Tanya's bold venture into electronica

Tanya Chua does electronica. These are four words that would make any Mandopop fan sit up and take notice.

As the three-time Golden Melody Award winner for Best Mandarin Female Singer says herself: "That sounds a bit terrifying. People are very familiar with my music and associate me with healing love ballads, that's what I'm good at.

"But should I have a greater sense of responsibility to create music rather than just do what people want to hear? It's something I've been mulling over these past few years."

The Taiwan-based musician recently spoke to Singapore media at Mandarin Orchard Singapore to promote her game-changing album, Aphasia.

It is a bold departure from her past works as it dives into a new genre and takes on darker aspects of love and desire.

There is also a broader theme on the inability to communicate. The term aphasia refers to a speech disorder caused by damage to the brain, and Chua, 41, uses it as a stark metaphor for a pervasive affliction of the times.

She says: "None of us can leave the online world or our phones and that's changing the face of interaction between people.

"For example, people hiding behind their screens and making irresponsible remarks. So I wanted to do something about technology versus people."

Once she had a concept in mind, it became clear to her that electronica was the ideal medium - "to use elements of it to create an aural atmosphere".

She adds: "It was a very humanistic starting point, electronica was merely a tool."

Logical? Yes. Easy? No.

In the first place, this was not a genre she was familiar with.

"It's too ethereal for me. It's not very hook-based, I like hooky stuff. But it has all these interesting sounds, beats and rhythms."

She says of the music-making experience: "I went into the abyss. It's dark, I don't know what I'm doing.

"I know what I wanted to achieve, but executing it took so much time and so many trials. You're working from zero."

Just the process of looking for arrangers and trying them out took half a year.

Given the arduous process of putting the album together, Chua decided to entrust all of the lyrics to award-winning home-grown songwriter Xiaohan.

The two have collaborated before to winning effect on tracks such as Amphibian, Projectile as well as Darwin I, which was nominated for Best Lyrics at the Golden Melody Awards.

Chua says: "I always meet Xiaohan when I come back to Singapore and we always have our late-night girl chats.

She knows me in and out, we've talked about this concept. I needed someone who can write with precision what I wanted to express."

Even with a trusted friend to lean on, putting Aphasia together was a "traumatic" process.

"I thought I was going to die making this album," she declares.

Her hard work has paid off. The title track has topped a singles chart in Singapore while popular Taipei radio station Hit Fm anointed Aphasia as one of the top 10 Mandarin albums of last year.

Chua seems to have already put the tough times behind her, looking fresh and energetic in a black outfit with a colourful floral wrap.

Still, she has decided to take some time away from music to pursue a new passion: baking.

It started out as a distraction, something she did instead of writing songs, but she will jet to France this month for a proper course.

"I wanted to go back to being a student again and this opportunity came up when I was in Paris.

The course is intense, more than 400 hours in three months covering all the techniques of pastry-making. I just wanted to do it, I have no road map at all.

"These days, we just have to do it. Instead of thinking of the consequences or thinking whatever they will bring to us, just do it."

It was the same principle that led to the creation of Aphasia when she dove headlong into electronica instead of merely dipping a toe in.

"I don't want to do a lukewarm kind of thing. If I'm doing it, I'll take a quantum leap, there's a lot of passion and commitment when you do it that way," she says.

"If you do it just to test the waters, you might as well don't do it because it's a waste of time - at least for me, now that I'm almost into my 20th year of making music."

The bachelorette made her debut with the English-language album Bored in 1997 and then broke into the Mandopop scene with Breathe (1999).

Her Golden Melody wins were for Amphibian (2005), Goodbye & Hello (2007) and Sing It Out Of Love (2011).

While Aphasia was a difficult record to make, the album has also re-invigorated her creatively.

She muses: "I'm very afraid of being too comfortable, especially when it comes to music. When you get too comfortable, you get lazy."

No chance of that happening when she rubs her hands together and says with palpable glee at one point: "What shall I do next? What shall I play with next that makes music fun?"


This article was first published on February 1, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.