Bandwagon Guestwriter is a series documenting specific topics in music, where we invite guest contributors to lend their knowledge, experience and most importantly, their voice.
We've seen Sydney Yeo aka Tall Mountains a couple of times when she was back in the country for a bit - Baybeats, the 100th Identite Show, in a living room for Sofar Sounds, and if you're wondering where she's been since, the girl's busy in New York studying music production in NYU. Still, her thoughts are never too far from home. Here she is, on getting started in music, Inch Chua, going abroad and other things.
Tall Mountains: Bandcamp | Soundcloud
With Every Inch Closer, We Get Further From Home
Circumnavigating the Singaporean indie music scene through the eyes and stories of two girls with guitars, a handful of songs, and overgrown dreams
PART I: ON LEAVING
As these things often go, I first learn of Inch Chua via the Internet, sometime in late 2010. It’s one of those so-late-it’s-early nights, the passage of time thrown into disarray by the glow of my laptop screen and the surreal feeling of just having made my first bedroom recording ever, a cover of the Tegan & Sara classic “I Know, I Know, I Know”. “Back from the last place I wanted to fake; you laugh with me, shout, scream, now tell me you’re staying…” I am on the cusp of turning 19 and hunched over Audacity, the free audio editing program I just downloaded (because fuck Garageband, way too advanced).
The balmy, flat Singapore air has turned my skin sticky with the sheen of just barely evaporated sweat, but in the quiet of the predawn, I am jumpy with excitement. Despite having several official-looking pieces of paper with sprawling squiggly signatures telling me I’ve passed so-and-so-grade exam and am technically that much better at the violin, it feels as if I’ve only just now discovered music after teaching myself four chords (five, max) on the beat-up Yahama acoustic guitar I borrowed from my cousin.
I have a notebook, pen, and the consuming aches of teenage angst; a plethora of inspiration which will eventually coalesce into the five folk pop songs I record on my first release as Tall Mountains. They’re songs that are as unguarded as the first time I stayed up all night, songs that come from the most honest place I will ever be at as a musician, songs I will continue to play at gigs three years later.
But I don’t know that yet. Still, fresh as I am to the vagaries of pop music, I already know to check out my competition. A Google search, some clicks later, and I find myself with a download of The Bedroom, the debut EP by “indie sensation” (MTV Iggy, February 2010) Inch Chua, a Singaporean singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. At the time, she’s twenty-one, which at the time seems incredibly world-wise to me; she’s also been praised by several publications as our “indie darling” (Music Weekly Asia), which seems like incredibly high praise.
Unknowingly, I’ve inducted myself into Singaporean music at the tail end of a year with an unprecedented glory: Inch’s invitation to play at a real established music festival!! in America!!!, SXSW. Nevermind that her sets are during fringe showcases, not on the main stages; she is bringing Singapore (so small in physical size that it’s represented by a little red dot on world maps) in her guitar case to a “prestigious music festival” (MTV Asia) in Texas, showcasing her tunes to fresh ears outside of the paltry 8 million pairs available on home turf.
Since that first EP that originally put her onto the map of the Internet, Inch has released two more LPs, Wallflower (2010) and her latest, Bumfuzzle, released barely four months ago at the end of August 2013. Of tunes from The Bedroom, the world’s introduction to Inch the solo artist, the standout track to me is “Devotion in Reality”, a delicately beautiful ballad that comes in just short of three minutes. Fronted by an acoustic guitar line gingerly, almost clumsily picked, and Inch’s voice, an airy transparent falsetto floating in the foreground, the meat of the song is made up of sparkling synth pads akin to crickets, while lush strings and cinematic horns rise up to fill in the gaps between verses. “He cheated me with lies, and I realised he was slowly tearing me apart/But he took the time to repair me, not leaving me behind,” she sings, of the inherently contradictory nature of love. This record came out when she was twenty-one and I was eighteen.
Once eighteen-year-old me starts paying attention to the sounds coming out of the tiny island I call home, it seems as if Inch is everywhere, her name dropped in places where a dash of local pride or hint of prestige is required in writing about non-commercialized, okay fine, indie (as in independent, not indie as in what has become a catch-all, generic genre label) music in Singapore. And that’s a lot of times, because, as I am about to discover for myself as fresh blood in the scene, out of those 8 million pairs of ears I mentioned, very few are listening.
The way it works back home is that, as a small-sized country inundated with the exported music from the rest of the world, locally-made, independently-released sounds usually have an incredibly short reach with local audiences, who shun the homemade in favor of music off the Billboard Hot 100 charts that sits better in the mainstream. To use the radio as an indicator of interest: there is one local radio show on one FM station dedicated to local music, one hour per week, on Sunday evenings. The rest of the time, the three English radio stations available program a mix of pop/rock/jazz from anywhere but here. At live venues during peak times, bookers request cover acts. Add a government body that isn’t very much concerned with actively helping out local arts for the love of it (beyond doling out shallow grants that help appearances, a little). Naturally, the mention of anything that hints at something bigger and better – for example, America – is a flashing light to readers that perhaps, if our local talent has potential as an export, then maybe it’s worth listening to. Maybe.
Speaking of worth, Inch’s feature on the MP3/blogpost aggregator Hype Machine as one of the Top Five posts of the day back in the day is also commonly mentioned as a marker of her “worldwide” success. If you ask me, the mentioning of online hype to boost the credibility of another feature is a strangely meta media nod, but given the preconceptions and negative bias of the audience we’re trying to sell to, we need all the help we can get. Support for local acts to lend much-needed visibility are always insincere in some way or another – take the “Celebrate 2012” end-of-year concert broadcasted on national TV during prime time, where the concert programmers’ invitation to the seven local bands who played was contingent on the agreement that they would play a cover. Inch refused. She was the only one. Eventually, she won out; the only original material played during the event was during her spot on stage. Isn’t it ironic that an event broadcast on local TV featuring local bands would specifically prevent those bands from playing their own music?
As a product of the Singapore rock scene, Inch is a tightly-wrapped, very appealing one, commandeering respect from both artsy front row culture vulture types and your average blue collar Singaporean alike for her bravado as an artist and her supposed “international” appeal. But she’s also consistently prided herself on the strength of her own material, as she should, versus bowing to the expectations of the market. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, even while standing on a pedestal as “the leading light of Singapore’s indie rock scene,” (Wall Street Journal), Inch upped and left for Los Angeles. A public Facebook note published on her personal profile from July 2011 reads, “I’m not giving up on you, Singapore, but [moving is] the only choice I have, thanks to your pathetic need of validation from elsewhere before you see things clearly for yourself.”
PART II: ON BELONGING
This past summer, I saw Inch play a free concert in a park, in Singapore. Minus her usual backing band, she was playing a small body Gibson which nonetheless swallowed her smaller frame, and her usual long wavy black hair had become a short bob, dyed a vivid shade of blue recalling Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “I don’t wanna come over/You’re no innocent company/I don’t wanna hold you/at least that’s what I tell me,” she sang, wistfully, on a track called “Dear Paramour”. “I’d go somewhere if you take me there, I could be the girl you keep on your speed dial.” She was framed by giant trees draped with fairy lights that flickered on and off; behind the gentle waves of reverb coating her clear voice, the cars rushing by on the roads bracketing the park seemed very far away. The crowd was hushed, in respect, or awe, or perhaps they were just listening to the music.
In 2013, I am now the age Inch was when she broke into the Singaporean music scene as a solo artist. I am also still a loyal listener; despite now knowing her as a friend and contemporary in the scene. Between her career and mine, there are lots of parallels: we went to the same intensely competitive private girls’ school as teenagers, the only difference being that she dropped out and I didn’t. We both went on to arts school for music. We are both female singer-songwriters who write music on our acoustic guitars, who made a genre switch to indie pop/rock from where we originally came into music: she fronted a rock band, Allura; I was a classically trained violinist. We share the same producer/engineer, drummer, and guitarist. We both moved to America, she to Los Angeles, myself to New York, to pursue our careers one way or another. We still call Singapore our home.
Try as I may, it’s impossible to explain exactly to an outsider why Singapore and all its 274 square miles is so stifling. What is it like? I could tell you that it takes an hour, if that, to drive the longest distance between two points. I could tell you about the twenty-three hours it takes to fly home, from New York across the North Pacific Ocean, and the irrepressible, tangible weight of the air that hits, pregnant with humidity, the moment you step out of the airport. I could tell you about the countless people (strangers, family members, friends) who’ve looked at me with utter puzzlement when I say I’m a musician. The reply is usually “But why?”
In an email conversation with Inch, I found out that her Facebook note, which I had originally romanticized as a breakup note of sorts, was meant to be private and friends-only. When other musicians got behind her sentiments, asking her to change the visibility of the note, her words – now public – were met with an unpredictable backlash of hate, but from more than just disappointed fans. In song, or really any other kind of art, honesty is almost always welcome: it suggests intimacy, prompts empathy. But in the pseudo-real-life of a public Facebook note, the raw emotion of Inch’s words wounded the prides of suddenly defensive Singaporeans. To me, the number of Singaporeans who had never so much as listened to Inch’s music or gone to concerts by local artists, but who were offended nonetheless by her decision to leave, only proves the pigheadedness of the country in general. It would make a great song – “you push me away, then cry when I leave” being example lyrics I came up with on the spot just now.
2012 was the year Inch finally made the move, after being named one of Cosmopolitan Singapore’s “Fun Fearless Females”” (yep), the year she was also invited back to SXSW and Canadian Music Week to play more showcases. For good reason, too, because her music is worthy of recognition and attention (as is a lot of other Singaporean music that not ever enough people end up listening to), and festivals are great ways for artists to test new waters and shop their music around somewhere it’s never been heard before. In our emails, Inch referred to Singapore as a “hamster wheel” she was tired of running, and in a sense, moving countries is like opening the door to a playground as far as the eye can see.
The problem that made itself apparent to me even as I continue developing myself as a musician, filing away the experience of living in one of the most competitive and most inspiring cities for future reference, is that it seems as if the Singaporean measure for successful art is that which can, more than merely exist on its own terms, succeed eventually as an export. Perhaps, in a country with only 8 million people as opposed to America’s 314 million, we should be redefining our notions of success, not licking our wounds with the bitter salt of success stories of independent artists like Macklemore or Bon Iver who have managed to gain both public and critical recognition, who can make money off their honest music. I’m beginning to think, more and more, that success on that scale is an unrealistic dream that we nonetheless have bought into, because it’s the only visible one.
“You’re either ridiculed for being boring and not playing the game enough or being too liberal and un-ladylike,” Inch wrote to me. In our second homes, we have found places where we can experiment fearlessly, no longer limited to “running the rat race of the same five venues over and over.” The sheer number of bands saturating the market in big ol’ America, and the sheer number of dive bars available to play at (where if you’re lucky there may be a sound guy and a cut of the bar in sticky bills at the end of the night) – those things are both a blessing and a curse for us.
We’re no longer anomalies as musicians, making it much more difficult to stand out. But we’re also allowed to make mistakes in the name of playing a better show, in the name of learning, of fame, or whatever it was that inspired us to put chords to words in the first place.