Late to the game

Pop music is oft considered for the young, by the young. Witness: Chinese pop legend Teresa Teng, only 15 when she came on the scene; and 1970-80s Taiwanese songbird Delphine Tsai Hsing Chuan, who released her first album when she was 14.

In comparison to them, Taiwan's reigning King of Pop Jay Chou was already slightly advanced in age when he released his accomplished debut album at age 21.

But a handful of relative late bloomers, of late, are bucking this youth-oriented trend.

Singapore's Kiat Goh, 34, has orbited into Mandopop with his album Pluto, while American-Chinese Wang Dawen, 32, and Malaysian actor-turned-singer Lawrence Wong, 32, have become mature debutants in the Mandopop industry.

"I'm at a good stage in my life where I am comfortable with myself and know what I want to achieve when it comes to music-making and songwriting," says Goh, about being in his 30s among younger musicians.

"And of course, the complexity of emotions that comes with life experiences is so interesting and important. Without these, there would be much less to write and sing about."

Still, there can be downsides to jostling with the younger, hungrier and more energetic in a cut-throat business. Take, for example, the case of China's Shane Cao (below), 34.

He returned to the music scene with the album Shane_Shine last year, after a decade-long hiatus.

His first album in 2003, which was released coincidently during the Sars epidemic and barely promoted, had sunk without a trace. That album rates no mention on the singer's online discography.

The singer recalls a make-up artist telling him: "Brother, you're already 34 and you're still competing with those born in the 1990s. Are you overestimating yourself or under-estimating others?"

While acknowledging that he is not at his physical peak, Cao says: "My heart has never aged. To me, 34 is a very appropriate age. I don't feel old, I still have hopes and aspirations and I'm more sure of myself. I like this stage very much."

As Wong puts it: "To me, there's no difference. Music is music, regardless of age and era."

Maybe, as the late Aaliyah once sang on the title track of the album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number.

She was 15 when it was released.

No longer an angry young man



When Rebecca Black released the single Friday in 2011, it was met with an outpouring of derision. That did not stop Wang Dawen from covering it in Mandarin shortly after.

"I was bored and had nothing to do," the American-Chinese singer explains, calling the move a joke. "The English-speaking world already hated the song, but people who don't speak English had no way of understanding why the song was so bad. So I thought, 'Let me translate it into Mandarin and share it with over a billion people'."

Since it was uploaded on YouTube in April 2011, his Mandarin version has attracted over 992,000 views.

The American also covered Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way and Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe in Mandarin in 2011 and 2012 respectively. He also did more straightforward English covers and his take on Bruno Mars' Just The Way You Are caught the attention of Taiwanese producer Adia.

When Wang first received an e-mail from Universal Music asking if he was Chinese - it thought he was Korean - he thought it was a prank. He eventually signed with the label, arrived in Taiwan on April 30, 2012, and the next day started taking Mandarin lessons to strengthen his poor command of the language.

His debut Mandarin album, Hello, was released in January. In addition to the bright and breezy title track, the album contains sunny songs about love such as Firecracker and Beautiful.

There is no sign of the angry young man who tackled hard-hitting topics of racial stereotypes and prejudice on his independent English release, American Me (2009).

But before anyone yells "sell-out", Wang says that the change came about naturally.

Speaking to Life! at Universal Music's Taipei office, he notes: "I love being an American. However, growing up in the States, I encountered racism and prejudice. And then living in Hong Kong and going to college moulded my identity and made me very aware of social issues of this kind."

At 14, he moved to Hong Kong to live with his mother and later returned to the United States to study at Northwestern University, where he majored in English and vocal performance.

When he went to Taiwan, he says, "I was all of a sudden embraced by the culture of my parents. It sounds very dramatic, but I really mean it sincerely - the minute I set foot in Asia, I felt overwhelmingly loved".

"And so a lot of the sadness, bitterness and experiences I had in the States simply did not become relevant."

As a singer-songwriter, he says, his songs reflect how he feels. Impressively, he had a hand in the lyrics of six of the nine Mandarin tracks on Hello.

When he started his language lessons, his vocabulary was "very limited" and he could not understand a lot of things. Now, he can read the newspapers.

He says: "I've always been interested in lyrics and now I work with a partner. But my goal is to write them on my own."

The title track is the first time he wrote a song using Mandarin. The bachelor says: "That's why the lyrics are direct and simple but they are also very earnest."

He notes: "I think my character and my musical identity have changed because of this new environment."

Putting his money where his mouth is



On his debut album, Kiat Goh takes the listener on a compelling trip through space. The titles alone - Pluto, Belt Of Venus, North Star - evoke images of celestial bodies traversing the infinitesimal darkness.

He drew inspiration from a diverse range of works, from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Gustav Holst's orchestral suite The Planets (1914-16). On working with lyricist Johnson Ong, Goh says: "We were fascinated by how vast the universe is and how, sometimes, we are so preoccupied with ourselves."

"What the songs are about are still human emotions," he adds. "And when you bring that up to a scale of the universe, they just seem so minute and yet still so important."

Unusually for a Mandopop album, there are elements of classical music and jazz in the record.

Rather than a forced attempt to stand out, this was a natural development for the classically trained Goh.

After receiving his diploma in multimedia from Raffles Design Institute in 2005, he decided to pursue his interest in singing by taking lessons in Singapore with a Russian vocal coach. That led to an opportunity to study in Moscow in 2006 and 2007, and later Berlin, from 2007 to 2011, under Grammy-winning opera singer Reiner Goldberg.

He was thinking about singing professionally and, at that point in time, recording a genre-crossing album did not cross his mind.

But during his five-year-plus stint in Europe, Goh was singing opera and art songs in German, Italian, French and English, even as he was listening to Mandarin pop. "And I just didn't feel that there was a hybrid of the two that existed," he says.

That said, Pluto is not about Mandarin operatic singing. He notes: "I'm not the kind of musician who thinks that he needs to apply what he learns to every single thing whether it sounds appropriate or not."

Besides, there is more to classical singing than belting it out with gusto. Lieder, or art songs, were set to poems and the singing style is more nuanced. "It's not about volume but emotions, and that is closer to Mandopop."

While he brings a fresh perspective and sound to Mandopop, some might find Goh familiar-looking.

That is because the music director of MediaCorp's classical radio station Symphony 92.4 is also a model.

He was featured in campaigns for the likes of telecoms operator M1 and retail store Tangs and has also walked fashion runways in Singapore, Taiwan and Berlin.

But the bachelor says frankly: "When I model, it's just for the money. I still don't see myself as a model. To me, this music thing is so much more substantial than something like modelling."

He was so passionate about making the album that he invested a four-figure sum in it. "My ambition is to make good music and do the kind of music I want to do. It's not about becoming famous. But, of course, if people appreciate and like my music, I would be happy."

Nor does he think that being older than your average popster puts him at a disadvantage: "I think all ages have very distinct stories and experiences to speak of and distil into art. For me, the most important thing is to bring across a genuine emotion through music."

New creative outlets


Shallow Love

No thanks to slapdash efforts, scepticism often rears its head when an actor decides to step up to the mic. And Malaysian actor Lawrence Wong is well aware of that.

"There's the stigma that actors who come up with albums are not serious about music and they're just in it to quickly raise their profile," he says, adding that he is keen to dispel that notion.

The boyish-looking Wong, who has acted in productions such as Channel 5's Moulmein High (2000-2002) and Living With Lydia 2 (2002-2003), admits he is not a "fantastic singer".

But, he adds: "What's important for me is to convey a certain message and it's got to be sincere."

His debut EP, Shallow Love, is about how people view love today: when they love, they do so lightly, in a more shallow manner, rather than diving in head-long. Not necessarily a bad thing, he reckons.

"When you're young, your love is so intense and dramatic, but it tends not to last," he says, with the mellowness that comes with experience. "Whereas love that is calmer, shallower, tends to be the lasting kind."

"That's what I'm looking for now," the bachelor adds with a laugh.

The project came together gradually.

It started with him singing the theme songs for dramas he acted in, which eventually led to a full album.

The four Mandarin tracks on the disc include What Happened To Love, from his Malaysian television drama In Laws (2013).

While Wong tried writing lyrics, his producer Percy Phang was not impressed. Phang is a well-known songwriter who has penned hits for Stefanie Sun and Yoga Lin. Hopefully, some of his self-penned lyrics will meet Phang's standards and appear on the next record, says the actor-singer.

Juggling two disciplines can be tricky, but Wong is relishing the experience.

He says: "When you are just an actor and you're in production after production, you tend to get very tired and you get to a point where there's no new breakthrough in your acting.

"The chance to do this album is a new outlet for me, to be inspired in a different way. It refreshes my artistic and creative output. When I go back to acting, I feel different."

Another outlet for his creative output is Instagram, on which he has more than 57,000 followers.

"I like the idea of taking photos and showing them to the world. And I like following people from different parts of the world as it gives me a glimpse into lives elsewhere."

But he feels no need to constantly post new material to chalk up more likes.

"To me, it's really a fun thing to do. If, one day, it's no longer that fun, then maybe I'll stop doing it."

This article was published on May 1 in The Straits Times.

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