The rock musician, art critic and sustainability expert reveals the songs that mean the most to her—from Bauhaus to Nina Simone

Even in a city as diverse as Hong Kong, it's rare to spot as true an individual as Diana d'Arenberg. The arts writer, who founded sustainability platform Plant Terra and arts and culture blog Post-Ism, is a devotee of the dark—from alternative fashion bedecked with black, studs and industrial jewellery to macabre home décor (hello animal taxidermy) to a taste in music that, while extraordinarily eclectic, leans decidedly heavy.

She is also a talented rock musician and charismatic lead singer, who has performed under various guises for many years. Last month, she released the post-punk single Better Days with her new band The Strixx.

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The Strixx is Eamonn Fitzpatrick and Diana d'Arenberg
Above The Strixx is Eamonn Fitzpatrick and Diana d'Arenberg

It's a melancholic and understated track on which d'Arenberg's smoky, languid delivery and eerie synths conjure a cloud of noir that's shot through with bandmate Eamonn Fitzpatrick's piercing guitar. “Tell me that things get better”, the lyrics intone: a sentiment to rally behind in the current era.

The full album is due to follow later this year.

To celebrate her latest foray into music and pay tribute to the acts that have inspired her own music and shaped her life in some way, d'Arenberg shares her all-time favourite songs and why they make her hit play, again and again.

'Helden' - David Bowie

This is the German version of David Bowie’s Heroes. This song is simply iconic. It was initially inspired by a pair of lovers Bowie saw making out by the Berlin Wall near his recording studio in 1977, but it has come to signify a lot more. Ten years after he wrote it, still during the Cold War, Bowie performed the song live at the historic Platz der Republik Festival, on the West side of Berlin wall (Berlin was still divided by a wall then) in front of the Reichstag. But thousands of people on the East side of the Wall were able to hear the song as well (rumour has it that Bowie’s roadies pointed the speakers their way), and Bowie could hear them singing along. This song, especially in German, always reminds me of this story—the power of music to move and unify—and the fall of the wall that took place just two years later. As an East Bloc kid, it’s a very special song to me. A powerful anthem of defiance and hope.

'Four Women' - Nina Simone

I grew up listening to Nina Simone, so her music has played a big part in my life. I must know the words to every song, and I have sung a few on stage myself over the years. I still have my dad’s original vinyl in my collection (sorry dad; now you know where they ended up). Her songs are so raw, vulnerable and powerful. Simone was the high priestess of song and soul. Whatever she is singing about, you get transported along with her, swept up in the sadness, the anger, heartbreak, the joy. This song is about four strong Black women, each describing themselves in the first person and conveying their personal suffering due to racism.

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The four portraits were actually stereotypes of Black women—the point being that this is how the rest of the US viewed African American women, but that there can be no single portrait of a person. Simone created this song and Mississippi Goddam as a tribute to four young girls who were murdered by white supremacist terrorists in a 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Simone wasn’t just an incredibly talented musician—a classically trained pianist with a rich, sultry, contralto voice—but she also used her voice and song to support the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties.

'Decades' and 'New Dawn Fades' - Joy Division

OK, I’m cheating here. It’s hard to choose just one Joy Division song. They were an incredible band and their influence on rock music can’t be overstated. The solemn, poetic lyrics on these two songs are so powerful and haunting, with atmospheric and at times sepulchral instrumental interludes. Their music, especially New Dawn Fades, can feel devastating and foreboding at times. Singer Ian Curtis conveys weariness, suffering, and despair, with the song ending in a near howl. But despite the torment and darkness, the songs are also beautiful and brilliant.

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'Serpentskirt' - Cocteau Twins

Another band where it’s so difficult to choose just one song. Singer Liz Fraser’s truly sublime voice was likened to the ‘voice of God’ and is so unique, otherworldly, beautiful and haunting that it’ll send shivers down your spine. This tune is transcendent, magical and heart-breaking. Cocteau Twins songs are like abstract art, with ethereal, experimental sounds, effects and vocals that pushed the envelope of what music could be. They created a whole new sound. No matter how many times I’ve played them, I hear and feel something new from them.

'Bela Lugosi’s Dead' - Bauhaus

This 1979 song is an iconic goth anthem and was a goth club favourite growing up (and still is). The simple bassline, the distorted, screeching guitars and instrumental rambling, and a kind of dub reggae beat make the song an experimental, post-punk classic. The repetitive chorus—“Bela Lugosi’s dead, undead, undead, undead”—referring to B-grade movie actor Bela Lugosi, who once played Dracula, is also a little kitsch and tongue-in cheek as Lugosi was buried in his Dracula costume when he died. It’s moody, dark but also catchy with lyrics that tap into the Hollywood allure of the vampire. The song runs to almost ten minutes in length and was also cut in just one take, which is remarkable.

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