Mandopop singer Kelvin Tan finds success with new album of xinyao classics

Kelvin Tan
Kelvin Tan

When it comes to putting out an album of covers, artists often try to go down a different path in order to leave their mark on the material, say, by jazzing up the arrangements.

But on home-grown Mandopop singer Kelvin Tan's album of covers, titled Xinyao (The Singapore Songbook), they have been deliberately kept "simple and down to earth".

He tells The Straits Times: "We tried to keep it as close to the original, as simple as possible. There are too many sophisticated arrangements and melodies out there."

As a genre, xinyao, or Singapore songs, from the 1980s and 1990s was generally earnest and fuss-free, without bells and whistles when it came to the melody and arrangement.

Simplicity has its virtue as it means that even a beginner guitar player can easily learn to play the songs, adds Tan, who is better known as Chen Weilian.

In sticking close to the originals, the 35-year-old wants to appeal to older listeners and also draw in younger ones with his album. He says the former might find the songs nostalgic while the latter can get a feel of what xinyao is like.

Thanks to the strategy and the enduring appeal of the music itself, the album has topped the iTunes overall charts as well as the Mandopop charts.

Xinyao (The Singapore Songbook)

The tunes on the record include singer-songwriter Liang Wern Fook's classic Xi Shui Chang Liu (Friendship Forever) as well as Home, a beloved track performed by singer Kit Chan and many others.

Given how well-known the songs are, some might find it a little daunting to take them on, but Tan says this was in fact the easiest and most relaxing of his records to make.

He adds: "I don't want to specifically follow or beat the original singer or try and sing it better. It's just my style, so I'll go ahead and do it the way I would do it."

After all, these are songs he grew up with, so he is intimately familiar with them.

He has been singing Xi Shui Chang Liu since he performed at cafes as a teenager and he often got requests for it when he was busking.

He calls it the Singapore equivalent of the ballad by Teresa Teng, The Moon Represents My Heart - a song which Chinese people everywhere - young and old - know.

The blind busker shot to fame after winning the reality singing competition, Project SuperStar, in 2005. He went on to release three albums: All I Want Is... (2006), i-Weilian (2007) and Moving Notes... Kelvin Tan (2009).

It seems like there has been a long break since his last album, but Tan has been keeping busy.

He represented Singapore in goalball (a team sport for blind athletes where players try to roll a ball into their opponents' goal) at the Asean Para Games in December 2015, took part in races such as the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore 10km run and became a guide for Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Dialogue In The Dark, an exhibition where visitors experience everyday situations in total darkness.

As to whether he would make a follow-up album of xinyao covers, he says: "That really depends on the demand, it's still early days."

• Xinyao (The Singapore Songbook) by Kelvin Tan has been released.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline 'Back to basics xinyao'. Print Edition | Subscribe