“I’m human before artist.”
A few months ago at the popular student-run event IGNITE! Music Festival, I had the pleasure of watching one of 2016’s brightest musicians perform.
Armed with a minimal setup — one guitar, a lone bass drum, and synths accentuating on a voice as delicate as flowing water — she sifted through tracks effortlessly, depicting someone who was far from the overnight sensation who broke through Spotify’s viral charts and left bewilderment from Singaporeans in her wake.
It’s tough to introduce someone like her without addressing the flurry of success that has followed her since. Linying has been dominating headline after headline, forming a trail of unprecedented press that has included several international publications.
Unsurprisingly, Universal Music Singapore reached out to sign her — during a period where major labels have been open to more Singaporean artists — and it was followed by an appearance at Japan’s Summer Sonic Festival. Visible to the public eye since, every step Linying takes now is a step forward in a direction towards infinite possibilities.
Exciting? Yes, but also understandably daunting.
Photo by Aloysius Lim
I found the diminutive singer-songwriter just after her set, in the artist's room in the midst of a conversation. She was draped in an oversized cardigan — of some shade of teal with abstract art, and her lashes laced with black mascara.
On record, Linying is a stirring wordsmith with an astute eye for detail and an artistic vision of a prudent idealist — she weaves startlingly earnest verses that demand deep lyrical examination. She layers this with an ambitious, but unobtrusive, form of instrumentation that allow the songs to be the emotional and grandiose statements that have since garnered her fans worldwide.
But in person, she’s witty, warm-hearted, immediately affable and is prone to expressive outbursts of laughter. Adorned with a gleaming smile and a disarming disposition, just five minutes into our conversation and I’m partially convinced she might be the nicest human being I’ve ever met in music.
Talking influences and exchanging experiences — namely, the deeply philosophical novel The Brothers Karamazov and Hayao Miyazaki, watching Sufjan Stevens in Paris, her songwriting process, her current Spotify playlist (at the moment, it’s filled with songs by Jack Garratt and Lorde), her relationship with music growing up, and if artists give themselves away too much in the current sphere of social media — she explores each topic with the kind of wide-eyed earnestness that’s characteristic of someone in her position right now, and yet she imbues each thought with an imperturbable intelligence that’s both captivating and formidable.
Since that interview, she would go on to play at the illustrious Summer Sonic Festival in Japan, sign on with Universal Music Singapore and North American label Nettwerk Music Group, release her debut EP, reveal a sprawling and majestic music video for its title track ‘Paris 12’, and get the single aired on BBC Radio 1.
This was all capped off with a tour in Europe opening for Felix Jaehn, the producer responsible for topping the charts with a remix of reggae-pop artist OMI’s ‘Cheerleader’, who became an early collaborator with Linying on his track ‘Shine’. Fresh off a show in South Korea, she's currently prepping for November's Neon Lights Festival, where she'll share the stage alongside Sigur Ros, Jose Gonzalez, Foals — just to name a few.
So far, it’s a pretty good trajectory for someone who started out performing at her school’s talent show when she was 13.
Felix Jaehn's latest tour vlog entry, featuring Linying.
I’ve since lost the recording of that interview, but thankfully it wasn’t the only time I was able to talk to her.
Seven weeks later, and I’m in one of the holding rooms at Millian Singapore, a far cry from the roaming students and buzzing festivities at Republic Polytechnic.
It’s shortly after 6 on a calm Thursday evening and the 22-year-old was just a few hours away from playing her first full band show at the Millian, a glitzy nightclub just off St James Power Station with a known propensity for raucous DJ sets and luxurious whiskey bottles. Performing at the venue for Music Matters Festival, she would then fly off to Dresden, Germany in a couple of days, for her first tour in Europe.
“Do you need anything? Some water?” asks Lin as we try to shift some chairs around to a more workable format. We’re now in a cosy, triangularly-structured room dabbed in floral white paint. A wide mirror sits adjacent to a wall table — on it, a colourful array of oversalted packet snacks.
I couldn’t help but notice how obsessively arranged they were, along with the sheer abundance of supply.
Sparse piano notes from another band’s soundcheck creep into the room as I shut the door. Munching on a Mamee noodle snack while perched on a black seat, she shared the original idea for the music video: a visually ambitious and logistically demanding production, involving bathtubs and a number of varying locations which would be for her track ‘Alpine’. The concept for the video has since been scrapped. “Music videos are so expensive!”
Pointing out the array of snacks, I bring up — jokingly, of course — how a brand like Mamee could endorse her. “I know!” she laughs. “But the thing is, I don’t have adopters. I’m not an influencer lor. But I will be very happy to be a Mamee noodle snack ambassador. Maybe even sushi!” (Editor’s note: Mamee Double Decker, please take note.)
She drifts off about her favourite restaurants before re-addressing herself. “I could go all day talking about sushi.”
After plans behind ‘Alpine’ fell through, her team — made up of director Yan Long and a mutual friend (Russell) — ended up opting for a simpler idea for another song off the EP.
The result? A one-take roll at a room in a budget hotel off Selegie Rd, one that would come to be the visual accompaniment for the EP’s stirring title track, ‘Paris 12’.
Despite its visually emotive end result, the shoot felt anything but — stoically mouthing her lyrics at double the speed, she laid in pensive hibernation, juxtaposing the video projection of personal memories on the wall. The four-minute video is striking and hushed, a perfectly minimal statement leading into the EP’s release.
“What this video really means more than anything else is just my reaction to everything in an introspective way — taking a look at everything [that’s happened] and reacting to them.”
Visuals are integral to the artistic product, or at least it is to Linying. The single artworks comprise of processed photographs Linying has personally taken, with ‘Alpine’ depicting a lake in Annecy, a picture-perfect alpine town in southeastern France. Her choices for each artwork were purely instinctual, she explains.
“I guess visuals are important to me insofar as listening to a song and finding what you see coherent or in line with it is,” Linying says. “I don't know what the rules are when it comes to picking a look for a song / product / project, but I have a little gut feeling that I go by most of the time.”
And for the single ‘Paris 12’, named after one of many districts in Paris (or an “arrondissement”, as the French put it), the idea came to her as the sun was setting on a stay last year when she was studying abroad in the French capital under her now-alma mater, the National University of Singapore.
“I don't think I've ever consciously applied what I've studied into my music, but I think studying history has been crucial in making me a person who thinks,” explains the European Studies graduate, “in the most frank way to put it.”
“Attempting to understand the human impulse, seeing both the broadest and narrowest of narratives in making what "history" is, has probably made me a very different person from whom I would have been otherwise.”
I need things to happen to me. I'm ultimately human before artist. Like, I don't paint for the sake of painting. I paint to reflect something."
Photo by Lenne Chai
At this point, the ambient piano noises emanating from Millian’s live stage shifted over to rattling toms and something else that sounds synthesized, ahead of its time flute. The background noise became an endearingly ponderous soundtrack for our conversation, which briefly shifted towards her fascination over Napoleon Bonaparte. “He was a child of the revolution,” the 22-year-old history major explains, “but was also, in many ways, the enemy of it.”
Plenty of musicians write in sporadic patches. In a modern day hyperconnected sense of reality, of screens that tempt instant gratification, and of increasingly short attention spans, it’s easy to attribute to that. They record little vocal melodies here and there, compartmentalize stanzas, which can work to their strengths as an artist.
She, however, completely disregards the practice for her own work ethic, telling me she would write tracks within a 2-3 hour timespan, often bursting out crying after — illustrating that her songwriting process serves as a robust, visceral outlet for catharsis. “For me, if a song needed to be revisited, then it probably wasn’t that good anyway,” she explains.
An inherent sense of urgency can be so significant in the roots of her songwriting. It’s connected with how “writing helps her make sense of things.” It bugs her if she hasn’t written the track yet. It’s a need to write, in the hopes of understanding an unfathomable feeling — all in the pursuit to communicate that feeling.
As the fog dissipates, the full picture and sentiment are both made clearer. “Writing just helps me make sense of things. It’s then when I can kind of get over it, and come to terms with it.”
“After I’ve written a song, I can still feel the feelings, but they don’t bug me the way they would have if I didn’t write it. It also depends on how strong the feeling is.”
Her labelmates pour affection on her creative knacks. “Writing with her is effortless — the melodies, lyrical ideas, she would put on an open tap, left me in awe. Our collaboration track ‘Liar’ was written within hours,” says Joel Tan of Gentle Bones, 22. They met when they were 17, when the singer-songwriter performed at her school, SAJC.
Photo by Aloysius Lim
“She’s an exceptional artiste who is not only melodically diverse but is also very proficient and specific with sound in her production. There is no one like her right now.”
The philosopher Wittgenstein once said that to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life: “It's what we do and who we are that gives meaning to our words. I can't understand a lion's language because I don't know what his world is like.”
The world of Paris 12 is a cavernous one — one with periods of rain that last for years, of gripping redemption, and of a narrator trying to make sense of this world. The lines oracular, but at times so winningly straightforward and compelling.
“The root of it is emotion,” she explains, “because that is something I’ve always been very fascinated by in music.”
Her unmatched lyrical ability — to succinctly map out beautiful descriptions of the human condition in love, of questioning yourself, of wide-eyed idealism and romanticism in focused four-minute narratives — is something to behold.
On one song, she battles, then affirms, the uneasiness — “Shut up if you’re so unsteady” — and on another, she revels in the admiration of something she may never fully understand: “the girl I am, the galaxy you are”.
Paris 12’s second track, ‘Grime’, painfully examines a very personal and heartbreaking tale — a doomed relationship where the narrator changes as an individual as she frantically tries to evaluate the outcome. It’s the internal struggle of aspiration and reality not coming together: of what you imagined and what you become, perfectly complemented by modulating droid-esque vocals and sweeping, spacious production.
“Being with somebody kind of changes me. I don’t think it’s a problem but you gotta get used to it and kinda make sense of who you are — like why you’re becoming that person,” she explains. “I’ve never been that person before and I’ve always had an idea of who I was going to be and I just knew that it was against my will — like growing pains, like your bones were getting thicker.”
‘Speak Up Selah’ expounds upon the central theme, but this time presented in a triumphant and confident nature, acting as kind of a swan song and a personal commiseration. She recounts the word “selah” as a biblical term — to “rest” and “reflect” — but its meaning can also be completely ambiguous.
It’s also the first track that was written for the record — things became full circle when she decided to include it as the closer.
The track is sonically lush and harmonious, with swelling synths and electronic chimes that seamlessly glide over. There’s even an ethereal falsetto tying back up the lead melody at the 2:45 min mark, instrumental decisions making the final cut over piano and trumpet solos.
“There’s this thing called the formant shift, so I just lowered that. It’s kind of when you make the texture of the voice sound lower a couple of keys down,” she explains. “When girls do it, they all just end up sounding like James Blake (laughs)”
Photo by Longaguu
With ‘Sticky Leaves’ released in 2015, ‘Alpine’ in January, the seven-month wait for Paris 12 was fairly lengthy for fans. And with her, as she animatedly explains, there was admittedly some frustration.
“Like you know my Twitter bio has been like “her debut album will be out end of 2014”, then it’s “Beginning of 2015”, “Middle of”, “Sometime in 2015”, and then it’s “October of 2016,” she laughs.
The balance of expectations and an incongruent reality seems to resurface in her story. At one point, when asked about the theme of the record, she jokingly even refers to disillusionment being a theme in her life as well.
“There was just a lot of hype with playing a festival and getting signed,” she explains. “In the midst of it, I realized I had forgotten what it was like to release something that people could hear.”
The most gratifying part of the process is the aftermath; having people react to her music — it’s just about her favorite thing in the world when you tag a friend in the comments.
“My favorite kind of comment is when they just don’t say anything but tag their friend,” she explains. “It just makes me remember how good it is when people feel like they’re less alone, or more understood. I mean, personally, I’ve benefitted greatly from other musicians.” The first song she remembers that has made her cry was Bon Iver’s ‘Blood Bank’.
As we gleam over our interpretations of that famed EP art — she states a train, in prior I thought a riverbank of literal blood, but in truth, it turns out to be a side door of a red car caved in in snow — she begins singing a line off the title track: “We were stuck out in your car, you were rubbing both my hands”.
She explains, “I’m not sure what about it made me cry, only that it painted such a vivid picture. "Then the snow started falling... chewing on a candy bar ... I'm in love with your honour, I'm in love with your cheeks". It's not as if I ever went through any of these things, but the fact that it could make me feel to the point of tears despite that was really memorable.”
Photo by Longaguu
“There’s always a special place in my heart for Paris.”
She thought it was going to be “one big life changing adventure,” but in this twist, she emits her adventure as one arising internally, as opposed to that of an external nature.
“I think the biggest thing I got from the (Paris) trip is that understanding that maybe I’m the type of person who would just like to be comfortable, who would like to be contented,” she says.
“I don’t necessarily need to feel every feeling there is to feel in this life and I don’t need to see everything there is to see.”
With her current career as an artist blossoming amidst a growing visibility of Singaporean music, Linying remains unfazed by looming expectations — or, at the very least, fairly indifferent about it.
Addressing the issue, she admits that she “can’t tell what’s going on”.
“Because it’s about me,” she says, “and, to me, I already know so much about me and whoever works around me — like we’re all doing stuff everyday! To us, it’s just doing stuff, and with like buzz and hype, I don’t really have a grasp of it.”
She insists that she has yet to understand how her image as an artist is projected to her growing base of fans — her nonchalance doesn’t stem from a place of wilful detachment; as if a concerted effort to project the kind of constructed coolness that makes certain artists who they are.
Instead, it’s the perfect snapshot of where Linying is right now: somewhere between the cusp of something purely transformative, with her feet firmly on the ground, and the devious trappings of conceitedness. What pulls her towards the former than the latter? Perhaps it’s a strong sense of belonging.
“Maybe all I really want is to just be satisfied and, maybe, to settle.”
Paris 12 is now available through Universal Music Singapore.