Out of the box

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 October, 2008, 12:00am

Embarking on a music career in Hong Kong is always a tough challenge. And when you're a mature woman from Philippines and don't fit the stereotypically svelte, glamorous pop-star image, it's even harder.

That isn't stopping Jovelyn Fuego from creating a buzz. The singer-guitarist's ode to Hong Kong, Shoebox In The City, has been causing a stir in cyberspace over the past few weeks since being picked up by former music executive Hans Ebert, who e-mailed it to many of his associates.

'Now, here is a real song about Hong Kong,' he exclaimed, urging people to help spread the word about its performer, Joves. 'A video is in the works.'

Things haven't gone so smoothly since, however. In a subsequent weekly blog posting, Ebert, now chief executive of artist promotion company We-Enhance, bemoaned the fact that although people had initially expressed great enthusiasm about the song, they baulked when they discovered the singer's nationality. 'I guess old prejudices die hard,' he says.

'There are a lot of obstacles to overcome,' says Joves, who goes by her nickname, citing a story she heard about a band in LA who were set for a record deal until record label bigwigs learned they were Filipinos. 'I don't fit the mould.'

Shoebox In The City might change that. The jazz-folk tale - about the loneliness of living in a modern metropolis, where friends come and go and you end up back in your home looking at life going on below - has won her comparisons with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Norah Jones, and a video is planned so that she can get it onto music channels in Asia, even though she has yet to land a record deal.

'I'm living my dream,' says Joves, who took up music seriously just five years ago. 'People relate to the song wherever they live. I played it in New York and someone in the audience came up to me afterwards and said, 'That encapsulates what it's like to live in Manhattan',' she says. 'I had to tell him it was about Hong Kong.'

Shoebox in the City won Joves a Tom Lee music competition award last year, leading to an appearance on RTHK and bringing her to the attention of a wider audience. She is appearing at the Tom Lee Carnival this weekend.

Over a beer at the Fringe Club's rooftop bar, Joves says she spent a long time honing a distinctive sound. 'I stopped listening to other singers so that I could develop my own voice,' says the musician, who sings everything from bossa nova to jazz and soft rock.

She may be a latecomer to the scene, but music is in her blood. Born in Davao, Joves moved to Hong Kong with her mother and three siblings when she was four years old. Her father, who played in hotel lounges, had an impressive reputation, and her mother had also been a singer.

When Joves was about 12 she entered a talent contest run by a local newspaper. It was an experience that would put her off music for a long time.

On hearing of the competition she had entered, her father trained her to be a singer. 'You're my daughter so you must sing very well,' she recalls him saying.

Although she reached the semi-finals, she choked on stage, holding the microphone too far away, and didn't make the final. Afterwards her father told her that she had ability, but that she had to decide if she really wanted to pursue a career in music. If not, he said, he never wanted to hear her sing again.

Joves stopped singing. 'He was a perfectionist,' she says.

After leaving Delia Memorial School in Mei Foo, she worked as a secretary before moving into television as a video editor, working her way through the ranks at Star TV for 13 years. During that time she restricted her musical activity to karaoke sessions and kicking about with her elder brother, a trombonist.

After her father died in 2001, she decided she wanted to get back into music. 'I kind of wanted to achieve something as an acknowledgement to my father,' she says. 'Music's in the genes, he gave me this ability.'

Joves began to tinker again. 'During visits to the graphics department at Star there was a beat-up classical guitar that I used to pick up and strum,' she says. She went on to buy her own instrument for HK$200. Then she quit her job and started practising.

'I would stay at home and play up to 20 hours a day. I got calluses on my fingers from playing so hard,' says Joves, who would copy songs by her heroes, the Dave Mathews Band, Jeff Buckley and John Mayer.

She developed her plucking style of playing as she taught herself from books, even though she couldn't read music. Then she began to write her own songs. She wrote three before she was able to come up with lyrics for Always Free, a personal look at one of her friendships.

'That's when I learned that it had to come from your heart. Every song has to mean something to me,' says Joves.

In April 2004 she made her debut at an open mic night at the Fringe Club. The performance went down well and she moved to Central from Sai Kung, where she had lived for 15 years. It was while she was looking at a high-rise flat on Wyndham Street and standing on its tiny balcony that she first had the idea for Shoebox in the City.

The flat became her home for the next few years, apart from a few months in New York, where she played open mic events every night and overcame stage fright.

Back in Hong Kong she immersed herself in the local music scene, playing gigs such as The Underground. She teamed up with bass player Chris Collins, who helped her develop bass lines for Shoebox in the City.

Despite the slew of accolades, Joves is not sure she has time to realise her dream of becoming a professional. 'I'm at the end of my rope,' she says.

'I'll hold onto it a bit longer. I want to make money out of what I do, but if not I'll need a job soon because I have to pay the rent.'

Tom Lee Music Carnival, featuring Joves, Clementine and the Band, Supper Moment and Ever, Sun, 2pm, Piazza Area A, HK Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui. Free. Inquiries: 2734 2009