Seven-day work week

Artist Riduan Yusoff (above) is behind the songs in Junction Tree, Singapore's first bilingual television show for pre-schoolers.
Artist Riduan Yusoff (above) is behind the songs in Junction Tree, Singapore's first bilingual television show for pre-schoolers.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Despite his gruelling gig schedule, Riduan Yusoff says playing music is something he loves

For composer-singer Riduan Yusoff, a half-year mentorship with late music icon Iskandar Mirza Ismail in 2012 turned out to be a game-changing experience in his music career.

Speaking to The Straits Times at the Fullerton Bay Hotel, where he sings and plays the piano, the 25-year-old says: "What I learnt from him in six months might have taken me three years of studying in a music school."

Today, Riduan is making a name for himself as the composer of all the songs in Junction Tree, Singapore's first bilingual television show for pre-schoolers currently airing daily on all Mediacorp channels.

Each of its 26 episodes comes in three bilingual versions: English- Mandarin, English-Malay and English-Tamil.

Riduan wrote and composed 27 songs for the programme, which is supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund For Bilingualism and the Infocommunications Media Development Authority of Singapore.

Besides Junction Tree, his compositions include jingles for clients such as skincare company Kiehl's.

While the bachelor has been singing and playing piano and keyboards in nightspots, cafes and hotels since he was 15, he started composing music only after he was paired with Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar in a 2012 mentorship programme initiated by self-help group Mendaki, Projek Protege.

"He was the music director of the National Day Parade that year, so I would sit in the studio with him, observe and take notes."

Iskandar, who died of cancer in 2014, gave him a crash course in reading music and taught him composition and arrangement.

Riduan's music journey started when he was six years old. He learnt to play the piano from his late uncle, Wandly Yazid, an accomplished musician, composer and arranger who worked on Malay films from the 1940s to 1960s.

While he graduated with a diploma in music production and engineering from a private institution, School Of Music And The Arts, he also learnt about playing music by watching videos on YouTube.

His gig schedule is packed and he performs at two venues or more every day. Besides Fullerton Bay Hotel, he also performs at venues such as The St. Regis Singapore hotel and Clarke Quay nightspots Le Noir and The Bungy Bar.

He plays cover tunes in a variety of genres that include contemporary pop, jazz, bossa nova and indie rock. While most of his repertoire is in English, he also sings in Malay, Mandarin and Hindi.

He takes his seven-day work week in his stride. "For us musicians, if we don't work, we won't have money. But I try to take four days off every three months or so and use the time to compose or explore new sounds."

1 When you are entertaining guests and patrons in hotels and nightspots, what are your most requested songs?

I get a lot of requests for music from the 1970s to 1990s. The most requested song would be The Eagles' Hotel California, followed by John Lennon's Imagine and the Beatles' Let It Be.

2 What is your most memorable experience while performing?

This happened two weeks ago. A customer asked for Heartbreak Warfare by John Mayer. I knew how to play the song so I did it for him.

He became emotional and started crying. He told me he had just lost his brother. It was their favourite song and hearing it again made him feel connected to his late brother.

We became Facebook friends and have been keeping in touch.

3 You perform at up to six locations a day during busy periods such as the Christmas and New Year holiday season. How do you juggle so many shows?

I don't take playing music as work. Nothing beats doing what you love. I don't feel tired or bored, I'm doing something I'm passionate about. I used to work in an office during my national service, doing work that made me feel tired.

4 What was it like, composing music for a bilingual children's show like Junction Tree?

I did a lot of research by studying the music in all kinds of kids' shows, from classic shows such as Tom And Jerry and Sesame Street to modern cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants.

The producers would give me the lyrics and say they want a certain mood for the songs, but in terms of genre, I was free to compose the music in any style I wanted.

So there's a mix of Broadway- style tunes as well as genres like bossa nova, ballads, reggae and disco.

5 What was the biggest lesson you learnt during your mentorship with Iskandar Mirza Ismail?

The most powerful lesson I learnt from him was to pay your musicians immediately after every gig.

After every recording, he would take out his cheque book and pay his musicians immediately and that earned him respect and loyalty.

I'm practising that right now. If I have to get a fellow musician to play a gig for me, I make sure I pay him immediately.

6 What is your advice for budding musicians in Singapore?

I would stress the importance of networking.

For working musicians, it's not enough to just be good at your craft, but it's also who you know. You have to network to survive.

You could be a better composer than Quincy Jones, but if you don't know anyone, then you won't get paid.

7 You are a singer and a composer. Have you thought about releasing music as a singer-songwriter?

It's something I've been thinking about a lot, but I'm still searching for the right sound.

As a singer-songwriter, you need to have your own brand and I want to develop a style I'm confident in before I start putting my music out.

My music would probably be along the lines of piano-playing singer-songwriters like Elton John, Jamie Cullum and Billy Joel.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I want to be remembered for grooming talents, like how I learnt from Iskandar; and for sharing my music.

•Junction Tree airs daily on Mediacorp channels okto, Channel 5, Channel 8, Suria and Vasantham.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Seven-day work week'. Print Edition | Subscribe