The Life Interview

Singer-songwriter Roy Loi lost 20 kg to cut album

Singer-songwriter Roy Loi has tried his hand at acting and is now considering directing too

It was during a fishing expedition to Mersing that the melody for the enduring ballad Deng Ni Deng Dao Wo Xin Tong (Wait For You Till My Heart Aches) began to surface in home-grown singer-songwriter Roy Loi's head.

The title, though, does not refer to waiting in vain for fish to bite. Instead, it came from a novel he had flipped through at a bookstore and that line kept swimming around in his head because the phrasing struck him as unusual.

After three days of mulling over the lyrics and melody at sea, he rushed to nail them the moment he returned home.

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Loi, 52, recalls: "My mother said, 'Go and shower first, for goodness' sake.'

"But I went straight to the keyboard - sunburnt and unwashed - and I finished writing the song in 20 minutes."

He caught plenty of fish on that trip too, but the biggest catch he landed turned out to be the song.

The 1992 album of the same name sold an impressive 20,000 copies in Singapore and the track has become his signature tune, one that he will be sure to perform at his solo concert on Dec 12.

The Cantonese version was a hit for Hong Kong's God of Songs Jacky Cheung the following year.

Another 1990s pop gem that has stood the test of time is the Mandarin hit Ai Ru Chao Shui (Love Like The Tides) by Taiwan's Jeff Chang. Loi, better known as Li Feihui, composed the music for the song.

Over the years, he has worked with the biggest music names in the region as a songwriter and producer - from Hong Kong stars Andy Lau and Sandy Lam to Malaysian singer Fish Leong. He was also part of the local xinyao music movement and has released albums in Singapore as well as the competitive Taiwanese market as a singer in his own right.

In the past few years, his career has enjoyed a second wind as he took to acting in film and television. He now has ambitions to direct.

Chatting with Life at his Imagine Music school at Bras Basah Complex, he says: "I hope to be Singapore's first all-round entertainer. I hope lah and I hope it's not too late."

He lost 20kg to cut album

He is a stalwart of the local entertainment scene, but he never envisioned a show business career when he was a young man.

Instead, the chatty and lively Loi talks about fate and how his life has been shaped by pivotal moments.

There was the spell that music cast on Loi's eldest brother and his friend as they spent hours strumming on the guitar and singing English songs by the likes of The Beatles with a songbook he vividly remembers - "it was called Let It Be Me with a picture of an apple on the black cover".

What had seemed at first like a noisy distraction gradually intrigued him.

Then there was an image of a topless Rod Stewart he saw on a black-and-white television set holding an audience of tens of thousands enthralled and he thought: "How can music do that? There's something very magical about it."

Once Loi fell, he fell hard.

The passion is palpable in his voice as he talks about the first cassette tape he bought, Foreigner's 1977 self-titled debut.

Back then, he could not afford to buy the genuine stuff. Instead, he squirrelled away his pocket money of 70 to 80 cents to come up with the $1.50 needed for a pirated copy.

He spent his time after school sitting in a gap between a music shop and a clothing stall at Katong Shopping Centre so that he could listen to songs for free as he did his homework.

Once, a gorgeous ballad drew him out of his lair and he was emboldened to venture to the counter to find out who the singer was. Air Supply's Lost In Love (1980) was the first vinyl record he bought.

The thought of music as a career did not cross his mind, but his love for it influenced his decisions. He signed on with the police during his national service days so that he could make more money to buy music.

For someone who has left his stamp on the Chinese pop world, his early influences were wholly Western.

The Brunei-born Loi moved to Singapore when he was in Primary 5 and had picked up the vibe that "Mandarin was seen as not that high class and English was viewed as being superior". That coloured his perception as well when it came to music and Chinese singers were seen as less cool.

As he came into contact with Taiwan's Liu Wen-cheng and Hong Kong's Sam Hui and Alan Tam, the prejudice against Asian pop started to break down. It was completely blown away when he reluctantly accompanied a friend to a concert at Jurong Junior College.

He can still recall details of the maroon curtain, the packed hall, the 50-cent handwritten programme and the lead singer of the performing group. When he heard them sing Rang Wo Ke Yi (Let Me Be Able), he was stunned.

"Its first chord was a major seventh chord and in a Chinese song. It was such a good number. The name of the group was Di Xia Tie (Underground Express)."

Soon after, he was asked to join his Temasek Junior College classmates in Green Green Grass Singing Group as a guitarist. Slowly, they started writing their own songs.

He says frankly: "Who knew anything about writing songs then? The format was a mess. We didn't even dare call it songwriting."

Gradually, around 1984, "xinjiapo nianqingren chuangzuo geyao" (songs composed by Singaporean youth) was shortened and xinyao was born. Bras Basah Complex was packed on Saturday afternoons and the music wave swept onto radio and television as well.

It was a heady time when anything was possible and he became friends with Malaysia-born, Singapore-bred Eric Moo.

Moo went solo with his debut album Feelings in 1985 and the melodies on his first few albums were penned by the pair, with lyrics by Chen Jiaming and Xing Zenghua.

Moo, 52, sings Loi's praises as a musician: "His compositions span a wide range of styles and grab you, he's an all-rounded singersongwriter. And he's not just a friend, he's also a brother for life."

For Loi, this was the beginning of a career in music and his parents gave him their blessings.

"They said that if you think music is important to you and your future and you want to give it a try, then we will support you," he says.

His father was a businessman whose interests included electronics and car repair, and his mother was a housewife who looked after Loi and his six older siblings. The family moved to Singapore from Bandar Seri Begawan over a period of several years.

Still, the early days were tough. In 1986, the first song he sold to a record company, Not That I'm Unwilling, went for a measly $80. He scrunches up his face and says: "I must have been hoodwinked. I regret not keeping the receipt, then I would have proof."

The track by home-grown singer Jiang Hu hogged the top spot on the local radio music chart for 12 weeks.

All this while, Loi had thought of himself as a songwriter, not a singer. When a record label offered him a chance to release an album in 1987, he was surprised and suggested that they might want to meet him first. "I weighed 84kg then, you couldn't even see my neck," he says.

The 1.7m-tall Loi proceeded to lose 20kg in eight months by exercising. "My mum was furious the first time she saw me on TV because I was so skinny."

Even at that point, he says: "I didn't think about how long I could walk this path. I knew only that I wanted to write songs for a long time."

It was a path that led him to Taiwan and his first album there, Time Flies, Love Flies (1994), chalked up sales of 170,000, not far behind Kit Chan's hit record Heartache (1994), which sold 200,000 copies there.

After three discs, he decided to move behind the scenes, in part because of his father's death in 1997. "I can't say if it was the right or wrong decision, it was simply the decision I made then," he says. But it did allow him to spend more time with his mother as he shuttled between Taipei and Singapore.

He faded from the public eye, resurfacing years later as a judge on reality singing contests on TV in the mid-2000s, first on Project SuperStar and then on Campus SuperStar. The runner-up of season one of Project SuperStar was Kelly Poon, a singer he had been grooming.

Then film director Jack Neo cast Loi and his old pal Moo as baddies in the comedy drama We Not Naughty (2012). Indeed, they all go way back and the theme song for Neo's popular long-running variety show Gao Xiao Xing Dong (Comedy Night) was penned by Loi.

He remembers that it was a tough shoot: "I was getting hammered by Neo as I kept forgetting my lines. I have no problems memorising lyrics, but it takes me a long time to remember four lines of dialogue."

But Neo, 55, says of his performance: "He was definitely above average and his comic timing is quite good - and not everyone has that."

Another turn as a bad guy followed in the long-running MediaCorp sitcom 118 (2014 - 2015).

Add to the mix his hobby of taking videos and photographs, and Loi is now dreaming big. "One day, I would like to direct my own horror film. I grew up watching them alone, I'm perverse like that."

While a new love has thrown up new possibilities, the bachelor, who lives alone in a three-room HDB flat in the west coast, has no time to look for romance.

"I think familial ties matter more to me. If it happens, it happens. If I have to spend time searching for someone, I would rather spend the time on my work," he says.

He might have stumbled onto acting late, but that is no deterrent to him. "Age is a number that controls us and makes us afraid, but I've never thought about it.

"What's important is one's attitude and mentality."

Neither does he feel compelled to dress his age. Togged out in a cap, long-sleeved T-shirt, bermudas and sneakers and sporting a ear stud, he says: "I've been wearing this get-up for years. Why should I change because of a number? As long as you're happy, that's all that matters."

And he is contented. "The only thing I'm not satisfied with is that I still have a lot of things to learn and I don't have the time to learn them all."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Hooked on music'. Print Edition | Subscribe