THE LIFE! INTERVIEW

From music to history to writing novels, little fazes Art Fazil

Art with his parents after graduating with a diploma in professional music development in London in 2003. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ART FAZIL
Art with his parents after graduating with a diploma in professional music development in London in 2003. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ART FAZIL
Art Fazil, four, in a fancy dress competition. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ART FAZIL
Art Fazil, four, in a fancy dress competition. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ART FAZIL
Determined to chase his dreams, Art Fazil did not give up when record label boss Jimmy Wee told him that he could not sing. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Determined to chase his dreams, Art Fazil did not give up when record label boss Jimmy Wee told him that he could not sing. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Not one to stand still, singer-songwriter Art Fazil has turned motivational speaker and music historian

Back in his youth, bilingual singer-songwriter Art Fazil spent a lot of time at the void deck of his flat, hanging out with his Ang Mo Kio neighbourhood friends and teaching himself how to play the guitar and sing.

Fast forward more than three decades later, the long-haired folk/rock singer whose stage name is an acronym for A Rebellious Teenager has become an elder statesman of sorts to the Malay music scene here.

The 48-year-old has started giving motivational talks to youth, most notably at a Malay youth programme SG50KITAx in March, which featured speakers such as former Foreign Minister George Yeo and Bank of Singapore's chief executive officer Bahren Shaari.

The man known for socially conscious songs such as Full Moon Over Marina Bay and Rainbow Child has also become a music historian and is the curator of the Ole Ole Temasek - 50 Years Of Singapore Malay Pop Music exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore.

Part of Singapore HeritageFest 2015, the exhibition showcases artefacts from the home-grown contemporary Malay music scene in the last five decades and runs till Sunday.

As part of the project, the bachelor will give a talk this Saturday at the same venue on the renaissance of Nusantara music, or music made throughout the Malay archipelago, in the 1990s.

He has also curated a Malay music segment at the Jiving Through The Ages concert this weekend at the Cathay that features veteran singers such as Fatimah M. Amin and M. Ishak performing together with indie rock 'n' roll band The Pinholes.

"I never thought that one day I would be giving life lessons to young people or be a curator for an exhibition like Ole Ole Temasek," says the singer, who sounds bemused at the turn his career has taken.

He is also among the prominent local artists performing at the Sing50 concert at the National Stadium on Aug 7.

The exhibition was his way of helping to preserve Malay music, he says over coffee. And he said yes when the organisers of the talks invited him to be a speaker because he believed that there were some life lessons to be learnt from the way he made a lifelong career out of his love of music and the arts.

"I still feel like a teenager and I still love the same things I loved," he says with his trademark soulful smile.

He is an artist who is always willing to take the plunge and try new things, even if it means leaving his comfort zone to go to London, where he was based from 1995 to 2008.

In the 1980s, he was best known as a songwriter for many Malay artists in Singapore and Malaysia, including rock/ folk pioneer Ramli Sarip and veteran singer Kathy Ibrahim.

The 1990s saw him come into his own as a singer, scoring radio hits with his solo albums in English, as well as through Malay albums as part of folk trio Rausyanfikir. While in London, he sang in the streets and in clubs and refined his craft in music schools.

Recently, he has been focusing more on the business side of music and co-founded independent record label Moro Records, based in Malaysia.

In a bid to keep up with the changing music industry climate and the rise of social media, he wrote and sang on a music video and single, Rilek Brader (the colloquial form of the words "Relax, brother"). The song, a humorous ditty about taking things easy and featuring guest vocals from veteran Malaysian comedian Imuda, was a contrast to the more serious nature of his previous tunes.

Rilek Brader went viral, clocking 1.1 million views and winning him a new audience among those too young to remember his songs from past decades. He says: "It was an experiment. I wanted to write a simple three-chord song that people can sing along to. I wanted to use the term Rilek Brader, a catchphrase that is so popular, I was surprised no one has turned it into a song yet."

During the interview, Art is laidback, the epitome of what Rilek Brader is all about. But behind his cool and collected demeanour lies a talented and determined individual, say industry veterans.

Mr Yusnor Ef, president of Perkamus, the association of Malay singers, composers and professional musicians, says: "He has the ability to fashion catchy tunes out of lyrics that resonate with the 'rakyat', the common people."

Former music industry honcho Jimmy Wee, who was responsible for giving Art his first few recording breaks, says the singer's biggest strength is his fierce determination. Mr Wee adds: "He's a creative guy and he always wanted to make it. He's got the drive, always wanting and eager to find his way, even going as far as to London to find that pot of gold in music."

In 1986, when Mr Wee was still head of WEA Records, a fresh-off-his-A- levels Art went into his office with a cassette of songs that he recorded in his parents' bathroom ("the acoustics there were really good", he reasons). The record label boss told him upfront that he could not sing, but made him an offer to come on board as a songwriter for the label's other acts instead.

Despite being jobless, Art said no. "I told him, if you don't want me as a singer, I'll take my tape back."

As fate would have it, on his way out of the building, he chanced upon one of his rock idols, Ramli, in the hallway. "I went up to him and said, 'Abang Ramli, I've got some rock songs that I wrote, do you want to hear them?'"

Ramli asked him to leave the tape with the record label's reception. One week later, the rocker called and told Art he was keen to record one of the songs, Orang Kota (City People) and thus began Art's lifelong career in music.

Born Fazil Sultan, Art grew up with his father, a storekeeper with the Public Utilities Board; mother, who was an administrative worker at the Jurong Country Club; and a brother four years his junior. The family moved from a kampung off Peirce Reservoir to a Housing Board flat in Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s. While Malay music was always on the radio at home, none of his family members played music or sang.

Up until his mid-teens, he was obsessed with football and spent his after-school hours training with the FAS-Milo Soccer School, the now- defunct programme which churned out local football heroes such as Fandi Ahmad.

He also hung out at the void deck with friends and learnt to play songs by Ramli's former band, veteran local rockers Sweet Charity, as well as classic rock bands such as Led Zeppelin. "I discovered I had a higher chance of getting girls interested in me through music than through soccer," he says with a smile.

Around the time that he did his A levels at Ang Mo Kio Pre-U Centre, his taste in music became more eclectic when he discovered a wider variety of artists, including Simon & Garfunkel, Tracy Chapman, James Taylor and pop acts such as Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, by reading music magazines such as Rolling Stone.

Soon after his big break with Ramli, Art started writing for other big Malay rock names such as Lovehunters and Ella. He also worked closely with Ramli as a roadie, back-up singer and guest performer on his Malaysian tours.

Undaunted by Mr Wee's lack of confidence in his singing, Art still harboured dreams of becoming a singer and worked hard to improve his vocal techniques. Many practice sessions later, he found a way to work with his limitations and wrote songs that were within his vocal range.

In 1992, he did a show-stealing performance of his original songs at The Substation, including Mama, I Can't Breathe, a tune about living in Singapore's straitlaced society. In her review, The Straits Times' then music writer Sharon Lim said Art's set "reminded the audience of the power of folk music".

In 1991, Art formed Rausyanfikir with two former schoolmates and fellow singer-songwriters, the late Esham Jamil and Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin. Mr Wee, by then the managing director of record label Pony Canyon Singapore, was impressed by the improvements in Art's singing and signed on both Rausyanfikir, named after the Persian word for "thinkers", and Art as a solo artist.

Rausyanfikir's blend of poetic Malay lyrics set to catchy melodies led to plenty of airplay on Malay radio stations in Singapore and Malaysia, and helped them sell 50,000 copies of each of their two albums, Rausyanfikir (1992) and Rusuhan Fikiran (1994).

In between, Art released his self-titled solo English album which spawned a radio hit, acoustic ballad Sometimes When I Feel Blue. It won Best Local English Pop Song at the 1995 Compass (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) Awards.

That year, he made his first trip to London as a tourist and fell in love with its lively music scene. "I wanted to see and experience the business side of the music world and, for that, you go to either London, Los Angeles or Nashville."

He chose London because his heroes were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the city was small and he could get around easily by train. "More importantly, the people didn't carry guns there." He relocated there that same year.

When he first arrived in London, he had only a guitar and a backpack and knew only one person - the granddaughter of the Sultan of Selangor whom he got to know through footballer Fandi. He spent many of his early nights there, sleeping on her couch.

Determined and resourceful, he would busk and immerse himself in the community of musicians there, which led to paying gigs. Later, he would get paid to teach music and it helped that he was still getting royalties from his songs back home.

He returned occasionally to Singapore for shows and recordings. In 2000, he released a Malay album Nur (Light) that had a single, Merindu Kepastian (Longing), which went to No. 1 on local Malay radio.

In 2001, armed with a study grant from the National Arts Council, he enrolled in a post-graduate programme at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, graduating with a diploma in professional music development in 2003.

To learn more about the business side of music, he studied at the city's School of Contemporary Music, earning a certificate in music business in 2004.

By 2008, Art decided he needed to return home. "At that point, I realised I was doing the same thing again and again. I'd learnt what I needed to learn about the music industry and I was getting restless."

Upon his return, he shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia for his music projects, something he still does to this day. Reaching back to his roots, he recorded Syair Melayu - A Collection Of Classic Malay Folk Songs. Released in 2009, the collection of traditional Malay songs was named Album Of The Week on Japanese radio station Osaka FM.

His desire to preserve the local Malay music heritage gave him the idea to hold an exhibition to coincide with Singapore's 50th birthday celebrations, which eventually became Ole Ole Temasek.

"The Malay music industry is huge. A Singapore-born singer like Sharifah Aini has 700 songs and each song takes about 10 hours to record. There is so much more out there done in the last 50 years and if you don't document, archive and put them in a certain perspective, then it becomes just entertainment. Its great value would be lost to future generations."

Art lives with his parents in a four- room HDB flat in Woodlands. He is in a relationship, but declines to reveal more about his love life.

For now, he remains focused on his music career. He is looking for new artists on both sides of the Causeway to add to Moro Records' roster and is working on new lyrics and songs. "I have enough material for three albums. I'll have to put them out at some point," he says.

He also hopes to add "author" to his ever-expanding CV. In his laptop are two fictional novels in English - he declines to talk about the genre or plot so as not to "jinx" the books - as well as a collection of short stories in Malay.

Writing is not new to him. In the early 2000s, he had a regular column in The New Paper where he wrote about his experiences in London and he has contributed articles about the music industry to Malay publications such as Singapore daily Berita Harian and Malaysian weekly Media Rakyat.

His penchant for writing comes from his love of books. An avid reader, he frequents the library and would sometimes stare at books by relatively unknown authors and wonder about them. There is a romanticism about writing under a pen name that he finds appealing, he says.

"Sometimes I have this weird ambition of writing novels anonymously. Maybe some day, I'll go live on some mountain in Indonesia and just write novels."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg