. I don’t know if I could have done anything else.”

The first Constellation album, Orion, was released on January 20, 2023. Constellation #2, Perseus will release on January 27. There will be a new album dropping every Friday throughout the year, until Constellation #52, Andromeda, drops on Friday January 19, 2024. Constellation is released by MGM (Metropolitan Groove Merchants) and is available on Spotify, Apple Music and music platforms everywhere.

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