Local music talents rising faster than their musical output

Young singer- songwriters here are getting the attention of music fans, record labels and indie festivals even before putting out an EP

The careers of local music acts Sam Rui, Linying and Tomgirl seem to be rising faster than they can put out a full body of work. They scored gigs at prestigious music festivals such as the Esplanade's Mosaic Music Weekend, Laneway and Neon Lights before they have even released an EP.

The traditional rules of making it in the music industry no longer seem to apply - an album or a long-form work is not needed before a musician is engaged for tours.

Linying embarked on an international tour this week that will see her perform in Europe, Asia and Australia before her debut EP drops at the end of this month.

While the traditional way of touring for budding bands was to play bars, clubs and small venues in the hopes of building up their name, artists such as Linying are not touring to score deals. The audiences who attend her shows would probably already be familiar with her music through YouTube, Spotify or other social media platforms.

Last month, the 22-year-old signed a multi-rights deal with record company Universal Music Singapore, despite having released only two singles in her name.

Social media and the easy availability of music online through streaming sites mean that the acts build their following faster.

Mr Lim Teck Kheng, Universal Music Singapore's head of strategic marketing/artists and repertoire, points to the release of Singapore singer-songwriter Gentle Bones' EP Geniuses & Thieves, as an example. "We released the songs about a week before his Esplanade solo shows. By the time the concert came around, the fans could sing along to every word of the new songs," he says.

Gentle Bones is the record company's first home-grown artist, and the label announced its second Singapore act, Charlie Lim, last month.

Home-grown musicians' speedy rise aside, Mr Lim, 45, emphasises that building up a lasting music career takes time and that Universal is prepared to be involved for the long haul. "A superstar won't happen overnight, so we need to start work now if we are to groom the Taylor Swifts or Metallicas of tomorrow. We believe in the talents and we want to continue to support and invest in them," he says.

Music festivals here are also giving buzzing acts a chance to shine on the big stage.

The Esplanade's recent Mosaic Music Weekend took a chance on indie rock duo Tomgirl and programmed them as a ticketed concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio, despite their having released only one single and having no experience playing live at the time.

The pair, who released their debut album mere days before the show, were the only home-grown band in the international festival line-up to play a ticketed gig.

Esplanade's programmer, Ms Melissa Poon, says her team is always on the lookout for talents. She says that acts such as Tomgirl and T-Rex, who also played at Mosaic, might be new names, but the artists behind them have proven themselves through their other music projects.

Tomgirl, for instance, include singer-songwriter Cherie Ko, who has performed with acts such as Pastelpower and Obedient Wives Club while T-Rex comprise members of established bands such as Anechois and Amateur Takes Control.

Ms Poon, 26, adds: "Our key considerations are high music ability and artists who display creativity and have unique sound and content. We also take into account how they would fit in our programming framework, and what would be the most appropriate spaces or venues to feature them."

The Esplanade also keeps track of new and young talents through mentorship and breakout programmes such as the Baybeats budding bands scheme or Mosaic Jazz Fellows. Its team also works closely with music mentors in the programmes' audition processes to identify talents with potential.

When the Singapore edition of annual indie music festival St Jerome's Laneway Festival recently announced its line-up for January, two names stood out - Sam Rui and T-Rex. While previous editions of Laneway have featured established Singapore names such as The Observatory, Rui and T-Rex are relatively new in the home-grown scene.

Mr Danny Rogers, the Australian co-founder of Laneway, says the festival is always looking for "genuinely exciting new acts", hence the inclusion of Rui and T-Rex, who were scouted by its team here.

He adds: "We'd not book local artists just to fill the numbers. We promote and present acts that we believe are able to hold their own at an international festival."

Rui and T-Rex will perform alongside major global indie names, including Australian singer-songwriter Nick Murphy, also known as Chet Faker, in what has become one of the largest annual indie music events here.

Music festival Neon Lights, which takes place on Nov 26 and 27 , has included not just Linying, Gentle Bones and Cashew Chemists in its home-grown line-up, but also newcomers Disco Hue, a Singapore synth-pop act. The festival's managing director, Mr Declan Forde, 40, is confident the Singapore acts will appeal to the Neon Lights crowd.

He says there are pluses and minuses in the way the music careers of new acts are rising so quickly.

"The good thing is that if you write a really good song, you have a better chance of being heard by ordinary people and you're not dependent on a handful of radio stations to get the music across to that crowd. The bad thing is, this means that some acts get overexposed before they've had a chance to develop their sound and range of songs."

Mr James Kang, Warner Music Singapore's artists and repertoire director, says the definition of making it in the music industry today has changed and it is not merely about the numbers.

"Chart action is still a good gauge of audience response and commercial success. These days, the turnout at paid gigs and social media response also add to the equation.

"However, success means more than these to us. We care about the artistry of the artist and any small breakthrough by an artist, to us, is a success."

Warner's recent signings have that special X-factor, he adds. For example, jazz-pop crooner Nathan Hartono is making waves in the region as a participant in reality singing show Sing! China. Singer- songwriter Reuby has been approached to write the theme song of an upcoming Korean drama.

The label's other new signings include singer-songwriter Jude Young and DJ-producers Nicole Chen and MMXJ.

The third major music label here, Sony Music Singapore, counts popular Singapore acts The Sam Willows and Sezairi on its roster.

Mr Lim of Universal says the emergence of new Singapore talents and their expanding fanbase in the last couple of years mark "a new chapter" in the music scene here.

"We have new artists who are very involved in all aspects of creativity, they're not just singers, but also songwriters and producers. More importantly, we are starting to see overwhelming support from local fans, the most I've ever seen in the more than two decades that I've been in the industry. You see young people going around proudly wearing Gentle Bones merchandise and singing along to his songs at his shows."


Singer Linying, 22, touring the world

In the last two years, home-grown singer- songwriter Linying's collaborations with German DJ and music producer Felix Jaehn and Belgian DJ-producer Lost Frequencies have been a hit in the house music world. Their videos on YouTube have racked up several million views.

Two days ago, she left Singapore for several European shows with Jaehn. It would have been the first time they were meeting face-to- face. Their interactions up until then had been done only online.

The 22-year-old told The Straits Times last week: "It's quite strange, but I feel like that's millennial life, everything's over e-mail."

The two artists, both signed to record label Universal Music, will perform in Austria tomorrow, followed by stops in a few cities in Germany. The shows are part of Jaehn's tour and Linying will sing about five songs on the setlist.

She will then rendezvous with her backing band and play gigs in Seoul, London, and Melbourne and Queenscliff in Australia, and return to Singapore for the Neon Lights festival on Nov 27.

The history major, who graduated from the National University of Singapore two months ago, is unfazed about going on her first world tour. Living alone in Paris for five months last year while on an exchange programme has given her the confidence to travel and perform worldwide, she says.

"It's quite a rare opportunity for me to be on a tour that's on such a scale. It would be valuable to learn how things really work when you're on tour," says the singer, whose real name is Lin Ying.

Besides, she is not new to touring overseas. Last month, she made her live global debut at Summersonic, one of Japan's most established music festivals, and a club gig in Tokyo.

Apart from her collaborations with Jaehn, Lost Frequencies and French house act Krono, her solo songs melding folk, pop and electronica have been gaining traction.

Her debut single, Sticky Leaves, released last year, was featured in streaming service Spotify's Viral 50 charts worldwide and has since received 1.8 million plays. The follow- up single Alpine, released early this year, has been streamed more than one million times.

Earlier this month, she released her third single, Paris 12, the first since she signed on with Universal Music. Her debut EP, a five-track release also named Paris 12, will be released on Friday next week.

She has been praised by American media such as Billboard, USA Today and NPR, which compare her music with that of acclaimed indie-folk act Bon Iver

Linying's musical journey started early. When she was three, her teacher mother and businessman father had a piano teacher go to their house to teach her and her older brother. Despite completing Grade 8, she insists she "was, and still is, an ill-disciplined piano player".

She says: "I'm bad at sight-reading and, by the time I was five or six, I preferred to come up with my own stuff and play my own tunes. I remember my mum asking, 'Where did this tune come from? How come you can write?'"

At eight, she started writing lyrics and setting them to chords and melodies. At 15, she uploaded videos of herself singing anything from Top 40 pop tunes to musical numbers. In 2013, American news site The Huffington Post ranked her one-woman Les Miserables medley video as one of the best on YouTube.

In 2014, she was one of the budding young talents selected for Noise Singapore's Music Mentorship programme. The following year, she signed with home-grown music company Foundation Music and played at the Esplanade's Baybeats. Foundation co-manages her and co-releases her music with Universal Music.

In June, she performed at home-grown singer-songwriter Gentle Bones' two sold- out shows at the Esplanade Concert Hall. She also featured on his Geniuses & Thieves EP.

She says she did not do music in university because she did not want to be "disillusioned" by all the rules and regulations of a formal music education, so she opted to study history. "It's a back-up degree for my parents' peace of mind. But I knew I wanted to give music a shot and not necessarily just as an artist. I'm open to other options, such as being an arranger or a composer. I feel like I probably can't do anything better than music."

•The EP Paris 12 will be out on Sept 30.


Correction note: The photo caption in an earlier version of this story identified singer-songwriter Cherie Ko's indie rock duo partner as Tom Dore. His name is Ted Dore. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore stars arising'. Print Edition | Subscribe