Homegrown talents like Mandopop newcomer Mandy Ke, producer-composer Evan Low and singer-songwriter Charlie Lim are giving international and more established musicians a run for their money as their songs and albums climb up the charts.
#2 debut for Mandopop newcomer
You don't have to be classically trained to embark on a music career - just ask homegrown singer-songwriter Mandy Ke, whose debut single So Wrong hit No 2 on the Malaysian Mandopop iTunes chart on its day of release last week.
It's almost hard to believe the 21-year-old didn't know how to write a single note of music when she penned the hit Mandopop ballad.
"When I first started, I would just hum tunes into my phone and then fill in the lyrics later," reveals Ke, who is learning to play the keyboard and taking music arrangement lessons to advance in her career.
She has been penning songs out of habit since she was 18, and to date has written about 40 original compositions.
"I've liked singing since I was young. I started writing as a hobby and also to share with my friends who thought my songs were quite cool," explains Ke, who cites fellow homegrown singer-songwriter Tanya Chua as her idol and inspiration.
Her break came when local vocal group MICappella invited her to collaborate with them last year and she ended up writing two songs - The Curse of Love and Never Be Defeated - for their latest album MICappella Reloaded.
She had a second shot at stardom when she participated in nationwide talent search programme Level Up! 2016 and the raw vocal recordings of her originals caught the attention of the judging panel.
Ke was short-listed to be in the top 10 from the hundreds of participants, earning the opportunity to record a single and music video before those plans were abruptly put on hold when the show got cancelled.
But it was also through Level Up! 2016 that her current label Cross Ratio Entertainment talent-spotted and signed her.
A fortnight prior to the release of So Wrong, Ke made her YouTube debut with a music video that was a cover of Jessie J's hit Flashlight, but re-arranged with her own Mandarin lyrics.
She adds that her songs and lyrics are generally inspired by her own life as well as those of her friends: "I like to listen to their stories because (I'm still young and might not have experienced everything yet). And when I write I hope to share different messages through my songs."
So Wrong's lyrics, for instance, promotes self-worth. "I wrote it because a lot of times, people tend to judge a book by its cover without knowing someone properly," Ke explains. "The lyrics are actually quite sarcastic and it's meant to encourage the listener to not be affected by what others might say about them."
Producer steps out on his own
Evan Low is only 27 but the producer-composer-performer has raked up some serious credentials in his recording career - enough to rival any industry veteran.
The Berklee College of Music graduate who majored in electronic production and design has not only worked with the Who's Who of the local music industry - The Sam Willows, Nathan Hartono, Jeremy Monteiro, Stefanie Sun, and Gentle Bones, just to name a few - and global brands like Adidas, Toyota and Lego but also with international musicians like David Foster and Nathan East.
"I was called upon to help (Foster and East) in recording their works at a studio by my mentor because I was able to operate with the technical know-how of an audio engineer (and) have the musical sensibilities of a musician," he recalls. "(It was) definitely an eye-opening experience to watch them work, to say the least."
While Low has largely stayed behind the scenes, the multi-instrumentalist recently stepped out on his own, recording under the musical alias Evanturetime.
His debut single, Vultures, featuring the vocals of indie music darlings Linying and Charlie Lim, topped Spotify's Viral 50 charts and has raked up over 100,000 streams (and counting) since its release in late October.
An Evanturetime EP is currently in the works and will be released next year. It will include collaborations with the likes of Inch Chua and Tim de Cotta.
"The Evanturetime moniker is a name I've given myself so that I can explore and try out different musical approaches outside of my commercial work," Low explains. "As much as I love to produce for artists it is nice to let loose once in a while."
Evanturetime's compositions draw inspirations from anything - be it a musical instrument or even something as unusual as a tree branch - and Low's gift lies in his ability to mash these sounds together into a radio-friendly earworm like Vultures, which was built from sampled leaves and vintage synthesizers swirling around Linying and Lim's warm vocal hooks.
He will be collaborating with another 2016 breakout star, Hartono, on Friday for the National Gallery's Light to Night Festival. Both have been working together over the years on several projects, some of which stems from them just improvising.
On the current state of the local music scene, Low observes it is "blossoming", thanks to the "huge amount of amazing creative talent in our small island".
He adds: "Their success so far is largely thanks to the attention they're garnering on digital/social media platforms, in addition to the support the National Arts Council has been giving to the arts."
But awareness for the general public still needs to be raised, Low feels.
"It's easy for us who are working in the industry to be in the know of what's up and coming, but I've spoken to a random lady on the street (and asked) how she would be engaged in the arts, and her answer was: 'I have no idea. Esplanade?'," he shares. "It is still challenging for people who want to be supportive of the arts to access information so it'll be great if we could find a way to organise and streamline that information."
A hit record in all three formats
With music listening and buying habits shifting mostly online, it surprises Charlie Lim that his fans still want physical copies of his work.
The homegrown singer-songwriter issued his Time/Space EP on vinyl a fortnight ago - about a year on from its CD/digital release - but all stock reserved for local sale sold out within days.
"We did about 700 copies for the first press, and about half of them have gone overseas," says Lim, who adds there should be a restock in the coming week.
The first 50 copies also came with a free ticket to a secret intimate show later this month.
The demand has taken the 27-year-old aback slightly, given how well Time/Space has already performed when it came out in 2015.
Within an hour of its release, the double EP took top spot on the local iTunes chart, and his songs have over 1.5 million plays on Spotify.
Not only that, the first batch of 1,500 CDs have sold out and only a handful are left from the re-press.
"To me, that's a very nice surprise especially in the Internet age," says Lim, who recently signed to major label Universal Music, which is handling the production and distribution of the vinyl version.
"It's so much easier to figure out analytics for streaming and downloads, and it's also much lower-risk compared to putting out a physical product (but) I don't really know how to gauge the market for physicals because you can never guarantee anything these days."
The bespectacled guitarist admits he doesn't own a proper CD or vinyl player himself but that doesn't stop him from walking into a shop or going online to buy something off the shelves. "I care about owning that physical memorabilia (so) I'm hoping that the fans feel the same way about my music," Lim shares.
Like the CD version of Time/Space which features a custom-made digipak case with amorphous sleeve, perforated lyric and artwork booklet, Lim and his team sat down with (local award-winning design agency) HJGHER, who also worked on the CD, to extrapolate the EPs' artwork (by photographer Jovian Lim) to the vinyl sleeve, inserts and jacket.
"My younger brother is a bit of a vinyl nerd, so he was a good sounding board and gave me plenty of references to work with," he reveals.
"We went through quite a few colour options for the vinyl itself, and went with a clear one in the end which matched the overall aesthetic really well."
Pressed in Japan, it comes aptly with an obi strip - a small piece of paper with information about the album attached to the spine of Japanese-made CDs and vinyls - which Lim's girlfriend, who knows Japanese, helped to translate into that language.
While he admits he isn't an audiophile - "I'm a typical 90s kid who went through the transition of cassette to discman and I loved burning my own CD-R mixes (while) spending hours designing my own covers and track-listing" - he says there is no denying "there's a lot more depth, warmth, and soundstage" when it comes to the vinyl format.
"Seeing a record spin on a plate and having that tactile experience of changing sides and discs is something else - it's the proper way to listen to an album that's meant to be played from start to finish," Lim points out.
This article was first published on Dec 2, 2016.
Get The Business Times for more stories.