FEATURED WRITER - LOONG
ith a poignant, acoustic sound combining the ‘emotional punch of Damien Rice and the lyrical sensitivities of Dylan’, Loong’s music connects and challenges across cultures. A philosophy teacher turned singer-songwriter, Loong was a distinction graduate from the prestigious London Music School. With his family rooted in Singaporean and British culture, his music pieces together questions about identity, community and growing up as a product of Eastern and Western cultures.
Loong has performed in venues as diverse as the Peninsula Hotel, the famous Water Rats bar in London (where Oasis made their debut), and even a lepers’ colony in India.
After returning to the UK in 2011, he became a popular act on the London scene and in late 2012 he released an acoustic EP, ‘The Fairlop Sessions’, music from which has been featured on Chinese TV to an audience of millions. He returns to Asia in 2013 with a series of showcase gigs featuring songs from his latest EP, ‘Finding My Sound’. Loong believes in the power of music to change people and communities in positive ways.
We catch up with Loong as he shares about life, music and the challenges he faces as an East Asian singer-songwriter.
Can you tell us how you started off as a musician?
Since young, music has always been a part of my life. However, for a long time it was only something I did when I had a bit of spare time. I didn’t have the space in my life to focus on it and I was pursuing a very stable career as a teacher. I taught Philosophy and in class, I tried to get teenage boys to discuss questions which didn’t have answers. One day, I was encouraging the class about following their dreams and what was on their heart when one of the students asked me whether I was living out my dream. I found it hard to answer. Was I really being authentic to what I taught in the classroom? I realised there were some things I had to live out, didn’t want to be 60 and live with regrets, and besides, it would be a good story to tell my kids whatever happened. So, long story short, I quit my job, moved to London, went back for a stint in music school, started writing songs, producing, gigging, meeting all sorts of people. Most of all, I learnt lots, grew a great deal, met some great friends along the way and moved a step closer to finding my sound.
Quitting your stable career to become a musician is not the sort of thing that many Asian parents support. How did your family react?
I was thankful that I had a sister who studied law but pursued a career as an actress, so she sort of ‘paved the way’ with my parents and fought the battles which needed to be fought before me. I think my parents of course worried about a life in the world of the arts and there is still the traditional Asian view where security and financial stability in a safe job is much valued, especially for a guy. It took time for them to accept the life have chosen or start to understand what this life entails (that I work at night, meet different people all the time but also might have times I need complete isolation and ‘creative time’ for example).
On the whole though, I think they realise more and more how much I love and am passionate about what I do and have become a lot more supportive. When they get a chance they come to my gigs and have become very much become a part of the Loong music journey.
You are a rare breed of musician that writes their own songs. How do you go about writing your songs?
Usually a song starts with an inspirational idea, it could be some theme or lyric line or melody which comes into my head, sometimes while walking down the street, sometimes even in the shower (where all good songs start to be sung). It differs between songwriters but I normally start with the lyrics and while I am writing these, the melody and harmony develop alongside. I might try singing the lyrics with keyboard and guitar and try out different chords to harmonize the song. In the back of my mind is an idea of how I might picture a song’s arrangement and what instruments I might hope to use. As a song evolves and grows, how the song ends up might be quite different from how it started, even one new instrument can completely change the texture of a song. On one of my songs ‘Meant to Be’, I introduced a cello sound to the mix of the songs and this string sound led to the song ending up with quite a different feel to it. Times I could be stuck on the write line to complete a song. There are songs I start and ‘go into storage’ unfinished, and maybe it’s only years later that they are completed with a stroke of inspiration.
Are your songs based on real life experiences?
I’m one of those song-writers who often get’s inspiration from the external world around me, be it on my travels, people I meet or the situations they go through. For example, one of the songs I wrote, Block 3, was based on the real stories I met of people I encountered in Singapore who struggled and lived in these one room flats in a deprived neighbourhood. Songs are indeed about real life, though often a song stems from a personal experience or event, hopefully they are shared common experiences and emotions which people can relate with. A song of mine which strikes a chord with many audiences is Ambiguous Friends, which was birthed from a particular complicated relationship and the struggle and fear to let go of someone you know you should. There is always the hope that a connection can be made with people’s own lives and a chord struck in the heart somewhere.
You've performed in Asia as well as the UK. How do the audiences differ?
I think there is a definitely a very strong creative culture in the UK and a traditional of performers playing original music with the odd cover being thrown into your set. Going out to listen to Live Music on a night out is quite common for people as opposed to going out for a drink and as it happens there is live music in the background where you chat and drink. Thus I was pleasantly to find quite a number of places where there is total silence when you play and people are really attentive to the lyrics and emotions of the song. In Asia, people seem to expect you to play covers while they drink and chat over beers and then only after you have ‘won over’ an audience then you might be able to share a song you have written. It is much harder to find venues where the total focus are the songs and the music, but hopefully things are opening up. Yet, I think everywhere in the world, a good performance and a sense of humour go down well.
What challenges have you faced by being an East Asian musician in London?
Being a musician full stop in London can be challenging, while there are many opportunities, there are many talented people from all over world who have come here to make their fortunes and are really hungry to do so. There are many people too who are out to ‘exploit’ musicians and artists in the name of helping ‘promote artists’ or helping you out. The image of the starving artist sleeping on their friends couches while trying to make ends meet is not entirely untrue. I think people sometimes are surprised seeing an Asian singer-songwriter on the scene who fronts a band and performs his own music - not just plays an erhu or is a classical virtuoso which is the common image of a musician from Asia. Yet I like to see the look of pleasant surprise sometimes when I take to the stage and break into song.
I once had a guy come up to me after a show and say, ‘I didn’t know people from your part of the world could perform like that’. Was he expecting me to break out into Shaolin martial arts I wonder?
How does the structure of writing songs defer from writing a short story or an article?
I think in writing songs you are always writing with the music or musical arrangements at the back of your mind. So when you write lyrics, even though they might be poetic or have a story-like quality to it, ultimately they have to be sung out and the ‘singability’ factor is a big thing. Also, you are repeating lines and choruses which you hope to be memorable so your ideas often come back to the one main idea of the song.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about writing their own songs?
Just get started, there are so many songs waiting to be written, from our experiences, from our emotions, from people we know or things we even read in the newspaper. Good songs often take time to be crafted, melodies refined and lyrics edited, but it’s worth it and it’s a wonderful way of expressing yourself. Practically, it’s good to also know the basics of playing the guitar or the piano. Learn a few basic chords, you’ll be surprised how many songs are just based on 3 chords! And once you’ve written your song, don’t be afraid to share it and getting feedback too. BW
Loong's EP Finding My Sound is available on Itunes
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