Jaguar Jonze was a permission for myself to break free out of my societal and cultural constructs, and take control of who I really am inside. As a musician, I needed to keep evolving and becoming the kind of artist that I wanted to be. In the beginning, it was permission, but now it’s a lot more integrated into my normal everyday self. It was about finding the confidence and vulnerable side to Deena.
I am still on a journey of figuring out what my identity is. I was born in Japan and lived my first six years there, but I’m not Japanese. I was brought up by my Taiwanese mother in Australia. I didn’t feel like I belonged to any of them individually. There’s a term, ‘third culture kid’, and that really resonates with me. I didn’t consider myself Japanese, neither did the Japanese. I didn’t consider myself Taiwanese, neither did the Taiwanese. I asked myself: “What’s it like to be an Australian?” The beauty is: I now understand different cultures, but I have had to work through that for a long time. Music and art really helped me in that process.
It all began seven years ago. I never had my sights on being a creative—culturally, being a singer or musician was a huge no. Asian cultures come from this collectivist mindset, and music and art always seems individualistic. There’s also that traditional mindset of what success is—that was drummed into me at a young age. But I’ve always been a repressed creative, and it all exploded when I lost a very close friend of mine. I didn’t know how to process my grief. I was studying engineering at the University of Melbourne, and as I was walking home, I saw a guitar at a garage sale. I ended up buying it and writing songs to deal with my emotions. I haven’t stopped since—it exposed me to passion and I could not turn back.
Music allows me to have a dialogue with myself and those around me. I started off writing songs, but I then started to explore and dabble in visual art and photography. I realised those mediums teach me something and they are platforms for me to give back to the world that has given so much to me. My music is an exploration of vulnerability, crossing over different genres, but it is alternative indie-pop set against a cinematic landscape that also uses a lot of industrial beats and rhythms.
My second EP, Antihero, is going to be out in February next year. ‘Deadalive’ is the first song to be released from the EP, and was written when the band and I were on tour in the US amid COVID-19. I started writing this song in our New York apartment when we were trying to find flights to come back home. We didn’t finish it; I got COVID-19 and finished writing that song when I was under hospital care. I was one of the first few people in Australia to contract it. It encapsulated what I was feeling at the time, which was uncertainty, anxiety and desperation.
COVID-19 took away my health and my livelihood. I was bedridden for seven weeks and I had a fever for five of those weeks. I was under hospital care for 40 days—being bedridden for that long also meant my muscles degraded and I had muscle atrophy. I also had fatigue which lasted six months, shortness of breath and I wasn’t capable of singing. I was in solitary confinement for a long period because of the nature of the virus, battling mental health issues and worrying about my income and stability because the music industry was completely affected.
I copped a lot of ignorant racism when I was a COVID-19 patient. People were so fearful of the virus, they were looking for ways to shift their concerns away from them. Comments such as: “How come none of your bandmates got COVID-19 but you did, is that because you’re Asian?” They wanted to feel safe from the virus. I also faced ignorant racism in my career because corporations are trying to tick the diversity quota these days. They have a corporate social responsibility and they don’t realise that you’re not serving the public trying to break down racism, but contributing to it. Recently, I got a call where they said: “You are the perfect artist because we have two spots for people of colour.” In my mind, I thought: “Why can’t I be perfect because of my abilities instead of the skin I’m in?”
“In my mind, I thought: ‘Why can’t I be perfect because of my abilities instead of the skin I’m in?'”
I also advocate for mental health and abusive power in the music industry. It’s something I’ve experienced my whole life—abuse, sexual misconduct and rape—I was trained to accept it as part of a norm. I think many people felt that way when the Me Too movement surfaced this year in the Australian music industry. I didn’t plan on it but I was at the forefront of representing women. Their stories made me realise that we have been at risk of having our careers jeopardised, our emotions dismissed and reputations shredded because we knew we were never going to get the acknowledgement that we were seeking if we voiced it. This year has proved that one person can do so much to hundreds of women because we are all programmed that way, so it’s about trying to break that and making it a safe place for women to speak out.
Being an artist and creative is difficult and volatile. My biggest hope for Jaguar Jonze is to have a sustainable career. I would be so humbled if I can travel the world, play shows and be able to connect with people, and do what I love every day without being stressing about a roof over my head. That would be a dream.
Jaguar’s favourite haunts in Sydney
I grew up travelling between Brisbane and Sydney, and every time I fly back to Sydney, I marvel at how stunning it is. It is that alluring mix of a metropolitan city, bordered against a gorgeous variety of nature. I love going for walks. Sydney is the ideal city for that because there are pockets of different cultures and environments, and you discover so many food and drink options along the way. If I pass something and it smells good, I’ll walk in and try it. If I see a park and I think it looks interesting, I’ll venture in and let the city take me.
Take a moment to listen to my curated playlist for Vogue Singapore as you find your own little escape.
Juan Bowl & Tea
This sleek little establishment has the most finessed rice bowls in town and is owned by my good friend. I’m a huge fan of this place without bias. I only became friends with the owner because I kept coming back. Their Japanese-Scandi vibes are a dream. I highly recommend having a rice bowl with tea or wine pairings, and leave room for dessert. My go-to? Their Wagyu beef don and warabi mochi dessert paired with sparkling sake.
94A Pitt Street, Redfern
The Grounds of Alexandria
The Grounds of Alexandria is a heady experience. Itʼs the perfect theme park for brunch with a bakery, cafe, coffee roastery, florist, markets, restaurant, bar and a farm, all in one place in inner Sydney. Set aside a few hours when you’re there and take your time to explore. If you need a similar place when you’re in the CBD then they have their metro, compact version at The Grounds of the City, located in The Galeries.
7A/2 Huntley Street, Alexandria
For a fancier night out with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House, hit up Peter Gilmore’s Quay Restaurant. There’s a six- and eight- course menu to choose from, which includes an elegant mud crab custard and palatable slow-cooked pork jowl served with shaved squid and shiitake.
Upper level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks
Earl’s Juke Joint
Earl’s Juke Joint is a delightful hidden bar with a butcher’s shop front in Newtown—it honours the juke joints of the Deep South in America. Try their ready-to-go canned cocktails if you need some stocked up at home, but definitely order a Derwinʼs Revenge or an Espresso Diabolique while youʼre there. It isn’t a spot for big groups, but it’s an ideal spot for when three or less isn’t a crowd—it’s just right.
407 King Street, Newtown
The Baxter Inn
Voted onto The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2015, The Baxter Inn is located down an obscure alleyway and is a city gem you should know about. While recognised for its selection of whiskies with its own concealed whisky cellar, their Tommyʼs Margarita is pretty delicious. If youʼre not a whisky fan but willing to try something with a twist, The Penicillin with ginger, honey, lemon, Scotch and a swish of peated Islay whisky goes down like itʼs your grandmaʼs delicious, medicinal cure for everything.
152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney
Zensation Tea House
I’ll pick tea over a drink any day. This cute shop stocks the best tea and I send their Milky Oolong tea leaves across Australia to all my friends and relatives as it satiates our cravings for beautiful Taiwanese mountain tea. It is the perfect, modest spot for tea and a delicious yumcha snack.
160/806 Bourke Street, Waterloo
Art Gallery of New South Wales
With stunning exhibitions all-year round across many levels, this iconic art gallery is a sublime spot for inspiration of all kinds. Be sure to allocate an entire afternoon there and meander around the grand Botanic Gardens afterwards.
Art Gallery Road, Sydney
Little Bay Beach
Sydney is replete with exquisite beaches, alcoves and bays a stone’s throw away from the CBD so it is always hard to pick just one. However, I love Little Bay Beach as it almost feels like a Mediterranean escape. It gives the feeling of a private, secret beach bordered by rings of azure rockpools.
4R Coast Hospital Road, Little Bay
Royal National Park
If I had to throw in a day trip, 50 minutes from the CBD, this is my favourite spot to ride my motorcycle and get out of town. Think secluded beaches, coastal cliffs, river views and eucalyptus-fragrant bushlands. Thereʼs also a famous attraction called Wedding Cake Rock which is a sandstone formation that is white and triangular and it looks like (surprise, surprise) a slice of wedding cake.
Sir Bertram Stevens Drive, Royal National Park
Deputy Editor: Amelia Chia
Art Director: Henry Thomas Lloyd
Photographer: Levon Baird
Stylist: Jolyon Mason
Hair and makeup: Lei Tai
Photographer’s assistant: Max Brown
Set designer: Benjamin Fountain