"I feel a greater responsibility to do more with all these opportunities that have been made available to me": An interview with Joanna Dong

"I feel a greater responsibility to do more with all these opportunities that have been made available to me": An interview with Joanna Dong

We stand on the shoulders of giants – The Great Singapore Replay has returned for its second season with an all-new lineup of mentors: Jazz doyenne Joanna Dong, R&B balladeer Sezairi, blues troubadour Charlie Lim, singer-producer extraordinaire Shabir and Mandopop veteran Kelly Pan.

In the following interview, the esteemed Joanna Dong shares some insight into what it means to be a musician in 2019 and elaborates on what is legitimately a new milestone in her career.

How’ve you been since we last spoke?

Well, I had an intense weekend! On Friday, we had a major party. It was like an appreciation party for the record label that I was in, and I say “was” because, I think this news kind of just went out recently: Red Roof Records is going on a hiatus because our boss Ruth Ling has landed her dream job as a head of A&R for Universal China. I think it's kind of like a natural progression, but it's also like a difficult decision that we both had to make. 

But we also made it in conjunction with everybody in the company. I think it's better if the record label kind of takes a break and kind of goes into hibernation mode, while Ruth focusses on her new job and her prospects there in China. The rest of us are also in a place where we're ready to take the next step in our respective careers. 

What’s next for you, then?

This may be the actual first official verbal interview that I'm giving where we're announcing this. I'm going to start my own company to manage myself. It's not a record label, it's more of an artist management entity. So I look forward to collaborating with other producers and also with my existing collaborators from Red Roof. It's a more fluid arrangement, but it does mean I have more agency and control over my career direction. All that also comes with more risks and responsibilities, which are terrifying.

What’s got you most excited about this?

Now, because of the increased profile I've had since Sing! China, and also because now I do have staff, whether full time or part time, the scale at which I'm having to understand about the music business is quite different.  Also, I feel I have more responsibility. It's cliche to say that "With great power comes great responsibility". With great opportunities and exposure, having been given the chances that I've had, I feel a greater responsibility to do more with all these opportunities that have been made available to me. 

And how do you feel about being a part of the second edition of The Great Singapore Replay?

The Great Singapore Replay actually comes at a very opportune moment! They had approached us towards the end– when we knew I was going to leave Red Roof. I was actually really hesitant because this is a really major project. For the past few years, I've had the pleasure of having many people that I could rely on for many things. In this case, this is kind of like my first major project; coming out on my own to manage things. I think it's my opportunity to set the tone for this new direction I'm taking: Who I want to be, what I want to do for our scene. My boss Ruth Ling is really a great nurturer. She's facilitated so many collaborations in her time. I feel like in some ways, this is my tribute to her. Like, I'm taking over her mantle. Now that she's going to pursue this thing and also to grow something in Beijing, I feel like I'm trying, in small ways, to kind of fill her shoes while she's away. I'll try to tahan until she comes back lah, you know. [Laughs]

Well, we’re sure you’ll do fine as a mentor. What are your thoughts on initiatives like this in shining a light on emergent artists?

My own experience from Sing! China and that sudden propulsion into the public consciousness in Singapore taught me that the fact that I even exist came to a surprise to many people. I had thought I had already been quite well-exposed, because I have been doing musical theatre, TV hosting and singing for 10 years. So I assumed most people would already know me, you know. That was an interesting thing to learn and it made me aware that there's a huge amount of talent in Singapore that I know of, or that I get to be in touch with, but most of Singapore has no idea or no clue whatsoever.

Initiatives like TGSR help to bridge that gap. It helps to draw attention to our young emergent artists. It's also interesting that now, compared to 20 years ago, or maybe even the generation of your Kit Chans and Steph Suns, or even before them, it was actually really hard to even break into the scene. It was very hard to become an artist or a performer. But once you did, the path to becoming known seemed more direct because there was a very centralised media like TV. The moment you went on TV, the people who needed to know you would know you. Now, with social media, the way we receive information is very dispersed. The barriers to entry for recording and releasing music is much lower. So there are many people who are entering the scene as young artists, which is great. But the downside of that is they are kind of drowned out and disappeared in an ocean of new releases and new artists; people just don't know they're there. 

I think TGSR and other initiatives help to become a prism that directs our very dispersed attentions into this beautiful beam of light, where you can really pay attention to those who deserve the attention.

In your opinion, besides artistry and musicality, what is the one quality an artist has to possess in 2019? 

This is a tricky question. If it had to absolutely be just one thing outside of artistry and a vision, I would like to say self-awareness. I think self-awareness extends to not only just understanding yourself, or being able to look at yourself from an outside eye, but to look at yourself clearly. There're two extremes – people either have an overinflated sense of self-worth, or a terribly debilitative sense of unworthiness, or feeling like there's no way you could possibly catch up. 

I think it's also the way social media algorithms are. You will see only the people who are successful, and they keep reappearing on your feed. I think it's very easy, even for somebody like me who is reasonably established, to feel like your confidence is constantly shaken, and to wonder what the hell you are doing if you're not as successful as these people who are appearing on your feed. I think that can be really crippling, it can lead you to feel like you don't even want to try anymore. I think that's a true struggle especially for our young artists – to have a sense of self-awareness means to be aware of the rest of what is out there, the rest of society and the rest of your peers. It's tough; I'm still learning.

When you encounter a song by an artist you're unfamiliar with, what grabs you? What do you look out for? 

It's really hard to say. It's a complex matrix of a vocal quality, a tone that's kind of distinctive, but also the arrangement. Okay, I would say it's a vibe. It sounds very nebulous, but if you think about it, it's very hard to put your finger on one specific thing. It's usually a combination of several factors that leads to this thing that you can either call the x-factor or a vibe. But I think this so-called vibe transcends whether the aesthetic belongs to now, or something that's a throwback. Some artists like the Beach Boys, somehow, their vibe is still very relevant today. 

Maybe a lot of people think that coming from a jazz-pop background, I may be really concerned with the technical ability of the performer, or how hip the chord voicings are, or are these changes really cool. Actually, at the end of the day, that is completely not what I'm listening to. Most of the time, it's just, “Oh, this thing is vibey”. And so that's how I can get Billie Eilish, at the same time being in love with Billy Holiday, because it's just the vibe.

You mentioned Billie Eilish, who has become sort of this Gen Z poster girl. What else are you listening to these days, outside of jazz?

I've been listening to a lot of Pomplamoose. That's super my thing. Pomplamoose is known for doing these really fun, quirky covers of classics and also the latest hits. That's what I do. I'm not really strong at songwriting; I'm more into interpreting something, taking something people already known and putting a twist on it, being cheeky with these things. 

So Pomplamoose is my favourite band taking this approach to music, at the moment. 

I think that's also what I'll be bringing to TGSR. When they first approached me for it, I'll be honest with you, I was apprehensive because I said, "Eh you know I'm not a songwriter." I'm also not an arranger nor a producer. I think I'm a reasonably decent performer and I also just enjoy interpretation and reinterpretation. So when they said, "Don't worry, there's a whole team, you're not like the only person who's going to be mentoring them. You'll be doing this hand-in-hand with other people." There're Charlie and Sezairi, who excel in songwriting and production. There’s Kelly too, she's so cool and she understands Mandarin pop in a way that I don't because I come from a slightly different, jazzier background. And there's Shabir who's a big star producer in India now. I think it's also great that they’ve consciously tried to include a diversity of mentors from different backgrounds, whether it's culturally or musically, and age groups. I represent the slightly more senior mentors. No representation can be perfect, of course, since they're only five slots. At the same time, TGSR has put a lot of thought into this and I think it's a good start.

So there're all these different skillsets, and on top of the mentors, we have a behind-the-scenes production team of experts, musicians and arrangers, who will also be on board to help the select few who may get through the open call, to produce a really high quality single at the end of this whole project. 

I think that gave me the confidence to say that, "Okay, I think I can meaningfully contribute to this." Because if you say I'm just going to have to mentor and help them learn everything there is to know about music business, then cannot lah. [Laughs] I cannot, in good faith, go and mislead people like that. So I think that's the awesome thing about this – it's going to be teamwork, with all of us. I'm looking forward to learn from these young artists as well.

We learn from each other and I would very quickly be irrelevant if I stop listening to new music and to young people. If I assume that they have nothing to offer me, that's the first step to disaster and downfall as a veteran artist. 

Let's talk about your discography. You sing in both Mandarin and English. Do you find yourself having to code-switch in terms of how you come up with and express the songs, or are they both one and the same thing to you?

I think it's interesting. Somehow, because of the way I was brought up, I speak English mostly in school and formal settings. My mum was a Chinese language teacher before she retired, so I spoke mainly Mandarin at home. For some reason, Mandarin is a more emotional language for me and English is a more intellectual language. I think and write better, and I have a much better vocabulary when it comes to expressing myself in English. But whenever I speak or sing in Chinese, I find that the connection with my emotions is always more immediate. That naturally lends itself to the slightly different vibe that comes through quite in spite of myself, whenever I record or perform in the respective languages.

What's got you excited about the remainder of 2019?

TGSR. That's the first major project I'll be doing. I'll also be starting my own company. It's called Do Be Do Di. It's kind of silly sounding, but it's meant to sound like a scat, and it's actually short for Do Better, Do Different. That's what I hope to do and how I hope to approach my career from now on, in a nutshell. I'll be doing a lot of housekeeping, such as getting my website set up, printing name cards. Also, refreshing some of my existing repertoire and arrangements, getting ready for corporate gigs for Chinese New Year. These are all very practical things but everyone has to cari makan right, so I'm just getting that in order. And then, in the next half of next year, I can start to think about my creative projects. To sign up for The Great Singapore Replay Season Two, and to obtain more information, visit its official website. 

To sign up for The Great Singapore Replay Season Two, and to obtain more information, visit its official website