There are some songs that by virtue of its melody, transcend both time and trends. The year is 2014, Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ is number one on pop charts everywhere, a girl singing about ex-boyfriends is winning Grammys but still, people are singing ‘Unchained Melody’ at weddings, and revisiting ‘Lemon Tree’ at the KTV.
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The idea of a “timeless” song is not myth. And it can be anything really - a classical great, a catchy pop song, or even a jingle.
Just ask Tat Tong.
There is a lot you can acknowledge about the brevity of Singapore’s merits when it comes to local music at home and in the region, but when it comes to playing the larger, more elusive international field, we have one man championing the red dot out there - Tat Tong. Based in both Los Angeles and Singapore, the songwriter started out like any other; obligatory music lessons at Yamaha and growing up with pop songs on the radio.
Fast forward to today, a tune Tat Tong co-wrote recently ‘Happy Little Pill’ has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube alone (approximately 6 million views for a lyric video alone), gone on to be no. 1 on iTunes in 21 countries, and catapulted the singer, a 19-year old Troye Sivan to international recognition.
ALL POINTS WEST
For Tat Tong, music was never something he thought he’d be doing as a career, but it was something he just continued doing. More than a hobby, it had become a passion. “I got my Grade 8 when I was in Secondary 1, or 2, but I kept going on. Partly because Yamaha had a Special Advanced course and with that, the focus was quite radical. It wasn’t about technique, or playing the classics well - it focused more on creativity,” he said. “It was when I got introduced to songwriting, and not just pop or a certain genre. I still remember writing an African piece for an assignment and I went to the National Library to do research buy watching videos - this was before YouTube - of African women dancing around, and eventually wrote a song based on that.”
But all signs were leading to this career. Strapped with a government scholarship, Tat Tong went to USA where he dipped his feet in the Acapella scene - which according to him is a legit industry. He assures, “Everything you see on Pitch Perfect is accurate, except maybe the projectile vomiting. But regardless, the intense competition was real.” With his group, he began performing around the country, and even made albums. This introduction to the music industry readied him up with production skills, sound engineering, and the recording process, even if sometimes it was very DIY - including a dorm room studio set up with blankets.
As with all government scholarships, he was to serve the mandatory government bond as an Officer in the Singapore Navy. We’re looking at 6 full years of serving the nation, but Tat Tong admirably completed the bond, and also kicked off his foray into proper songwriting somewhere in the 3-year mark. He recalled, “After 3 years of Navy, I was feeling a little bit restless and wrote some songs expressing his frustrations and put them up on local music forum Soft.com. Within a day or two I got a reply from someone from Touch Publishing, a leading independent music publisher in Asia.”
Explaining how music publishers are like real estate agents, Tat Tong revealed that he had signed on to be aboard the pool of talents under Touch Publishing. It was a flexible partnership and he could write songs whenever he could to accommodate to his Navy schedule. “I wrote songs, and they helped me sell them,” he said of the collaboration. Things were going so well, and towards the end of his Navy contract, Tat Tong decided to make the decision to pursue music as a career, and moved on to sign on under the Universal Music umbrella.
THE BIG BREAK
2012 was the year of the Big Break when Tat Tong had a song that went on to be so successful, he’s still earning money from it now. The song, titled ‘The City Is In Love’ by popular Taiwanese pop star Show Luo was no. 1 on the charts in Taiwan for three weeks in a row, used in a 7-11 summer campaign around Taiwan, and also for Frito-Lay in China.
“When I was with Touch Publishing, they suggested that I focus on the Chinese music market because there was no way they could promise that my songs would be picked up international acts. Besides that, it is unheard of for a Singaporean to break into the American music market, as a songwriter of course,” he enthused. To be fair, it’s been quite a while since anyone did that.
“NETWORKING. IT’S EVERYTHING.”
“Especially in the US,” according to Tat Tong, “It’s easy to get attention in Singapore. Just work hard and be good at your craft. A lot of people say that the media is not supportive but I think it’s the contrary. But in the US, it’s everything. It’s a very crowded scene, everyone moves to LA to make their mark, there’s so many people there who are phenomenally talented. At some point, once the talent is no longer a factor, the rest depends on how hard you work, how much people like you, how much people are willing to share with you - it’s all about relationship building.” Like everyone, his journey was the school of hard knocks in the beginning but he pulled through despite not being business-minded to gather his network in his new permanent home.
“Initially of course, the challenge is discovery. When you’re a new outfit, you have to get to know people. Or the other way round - people have to get to know your name, that’s the first challenge. The second challenge is when people start to recognise you, do they view you as an ally or threat? That’s where the business angle comes in, making sure you’re opening doors rather that doors slamming shut in your face!” he tells us. Aligning expectations is also key in progressing in your career, according to Tat Tong. “A common mistake most musicians make is that their focusing too much on their music. The business aspect is important to presenting your art to everyone.”
When it comes to songwriting, Tat Tong maintains that it is important to keep an open mind. “I was like a sponge. The thing about me is that I never really developed my preferences. My time in Yamaha, with week after week of being exposed to diverse sounds and music - I feel that it made me a very open-minded person. The problem with working in the music industry with different artistes and different sounds is that at this point, my own personal preferences have become very diluted. I don’t know what I like or dislike anymore. But what I’ll say is that I like things that show effort,” he says.
Working hard to put out the message in a songwriting, in the most simplest way is something that Tat Tong hopes to be good at. “A clever melody or line, or a an unconventional presentation of things - those are the things that turn me on as a musician. More so than which artist or star,” he shares. And with partners and co-workers who share the same spirit and passion.
Currently Tat Tong is one half of The Swaggernautz, a songwriting team with an American Idol finalist, Jovany Javier who he says is his ‘kindred spirit.’ “He compliments me well on the business end and he’s not afraid to get a little harsh when necessary,” he says. Lately, Tat Tong and Jovany is in the works with a couple of big names (we can’t say yet!) for some future hits that won’t escape our radio waves for sure. Together they plough through the creative process, the recording stage, and the mixing of the track as well. “We see ourselves as a musical conduit, to help musicians see their objectives.” For anyone still wondering quite what Tat Tong does: there’s your answer.