Hope floats in Oceans

Deon Toh honed his performance skills during national service in the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company.
Deon Toh honed his performance skills during national service in the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Home-grown singer Deon Toh's new album, which is inspired by his travels, is rife with love and loss

To find his muse, home-grown singer-songwriter Deon crossed the seas to come up with songs for his sophomore effort, Oceans.

The 28-year-old ended up with songs inspired by the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, the docks of Liverpool, the happiness that he felt in Toronto and the historical richness of Amsterdam.

"As artists and musicians, we get inspired to do things when we travel because we see things we don't usually see on a daily basis," says the husky-voiced singer, whose full name is Deon Toh and whose music spans genres such as folk, indie rock and electronica.

"You take yourself out of your comfort zone, out of that space that you are used to. And when you do, you have something to say. And when you have something to say, if your outlet is songwriting or music, then you start writing."

  • BOOK IT/DEON, OCEANS ALBUM LAUNCH SHOWCASE

  • WHERE: The Substation

    WHEN: Today, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $25 for entry, $45 for CD and entry, $60 for CD, T-shirt and entry, from Peatix (peatix.com/ event/96846). $30 at the door.

The album, which will be released tonight with a gig at The Substation, comes one year after his full-length debut, Antiphobic.

His wanderlust began when he and his band of musicians flew to Toronto to perform at the Canadian Music Week music festival in 2013, which also featured fellow home-grown acts The Sam Willows, Monster Cat and iNCH.

Last year, they flew to Iceland and Holland to work on the songs, did shows in Britain and returned to the Canadian Music Week stage. He went back to Iceland again at the start of this year to wrap up the conceptualisation of the album.

He and his bandmates financed the trips by digging into their savings and receiving grants from the National Arts Council.

Witnessing the changing seasons from his sojourns inspired songs such as Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. The travels also inspired him to take stock of his life. The 11 tracks in Oceans are rife with songs of love, loss and hope.

"Life was changing and I was coming out of university. I was trying to find myself in that sense and I had struggles with personal issues, such as my parents falling ill.

"I was coming of age and realised that time would move on. You have to leave certain things behind and that was the message."

Toh started taking piano lessons at the age of four. When he turned 12, he taught himself to play the drums and, within three years, was convinced that music was something that he wanted to dedicate his life to.

He honed his performance skills when he fulfilled his national service duties in the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company, where he was in the same batch as acclaimed fellow singer-songwriter Charlie Lim.

After NS, he enrolled at famed American music school Berklee College of Music, but stayed only for a semester before deciding to return to Singapore.

"Berklee is a good filter, a good lens for you to see what you want, it makes you question yourself. I was there and John Mayer had a workshop and he said, 'Everyone has this breakdown at Berklee, where you wake up in the middle of the night and you ask yourself why you are here. '"

Toh decided that he wanted to do more than just play drums. Through his foundation classes at Berklee, he discovered that he had a flair for singing and, a year after he returned to Singapore, he wrote his first song.

At the same time that he was developing himself as a singer-songwriter, he also enrolled at National University of Singapore, where he graduated with a degree in communications.

Music was still a strong calling, so instead of entering the corporate world, he decided to make music his full-time career.

Today, besides working on his own music, he also teaches the drums to budding musicians at Thunder Rock School, a music school co-founded by his older brother, Ian.

"I just wish that I can contribute solid pieces of art that Singaporeans can be proud of," he says.

"That was the message from the start, we wanted to push for great music to be out there.

"If you set the trend, future generations will do more and more things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'Hope floats in Oceans'. Print Edition | Subscribe