Gen Neo steps out: the producer-turned-singer talks Korean and Chinese pop, and what he's up to next

Gen Neo steps out: the producer-turned-singer talks Korean and Chinese pop, and what he's up to next

You might know Singapore-born composer and producer Gen Neo from his work with big South Korean acts like Super Junior and F(x), or perhaps songs he wrote for popular K-dramas Oh My Venus and Sweet Stranger And Me.

It goes without saying that the Berklee College of Music alumnus has some serious talent, but 2018 is an ambitious year for him as he ventures into Mandopop and makes his first appearance as a singer-songwriter. Taking the stage as a solo act after years working behind-the-scenes is certainly not an easy feat, but Neo has proven that he is ready for the transition.

Just last month, Neo put up an impressive performance at his first ever live showcase in Singapore, showing off his front stage potential at Korean club 36SBQ with catchy originals and Mandopop covers. The audience was in for a surprise with Neo's refreshing urban R&B tunes, something different from the popular ballad style that fans of Mandopop are used to.

While Neo joined Bandwagon for a studio session, we took the chance to check in with him for Hear65 on his singing aspirations and plans for the future. Read the interview below:

How did you get involved as a K-pop music producer, what made you want to become a singer, and why Mandopop?

The reason I stepped into the K-pop industry was because of this guy called Henry, he’s a superstar now. I met him in Berklee when I was in the States, and he was the one that enticed me with the witches – no I’m just kidding, there’s no such thing! But it was good music, and it was good fun, and the first time I went over was during a vacation period. So I went there, looked at it and recorded his first song ‘Off My Mind’ that was included in the Super Junior M album.

I didn’t really do much but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to explore K-pop, somewhere that I think nobody local has explored before at that point of time... Before that I always wanted to go into Mandopop already because it seemed like a bigger industry at that point of time and my mum listened to Chinese music, my dad listened to Chinese music, my brother listened to Chinese music.

And for Chinese music, what were some of your influences from when you were growing up?

Oh the usual - Wang Leehom, David Tao, Khalil Fong - that was actually when I was in army already. Who else... Jay Chou for sure. At that time it was pretty innovative, but yeah, things have changed.

How’s your experience been so far as a singer? How has it been different from being a producer?

The biggest difference is anxiety on stage because when you’re producing, you have all the time you want – [under] a deadline – to go back and relook what you did. When you’re singing, it’s your job to make sure you’re consistently healthy enough to be able to perform and who knows, maybe your performance is once in five months. 

Things are different for me because coming from a producing background, I would have the choice to be like, I’ll just produce this time I’m not taking that gig. So yeah, different from a lot of people I know. I know a lot of local up-and-coming acts that are pretty good too.

Since you’re producing your own music and for others as well, are you extra strict with yourself?

Yes, very hard on myself. I have to make sure that it first passes me, then I can show it to the world, right? Because when you put it out, it’s up for judgment. Like the song ‘Right Now’ that I didn’t want to put out, but people would be like “it’s fine, you’re always being hard on yourself”.

How has your experience in singing and being a producer influenced your current work in Mandopop? Have you applied anything from your prior experience to it?

I listen to a lot of music. K-pop is borrowing aspects from the American Billboard [charts] and modifying it to fit their tastes, just like everywhere else. But the most important thing for me is to go to the source, so when I wanted to do R&B, we started to listen to where R&B came from and how it has changed over the years. So R&B breaks down into a lot of sub-genres. All this research has of course helped in my production, but I wouldn’t say K-pop has completely impacted the production process.

Why the decision to come back to Singapore to make music, and do you plan to head to the China market, or go back to the Korean market? What are your plans for the future?

Immediate plans – actually, my manager hasn’t told me about this year yet. We’ll discuss – she’s my partner too. It has to be in the Chinese industry, for sure. But of course, the reason I’m here is because this is home, home ground, ground zero, so we need to make sure that stuff is heard out here too, hopefully more so. Then of course we’ll try to achieve as much as we can overseas and then see what happens.

What about your plans for the rest of this year?

I’d say this year, probably a couple of singles, or if the album’s ready then it’s going to come out because I haven’t released something on my own in a while. That’s something I’ve been wanting to do actually, but because of unforeseen circumstances, we’re working things out.