Emerging home-grown singer- songwriter Shak admits he had not heard well-loved indie tune The Girl From Katong before The Great Singapore Replay.
He was picked to rework it for the project designed to raise awareness about the depth of local music.
"I felt really guilty for not knowing the song sooner," says the 25year-old, whose real name is Shak'thiya Subramaniamm. "When researching the song, I found multiple blogposts about it by everyday Singaporeans and it blew my mind."
Together with another singersongwriter, the acclaimed Charlie Lim, he has turned it into a bluesy, 1940s barbershop-quartet-style tune.
This and nine other reinterpretations of classic Singapore tunes from the 1960s to 2000s are part of The Great Singapore Replay, a project by the National Arts Council (NAC) and investment company Temasek.
On Sept 9, from 9.15 to 10.15pm, the songs will be performed at a showcase outside Clarke Quay Central.
BOOK IT / POP-UP NOISE: THE GREAT SINGAPORE REPLAY
WHERE: Open area at Clarke Quay Central, 6 Eu Tong Sen Street
WHEN: Sept 9, 4pm till late; 4 to 9pm: 10 emerging artists will perform original compositions (20 minutes each); 9.15-10.15pm: The Replay Hour!, where artists will perform their reimagined Singapore classics
Mr Kenneth Kwok, assistant chief executive of NAC, says the project is "about the rediscovery of Singapore's rich musical heritage by connecting younger generations with the music of years gone by".
Ten pairs of emerging and established artists were brought together - most for the first time - to rework the original songs. The songs were chosen from a list of 25 by the public, who voted for their favourite Singapore classics in June.
About 16,000 votes were cast, with songs such as Dick Lee's The Mad Chinaman and Humpback Oak's Circling Square among the 10 that made the final cut.
The artists were selected for the range of genres they represented, including indie-electronic, folk, blues, rock, indie rock and pop.
Home-grown musician and producer Tim De Cotta from creative arts curation agency Getai Group worked closely with the NAC to pair the artists and programmeThe Great Singapore Replay.
He says: "The 10 pairs of artists give an excellent snapshot of the diverse and talented local arts scene we have in Singapore. We have a wide range of artists who create music across numerous genres."
When pairing the acts, De Cotta, 31, imagined "how their artist personas and flavours would match the songs we decided to assign them".
"We didn't want to make it too easy and wanted to stretch them artistically, but, at the same time, not making it impossible."
One of the emerging artists, singersongwriter Theodora Lau says the project is a "ballsy move", considering that reinterpreting classics can go "really well or awfully wrong".
"But I was attracted to the challenge," says the 20-year-old, who reimagined Shirley Nair & The Silver Strings' 1960s hit You're The Boy with Ginny Bloop (Eugenia Yip from electronic indie act Riot !n Magenta).
The established acts appreciate the chance this project gave them to connect with Singapore's music history.
Electronic artist Vandetta(who is also known as radio DJ Vanessa Fernandez) is performing the huge 1960s hit Shanty by The Quests with indie band .gif.
She says: "The idea of contemporary musicians looking back at music created by our pioneers is a great process for any musician. There's this solidarity with musicians from where you're from and a connection."
Many of the emerging acts say they also learnt about Singapore's rich music history while working on the project.
Jonathan Pereira, frontman of The Betts, which are performing rock band Force Vomit's cult classic Siti, says: "Before there was the current wave of acts like The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones, there was this entire crazy roster of Singapore acts.
"If not for this project, we would have never heard of a lot of these songs. It's great that now there's a chance for them to be heard all over again."
53A singer Sara Wee, who is performing Circling Square with Joie Tan, hopes The Great Singapore Replay returns next year "with a whole new slate of acts".
"There are so many Singapore songs that deserve this kind of love," she says.
Jason Shahul Hameed, band leader of Gingerbread, whose 1980s hit Roses was reworked by Andrew "Dru" Chen and Umar Sirhan, is humble about his band's contribution to local music history.
The 63-year-old reveals that the song was written by their bass player Moses Vadham after a breakup and admits that it was "a bit cheesy".
"But I know we wrote a good song because it's one that will go on for the next three generations," he quips.
THEODORA AND GINNY BLOOP
You're The Boy by Shirley Nair & The Silver Strings (1965)
The plucky 1960s vibe of the original You're The Boy is completely gone, in favour of a sexy, multilayered electronic production.
"Our approach to it was not to do it better, but to do it differently because we can't compete with the original - it's such a great hook and song," says Theodora, whose full name is Theodora Lau. She worked with Ginny Bloop, or Eugenia Yip from electronic indie act Riot !n Magenta.
The changes did not stop there.
"We kept all the lyrics, but added a chorus and pre-chorus, writing our own melody," she says. "The final product is also a lot more sombre and forlorn compared with the hopeful and dreamy original."
SPACEDAYS AND EDDINO ABDUL HADI
Jane by Kick! (1994)
"Jane is a lovey-dovey pop song from the 1990s, but we wanted to make it an unfriendly radio pop song and put a bit more attitude into it," says Spacedays' bassist Mohamed Hanis Isahak.
The rock band are also made up of guitarists and vocalists Noor Akid Amirullah and Mohamad Rahmat Suliman, drummer Rahmat Mohamed Buang and keyboardist Mohamed Zaki Mohd Shariff. Theact draw heavily on 1960s psychedelic rock.
Their heavier version comes complete with three lead guitars, courtesy of Force Vomit frontman and Straits Times music correspondent Eddino Abdul Hadi, and clocks in at over six minutes.
They ended up making the song longer via builds and instrumentals. "We took a little more time to grow the song and put a bit more muscle into it," Hanis says.
JOIE TAN AND SARA WEE
Circling Square by Humpback Oak (1994)
Folk-rock band Humpback Oak's Circling Square, an ode to unconditional love, is so well loved it has been interpreted by other acts, including The Lard Brothers and Vandetta.
The original features the band's lead singer Leslie Low on strippeddown guitars in a sombre love song.
In contrast, the new version by singer-singwriter Joie Tan and 53A's Sara Wee features big production, complete with strings, drums and piano.
"We wanted to go big or go home with that song," says Wee.
The duo had Low's blessing to "do whatever (they) want with it".
"Joie and I are mainly singers and we love harmonies, so we incorporated that into our version as well."
Tan says she connected with the song, which contains lines such as "Even when I'm bleeding, I dream I'll satisfy her needs".
"I'm a hardcore romantic, so I wanted to retain the raw essence of the song in my delivery," she says.
UMAR SIRHAN AND DRU CHEN
Roses by Gingerbread (1985)
"The original version is so big and bombastic, so we thought, 'Let's do the complete opposite,'" says singer Andrew "Dru" Chen, who worked on a Motown-type, soulful reimagining of the classic 1980s love song with Umar Sirhan.
Umar, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter, is new to the scene, having uploaded covers to YouTube and Instagram only in the last two years. But as part of The Great Singapore Replay, he takes on the lead vocals, accompanied by Chen on some verses and the harmonies.
"Even though the original is very pop, the crux of the song is still rooted in a sort of Motown vibe, just with bigger production," he says.
As for the final version, he adds: "We both favoured a bit more of a stripped-back sound."
The lyrics and melody were retained, but the production and arrangement were changed to include a two-man choir and "twiddly guitar bits", as Chen describes it.
THE BETTS AND JOSHUA TAN
Siti by Force Vomit (2002)
Indie-rock group The Betts went through three versions of the surfer rock classic by Force Vomit - including a hardcore punk interpretation - before they settled on the final version.
"We retained the dancey, singalong vibe that would work well live, just like the original," says lead singer/guitarist Jonathan Pereira.
Local punk rock band Force Vomit, formed in 1993, are responsible for the cult classic Siti, with its twangy, surf-rock guitars and catchy chorus of "Don't give up! Oh Siti don't give up!".
Another of their songs, Spacemen Over Malaysia, was played on BBC radio in 1997 by the respected late DJ John Peel.
The Betts and The Fire Fight singer Tan updated Siti's lyrics slightly. The original is about a girl who wants to have fun, but cannot. "Siti don't have no new year" became "Siti had her new year", as if the protagonist of the song was looking back.
"Siti is an iconic song in the scene that was meant to bridge the whole punk and indie scene back when it was written, and we didn't want to screw it up," says Pereira.
DEBBI KOH AND INCH CHUA
Come Home To Me by Shirley Nair & The Silver Strings (1965)
"If I were to place myself in the position of Shirley Nair when she wrote this song, what would she be feeling?"
That was the kick-off point for singer-songwriter Debbi Koh, who wanted to emulate the vibes of indie acts such as Daughter and Lana Del Rey in her version of Come Home To Me.
"The original track was a bit more uplifting, but we gave it a bit more emotion and sadness," says Koh, who describes the final version as delicate and dainty, like a lullaby.
Shirley Nair & The Silver Strings were a staple of the 1960s local music scene and were one of the few groups that wrote and sang their own material, often performing at the old National Theatre.
Koh and Chua's version was recorded with guitar, electric guitar, strings and a synthesiser line that replicates a refrain from the original version.
The uncertainty of the lover that may or may not return is encapsulated in Koh's choice to end the song with "come home to...".
"I wanted it to hang there and not resolve it," she says.
JASMINE SOKKO AND AMANDA LING
Driven by Concave Scream (1997)
Concave Scream's rock classic Driven shifts genres after an update by up-and-coming electronic artist Jasmine Sokko and Amanda Ling, who plays keyboards with instrumental rock act In Each Hand A Cutlass.
"The chorus is memorable, so we didn't want to touch that, and we retained as much as possible from the verses - but we toyed around with the instrumentation," says Sokko.
In the new version, which capitalises on synthesisers instead of guitars, she was also conscious of the delivery of the song. "The original was sung by a guy (lead singer Sean Lam), so we discussed what kind of emotions and vibes it should have, so it's more vulnerable and almost feeble," she says.
She likens the new version to "a girl experiencing heartbreak on a rainy night in 2017".
M1LDL1FE AND JAWN
The Mad Chinaman by Dick Lee (1989)
One of Dick Lee's best-known hits gets a modern-day update from singer-songwriter Jawn (real name Jonathan Chan) and indie-pop quartet M1LDL1FE, which comprise Paddy Ong on vocals, Tan Peng Sing on guitar, David Siow on bass and Jeryl Yeo on drums.
The song was named after Lee's alter ego at one point in his storied career and the younger musicians wanted to "capture the similar identity crisis, but ground it in a modern-day take", says Jawn.
The final version is still theatrical and dramatic, but they also took liberties with it.
Jawn says: "To keep things interesting, we changed a lot of the chords, dropped a few verses because it was fairly lengthy, and replaced the bridge with some vocal sampling of speeches by local political leaders.
"That would be a lot more true to the issues we deal with today and to the spirit of that song, instead of doing just a straight cover of it."
.GIF AND VANDETTA
Shanty by The Quests (1964)
Electronic artists Vandetta and .gif arguably had the hardest track of the lot to reinterpret - considering it is a purely instrumental track with no vocals.
The original by 1960s band The Quests was so well loved it became the first original pop composition by a Singapore band to reach No. 1 on the charts. It even pipped The Beatles' I Should Have Known Better, which was at No. 2.
Vandetta, whose real name is Vanessa Fernandez, says the original evoked imagery of sitting on the beach in Hawaii, with a chill, laidback sound.
The new version attempts to retain the dreamy feeling of the original, but is starkly different with the electronic production and vocal manipulation that both acts are so well known for.
"Minor chords usually have a dark, foreboding sense, while major chords are more uplifting, and I feel we tried to weave between the chord tensions," she adds.
Working with the duo of Chew Wei Shan - also known by her stage name Weish - and Nurudin Sadali was "organic and intuitive".
"Din put the backbone of the track together, Weish would do synthesisers and harmonies and then they shot it over to me to add my layers of harmonies."
SHAK'THIYA SUBRAMANIAMM AND CHARLIE LIM
The Girl From Katong by Serenaide (2005)
Instead of trying to make the song super current, singer-songwriters Charlie Lim and Shak'thiya Subramaniamm decided to go in the opposite direction.
"You have to learn the rules before you break them," says Lim, who decided to turn the song on its head and produce it in a way that is "older-sounding".
"We did a 1940s-style barbershop quartet version with very simple instrumentation.
"I thought having that sort of arrangement and production brought out the message of the song through Shak's voice," says Lim, who feels the two of them are "cut from the same cloth in terms of the soul, R&B music that we like".
The Girl From Katong, the most recent of the 10 songs being reinterpreted in the project, was also featured in director Boo Junfeng's 2010 film Sandcastle.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Young guns take on old hits'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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