Michelle Gurevich’s Music as an Interface between the East and the West


The analysis of Gurevich’s music is an attempt to upgrade, or expand, the theme of correlation between the East and the West. The relationship, or the juxtaposition, between Western and Eastern societies in this paper is redefined more precisely through the valuation and the popularity of Western musicians from the indie music scene in former Eastern and Central European socialist countries. Michelle Gurevich’s music is part of the indie music scene, and is also described as slowcore rock and lo-fi pop. Her Russian, or Slavic, origin is an important aspect of her music that began in Canada. There it was that the feeling of not belonging to the culture, emerging in her senses and subconscious, actually occurred as a result of her Russian origin and of living in a western state. This feeling of non-belonging was the main idea behind analyzing Gurevich’s music as an interface between the East and the West.

The topic of the relationship between the East and the West, or between communism and capitalism, during the second half of the 20th century is still being reanalyzed in different fields. For example, Elizabeth Cheauré examined the topic between the East and the West through random samples of literature from recent international bestseller lists. The emergence of the genre of mock travel guides is another example. “Molvania” has been described as an imaginary post-socialist country that presents the Western collective image of Eastern Europe to the level of embarrassment. The negative imagery of Eastern Europe as an opposite of Western superiority, which this guide book presents, is not correct since similar clichés about the East can be found in contemporary Russian literature and in Russian texts from past centuries as well. In fact, that means that the East is in no way a homogenous entity which could be easily described or defined. Instead, attention should be paid to the differentiations and various cultural traditions of the East. Groys describes Russian cultural and intellectual history as a process which portrays Russia not as “different from the west but as the other side of the west”. (Cheauré, 2010: 25, 26, 31). One of the important writers that rarely misses a chance to juxtapose negative Eastern qualities to (supposedly) positive Western ones is Joseph Conrad. The familiar divisions, for example, to Eastern simplicity and inferiority vs the Western know-all manner, refinement, wisdom or superiority, are not present but, in spite of all this, at the end of the novel Under Western Eyes, Western Europeans do not appear as really dominant but as unimaginative, insensitive, ignorant, narrow-minded and superficial. (Bimberg, 2010: 63).

The relationship, or juxtaposition, of Western and Eastern societies can be expanded in the field of popular music studies from different points of view. In the analysis of jazz music in Central and Eastern Europe, Kajanová concluded that, in Eastern Europe, jazz is perceived from a political point of view as a genre which emphasizes the situation during the Cold War. Eastern art has been associated with traditional or conventional art and, in contrast, Western art with avant-garde or experimental art. (Kajanová, 2012: 626).

Another example of the juxtaposition of the East and the West in the area of popular music studies that is directly connected with the main topic of this paper is the valuation, or the popularity, of western musicians of rock, pop or indie music in former Eastern European socialist countries.

Why Leonard Cohen’s songs were so popular in Poland during the communist era was discussed by Ewa Mazierska at the international conference in Olomouc (Palacký University, March 2017) dedicated to popular music in the communist and post-communist period. In part, it was because his lyrics dealt with the same sort of social problems that occurred in communist Poland, like oppression or ignorance. As a Canadian, Cohen’s persona was one that crossed the boundaries between the familiar division of capitalism (USA) and communism (the Soviet Union).

When I first read a review about Michelle Gurevich’s concert, I was attracted by the information that, although she is Canadian, her fandom is mostly based in Eastern and Central Europe, and that she is much inspired by her Russian heritage. Journalist A. Ayscough described the East-West connection in Gurevich’s music as a mix between “Gurevich’s cosmopolitan Slavic pout to the reassuring legibility of her English lyrics”. (Ayscough, www.greymagazine.com). Her Russian, or Slavic, origin is an important aspect of her musical career that began in Canada where she felt she did not belong to Canada due to her Russian origin and different mentality as opposed to her living in a western country.

In her biography, Michelle Gurevich is officially described as a Canadian singer-songwriter, and is also known by her former stage name Chinawoman. Her music is influenced by her Russian heritage and, indirectly, by the life of her parents. In musical terms, it is described as slowcore rock and lo-fi pop, both subgenres of indie music. Gurevich was born in Toronto, Ontario, to Russian immigrants, and was raised with Russian as her first language. Before immigrating to Canada, her father was an engineer in Leningrad and her mother a Kirov ballerina. Gurevich grew up listening to Russian popular music; she mentioned Alla Pugacheva as a strong influence on her. Also, she was influenced by Adriano Celentano, Charles Aznavour, Nino Rota, and Yoko Ono. She began her career recording in her bedroom. (Michelle Gurevich, About). The stage name Chinawoman was chosen randomly when she registered for Garageband. “Very often, I was asked if I’m Asian. When I wrote my first song, I decided to open Garageband (application for composing music) on my laptop and then immediately I was asked to name my band. I wrote Chinawoman as a joke” said Gurevich. (Иванова, 2017). Later, she often wanted to change it until she was discovered by Hilda Hoy, journalist with Chinese roots, who began writing her emails with comments to her nickname “Chinawoman”  such as “Assigning a racial slur on which Michelle builds a music career.” In an article for the website www.medium.com, Hoy tracks all communication between the two, as explained in detail their motives. (Иванова, 2017; Hoy, 2016). After the end of the alter ego of Chinawoman, Michelle thinks that she reached a new level of directness; she is not sure whether the audience recognized it as something special, but it makes her feel more confident (Tодоров, 2017).(

From 2007 until 2016, Gurevich self-released four albums: Party Girl (2007), Show Me The Face (2010), Let’s Part in Style (2012), New Decadence (2016). The newest album presents how important it is not to rely on easy solutions in the songs. “My personal rule is that if you feel uncomfortable about a new idea, it is a sign to step forward and realize it.” (Тодоров, 2017).

Some of her songs are used as soundtracks. Her song Party Girl inspired the 2014 French film with the same title. Two years before, in 2012, “Lovers are Strangers” became the theme song for the Latvian film Kolka Cool.

Although Michelle lived most of her life in Canada, she fulfils the expectations of the audience mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, from where she constantly receives invitations for concerts. “I felt that I need to be closer to my audience and emigrated to Berlin. In a few months the audience of my concerts increased from 30 to 800 per night. A huge leap. In Europe, the fans even know my lyrics and, most interestingly, they are of all ages – from 20 to 40-50 years old. My favourite moment was when a woman of 80 asked for two tickets to Chinawoman. Probably older people recognized my old-fashioned style, and I think it’s great,” said Gurevich in an interview for Bulgarian web magazine Programata (Иванова, 2017).

Although she says that she had a happy childhood in Canada, the Russian origin of her family aroused a feeling of not knowing exactly who she was and where she belonged. For several years, she has been living in Berlin, an urban territory that supports her activity as a musician. (Тодоров, 2017).

Michelle Gurevich’s concerts are part of the indie or local music scenes. Since the early 90s, the concept of scene has increasingly been used as a model of academic research. The most cited authors in this subject include Bennett and Peterson. They focused on three types of music scenes: local, translocal, and virtual. The local scene corresponds most closely to the original notion of a scene based on a specific geographic focus. The translocal scene refers to widely scattered local scenes drawn into regular communication around a distinctive form of musical activities. The third, virtual scene is a newly emerged formation in which people create the scene via the Internet. (Peterson and Bennett, 2004: 2-12). Local music scenes are not isolated; instead, they interlink with other scenes in many ways, through the movement of touring musicians and bands, then through the exchange, adoption of sounds and genres in and across the scenes. For Straw, the overlay of scenes explains the national and international popularity of local music scenes. (Audette-Longo, 2016: 515-527). Some authors, like Johansson and Bell, defined 16 factors in their research of local music scenes, among them impulses from the local physical environment, supportive local media, the existence of a local audience in a dialectic relationship with local bands. (Johansson, and Bell, 2009: 220-230). Also, in the last decade, with the expansion of the Internet, the relationship between music and the virtual world is diffuse and constantly evolving.

What is and what is not virtual, and how the virtual world relates to music, remains a developing field of inquiry, and an open interdisciplinary field of research. (Whiteley, 2016: 3). Indie music in the 80s and 90s was identified and defined by locality (Seattle, Athens, etc.), both by participants and by those outside the particular scenes. On the Internet, the communication of the indie scene has also changed. The Internet, with its practicality, connects people across various locations, regions, countries and continents. This situation could play a role in the decline of the sense of local identity and in the growth of the sense of a translocal identity. (Kruse, 2009: 208, 209).

Gurevich’s activities interweave local, translocal, and virtual levels of communication. Gurevich sees herself as a presenter of a new, bedroom art wave, as one of the independent artists that get audience thanks to the Internet. (www.izlazak.com, 2017). In other words, the virtual types of music communications are part of Gurevich’s concert promotions. Eight hundred tickets were sold in Zagreb in 2011 to performances of unknown artists, by unknown organizers, which was a surprise to the local journalists. Information about concerts was spread virtually through Facebook. Gurevich’s status changed from an unknown name to the most desirable indie musician of the month in Zagreb. Journalist Laboš concludes that the expansion of hipsters in Zagreb was also one of the reasons for a bigger interest in Gurevich’s concert (Laboš, 2011, www.muzika.hr). Six years later, Gurevich performed in Zagreb again. At this concert, she renamed the title of the song with a new subject inspired from the location where she performed. Gurevich renamed the song Good Times Don’t Carry Over to Balkan Romance. (Miličević, www.muzika.hr). Another concert situation takes us to Western Europe, and it is on a translocal level of communication. The increased interest in Gurevich’s concert in Paris resulted in selling out Pigalle venue La Divan in December 2014  because of Marie Amachoukeli’s film Party Girl which borrowed its title, and drew inspiration from, the dark, melancholic song Party Girl which it used as its soundtrack.

Gurevich’s music is based on a dark, melancholic atmosphere mixed with fragments of Russian romance or ballads (short music phrase), mixing the topics of the lyrics with her own private experiences. Her Russian origin is combined with Russian pop (or Estrada), and with the life of her mother, for example in the title of the song Russian Ballerina (the profession of her mother). For Gurevich, most cultures in their traditional music have ballad songs, and the balladic mood is present in her music. That is one of the main reasons why the audience finds similarities between its own tradition and Gurevich’s music. (www.izlazak.com, 2017). She said that she grew up listening to a lot of Soviet pop and definitely absorbed elements of the chord progressions, the vocal style, the grandiose choruses with a feeling for drama, and the themes that combine the fatalistic and the celebratory.  (Ayscough).

She often achieves the balladic mood by melancholic subjects that are a part of the indie ethos. She wrote about open relationships, sad compromises in the relationships among people, about the need sometimes to be alone and away from all, then about the relationships in her family, all with a dose of irony and black humour. “Today I would not have written a song about doomed love like I Kiss the Hand of My Destroyer, nor would I have created End of An Era, which is a humorous look at the passage of time. But everything revolves in a circle, so maybe I have the potential for several doomed love songs.” (Тодоров, 2017). Gurevich’s melancholy inspired Serbian poet Nikola Rebrača to define his poem Nezaborav – Unforgettable. In the creation of the feelings to a loved person from the past, Rebrača used the music of Gurevich: Слушали меланхоличну Мишел Гуревич, Пили твоје омиљено пиће, Пушили твоје цигарете Плакали” (translation: “They listen to melancholic Michelle Gurevich, They drink your favourite drink, Smoke your cigarettes, Cry” (Ребрача, 2016).


Ethnographic Research


Michelle Gurevich’s Concert, Majestic club, Bratislava, 22.4.2017

The ethnographic research dedicated to Michelle Gurevich’s concert in Bratislava is a continuation of the previous ethnographic research focused on three performances held in Bratislava in 2014 as part of the alternative music scene. The physical and communicative aspects of the interaction between the audience and the musicians with the feeling of sensation and subjectivity in a particular indie music event were also a focus of this research. (Zhabeva-Papazova, 2015). The selected venue Majestic music club in Bratislava is one of the most important venues for the promotion of alternative or indie music. The main methods used in this ethnographic research were: analysis, participant observations, conversational interviews, comparison, and deduction and induction. To make an analysis, we used a classification of the space occupied by the audience, defined as zones (Zhabeva-Papazova, 2015).

Michelle Gurevich performed on the stage of the Majestic club in acoustic minimalistic concept with Lisa from Denmark playing the piano and programming, Robin from Scotland playing the electric guitar, and Michelle as the lead vocalist, playing the guitar and the electric piano. The melancholic feeling, which was one of the dominant elements in Gurevich’s performance, was enriched with Gurevich’s comments and announcements of some songs, very often with the word depressing.

The concert started with the first song of her last album New Decadence. It officially ended with “Party Girl” performed solo by Michelle (vocal and guitar). As the encore, she performed only “Drugs Saved My Life”. She received flowers at the end of the concert. In the performance of Vacation from Love, she recites, or treats the lyrics in a recitative way, with the sound enriched by echo effects, a medium noise, and association with alienation and feeling of non-belonging.

Her voice is counter-alto, and it is an important element for creating good and catchy main melody themes. Also, her vocal rendition in the lower key is combined with a recitative narrative treatment of her singing. The main melodies often present reminiscences of Russian romance. In her interviews, Gurevich mentioned that she always travels with her own sound engineer to ensure that she gets the specific quality of the vocals which always sit on top of the music. (Ayscough). The inspirations for her songs are mainly personal. The charismatic stage persona of Gurevich is cool, with dark aesthetics mixed with melodic associations of Russian romance (e.g. the song “Show Me Your Face”). Her music and her live performances attract audience mainly in Eastern and Central Europe because she presents the link between the two political systems, between the period of her childhood or teenage memories and between growing up in a new political system which is more open to translocal music communications or influences valid for the audience and musicians, organizers or media.

The audience of the concert was divided into two zones: the first zone was based in the main standing area from the stage until the bar, the second one was located around the bar. The audience in the first zone listened to the concert with more concentration, and reacted to the songs or Gurevich’s comments more emotionally. The most intense reaction from the audience was to songs with Russian topics: Russian Romance and Russian Ballerina. Michelle’s contact with the audience was friendly and positive, she made fun and, at the same time, she was a little shy. When the program came to an end, Gurevich announced that Party Girl is the last song but the audience reacted and she said that if she continued to play maybe she could play “Besa me mucho”, which was a very popular song during the communist period. Also, Gurevich followed the movement of the audience. Before playing “Russian Ballerina”, she asked somebody from the audience what they were doing with their mobile phones, and she guessed maybe they were making a video of the concert, and then maybe they would upload it to YouTube and her mother would be able to see it and call her to criticize her to buy more decent clothes.

If I make parallels between the concert of Gurevich and the concerts of Lamb and Laibach (also held in Majestic club), which were part of the previous ethnographic research, there are some similarities and also some differences which provide us more dynamical aspects for the observation of the relationship between the performers and the audience. The division of the audience into zones is one of the similarities of this approach, and they are usually divided into three or two zones. In the case of Gurevich and Laibach, we had two zones of the audience. There are some differences in the behaviour of the performers. Michelle Gurevich had more direct and more personal contact with the audience, which was not the case with Laibach and Lamb.

The observations of this concert present the local characteristics of the audiences in Bratislava that attend concerts of alternative music bands. Their main characteristics are: age, audience zones, types of audience – combined and/or compatible, and audience behaviour. All these characteristics were similar for this concert and for the previous ethnographic concerts. The age of the audience was mixed, with most of them between their 20s and 40s. We found that there were two types of audience: combined from those who listened with dedication and those who did not but came as companions or to have a relaxing night; the second type of audience was compatible: they listened continuously, and with devotion. The audience’s behaviour could be divided into two types: careful listening with calm body postures; and the behaviour of the audience that was near the bar and interested more in drinking, talking and moving around the bar and through the audience zone areas.



The analysis of Michelle Gurevich’s music represents a current reanalysis of the familiar theme dedicated to the relationship between the East and the West. The feeling of non-belonging that describes Gurevich when talking about her personality, and the fact that Gurevich has more fans and gives more concerts in Eastern and Central Europe than in Western countries, were the main starting points for the conception of the overall research. The theoretical discussion was supplemented by the ethnographic research of Gurevich’s concert held in Bratislava in April 2017.

Most of her albums are created in the West but she arises more interest from the audience, and gets more offers for concerts, in Eastern and Central Europe. Her music is part of the indie scene, delivering a mixture of more sources of inspiration coming from Soviet pop music, mostly ballads, combined with elements of Western indie music as indie dream pop or lo-fi. A melancholic atmosphere is part of Gurevich’s music, and the artistic concept and image are an important element that connects and juxtaposes Eastern and Western influences or relationships. (Ballad songs from the scene of Soviet pop and that of indie music). Through Gurevich’s music, the audience in Eastern and Central Europe can experience and connect the two historical periods through interweaving  musical styles from the period of the Soviet Union with newer features coming from the Western indie music scene. Or, in other words, it is obvious through the dialogues on a local, translocal and virtual level.



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