Homemade harmonies

Homemade harmonies
Cheating Sons comprise (from left to right) Andy Liew, Andy Yang, Donovan Loh, Lazarus Wang and Leong Chee Shan.

This SG50 year is looking set to be a watershed year for original music made in Singapore.

While there are events celebrating the country's music heritage - including exhibitions such as So Happy: 50 Years Of Singapore Rock and Ole Ole Temasek - 50 Years Of Singapore Malay Pop Music, as well as the upcoming Sing50 concert - the myriad of album and EP releases since the start of the year herald the future.

Earlier in the year, prominent acts including electro-indie quintet Riot !n Magenta and soul/ jazz/hip-hop trio TAJ also released albums and EPs.

In April and May alone, more than 20 acts have put out new releases on various formats - digitally, on CD, vinyl and even cassette. Genres range from indie and jazz to punk and post- rock.

Life! catches up with four acts with full-length efforts: Roots rock band Cheating Sons, who are back with the follow-up to their acclaimed 2011 debut, Masters, Wives, Daughter; award-winning jazz singer Melissa Tham, who is releasing her debut album; veteran singer-songwriter Kevin Mathews, who is re-issuing more than two decades' worth of back catalogue; and R&B crooner Mark Bonafide, who has a new album of smooth jams.


Cheating Sons: Album built on creative fights

Release: Cheating Sons

Genre: Roots rock

As with many other fabled music releases, the recording Cheating Sons' eponymous sophomore album was fraught with conflict, mostly between the band and their American producer, Manny Nieto, acclaimed for his edgy work with acts ranging from Los Lobos to The Breeders.

Says singer-guitarist Lazarus Wang Renyi, 31: "There was a lot of creative tension that spilt over into personal tension, but that's just how it is.

"We got into fights about sections and parts and lyrics, then started laughing and arguing again. He wouldn't let it go, he would make sure you think about it, calm down, reflect and, at the end of the day, decide whether or not you want the part."

Still, he gives credit to Nieto, whom the band flew in and out of Singapore from 2011 to 2013 for the recordings, for helping to elevate their creativity.

"At the end of the day, we are all buddies for life."

To work on the release, the band spent four years, including a whole year during which the members took a sabbatical from their day jobs. They converted the basement in Wang's house into a studio, which also served as accommodation for Nieto whenever he was here.

They declined to reveal how much they spent on their self-funded album and how much they paid Nieto.

Besides Wang, the band comprise Donovan Loh, 38, on bass, banjos and other instruments; Leong Chee Shan, 31, on lead guitars; and Andy Liew, 25, on drums and percussion. Andy Yang, 41, is the artist behind the album's painted artwork and also joined the band as a full-time member earlier this year, playing bass and percussion.

Their 2011 debut Masters, Wives, Daughter impressed critics and fans alike with their fully formed brand of rock that is inflected with country, blues and old-school Asian pop.

According to them, the songs on the new 10-track album are a lot more "reflective" compared with their debut release.

"Our first record was very guitar- and riff-driven. We were very angry at that time, we were kids who probably hit puberty late in life," Wang jokes.

Soon after the release of their debut album, Wang, Leong and Loh quit their jobs in the legal and finance fields to focus on making music full-time.

Wang says: "We had the opportunity to make the album and dedicate all our time to it. Artistically, it took us beyond anything that we could hope for, so you start to reflect more on things, on life and the bigger picture."

Wang, who writes all the lyrics, says that the words were centred on the themes of "spirituality, mortality, love and loss".

Carry Me Down, for example, is about a pair of characters, a daughter and her mother who are "still in the limbo of uncertainty and submitting themselves to whatever is to come, the unknown".

By 2013, they were back to getting day jobs. Wang says simply: "We ran out of money, we got broke."

Loh adds: "We were secretly hoping that it would be possible to survive, but it was difficult."

Having to juggle day jobs and other commitments was only part of the reason the album, which they initially planned to release in mid-2012, was delayed. The band spent a lot of time working hard to make sure the album had a warm, analogue sound that did justice to their songs' vintage vibes.

They were also experimenting a lot more with new ways of songwriting and recording.

Loh, who is the band's resident music gear collector, found himself sourcing for a lot of old equipment, such as amplifiers that date back to the 1960s and instruments such as the mandolin. He would order them from overseas for use in the recordings.

Nieto would also take the recorded tracks to Los Angeles for additional recordings, mixing and mastering.

After performing at the Esplanade this weekend, Cheating Sons, formed in late 2008, are setting their sights on performing outside of Singapore, touring in countries including Australia, China and Japan, places which they feel will be receptive to their music.

Wang says: "It's such a stretch from our first album, we want more people outside of Singapore to listen to these new songs."

View it:


Where: Esplanade Outdoor Theatre

When: Tomorrow, 8.45pm, Saturday, 10pm, and Sunday, 7.45pm

Admission: Free


Kevin Mathews: Singing about local issues

Release: #alpacablues, Emo FASCISM, @midnight (as Kevin Mathews), Democracy, Love (as Watchmen) Pop (as The Crowd), Groovy and Action! (as Popland)

Genre: Power-pop, alternative rock

Singer-songwriter stalwart Kevin Mathews (right) has been one of the more productive artists from the Singapore alternative music scene for more than two decades, whether as a solo artist or with acts Watchmen and Popland.

With the recent re-release of five albums and three EPs from his discography on digital format, the 54- year-old is opening up his music vault for the audience to rediscover his past work.

"As 2015 is SG50, there is a greater awareness and acceptance among Singaporeans for local achievement and that includes rock and pop music.

"In this context and friendly environment, it is probably the best time in a decade to re-issue my back catalogue," he says.

These include his best-known song My One & Only from Watchmen's 1993 album Democracy, which has been covered and redone several times and was used in two films: Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys (1997) and teen romance That Girl In A Pinafore (2013).

Mathews is not one to shy away from tackling local issues in incisive and observational tunes such as I Love Singapore, Pasir Ris Sunrise, Gum and The High Cost Of Living.

He says: "I think most of these songs about Singapore have stood the test of time. Non-Singaporeans get very curious about songs such as Orchard Road or I Love Singapore - to them, there is a cultural value to these songs which they have often appreciated more than Singaporeans, until this year."

He is deeply involved in the Singapore music scene not only as an artist but also as the founder of record label Kamco Music. He is also a music journalist and a mentor for young musicians through initiatives such as Baybeats and Noise Singapore.

In addition, he teaches arts and music subjects part-time at Republic Polytechnic, holds the position of treasurer at home-grown music organisation Music Society, Singapore and sits on the National Arts Council's Arts Advisory Panel.

But songwriting will always come first for him.

"Music is life and the best way I can express myself, my thoughts and my emotions is through my music."

The last two years have been his most prolific in terms of songwriting - he says he has enough songs to fill up more than 10 albums.

His last release, #alpacablues, came out last year and he plans to put out "a semi-autobiographical concept album" titled Prefect Sense in August or September.

"And as I get older, I begin to feel incredibly restless about recording and putting albums out that I am not too concerned with whether there is an audience for the music or not. I am really doing this for myself and whoever is out there that can appreciate what I am trying to do with my music."

Kevin Mathews' re-issues are available for streaming on Deezer and Spotify and can be purchased, with prices starting from $0.98 a track, at digital music platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.

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