More often than not, you hear that art is very subjective, and music is no different because most times it's your heart that decides how you feel about a song.
With the release of his third album, Slower Life, a follow-up to 2021’s Slow Life, Chen looked to put a more personal spin on his work by opting to mix the album himself. Lecturer by day, and musician at heart, Chen would probably know a thing or two about music technicalities, maybe more so than the average person. And yet, a few of those technicalities might have taken a back seat in this album.
“There’s a certain way that I hear the frequency curve which feels good to me, and although it may or may not be technically correct, it gives the music a certain warmth and cushion which I always try to put into my mixes,” Chen said.
Make no mistake, the homegrown singer-songwriter is no stranger to self-mixing, having done so for his first-ever release a decade ago. 10 years on, surely the 'You Bring Out The Best In Me' act has grown in many different ways from the hat-swapping, suave dancer of a young man.
“I basically carried myself with a chip on my shoulder and a nasty competitive streak since I was a teenager. I think this stemmed from (a) small-man syndrome or an inner insecurity,” he said of the process of producing his 2019 debut, Mirror Work, where he had to confront his own susceptibility while removing himself from such a complex.
In an interview with Hear65, Chen talked about taking a leaf out of his own book to slow down, choosing to mix his own album once again, and the joys of collaborating with other local artists.
Hi, Dru! What have been some of the biggest highlights of your year so far?
In my mind, the year has only just begun, but in reality, it’s been a blur because of the pace at which I have been going. I need to follow my own advice on living a slower life because it will pass me by too fast without stopping to smell the roses. So doing this interview is great because it allows me to sit back and reflect for a moment!
"I need to follow my own advice on living a slower life because it will pass me by too fast without stopping to smell the roses."
I am so happy with our collaborations, starting with ‘Utopia Reimagined: If You Knew’ with Charlie Lim and Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise. ‘Connect the Dots’ was a beautiful duet which came together very naturally and effortlessly, spearheaded by Gentle Bones and Jesse Bluu. When we released ‘Why Can’t I Help Me?’, I was in Taiwan on holiday, and so while doing all the social media postings, it was apt and healthy to reflect on the message in that song about remaining steadfast despite setbacks and arm yourself with mental positivity and sunshine.
How did you come up with the theme for your latest album, Slower Life?
The journey started with Mirror Work, my album with Warner in 2019. I basically carried myself with a chip on my shoulder and a nasty competitive streak since I was a teenager. I think this stemmed from (a) small-man syndrome or an inner insecurity. So it was important to strip myself of that and take a look at my own vulnerability, which is what Mirror Work was all about.
As soon as we put that out, I started writing a song called ‘Slow Life’. While I never did finish that song, we ran with the title and created an album around the concept of capturing aural memories — like photographs but in song form — to remind myself of the important moments and emotions in life as it passes by.
"The aim was to put together a deluxe album, but by the time we ended, I had a whole ‘nother stack of tracks!"
This culminated in our album launch show at the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2021, and as soon as that finished, I went right back in the studio and worked on two tracks called ‘I’ll Be Honest’ and ‘Show Me’, in co-writing and co-producing with Joel Tan and JZlee. The aim was to put together a deluxe album, but by the time we ended, I had a whole ‘nother stack of tracks!
This became the foundation for Slower Life, a continuation of the theme from Slow Life, and a full-circle completion of our vision for taking life one step at a time and honouring the milestones and emotions along the way.
This is your third studio album to date. Was there anything different that you tried to do in this record that you weren’t able to do in Mirror Work and Slow Life?
I wanted to mix it myself. I had read somewhere that Kevin Parker from Tame Impala had gotten another person to mix his earlier records, but somewhere along the line, I think it was his Currents album with the big hit 'The Less I Know The Better', he started mixing it himself and getting really interested and involved in the audio engineering.
While I totally valued the objectivity and incredible work and talents of Chris Mara who mixed Mirror Work and Nick Kodonas who mixed Slow Life, it became more meaningful for me to mix it myself because it harkens back to days of my first EP under the Dru Chen project in 2013, Intentions, which I mixed myself. Going into Slower Life, I knew I wanted to mix this batch of songs and have that personal end-to-end touch to it. There’s a certain way that I hear the frequency curve which feels good to me, and although it may or may not be technically correct, it gives the music a certain warmth and cushion which I always try to put into my mixes.
"There’s a certain way that I hear the frequency curve which feels good to me, and although it may or may not be technically correct, it gives the music a certain warmth and cushion which I always try to put into my mixes."
After the tracks were complete, I brought in Edric Hwang who is an incredible mixer and producer, to do the Dolby Atmos version of Slower Life with me. His guidance and talent really allowed up to step up the game sonically this time. It was definitely a thrill, and the Dolby Atmos technology and Spatial Audio with Apple Music was something which we hadn’t done yet when we did Mirror Work and Slow Life.
The album features collaborations with Shye, Rangga Jones, Gentle Bones, Charlie Lim, and Calvert Tay. How did you come up with the list of artists that you wanted to work with?
Each of these artists represents a different attitude and approach to music-making. You can’t get two tracks more dissimilar than 'I’ll Be Honest' and 'Utopia Reimagined: If You Knew', for instance. Likewise with 'Show Me', and 'Mess In Me'. Also, developing the relationships with these five artists and sharing moments with them onstage (like with Shye at her album launch concert) are things I’ll always cherish. We picked the list because the opportunity and openness in spirit was there. I had such a great time making these tracks!
Let’s zoom in on ‘Mess In Me’, a track that has Gentle Bones and Rangga Jones as featured artists. What do you hope to share with your listeners through this song?
I wanted to do an R&B ballad - something which I had never actually done before. I love the genre and form, and wanted to give listeners something that was a comforting earworm. Something to let their guard down to when chilling and listening to the music.
"I love the genre and form, and wanted to give listeners something that was a comforting earworm."
I’m curious to know what your songwriting process is like. Where do you usually turn to for inspiration when making music?
I usually turn to just enjoying the act of playing the keyboard or guitar. These two instruments have always given me a lot of comfort. I also love listening to the sounds of D’Angelo, Van Morrison, John Mayer, or most recently, The Weeknd. I subscribe to a couple of viral and hits playlists which always give me a nice challenge to level with when I’m stuck for inspiration.
Besides being a singer-songwriter and producer, you are also a Diploma in Sonic Arts lecturer at Republic Polytechnic’s School of Technology for the Arts. In what ways do you think educators such as yourself can help to nurture the next generation of local musicians/music industry professionals?
Giving students access to the various networks and real-life opportunities and scenarios is something which I’m very passionate about, because that’s something that I would have appreciated at that age! Also, my favourite Aristotle quote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”, resonates with me a lot.
"Giving students access to the various networks and real-life opportunities and scenarios is something which I’m very passionate about, because that’s something that I would have appreciated at that age!"
Lastly, now that your third album is done, what’s next for Dru Chen?
I need to give it some space — slow down, so to speak. The creative process needs life to fuel.
Stream Slower Life by Dru Chen here: