DEJAY CHOI STAGED four concerts at last year's Hong Kong Arts Festival with local independent musicians Chet Lam Yat-fung and Ketchup (aka Ken Tsoi). The sold-out concerts should have been a milestone for the musician, who goes by the name of The Pancakes. But it wasn't the case.
'There were some things I wanted to improve on, but I didn't know exactly what to do and I was too shy to ask,' says the 27-year-old. 'So the shows weren't as good as they should have been.'
Next week, Choi will stage two solo gigs, Loons Under the Moon, at the Ko Shan Theatre. But there's been no question about asking for help this time.
Whereas Choi used to be known for her minimalist image on stage, this time she'll be backed by a range of musicians, including guitarists H (Chan Tze-chai) of Tai Tau Fat and Rodney Ma Lap-yin of Gayamyan, Site Access bassist CM (Leonard Lee Chak-min), Vibration keyboard player Chris Ho Siu-ki, drummer Stephane Wong and local hip-hop performer DJ Tommy (Cheung Chun-wai). There will also be brass, strings, violin and cello. 'They know I'm a performer who needs people to help,' Choi says. 'Now I'm more comfortable about telling them my needs and seeking their help to solve my problems.'
The 1,900-capacity concerts are Choi's sixth series of gigs and a far cry from her debut performances five years ago at the Hong Kong Arts Centre's McAulay Studio, which can seat only 80.
Back then, Choi was new to the scene. Her music, backed only by her keyboard and computer, was categorised as so-called cutie pop, in the same vein as Belle and Sebastian and The Pastels. She attracted attention when a single called a (from her debut album, Les Bonbons Sont Bons) was used in a bus company's television commercial.
Five years on, Choi has released her sixth album, Everyone Has a Secret. While it retains The Pancakes' signature sound, it's a more complex affair, filled with guitars and piano, upfront bass lines and increasingly intricate arrangements. 'I worry that people will think my records are all the same,' she says. 'I think each is slightly different from the previous one, but maybe the contrast isn't that big.'
Choi says her new album is closer to the type of music she wants to be making. 'I learnt how to ask people for help in a way that still retains my style and in a way that I feel comfortable with.'
Choi has been lumped in with the local cutie-pop movement that includes acts such as the Marshmallow Kisses and My Little Airport, but it's not the sort of music she aspired to play when she started. 'What I've wanted to do is simply play guitar pop with some piano,' she says. 'But in the past, there were a lot of things I didn't know how to do. With my limited technique, those were the only sounds I could produce.
'I insisted on doing everything myself, but now I don't mind asking someone to handle the things that I'm not good at and don't want to do,' she says.
For example, on the new album Choi has handed all bass guitar arrangements and playing to Site Access' CM, instead of doing it electronically herself. 'I'm not a bassist. Thinking up bass lines is difficult for me.'
Perhaps the first sign that Choi was emerging from the underground came earlier this year when she won best original film song at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Gum Gum Gum from the animated film McDull, Prince De La Bun. She hoped the exposure would lead to more job offers, but she says they haven't come. She's kept herself busy releasing books and CDs and organising concerts.
'Winning the award was so unreal,' she says. 'A lot of people congratulated me, but the next day everything was back to normal. Even that night I knew I needed to wake up.'
Choi says she's been enjoying herself since becoming a full-time musician in mid-2001, earning a living from making records, performing, writing music for commercials and movies, and doing voiceovers for movies and TV programmes. However, she doesn't necessarily expect to make a lifelong career out of her music. 'I'm always reminding myself that if I run out of luck one day, I have to face it and accept it positively,' she says.
What would she be doing if she wasn't a musician? 'I want to be a librarian again,' says Choi, who worked at the Goethe-Institut Hongkong Library for three years. 'I liked it. I only quit because I had an opportunity to become a full-time musician.
'I don't like to challenge myself and work under too much pressure, so I wouldn't want to be a creative director or work in the advertising industry. I'd go crazy if I had to come up with different ideas all the time.'
Reverie Concert Series No 6 Loons Under the Moon, Sept 23-24, 8pm, Ko Shan Theatre, 77 Ko Shan Rd, Hunghom, $90, $120, $150, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2268 7323