Nathan Hartono's biggest fear? Failure

Nathan Hartono did not think he would make it past round one of Sing! China.
Nathan Hartono did not think he would make it past round one of Sing! China.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Sing! China first runner-up Nathan Hartono entered the talent competition to overcome self-doubt

Local singer Nathan Hartono had no idea what famous people in China endured until he experienced an awkward situation at the airport after the semi-finals.

When told his luggage exceeded the weight limit, he proceeded to repack it at the counter.

A few minutes later, he saw that he was on social media, tagged in pictures of him unpacking his things on the floor.

"So that's something I need to pay attention to nowadays," he says wryly, in an interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

He is no stranger to getting attention from fans as he has been performing since he was 14.

I was already a fairly established musician, so to put myself on a competition stage, that is to put in question my ability, my legitimacy as a musician.

SINGER NATHAN HARTONO on why he had been reluctant to enter Sing! China initially

But having done well on such a hugely popular platform as the televised Chinese competition Sing! China - coming in second, after Jiang Dunhao - means that people have been recognising him in Beijing and Shanghai.

Hartono, 25, says: "The fan culture there is very different. They would take photos of you, like in your face, no questions asked and just stick a phone in your face. It felt slightly like this caged zoo animal kind of thing."

To think that when he was first approached by the show's producers to join last year, he had said no as he was filming HBO Asia's fantasy action television series Halfworlds.

Approached again this year, he was still reluctant.

"The biggest thing that I was afraid of was failure. I was already a fairly established musician, so to put myself on a competition stage, that is to put in question my ability, my legitimacy as a musician," he says.

Eventually, he decided to take the leap.

"I didn't like how scared I was of it. I didn't like that this was something I didn't want to do because I didn't think I was able to do it."

He was confident of making it to the first round, though.

"I thought it was going to be like auditions, maybe one round, and I'm done. The talent pool there is insane."

He himself is no slouch in the talent department. Despite his age, he is already a veteran of the local music scene. His first major concert was 2005's ChildAid show, which was organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times. He released his debut album, Let Me Sing! Life, Love And All That Jazz, in 2006 and, most recently, held a solo gig at the Esplanade in July.

Because of his jazz background, he would often improvise during the Sing! China competition, be it during rehearsals or at the actual performances. The technical crew soon gave up trying to make him stick to a fixed rundown.

But his adventurousness meant that he was a great fit for contest judge and Mandopop king Jay Chou's team. Hartono says: "Beyond anything else, he likes to innovate, experiment and push boundaries. He's always challenging the perception of what Chinese music should sound like.

"And that's what I learnt the most from him more than anything else. No matter what level you're at, never be comfortable, always want to do more."

Chou has extended an offer to Hartono and all his other mentees, that if he ever goes to their home towns for a gig, they were going on stage with him.

Hartono adds: "Beyond that, we've spoken about the potential of working together in the future. I'm not too sure what the projects will be yet, but there's definitely interest both on his side and his team."

His more immediate plans include putting out an EP under Warner Music, which should include at least one Chinese song.

It will not be one of the numbers he sang during Sing! China, but an original song composed by him, with someone else contributing lyrics.

"I'm incapable of writing Chinese lyrics at the moment. I can speak in the language, but I can't be lyrical and poetic in it just yet."

Managing his own Chinese-language social media platforms is within his ability, though.

Yes, he personally posts on his micro-blogging Weibo account. He says with a smile: "I'm very proud of those. I spend an extra amount of time making sure that the sentence structure is at least followable. Google Translate helps a lot. People suspect it's somebody else, but it's all me."

While he has surprised himself by "how decent" his grasp of the Chinese language has become, he also admits that there is a lot of room for improvement. It is something that he will be brushing up on as he mulls over his music and acting opportunities in China.

Before that happens, he wants to take a short break, "do life for a bit".

"One of the biggest adjustments over there, apart from the language barrier, was how distant I was from a lot of things going on at home."

He is determined not to let all the attention go to his head. "I'm very happy that the show was able to bring people together and the music was able to give people something to support. That's enough, I'm happy.

"Once this all dies down and the next thing comes up, I'm not going to be left with a hollow, empty feeling inside. I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished and it's now on to the next thing."

For more on Nathan Hartono, go to http://str.sg/4xLo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'His biggest fear? Failure'. Print Edition | Subscribe