by Brian Kious
What happens when you combine world-wisdom with folk music, life experience and literature, dancing and science fiction?
You meet Chicago-based, singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist/essayist/dancer/all-around cool person, Dawn Xiana Moon. In 2012, she released her debut album, 'Spaces Between', and for some reason we're just now finding out about it! In short there is nothing to disappoint on this record. It is not a run-of-the-mill folk album because it really isn't completely folk. It's a multitude of flavors and languages that must be heard to be experienced.
The album opens with "Strong," a waltz laced with acoustic guitar and guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither. Dawn declares she "will be strong." Honestly, no matter what words she might choose to sing here, her voice is indeed strong and she does a great job of making sure the listener understands it. In fact, "strong" might be an understatement. Dawn Xiana Moon's voice is bigger and stronger than the city she currently calls home.
This album is packed with a smorgasbord of sounds from the traditional folk/pop arrangements to something a little more exotic.Dawn is ethnically Chinese and hails from Singapore, and shares that background with the listener through songs sung in Mandarin Chinese, "Three Kingdoms" and "Beautiful Flowers Under a Full Moon." Both of the Mandarin Chinese selections originate from traditional Chinese works, so the guzheng and erhu (Chinese fiddle) make for appropriate musical decoration.
As if switching between English and Mandarin weren't impressive already, Dawn could easily pass for Edith Piaf with "Apres Un Reve." The lyrics are actually a poem by Romain Bussine, and is rightfully delivered in French.
Where "Apres Un Reve" is poetry adapted to original music, there is also a nod to Biblical inspiration with "Sinking", which is credited as being inspired by Psalm 69.
The music on 'Spaces Between' was written by Dawn, and she provides the majority of the lyrical content. The lyrics prove to be literate, honest, and observant. This is most overwhelmingly highlighted in "This Is Not A Love Song." This tune not only bounces between time signatures, but the lyrics are very Dylanesque as they travel between the thoughtful, "she's perfection minus two" and the more simply put "this is not a love song because we are not in love."
Dawn is joined on the record with Cory Biggerstaff (bass) and Joe Chellman (drums), and the rhythm section proves to complete a tight ensemble. Joining them on erhu and guzheng are Chihsuan Yang and Yunqing Pan. If there is any criticism for Spaces Between it's that Dawn's voice might just be too big for this medium.
While it's easy to marvel at the bevy of multi-cultural, multi-lingual presentations on Spaces Between, it's more impressive, still, that Dawn Xiana Moon keeps busy as an essayist, discussing her adventures and experiences growing up as an Asian in the Midwest. She has also formed a dancing troupe called Raks Geek. A mostly Asian cast of dancers whose shows are inspired by and bring new life to the world of science fiction. In fact, they gained global notoriety from a YouTube video which featured a belly dancing wookiee. Yes, you just read that!
I was so excited when Dawn found some time to talk to me about her album, the racial climate in the United States, and Star Wars!
SMC: First off, let's be clear for the folks reading this, and learning about you and your work for the first time, you're a singer/songwriter, pianist, dancer, and writer. Do you favour one of these outlets of expression over the other? Or do you perhaps simply explain that you are an artist?
Dawn: If time permits, I usually explain that I'm each of these things! If I could have chosen, I would have done so long ago - but in the end, I've worked professionally in almost every area of the arts.
I've played piano since I was five and trained as a classical musician; piano was always the instrument that connected with me the most emotionally (I played flute seriously when I was younger, xylophone and various percussion in high school, and guitar in college - but the piano is still the instrument I most love). Guitar was my anarchy instrument - it was the first one I wasn't formally trained in, which ended up opening all kinds of creative doors for me. I also have years of vocal training, which combined with my piano and guitar background to result in songs that are largely a mixture of folk and pop with influences from jazz and traditional Chinese music.
And then there's dance - I've always loved dance, but I started dancing seriously relatively late in college with partnered dances. I started as a swing dancer - I used to teach lindy hop, East Coast swing, and blues - and from there transitioned into a form of bellydance that makes heavy use of group improvisation and fuses influences from hip hop, flamenco, jazz, ballet, classical Indian dance, and more.
As far as writing, I primarily concentrate on creative nonfiction and cultural criticism. I also have a degree in theatre and have done a far amount of acting and producing work.
In many ways, all of my artistic training in specific disciplines informs every other discipline I work in.
SMC: Your album, SPACES BETWEEN, is a real polyglot of a record. What drove your decision to include songs in Mandarin Chinese and French?
Dawn: I'm Chinese, but even though I was born in Asia, English is my first language. Mandarin was never a language I spoke at home - I started learning it in kindergarten while living in Singapore. When I moved to Michigan at the age of five, there weren't many Asians in my area - I took French in school (and became something of a Francophile), but didn't come back to Chinese until I was older as a way to reconnect with my roots.
But ultimately, I included both languages because I love how they sound and how they challenge me to write.
SMC: Are you fluent in both languages?
Dawn: Fluency is so subjective! That said, I used to be extremely conversational in French - in college I was taking classes in philosophy taught entirely in the language through a semi-immersion program - but these days I'm rusty. Fortunately, when I visit France my language skills come back - immersion really is key.
The open secret is that I don't really speak Chinese - I rarely have a chance to practice, so I can tell you more about the language than I can tell you in the language. But I studied it well enough to sing in it, and I think my early schooling in Chinese as a second language helped with hearing and forming the sounds. Tones were never an issue for me.
SMC: When listening to your choice of instrumentation throughout the record, there's the obvious guitar and piano. I also detect the 二胡 (erhu), and is that a 古箏 (guzheng) I hear also?
Dawn: There's guzheng and erhu, plus upright bass and drums.
SMC: I commend you on the mix. They're not overstated and give your voice room in the mix. Was the inclusion of the traditional Chinese instruments an idea that you had in mind as you were constructing the song, or was it one of those lightning bolt moments?
Dawn: Thank you! I definitely had the Chinese instruments in mind early on - in my ideal world, I'd play with at least erhu every show.
SMC: I ask this next question because I'm an album listener, and for anyone out there who still enjoys the album as a work understands the importance of song order. Was there a lot of time taken in the sequencing of the tracks?
Dawn: I definitely thought about the track order - I wanted to open upbeat but mix styles, languages, and moods throughout. There's a reason the slower piano songs are at the end.
SMC: This question springs to mind, because you open with "Strong" which is a triplet. It immediately grabbed me because I am a sucker for 3/4 and 6/8 time.
Dawn: There's a song in 7/8 and one in 5/8 as well! I love playing with time signatures.
SMC: In your original songs, it sounds like you chronicle yourself and others you know in a very observant and thoughtful way. Tell me about your writing process. What inspires you, usually? Lyrically and musically.
Dawn: I like to tell stories. Sometimes the songs aren't based on people I know personally - I'm working right now on a song cycle based on stories from some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers, and the characters range from cannibalistic aliens to "lady" astronauts to frightened boys. But I take them each seriously as real people, and I try to speak truth from their point of view.
I think a lot about hope and the brokenness of the world we live in. I want to be honest, even brutally so - but I don't think everything ends in despair. I believe in redemption, in caring, in fighting, in not giving up.
SMC: You have a very unique vocal delivery style. It immediately reminded me of Edith Piaf, especially on "Apres Un Reve." Was your style influenced by anyone in particular, or was it a completely organic development?
Dawn: Probably a combination of the two. I took vocal training seriously starting in high school, which continued throughout college - but I also break half the rules I was taught. But without the technique I learned, I'd never have been able to sing the way I do - I needed the technique to find the vocal flexibility I wanted. I've also been influenced by jazz singers in general and one folk singer in particular: Karin Bergquist from Over the Rhine.
SMC: In your live performances, do you typically play solo or do the musicians who accompanied you on the album also join you?
Dawn: It varies. I often play solo, but I love playing with the band. They're amazing musicians, and it's so much fun to work with them!
SMC: So, SPACES BETWEEN was released in 2012. I know you've been really busy with RAKS GEEK, but as far as your music is concerned, are there any plans to release a follow up album?
Dawn: Definitely! Honestly it's more of a money problem than anything else - I've written over 90 songs, but only 16 or so have made their way onto albums thus far. Studio time is expensive, and it's difficult to recoup costs if you want to make a polished product rather than record at home with a cheap mic - the sad state of the industry is such that people don't buy music anymore, and this has a real effect on whether artists can afford to make albums. (Support artists you like!) That said, the next album will probably include a number of songs from the science fiction cycle I'm working on.
SMC: Speaking of RAKS GEEK, tell me a little about that.
Dawn: Raks Geek is a bellydance and fire performance company I founded in 2012 - we achieved internet notoriety with a video of a Wookiee belly dancing to a Klingon band playing an original song in Shyriiwook, which earned us a spot on UK Channel 4 TV’s “50 Funniest Moments” and a proclamation from The Daily Mail that hailed us as “Sci-fi seduction.” At this point we've been featured everywhere from MSN to WGN-TV.
I was raised on a steady diet of Asimov, Star Trek, and Tolkien – so combining my love for nerd culture with my art was a way to introduce people to an amazing dance form that doesn’t get much recognition, have fun with stories I love, and bring visibility to Asian-Americans in the performing arts. (Raks Geek is majority Asian-American.) I'm a believer in artistic and technical mastery, but I'm also a believer in welcoming people to a space and just having fun.
SMC: Any plans to make it a touring show?
Dawn: We've done some touring, and I'd love to do more - individually, members of the group have performed everywhere from Germany to Costa Rica to Morocco. But to bring the entire show on tour, again it's a matter of dollars - I'm happy to go anywhere that will pay us and respect the performers!
SMC: Now.... a bellydancing Wookiee..... I can honestly say that that's probably an idea that even the creative minds of the Star Wars films never thought of. Is that something you think ought to be included in any future films? Perhaps a post-war Chewbacca film? ha ha
Dawn: What else do Wookiees do for fun? Dear Disney/Lucasfilm: If you're reading this, I'd love to introduce Chewie to a sultry bellydancing Wookiee lady onscreen! They can probably share a roast Porg for dinner after...
SMC: Ok J.J. Abrams! Give Dawn a call! Ha ha! What's your favourite Star Wars film?
Dawn: I probably still have to go with Return of the Jedi, though once it sits for a while, The Last Jedi may go down as my new favorite. THE TICO SISTERS! "That's how we're going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love."
SMC: That is a great moment and probably something for us in the real world to think about.
Dawn: I also love Empire and Rogue One. (Yes, Rogue One. We needed that film when it came out - we needed a film about hope.)
SMC: Rogue One is an awesome film, so I'm not surprised! Now for the important questions on this topic....Star Trek or Star Wars?
SMC: Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon vs. Capt. Kirk in the Enterprise. Who wins?
Dawn: They'd both try to cheat. Probably Han though - he'd fight dirtier.
SMC: Now for something a little more on the serious side.
I would like to ask you this and bring up this subject because you discuss it in your essay, A Work of Art is a Refuge and Resistance. You write of your experiences from the time you moved to the U.S. from Singapore. You voice an understandable frustration that I'm sure all immigrants feel, but perhaps may be a little more intense when your nation of origin is not European. Do you feel that this is something that drives you to delve into so many forms o expression?
Dawn: It's difficult to say why I ended up with so many art forms - I certainly wouldn't have chosen it this way (the art chose me). But it makes sense that I did. I'm a child of two cultures, and perhaps even more if you think about the ways that Chinese identity intersects with Singaporean identity (Singapore is 80% ethnically Chinese, but most of the Chinese population traces their roots back to China itself only a couple generations back - and Singapore was also a British colony until the 1960s. It has not just one, but four national languages).
What is my culture? It's not Chinese (from mainland China). It's not Singaporean. It's not American. It's some combination of all of those things, of being raised in the Midwest where the vast majority of people were white, of being rejected by Asian-Americans in college as "too white," of living in liminal spaces and never feeling entirely at home in any culture but at the same time being incredibly adaptable and constantly aware of cultural norms. My art is like my cultural background - a fusion of multiple forms and influences from different cultures.
SMC: Do you feel that, in the current climate we find in our country, another child walking in your footsteps has it equally difficult or has the rhetoric and attitude made it more difficult to feel at home here?
Dawn: The current administration and its party constantly use rhetoric that normalizes racism and xenophobia in public discourse. This has real and utterly predictable results: Hate crimes have shot up. The country is physically less safe for me to be in. There are parts of the country I don't want to visit now because I don't want to worry about harassment or assault.
How can I or any children feel safe when not long ago the LA Times ran a Letter to the Editor saying the Japanese-American internment camps were a great idea? How can I or any children feel safe when official, presidential representatives say the same thing on TV? How can I or any children feel safe when ICE is breaking up families and (mistakenly) deporting US citizens (who aren't white)?
SMC: On this same topic, I'd like to get your perspective as your background has helped mold your music. In a 1993 interview with Living Colour's Vernon Reid, he is noted saying that "rock 'n' roll increasingly fell into the hands of the white liberal academics."(Reid) Do you feel the same can be said of the singer/songwriter world as well?
Dawn: The singer-songwriter world is dominated by white people. There are POC singer-songwriters, but for whatever reason we're less well-known, and the lack of diversity can lead to some awkward situations:
I remember once being the only non-white person at a concert and listening to a songwriter duo introduce a song - they gave the context that it was an old minstrel song (great! We like context) but then the woman of the duo looked at her partner and said, "You can sing it because it's like you've lived it." The entire song was about racism - about having curly hair and being black. No, you don't get to own that song if you're not black. It's great to still sing the song and sing the song as storytelling, as someone else's lived experience, but it's not OK to pretend that their experience of racism is your own.
SMC: Vernon Reid was speaking of the neglect of the African American contributions to rock 'n' roll music, and the music industry's enabling of that fact, even at the time his band was gaining notoriety. It almost seems like, with certain genre, there is a narrative that is followed, depending on an artist's ethnic background. Do you feel that Asian-American artists have that same battle to fight when it comes to breaking into professional music?
Dawn: I think Asian-Americans are so invisible in folk music as a whole that we don't have an artistic narrative - we just functionally don't exist. There's a narrative for Asian-Americans in general, especially surrounding the kinds of stories we should tell (audiences and gatekeepers alike expect "Asian" stories about immigrants and culture clash and American Dreams and perseverance - nevermind that many Asian-Americans aren't immigrants, we should be allowed to fail, and some of us want to write about other topics), but there are so few of us outside of classical music that I don't think there's a singer-songwriter-specific narrative.
SMC: Well Dawn, it has been great talking with you and I thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions. My last question brings us back to something a little less heavy. Is there anything you'd like our readers to know as far as upcoming performances? Social media events? YOUR favorite song that you have available out there that you feel would be a great introduction for future listeners?
Dawn: For those in the Chicago area, Raks Inferno, my full theatrical show of bellydance and firespinning will be happening Thursdays, May 3 and June 7at Uptown Underground (details: http://raksgeek.com) Also, the premier of my lastest music video, an original arrangement of a traditional Chinese folk song.
For music, I'd suggest listening to "Strong" and "Beautiful Flowers Under a Full Moon" for a study in contrasts - one is heavily influenced by Americana and tells the story of three people growing up in the Midwest, and one is heavily influenced by minimalism (i.e. Philip Glass) and is a reworking of a traditional Chinese folk song. You can find the music on DawnXianaMoon.com, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever music is sold.
Thanks so much for having me!
Reid, Graham. Living Colour: Vernon Reid. Black, White and Everything in Between. Online (here)