'I grew up in a household with no music', says local singer-songwriter Joel Tan

Singer-songwriter Gentle Bones or Joel Tan (above), who is always honing his songcraft. -- PHOTO: THE LINCH AGENCY
Singer-songwriter Gentle Bones or Joel Tan (above), who is always honing his songcraft. -- PHOTO: THE LINCH AGENCYPHOTO: THE LINCH AGENCY

Gentle Bones has never had a music lesson and says his process is more of songwriting than learning its technicalities

It is a little surprising that local singer- songwriter Joel Tan, who has a No. 1 release on the local iTunes charts and 100 self- composed tunes under his belt, grew up in a household with no music.

"In terms of people close to me, I didn't have anybody at home to inspire me," says the 20-year-old who records and performs as Gentle Bones. "My whole family don't know anything about music, they don't even listen to music. I had to get CD players and buy albums all by myself. Even my close friends are more into sports. For music, I was actually the first one."

While his self-titled EP went on sale only last week, the buzz over the release has been steadily building up over the past year.

Until We Die, his debut single released in December last year, topped the iTunes charts and has racked up an impressive 155,400 views on YouTube. The EP's other two singles, Elusive and Save Me, were in the top three of the local iTunes charts and registered 116,000 YouTube views.

Tan, who is currently in national service, will launch the nine-track EP at live music venue TAB on Saturday. The gig will feature other local singers Gareth Fernandez and Samantha Rui as opening acts.

While he listened to pop music as a kid, he says he started getting into music seriously in his early secondary school years when he discovered British indie acts such as Pete Doherty, Arctic Monkeys and Ed Sheeran, his biggest songwriting influence.

This explains why he sings with an English accent.

"Over the years, I sort of just had the inclination to start singing with an accent and I can't do an American accent for nuts, it's kind of weird," he explains. "It's still not perfect lah, I'm not trying to perfect an accent, I try to sing what comes naturally."

When he was 16, a few school friends "forced" him to join them as a singer in a school performance.

According to Tan, the gig was well received among the rest of their school mates and that inspired him to delve deeper into music and, eventually, go solo and write his own songs.

Choosing the moniker Gentle Bones because "Joel Tan is pretty common name, you can find it anywhere in Singapore", he started writing and composing songs as soon as he taught himself how to string together four chords on the guitar. One of the earlier tunes he wrote became Until We Die, which, like most of his songs, is based on "love, heartbreak and relationships".

"My whole musical process has been really about writing songs rather than learning the technicalities of music," adds Tan, who has never taken music lessons.

One of his earliest breaks was performing for free at the Esplanade's Mosaic Music Festival in 2012. He has since played other major music events here such as Music Matters Live 2014 and the recent Ignite! Music Festival 2014.

His family, which include two younger siblings, are supportive of his foray into music. His early, homemade recordings were done with a microphone that his lawyer father bought for him. His mother is a housewife.

He has since moved on to a snazzier studio set-up - the EP was produced and mixed at Sync Studios by Roland Lim, the acclaimed Singaporean producer for other iTunes chart-topping acts such as Australian metal band Make Them Suffer and home-grown bands including Villes and The Summer State.

Tan, who funded the release with $10,000 from the National Arts Council's EP Grant as well as $4,000 from his own pocket, enlisted the help of session musicians and a chorus of singers to help him flesh out the original, folk-acoustic arrangements of his songs into lush, layered anthems.

"I think I've always envisioned the songs to be epic. Roland was more inclined towards a softer acoustic side but I decided to go for the bigger sound and I guess it worked out for the rest of the album as well and we settled on a big sound."

While he says that the songs in the EP are what he feels are his best-written tunes so far, he is constantly refining his songcraft and hopes to expand his musical palate to include other genres such as electronic music.

"I haven't really kept count but I think I have written at least close to 100 songs. All these songs, I tend not to work on them, but I keep writing until I find good songs."

When his NS stint ends in February next year, he has six months free before he enters Nanyang Technological University to study business. He intends to use that time to play more shows and get his music out both in Singapore and regionally.

"If it all goes very well, I might just delay university for a bit."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg