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NS mates were his first audience

Singersongwriter Jonathan Chan writes songs inspired by people in his life.
Singersongwriter Jonathan Chan writes songs inspired by people in his life.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Jonathan Chan was inspired to sing and write his own tunes after hearing indie-folk act Kings Of Convenience in junior college

When it comes to pop and contemporary music, upcoming singer- songwriter Jonathan Chan, 25, admits that he was late to the game.

"I came from a piano-learning background so I was listening to a lot of sonatas, classical music and (classical radio station) Symphony 92.4 FM," says the home-grown folk-pop artist, who recently released his debut EP, Jawn .

"I was always irritated with pop music until I started listening to (Top 40 radio stations) Power 98 and 987FM."

Then a friend introduced him to the music of Norwegian indie-folk act Kings Of Convenience in junior college and he became inspired to sing and write his own tunes.

Chan, who came up with his stage monicker Jawn to differentiate himself from the frontman of indie- rock band Plainsunset, who is also called Jonathan Chan, says that his first audience members were bunkmates during national service.

"That was the first time I got an audience and not only that, but also encouragement and affirmation," the husky-voiced singer says.

The bachelor, whose father is an engineer and mother, a retired teacher, then honed his performing and songwriting skills through competitions such as the Noise-Timbre Singer-Songwriter Programme as well as the National Arts Council's Noise Music Mentorship programme.

More than just a musician, the visual communications graduate from Nanyang Technological University is also a talented designer.

He has done artwork and logos for other home-grown indie and pop acts such as Inch Chua, Stopgap and The Sam Willows.

Having done gigs at venues such as the Esplanade, Timbre and Hood Bar, his most memorable performance to date was his EP launch show at an event space in Lorong Ampas early last month.

The 200-capacity venue was packed with friends as well as fans who had been communicating with him via social media.

"Lots of people I didn't know came down, which was very surprising. It's nice to put faces to online handles and previously disembodied names. I liked the intimacy of the launch."

1 How did you come up with the stage name Jawn?

Jawn was actually a nickname that a girl I broke up with gave me. The early songs I wrote were about her.

We're cool now. We're both so different now, you look back at your juvenile self and think, 'I'm not that person anymore', it's almost like the person you're writing about is imaginary, he doesn't exist anymore.

2 All your songs are inspired by people in your life. Do they know that you are writing about them?

I've never told anyone explicitly, "This song is about you". It's not that I'm trying to hide it, it's just that what I'm presenting is my lens and through it, these events are interpreted. In some ways, they are entirely autonomous from the people and events that actually happened.

3 One of your songs, Horizons, was inspired by a childhood friend who died. How does writing the song help you deal with the loss?

When you turn 25, you are bound to have experienced some loss in your life already and it's just about believing that you can meet people again, even though everything in your being tells you there is no afterlife or heaven. Just for the sake of meeting those few people again, it's worth it to believe in that.

4 How do you feel about the growing number of fans who write to you and tell you how much they identify with your words and music?

It's a testament to the power of sharing things and community, that we are not as different as we think we are.

Despite the ideologues and wars, we all want the same things, companionship, belonging, all these things are important to us as people. That's usually what I write about, I guess. It's a bit cheesy, it's a bit idealistic, but it's what I genuinely believe in.

5 On social media, your fans are asking you personal questions like your relationship status. How do you deal with such public scrutiny?

I don't find it intrusive because I'm the sort of person who is very introspective. When people intrude, my first reaction is not to fight back, but to wonder if I did anything wrong.

When someone asks me about my relationship, I try to be smart about it by making jokes.

You don't want to set a precedent for being too much of a tell-all. You need to keep some areas of your life to yourself and that's totally valid and fine.

6 Your voice and your songs have been compared with those of artists ranging from John Mayer to fellow home-grown singer-songwriter Charlie Lim. How does that make you feel?

I understand the need to link me with someone else. I mean, that's how people relate to new things, they need a frame of reference to something familiar. I totally understand that, so I have no issues with being compared.

But, at the same time, I also believe that music doesn't deserve judgment and doesn't deserve to be compared.

7 What would your ideal gig be like?

It would be cosy and small, like my EP launch show.

If I do huge ones, I can't see people's faces.

Ultimately, that's what my art is all about, it's very relational.

I slip random notes into EPs or write to people and reply to e-mail with terrible punctuation.

One of the things I liked about my EP launch was that there was no separation between the stage and the audience and we could talk to one another like in a normal conversation.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as someone who made good things and great art, but more than that, someone who enabled or inspired others to do the same.

•The Jawn EP is available on digital music platforms such as iTunes and Spotify. To order a physical copy, go to www.jawnchan.com/mymusic/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'NS mates were his first audience'. Print Edition | Subscribe