In an industry where Western creators have reigned for as long as we can remember, musicians and visionaries from all corners of the Asian continent have been working tirelessly to introduce music and art from various cultures. This is exactly what Sonica Music Festival – held on March 17 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl – aimed to elevate. The day-long festivities provided some of the best talents Asia has to offer a much-needed platform in Melbourne, one of which was Singaporean singer-songwriter Joel Tan, also widely known under the moniker Gentle Bones.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old first made his debut as a mere hopeful, posting song covers backtracked by his acoustic guitar onto his personal YouTube channel all the way back in 2011. Tan was later discovered by a local music label, and the rest was history – he finally put out his debut record in 2014, an eponymous mini-album, which has since amassed tens of millions of streams on Spotify. He went on to release a number of albums and singles since, including breakout tracks ‘I Wouldn’t Know Any Better Than You’, ‘JU1Y’, ‘Be My Ocean’ and more.
Ahead of his debut performance in Australia as part of the star-studded line-up for Sonica, Tan sat in on a Zoom call with Farrago to chat about the experience, his impressive oeuvre so far as well as upcoming projects in the works.”It’s gonna be an exciting set,” Tan said, “I’m just excited to be able to translate these songs that I’ve been working on into a live setting.
“The festival definitely came as a surprise to me, and then to be able to be alongside the [other Sonica] acts is a great honour,” Tan gushed, before expressing gratitude for listeners and fans across Melbourne for paving the way for the opportunity. “I’d just like to thank the listeners from Melbourne to have listened to my music enough for me to be worthy to be brought down.”
As one-fifth of the Sonica line-up – alongside the likes of K-pop stars Zico, Henry and Amber Liu as well as Hong Kong-based singer Gareth.T – Farrago caught up with the Singaporean visionary to discuss where he’s at in his career at the moment.
The past two years have been pretty huge for you on the music front. You put out an eponymous album with 12 introspective tracks in 2021. How did you get the ball rolling on this record? What kind of overarching story were you hoping to convey through this collection of tracks?
“For that album specifically, I was trying to come from an empowering perspective. I feel like the world is more uncertain than ever right now. Things are changing very quickly and I feel like because of how these changes are going, what we perceive these changes to be are also very different. I think we are all faced with a lot of uncertainty and I think it’s very necessary for us people who might feel more alone than ever in our perception of life to find empowerment within ourselves, such that we can be a positive force in this world. And I just tried to bring my own perspective of what I felt helped me into these songs, such that they may help others as well. I’m very lucky to have this consistent foundation.
How do you go about songwriting?
“It starts in many different ways, but pursuing a general theme doesn’t usually work for me most of the time. I either start with a melody or a random line of lyric in my Notes app. [Sometimes] I have melodies in my voice memos or I create some music on my computer and I’ll sing over it. Mostly songwriting starts [first], and then I’ll bring it to producers afterwards.”
You recently signed with Warner Music Asia – congrats! You also said in a statement upon signing that you were in the process of “putting together releases that encompass a strong regional vision”. What does a strong regional vision look like to you?
“‘Strong’ in the sense that throughout my time as a fan of music in this world, I think I grew up with – at least to me it felt like – a large amount of distance geographically between music that I enjoy listening to and where I’m from, so I started pursuing music on my own. I became a fan of many different acts in Southeast Asia as well and I think YouTube started the resurgence of original music in a sense. I think me, personally, trying to pursue this is also trying to bring out what I feel tends to be a similarity between what I feel Southeast Asian is really strong with and take that inspiration and bring it across the only channel I really have control over, which is myself.”
What in particular is driving your upcoming album, seeing as it will mark a couple of new milestones for you in your career?
“I think I’m always pursuing different things [creatively]. I’m always exploring different avenues through which I feel contribute to songwriting. Outside of songwriting and musicianship, and of course now being signed with Warner, there’s a bit more pressure on my part to pursue music which I feel like speaks to not only me but to everyone who is chipping in on this project that we’re pursuing together. I’m very excited for this album in the sense that what I realised with the music that I’m currently making is that I’m trying to explore different areas that I feel like I haven’t explored yet, not just sonically and musically but also thematically.”
Speaking of your new album, you recently released a cut of it last month titled ‘The Right Words’. Could you walk me through what that song means to you? What kind of tone do you think it sets for the rest of the record?
“I think the grounding element that will be consistent throughout the record is that it’s very much guitar-driven, similar to how I first started music, which was very guitar-driven [while I was] doing covers acoustically. I don’t really have like a grand theme for it all, but I’m just trying to make the best songs possible and see where it leads.”
You said ‘The Right Words’ was essentially you bringing your struggles with writer’s block to the forefront. How do you curb writer’s block?
“I would say the most successful attempt at curbing writer’s block was writing the song ‘The Right Words’. I wrote a song inspired by not being able to write a song, or at least what I knew a song should be. As with when I’m unable to: I feel like with writing anything or with creating anything – not just with music – it’s more so about being prepared for the moment. You can see writing as a singular skill and improve that skill such that it is ready to encapsulate all that you want to encapsulate when the time has come for it.”