Charlie Lim, Inch Chua and The Great Spy Experiment are first local indie acts to take centre stage at Esplanade Concert Hall

Local acts Charlie Lim, Inch Chua and The Great Spy Experiment will take centre stage at Esplanade Concert Hall

The Great Spy Experiment, comprising (from left) Magdelene Han, Fandy Razak, Tan Shung Sin, Saiful Idris and Khairyl Hashim, will split up after the Esplanade show. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The Great Spy Experiment, comprising (from left) Magdelene Han, Fandy Razak, Tan Shung Sin, Saiful Idris and Khairyl Hashim, will split up after the Esplanade show. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Singer-songwriter Charlie Lim will close the 28th SEA Games with his song, Still. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
House Of Riot, comprising (from left) Sarah Sim, Mike See and Eugenie Yeo, hopes its show will set a precedent for other indie bands here to stage bigger concerts. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Singer- songwriter Inch Chua has been staying at a kampung on Pulau Ubin to find inspiration for her new songs. ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Local indie music acts will take centre stage at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore's best music venue, for the first time on June 6.

Rock quintet The Great Spy Experiment and singer-songwriters Inch Chua and Charlie Lim are the artists who have the honour of fronting this laudable bold move made by their record label, House Of Riot.

The gambit throws down the gauntlet to indie musicians to aim big.

"Watching the House Of Riot show shouldn't be any different from watching, say, The xx at the Esplanade Concert Hall," says House Of Riot founder Mike See, referring to the Mercury Prize-winning British band which played at the venue in 2010.

He adds that the show is the company's biggest undertaking to date and that no expense has been spared to ensure the audience gets a high-quality show.

See started the company as Riot! Records with The Great Spy Experiment in 2007, and it has now expanded to a trio, with See's wife Eugenie Yeo and Sarah Sim helping in marketing and other roles. The label added Chua and Lim to its roster in 2012.

Lim, Chua and The Great Spy Experiment are no strangers to massive concerts, having cut their teeth on local gigs as well as regional and international music festivals such as South By Southwest (SXSW) in the United States.

They have also performed at the Esplanade's other venues, both ticketed (the 245-seat Recital Studio and 220-seat Theatre Studio) and free (the 600-capacity Outdoor Theatre and music festival Baybeats' makeshift, open-air Powerhouse stage).

But the Esplanade Concert Hall, with its 1,600 seats and world-class acoustics, is a different beast altogether, having hosted stellar acts from jazz luminary Wynton Marsalis to classical star Joshua Bell.

Home-grown indie acts who have played sets there have done so only as supporting acts to foreign ones. One such group is roots-rock band Cheating Sons, which opened for Irish indie band Two Door Cinema Club in 2011.

Says singer Lazarus Wang Renyi: "It was one of the most memorable gigs we've played. To step on stage in a world-class concert hall and stare at a full house, even though they weren't there to watch us, was surreal, to say the least. I remember that as we played the first song, we realised we could hear the song and each of our instruments filling the venue and it sounded electrifying."

Lim has played there before, too, but only as a featured act together with local wind orchestra The Philharmonic Winds.

Tickets to the House Of Riot gig are "selling well" says See, who declines to reveal exact figures. Each ticket costs $50, roughly twice as much as ticketed gigs held by local acts at the Recital Studio.

Yeo hopes the show will set a precedent for other bands in the indie scene to stage bigger and more extensive concerts.

"The signal that we want to send out is 'Hey, we can do this, we can achieve headlining status at the grand dame of music venues here' and that home-grown indie musicians here can hold their own. We hope it will also inspire other musicians out there."

Inch Chua

Since March, singer-songwriter Inch Chua has been staying mostly on Pulau Ubin by herself.

A typical day for her starts from between five and seven in the morning, when the sound of roosters crowing wakes her. She goes for a morning jog and then heads down to the coffee shop near the island's jetty to have breakfast as well as use the Wi-Fi connection there to do administrative work on her laptop for an hour or so.

For the rest of the day, she hikes around the island, takes mid-day naps and works on her music.

She pumps water from a well daily and, once a month, has to empty the toilet's sceptic tank.

Such has been her inspiration for the 20 new songs she has written so far while living on the island.

She says: "I always find it particularly funny that my peers will always say, 'Oh no, if you want to find inspiration, you must go overseas, somewhere far away.' I think that's a lie, there's got to be a place. And Pulau Ubin came to mind because it's so out there."

Chua, also known by the stylised moniker iNCH, plans to stay at a three-bedroom kampung house on Pulau Ubin until the middle of next month.

There is solar power available in the house, but because the wattage is so low, she uses electronic gadgets sparingly and turns on her mobile phone only occasionally.

For meals, she cooks or buys food from the island's coffee shop or hops on a boat and heads to the hawker centres at Changi Village.

"That's the interesting thing about living on the island, you get conscious of how much food and water you consume, so I realise I do things like conserve a lot of water when I shower," says the 26-year-old.

She will also be performing at Barber Shop by Timbre on June 27 as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts' public engagement initiative, The O.P.E.N.

Some of the new songs she has written will be in an EP she plans to release in September; the rest will go to a full-length album expected to be completed next year.

In a joint project with The Artists Village, National Art Council and Lee Foundation, she has also conducted workshops in which participants get to spend time with her on the island and see how the rural environment affects the music she makes.

Adapting to a new environment for the sake of her music is nothing new to Chua, whose discography includes an EP, The Bedroom, in 2009; as well as two full-length albums, Wallflower (2010) and Bumfuzzle (2013).

In the past few years, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York, gigging and doing music work. She has plans to return to the United States, possibly to Chicago.

But for now, she is enjoying the simple life. The kampung is next to a cemetery, but Chua is not in the least spooked. In fact, she relishes the quietness of the area and even goes for night walks there.

"The solitude really affects me in a good way. I do find that because of the pace of life here, putting myself in an environment like that has altered my thinking. It calms me down, which is something I have been wanting because I am a nomadic person and it's good to practise the art of stillness for a while."

Charlie Lim

Next month, singer-songwriter Charlie Lim will be playing some of the biggest shows of his career right here on homeground.

Less than two weeks after a triple-bill set at the House Of Riot show at the Esplanade Concert Hall on June 6, the 26-year-old will close the 28th SEA Games at the National Stadium by playing Still, a song he wrote for the regional sporting event.

"They mean a lot to me," he says of the two gigs. "At the end of the day, you are representing something bigger than yourself."

Lim, a full-time musician whose work straddles multiple genres including folk, soul and jazz, is also set to release his latest long-form work, a double EP titled Time/Space and a follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 debut, EP, at the Esplanade show.

The first half of the release, Time, sees him stick to linear, more conventional songwriting. Space, the other half, has him indulging his more experimental tendencies.

"I like a lot of types of music. So rather than just go into that realm, where a single album has a whole bunch of things and becomes completely schizophrenic, I divided them into two halves. You get a sense of polarity and it sort of satisfies both sides of the spectrum equally," says the meticulous and multitalented musician, who plays most of the instruments on his recordings.

Born in Singapore to a doctor and a teacher, he moved to Australia for his studies at the age of 14. While he has been playing the piano since he was four years old, it was only when he sang a jazz standard at a school performance there that he realised that music was something he wanted to delve deeper into. At the age of 15, he was the top Music Performance student in the state of Victoria's equivalent of the A levels.

"That was very affirming for me. When you are 15, you have all these delusions of grandeur of being a rock or pop star, thinking music is great, people like it and I can keep on doing this, I love it."

That dream did not disappear with his teen years.

After fulfilling his national service responsibilities at the Singapore Armed Forces' Music and Drama Company, he went back to Melbourne and earned a Bachelor of Music at Monash University.

Believing that the music scene in Melbourne was oversaturated with talent, Lim moved back to Singapore in 2013 and signed on with indie record/management label House Of Riot. He has been based here since.

"Coming back here was a good thing because Singapore gave me more platforms to do what I wanted to do.

"I found great musicians and a great team to help me, all these little platforms that allow me to play music, that was the springboard for me to play festivals, go on tour and just keep the momentum going," he says.

In the past few years, he has played at major regional festivals, including Hong Kong's Clockenflap festival and Malaysia's Urbanscapes, and became the first home-grown act to sell out two shows at the Esplanade's now-defunct Mosaic Music Festival.

A tour in Japan and Malaysia in the later part of the year is in the works and he plans to apply for a grant or scholarship to study music production in London. But Lim says he will always come back to Singapore, not just to work on his craft, but also to help other local musicmakers.

"No matter what, Singapore is home, that's what I've decided, for better or for worse. I'm not saying that because it's politically correct, but because it's true.

"I always want to contribute back. You have to go out there, overseas, and learn more things, then you can bring back something to the scene. If it's just going to be insular forever, then you can never really grow."

The Great Spy Experiment

Co-headlining a ticketed June 6 show at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the best and most prestigious concert venue in Singapore, is not just one of the biggest gigs to date for The Great Spy Experiment, but also their last.

In April, the quintet announced on their social media accounts that they will split up after the show, 10 years after they formed.

Guitarist Tan Shung Sin, 39, better known as Song, says: "Being in a band is like being in a relationship, you have ups and downs, but there comes a point when you need to reassess the relationship and where it's going, then take a step back and look at the bigger picture. And we all agreed that this would be the best decision for us right now."

Frontman and principal songwriter Saiful Idris, 36, says that one of the major reasons for the break-up is that he has been stuck in a creative funk.

He says: "Creatively, whatever it was I had that made the songs what they were, it's just not there anymore. I haven't been able to write a song that does justice to the band for a while now. And for me, the band are always about that creative outlet, that creative process, and if it's not happening, then it's very hard for me to keep wanting to do it."

Keyboardist Magdelene Han, 37, who says Saiful is "the brains" behind the band, adds: "When the brain is not working at its optimum, we can't carry on."

Each of the band members, including Han's husband, bassist Khairyl Hashim, 37; and drummer Fandy Razak, 36, also have "personal" issues to contend with.

Han and Khairyl, for example, want to spend more time with their two daughters, aged three months old and three. Their older child suffers from a rare disease called macrocephaly-capillary malformation, a genetic disorder which requires regular therapy for motor skills.

All the members have day jobs in the education, photography and media industries. They had delayed their break-up for a few years for one main reason - their sense of responsibility to their fans. Over the years, the band have clinched accolades, such as the Best Local Act award at the 98.7FM Countdown Special in 2007, and have been a repeat draw at local annual major music festivals Baybeats and Ignite.

Says Saiful: "In the past few years, I have been very much driven by that sense of responsibility to the fans, that was really the main driving factor."

Their second and most recent album, Litmus (2013), almost did not get released.

Saiful explains: "One year before the album came out, it was in a state of limbo, there wasn't much happening. We recorded most of the tracks, but didn't really chart out what to do next.

"But it was the desire to keep the promises we made that made us really push to see the album through to it being released."

He and his bandmates believe they have had a good run and left an indelible mark on the indie music scene here.

They pride themselves on having done things that bands in the mid-2000s were not able to do, such as taking their music overseas and working with corporate partners and brands such as French fashion brand agnes b., which, Saiful says, are "aligned with us in terms of how we want the music and the art to be connected".

In 2007, the band and fellow indie-rockers Electrico became the first Singapore acts to perform at leading American music festival South By Southwest (SXSW).

Litmus was the first English-language music release to top the Singapore iTunes digital music charts.

Many home-grown music acts have since followed in their footsteps - I Am David Sparkle, The Pinholes and The Sam Willows have also played at SXSW in recent years, while acts such as Gentle Bones, Shigga Shay and Villes have also topped the iTunes charts.

Saiful says the band "always demanded the highest level of professionalism" of themselves.

"We wanted to do more than just play music and have fun. We wanted to change the face of Singapore music and that kind of informed everything we did."

Asked if there is any possibility of them getting back together again, Saiful shrugs.

"Possibility, yes, but likelihood of that happening? I don't think so."

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