Since 2020, music has been involuntarily revolutionised. As the pandemic pushed the world’s population online, the creatives in that number were forced into their bedrooms—laying the perfect foundations for the rise of self-made Hong Kong artist Gareth.T. An experienced DIY musician, Gareth.T—real name Ling Shan Gareth Tong—made waves online with his smooth vocals, heartfelt lyrics and clean basslines, and was quick to take off with international and local listeners.
As of today (March 15), Tong’s relatable breakout single ‘boyfriend material’ (2020) has amassed over 17 million streams on Spotify. Among a crowd of online listeners who increasingly prefer “authentic” creators, Tong naturally attracted attention – he produced his own songs, wrote his own lyrics, played his own instruments and sang with surprising honesty about his own flaws and flawed experiences. As the pandemic persisted, Tong never stopped developing his sound, releasing new music and growing his fanbase.
Fast forward three years to Tong’s first performance at Sonica Music Festival on Friday, 17 March. The stage is a far cry from the hours Tong spent on GarageBand in his bedroom, cramming music production around school and college hours – and, with much of his success taking place during the pandemic, he hasn’t had long to get used to the new medium. Farrago and the Radio Fodder Blog chatted with Tong about his experience adjusting to live performance and the new creative challenges it presents.
“I actually didn’t mind being at home so much, because I mainly make music in my home anyways,” Tong explained. “And I’d probably be writing alone, so I think the pandemic was actually not bad for my musical creativity. But obviously it’s better to see a lot of people and perform live. I think that’s pretty cool, but I don’t know … I actually have a little bit of social anxiety. So I see a lot of people, [and] I get a little nervous sometimes. But it’s cool.”
Despite the nerves, Tong has taken to the change naturally, turning the usual creativity he brings to his songwriting to the stage. “We have some pretty stupid ideas planned,” he said of his performance at Sonica. “So I think it’s going to be pretty funny, regardless [of] if you like or dislike the music.”
If Tong’s songs are where he expresses himself, his music videos – and, by extension, his burgeoning live performances – provide a space for him to experiment with fun, out-of-the-box concepts. “One thing I feel like [all my music videos] have in common is that they’re all not based in real life. They’re pretty dream-like, I would say … We’re really just trying to do something that we find funny or interesting. That’s really the starting point of it.”
A lot of this involves the creation of personas or characters, which Tong can use to convey a story (as he does with his take on Russell from Up , featured in ‘國際孤獨等級’/‘Loner Anthem’) or simply play around. “I think in this festival, you get another fictional character that’s kind of like me, but not really me.” When asked to elaborate, Tong continued, “I just wish that every time [people] come see me, they get something new … I’m really just trying to bring something totally unexpected. If you like it or you don’t like it, I feel like you’ll still be like, well, who’s this guy?”
The approach works. For the idle listener or passing viewer at a festival, it would be difficult not to be intrigued by Tong and his dynamic approach to music. A keen experimenter, Tong is extremely driven. He writes “maybe two or three” songs every week, including beats and lyrics – and this is his version of keeping it low-key. “I used to be more hard-working,” he explained. “But recently, I kind of laid back a little bit.”
In this rotating door of music, Tong stays on his toes by dabbling with new sounds, genres and ideas, including recent interests in “ghetto house,” “modular music and DJ music” and cuts from famous ‘80s tracks from Hong Kong, as well as a more long-term interest in classical music and film scoring. Tong’s current discography features a manifold mix of mellow R&B, upbeat pop, and bold rap and hip-hop; even his most recent releases (‘Loner Anthem’ and ‘孤單’/‘Lonely’) are complete departures from one another in genre. That kind of creative experimentation has been a theme for Tong this year.
“I’m at this point, like … 2023 is a year of trying out stuff and failing and exploring. So this year, I’m trying to break into a lot of different types of music, at least try and listen to different types of music, and talk to different people about these different types of music. So even if it’s not my final sound, I’ll still be able to learn and process these different types of music.”
For some, Tong’s creation of stage personas and concepts, as well as his pursuit of versatile new sounds, could seem like a departure from the earlier work that brought him into the limelight. Tong’s debut album, to be honest (2022), featured a tracklist entrenched in honest takes on life, love and hardship. But his authentic approach to songwriting hasn’t changed.
“I think honesty has kind of, like, been embedded in me,” Tong said of the comparison between his recent and breakout releases. “I think all of the songs that I’ve been trying to write lately have all been from the heart. Like, I truly mean it. Even though sometimes the lyrics might be pretty stupid, I still mean it. So I guess honesty is an underlying theme, rather than something [I’ll be as] vocal about [as] before.”
Tong’s personal take on songwriting means that he’s constantly trying to discover his individual sound, which is hard to pinpoint but ever-evolving. “On a production level, I think I’m growing a little bit more,” he said. “But with the things I’m writing about? Since I’m drawing so much from real life, I don’t think it changes a lot. Depending on how my life is, the writing changes. I wouldn’t say I’ve figured out one thing that I’m always going to be writing about. So I think there’s still a little bit to go in finding my own sound, solidifying it—but I think I’m definitely on the way.”
Instead of honesty, much of Tong’s new music has shifted into a focus on the experience of loneliness. “I don’t know why,” he muses, when asked about the presence of loneliness in his recent drops. “I guess maybe it’s because, in Hong Kong, maybe a lot of people kind of, like, know me now. But I don’t feel like I still have the same feelings that I had before. Like, I still enjoy … just doing regular stuff that I used to do. So I guess that’s why some of these songs are about loneliness, because maybe I kind of think back to where I was a year or two ago. And I kind of want to be that Gareth again.”
Thinking back on the past few years, Tong continued, “But … I guess before was when I was actually lonely. Because making songs and, you know, recording people, you have to be up at the studio for maybe one or two in the morning. And there’s not a lot of people surrounding you. So I guess that was …? Yeah, that was peak loneliness.”
Now that countries have opened their doors again, things are changing for Tong, with his performance at Sonica Music Festival being only another step in his journey toward success. As possibilities continue to expand for Tong, we asked what the future looks like for him over the next couple of years.
“Next couple of years … I mean, I feel like travelling to different countries and learning about, like, how the people are and how the food is is pretty good. I think, since borders are open now in Hong Kong, it’s good to travel to different places and try to learn from different people. Like breathe different … One thing in Australia, which I feel like is pretty cool, is that the air is actually a lot better … the air is actually really good. So breathing air from different countries is kind of, like … it’s pretty cool.”