By Linshan Tiong
Beyond the glamour of performing for large crowds, being a musician in Singapore’s fledgling local music scene presents its fair share of challenges.
For three NTU students, being a performer and full-time student means sacrificing study time to prepare for gigs, but this has not stopped them from pursuing their passion.
Falling in love with electric bass
For final-year School of Humanities student Benjamin Mah, a semester abroad at Boston University last year altered the course of his life — eventually leading him to a career in music as a professional bassist.
During his six-month exchange programme at Boston University, the 24-year-old attended workshops and open classes at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he got to watch his bass heroes Victor Wooten and Esperanza Spalding perform up close.
When Mah returned to Singapore last July, he decided to start his own R&B band, Astronauts, roping in four other friends to join him.
“I realised there and then that I needed to give music a shot,” he said.
Prior to his exchange, Mah had not considered pursuing music professionally. Besides playing in Hall of Residence 16’s jam band, he had only performed one external gig with local singer Nathan Hartono in 2015.
But his time in Boston allowed him to reflect on his music-making. The vibrant music culture in Berklee, with student performances put up around campus every day, inspired him to gather his courage and write his own music.
He said: “I think of my life now as ‘post-exchange’ and ‘pre-exchange’ for music.
“When I came back, I got my friends (together) and said, ‘We need to play music. We need to do it now.’”
Astronauts released a song in January this year, after winning a $5,000 cash prize in VOLT, a competition organised by local bar Stärker in Zhongshan Park.
Mah recalled: “We were only a five-month-old band at the time — we didn’t have the funds for a music video and we didn’t have funds to record stuff yet. To suddenly have someone come in and give us $5000, that really kickstarted Astronauts’ journey.”
The five-man band are currently working on their extended play (EP), which will be released next year.
Aside from being in Astronauts, Mah freelances as a bass guitarist for other bands on the side.
On one particularly busy weekend in September, he was out playing three different gigs — two with local synth pop group Disco Hue at Gillman Barracks’ Art After Dark event and the Local Motion Music Festival at Fort Canning Park, as well as one with Astronauts at the Tiger Street Food Festival held at Bugis.
On top of his band commitments, Mah also runs a music gear store, Stompbox SG, which sells guitar pedals, straps and other accessories.
Initially, the shop was an online business that Mah started in 2014. His business partner and fellow Astronauts bandmate Jonathan Tan came on board six months later. This January, they took a plunge and converted Stompbox SG into a physical store at Paya Lebar.
To run his Stompbox SG business, Mah shuttles back and forth between his shop and Hall 16. He opens his shop on an appointment-basis whenever his clients contact him.
“It’s a struggle in terms of time and energy, but it’s very fulfilling. I’m essentially doing everything I want to do,” said Mah.
“There’s no better time to be part of the music scene than now.”
Synth pop crooner
Sherlyn Leo’s first brush with music began when she joined the choir at St Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School.
After her choir stint, she started learning to play the guitar. In 2014, she started posting six-second acoustic song covers on Vine, a now defunct short-form video hosting platform.
Now, the 21-year-old second-year School of Humanities student is the frontwoman of local four-man band Disco Hue, known for its retro-inspired electronic pop tunes. The quartet consists of Leo, synthesiser player Zie, drummer Billy Chua and guitarist Rush Ang.
Leo’s professional music career kicked off when Zie, one of Disco Hue’s founding members, stumbled upon her Vine covers in 2014.
He reached out to Leo, asking if she wanted to join Disco Hue, which he started in 2011, for a jam session.
Even though Leo was not an avid follower of Singapore’s music scene at the time, her interest was piqued at the prospect of singing with the band.
She said: “I’d listen to local music, but I wasn’t into the scene yet. When I went for the jamming session, I thought: ‘I never heard a Singaporean band sound like this.’ It was super groovy.”
Leo cites local singer and songwriter Charlie Lim as her inspiration, along with her favourite South Korean hip-hop artist, American-born Jay Park.
After Leo officially joined Disco Hue, the band went on to release five tracks in their first extended play, Arcade, in May last year. That same month, the band was recognised as Lush 99.5FM’s Artist of the Month.
Their latest single, Plastic Hearts, also ranked fifth on music streaming service Spotify’s Singapore Top Viral All Genres chart in March this year.
Since the launch of Arcade, Leo has been busy with gigs and touring.
She played 37 gigs last year alone — even missing two weeks of school while in Osaka for their release party in August last year, accompanied by other acts such as Japanese band Coughs and New Zealand band The Neon City.
Though performing and writing take up a large chunk of her time, Leo refuses to cut down on her band commitments. Even when she is swamped with work, she always makes time for rehearsals, viewing them as a way for her to blow off some steam when school gets too stressful.
Once, she even had to perform three gigs and submit four essays in a week during the semester.
Leo said: “I’m at this place where I have to push myself a lot to keep up with expectations in terms of school and performing, so it’s an avenue for growth.”
Loving what she does also keeps her going, she added.
“It’s a safe space for me to let loose and be comfortable. I don’t really have that in NTU because I didn’t join any co-curricular activities (CCAs), so this is like a CCA for me.”
Putting his own spin on songs
What began as a casual hobby for aspiring club disc jockey (DJ) Zechary Koh took a serious turn when he joined local DJ academy This Beat Is Sick in January this year.
The first-year Nanyang Business School student decided to take up spinning this year after being inspired by how the DJs at parties and festivals he attended could get the crowd up on their feet.
Learning from established DJs is a big step up from his early days of learning song mixing and music production off YouTube, said Koh, 21.
“Proper training helps me know whether what I’d been doing was right or wrong.”
For Koh, taking DJ classes also meant mastering advanced mixing techniques, like combining tracks and weaving lyrics from one song into another. It took him just two months – or under ten lessons – to complete all the classes at the academy, from the beginner to the advanced levels.
Koh, who goes by the stage name DJ KKAIPIE, plays gigs at nightclubs such as Cherry Discotheque, Get Juiced, and Fleek once or twice a month. He earns $100 for each hour-long gig, which he spends a few hours preparing for.
But his schoolwork still remains his priority. DJ-ing on a part-time basis works for him, as he is worried that the stress from regular gigs will cause his interest to wane.
Koh said: “I don’t treat DJ-ing as my job, it’s more of my passion. Doing what I really like is good enough for me.”
Although he has become used to performing for crowds, Koh recalls being fraught with nerves before his first gig at Cherry Discotheque last March, where he was given the opening set.
“It was a mix of excitement and nerves. But when I got onto the stage, it became very natural… like muscle memory”, he said, adding that seeing his friends’ faces in the crowd calmed him down, as he knew they were there to cheer him on.
To keep his performances interesting, Koh puts extra effort into researching new songs and creating fresh remixes. On top of practising on his $399 console at home, he utilises the academy’s studio equipment to practise before a gig.
While a DJ’s job may look glamorous, it is anything but easy. Koh said DJs have to constantly be on their toes, as they often have only 20 to 30 seconds to transition between two tracks.
Challenges also arise when the crowd gets particularly rowdy. According to Koh, there have been occasions when drunk patrons approach him for song requests.
“Sometimes, if I’m playing something upbeat, and some guy requests for Starboy (by The Weeknd), it wouldn’t fit into my set since that song is more chill.
“I don’t give in. A DJ is a performer, not a boombox,” he said.
But this is all part and parcel of the job for Koh, who finds satisfaction in keeping the crowd hyped with electrifying tunes.
“The greatest joy is when you get private messages on your Instagram from strangers saying they enjoyed your music,” he said.
“That’s when I know I’ve done something right.”