From the beloved theme song from the local drama series The Little Nyonya to a fresh take on Phil Collins' 'Against All Odds' that will make you want to get up on your feet and dance, there is something for every listener who steps into the music library of the versatile Olivia Ong.
You may often hear the homegrown vocalist being referred to as a jazz or Mandopop act, but given how heterogeneous her collection of tunes is, the absence of proper categorisation would perhaps be a better reflection of the open-minded artist that Ong has always been.
While there have been variations to her sound, and even choice of language, throughout her career, the common thread that runs through all of her releases is Ong's goal to deliver "good music" to her fans.
And Ong's faithful have reciprocated this gesture with their unwavering support for the singer. Even though it has been a while since the ‘如燕’ singer last welcomed a new addition to her library (her last release was '梦想起飞' in 2015), her fans remain hungry for new music and performances, as shown by how quickly tickets to her upcoming sold-out solo concert, 光影, were snapped up after they went on sale.
"It's amazing. I'm incredibly thankful for my fans who have been many of them have been there for me since day one. I take the time to read my fans' comments on my social media [pages], and they will let me know what they hope to hear and see. And it encourages me to know that they still look forward to hearing me sing and release new music," Ong said of her relationship with her fans.
She also teased what she had prepared for fans who will be heading down to the Capitol Theatre to watch her show on 30 September.
"Concert-goers will be the first to hear the live version of my new single. And I will be singing Mandarin songs that my friends have never heard me sing before. There are going to be a few surprises, but I don't want to give away too much. Fans can be assured that they are in for a musical treat," Ong shared.
Ahead of her 光影 concert, Ong sat down with Hear65 to look back on the musical releases that have shaped her into the artist she is today.
A Girl Meets Bossanova (2005)
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with bossa nova.
My sister first introduced me to the world of bossa nova. And after watching the movie Next Stop Wonderland, I was very mesmerised by the rhythm and the sexiness of the genre, and it stayed with me throughout my growing-up years. I find bossa nova to be romantic, sexy, smooth, and even melancholic all at once. Yeah, I have to give credit to my sister. She played a big part in influencing my musical choices. And as kids, we would often imagine ourselves to be Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand, and we would sing our lungs out around the house. It was super fun.
Credit: Ericia Chin
"I find bossa nova to be romantic, sexy, smooth, and even melancholic all at once."
Why did you think this would be a suitable genre for the album?
Before A Girl Meets Bossanova was released, my debut album was Precious Stones. It's a series of original English songs that were produced by Japanese producers because I was based in Tokyo then. And while I was working on that album, my then-manager had a side project, and he wanted to produce a series of bossa nova covers. So he asked me if I could work with him on it. I said yes, and that's how A Girl Meets Bossanova came about.
‘如燕’ (from The Little Nyonya) (2008)
This is the song that many Singaporeans think of when the name “Olivia Ong” is mentioned. What do its lyrics mean to you personally?
I was in my 20s when I first recorded the song, and, you know, I really liked the motif and soulful tune of ‘如燕’, but I didn't really know how to appreciate the lyrics of the song. It was only a couple of years later that I was able to fully appreciate the lyrics. And what resonated, especially with me, was this line in the song, "风雨中且让我盈步婀娜", which loosely translates to mean "dance gracefully through the storm". This line strikes a chord in me because you know in life, no one goes through life without facing challenges, and I've had my fair share of them. Hence, this line spoke a lot to me.
Credit: IMC Live Global
"There's a sense of timelessness to '如燕'. I was 24 when I sang the song, and it's been so many years, but people still remember it fondly."
‘如燕’ is a track that you’ve performed many times over the years. How have you managed to keep live performances of it fresh for your listeners and yourself?
There's a sense of timelessness to '如燕'. I was 24 when I sang the song, and it's been so many years, but people still remember it fondly. It's very nostalgic for me, and I'm sure for many people as well. I have fans messaging me [to tell me] how much they loved the song when I sang it at [this year's] NDP and how it brought back memories for them.
Artists usually name their albums after themselves to introduce or reintroduce themselves or usher in new chapters of their journeys. Tell us what led you to launch a self-titled album five years after you released A Girl Meets Bossanova. How did you want your listeners to feel while listening to it?
It was my former record label's idea. I just thought the title was simple and straightforward. It's actually a continuation of the bossa nova albums that I'd done before. So [I wanted] to give them what was familiar and refreshing at the same time. The goal is always to give my fans something refreshing to listen to.
One of my favourite songs off that self-titled album is called 'You and Me'. I penned the lyrics to it myself. It was inspired by a very loving, elderly couple I met while on an evening jog. If — and when — I ever found my life partner, I would hope to be that way, loving into our twilight years.
"[I wanted] to give them (my fans) what was familiar and refreshing at the same time. The goal is always to give my fans something refreshing to listen to."
Just for You (2010)
This album contains re-releases of tracks that were released much earlier in your career. How different do you think your journey would have been had you not made them?
Wow. Well, I don't think I would have been exposed to doing live interviews, or live shows. And I got a peek at what the Japanese music scene was like, how creative and experimental they were. And they were very open to different types of staging when it came to gigs. And they thought out of the box — concerts don't always need to be on a huge scale affair, but small, intimate spaces work very well too.
I don’t think I’ve heard a cover of ‘Against All Odds’ quite like the one in this album. How did you come up with it?
It was my Japanese producers’ idea. Yeah. Again, this led me to embrace different music genres, and I'm grateful that I'm ever-evolving. I believe we wanted to do a dance album, a dance EP. So that was what we went for. And it had a very Japanese aesthetic to it. What was most important for us was that we picked the right songs, like classic songs that wouldn't go wrong. Yeah, that's it.
What inspired you to record this full-length Mandarin album in 2013?
等等 was the second Mandarin album. Romance was the first Mandarin album, released in 2011. I just thought it was time to release a full-length Mandarin album of original songs because I was based in Taiwan then and I had got to know music producers from the scene. So it was a very natural progression.
How's this album different from Romance?
To me, it was a lot more experimental. Romance was a lot more romantic — the melodies were romantic. 等等 was more... of course, you still have your ballads, but I wanted to experiment and try it with more intense arrangements. So it's not just the sweet side of this singer, but also the frustrations. I was very fortunate to be able to meet singer-songwriters or producers I worked with on that album who were willing to experiment and explore with me. It enriched my musical journey.
Credit: Olivia Ong, Facebook
"I wanted to experiment and try it (making 等等) with more intense arrangements. So it's not just the sweet side of this singer, but also the frustrations."
How did your relationship with the Mandarin language grow while you were working on 等等?
I now have a much deeper appreciation of the language that I didn't really have before (while I was in school). You know, I get to soak in the culture, and attend Mandarin gigs, etc. So it was a totally immersive experience [to work on the album].
Bonus: '光影' (2023)
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This is your first new release in a while. What inspired you to make this track? How does it reflect who Olivia Ong is in 2023?
Good questions. Well, it was a Taiwanese composer-lyricist who wrote the songs especially for me. It's very emotive and the lyrics carry such depths of meaning. And I really like his unique melodies. It's unconventional and it's a pop ballad.
I'm generally that hopeful person that I've always been. Of course, there are uncertainties in love and life, and you don't always get what you want, but you have to be honest with how you feel. And for me, it's not about sweating the small stuff. So I think the Olivia in 2023 will keep pressing on, no matter what happens.
Credit: IMC Live Global
"There are uncertainties in love and life, and you don't always get what you want, but you have to be honest with how you feel."