Here comes the Sun
On the hit HBO series Entourage, fictional movie star Vinnie Chase and his posse often head out to hip West Hollywood spot, Urth Caffe, lounging on its patio and picking up pretty starlets.
So it is perhaps a fitting venue for a meeting with Singaporean pop singer Sun Ho, who arrives at the cafe early one evening surrounded by her own personal entourage of four - well, five if you count her young son.
After all, Ho has an image to maintain: a multi-platinum-selling Mandarin-language singer in her native Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia, Ho is hovering on the periphery of the big time, success in the US.
The singer moved to Los Angeles 18 months ago, after spending a year in New York working with Wyclef Jean on her upcoming album, Cause a Ruckus, which will be her first all-English release. After installing herself and her clan in a sprawling mansion near the boho-chic area of Silverlake, she set to work putting the finishing touches on the album, whose first single Fancy Free, a peppy pop tune, dropped on September 14.
'A lot of music people and producers from New York and Miami are moving to LA,' she says. 'I realised it would be easier if I were here too.'
Even in glamour-saturated Los Angeles, heads turn when Ho walks into the cafe. Her size zero frame is encased in a pair of black-and-white striped Alice + Olivia skinny pants and a ruffled Karen Millen top. As she sips a blended drink with her creative director Mark Kwan, the rest of the group hang back, playing with her four-year old son Dayan. (Ho's husband, Kong Hee, shuttles between Los Angeles and Singapore, where he is a volunteer pastor at the City Harvest Church.)
'This album was a two-year process for me,' says Ho, betraying a little nervousness. 'I don't want to think of it as a crossover album. I want to be part of the industry.'
Unlike other aspiring singers from abroad who hope to make it in the US, Ho has the means, resources and contacts to hop over the Pacific and base herself there while waiting for success to happen. She says it all started when a video she made of her hit Mando-pop song Miss Catastrophe was seen by Justin Herz, a music industry executive who formerly worked for MTV. Herz invited Ho to come to the US to release some of her dance singles, including Where Did Love Go, which hit the top spot on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play Breakout chart. Herz, convinced he had a star in the making, went to Johnny Wright, a music manager who works with some of the biggest names in the business, such as Justin Timberlake, the Jonas Brothers and Janet Jackson.
Herz and Wright are now co-managing Ho.
After Ho's success on the Billboard charts, her team decided it was time she went to work on a fully fledged album.
It helped, no doubt, that she had the backing of a lucrative singing career - her previous five albums have sold in excess of 4 million copies - and a couple of successful businesses as a means of support. Ho owns a fashion boutique in Singapore, SKIN Couture, selling high-low fashion brands such as Sky and Monarchy, and she also opened Asia's first Ed Hardy flagship store. She has plans to create her own fashion line.
Along with her commercial ventures, the singer has also been doing humanitarian work. She has built six schools on the mainland since 2004 and is involved in other charitable projects in Indonesia, India and Honduras, where she recently established the Sun Life Foundation (sunlifehonduras.org) to help treat children suffering from hydrocephalus. She plans to visit the country next year to promote awareness about the condition.
Meanwhile, Ho has an album to put out and market. She spent the previous week recording the video for Fancy Free, the shoot was held at Knott's Berry Farm amusement park, a site chosen for its 'rundown, gritty' appeal. The video is choreographed by Laurieann Gibson - who works regularly with Lady Gaga and has a significant role in MTV's reality show Making the Band - and directed by Joseph Kahn, who has earned acclaim for his videos for the likes of U2, Eminem, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey.
Although Ho's previous albums have been released by Warner Music, it's likely that her first US CD will be with another label; she says her managers are now working out the details. While that is going on, Ho is preparing for an upcoming tour - she envisions playing small, intimate venues. The album is a combination of pop songs and ballads, many of them co-written by Ho and Wyclef Jean.
'It's every singer's dream to be able to work with A-list producers,' Ho says, adding that other collaborators on Cause a Ruckus include Grammy-winning producers and composers Danja, and Rodney Jerkins.
Ho concedes that this album could not have happened at a better time. Things, she says, fell into place fairly easily.
'There are a lot of factors,' she says. 'I've had a bit of success in Asia, and I think people in the industry here feel they are ready for something different. The music doesn't really fit into any genre. But I've just been feeling like it's time for this. It's a good product, it's my baby, and everybody has put in their absolute best.'
Still, despite her success as a Mando-pop singer, she doesn't discount the importance of 'making it' in the US market.
'There is an international flavour to my music, and I think that people here are looking for something different and fresh. But at the end of the day, there is a much bigger audience over here, and I hope that they will be able to connect with the music.
'But,' she says, pausing, 'I'm feeling a little anxious.'
Her previous albums were churned out at the rate of one every six months, she says, making this the longest she has ever spent on a new release.
'This is the first one in which I will have been really involved from beginning to end,' she says. 'So much of it is directly influenced by Western culture, which is something I really appreciate and love. Every song on it has something of me in it, so I feel very proud.'
With all the investment in her fledgling US career from highly celebrated music executives, it's not surprising that Ho feels a little pressure to succeed. Even Wright, her co-manager, has high expectations.
'It's not often that a manager gets to begin a relationship with such an accomplished and talented artist at this stage in her career, when she has already won the attention of so many fans worldwide,' he says. 'Sun's passion, creativity and talent make her a pleasure to work with.'
For Ho, regardless of what happens with her new album, it will be the culmination of a long-held dream that took root when she started singing as a child. She remembers performing for her mother, and then at school and her church choir.
'It has always been a big part of my life,' she says.
The melodramatic numbers that previously underscored her career - she calls herself a 'ballad queen' - have been replaced by upbeat pop tunes and dance songs, although, says Ho, 'there is a tinge of old-school rock' on some of the dozen tracks on the album. There are also a couple of ballads in there.
'Rodney [Jerkins] is a maker of number one hits and he has a unique sound,' she says. 'We wanted this to be a sound that has not yet been heard in this market, kind of a pop style married to techno from Asia. It had to be really different.' Still, she was also aiming for a universal sound, saying, 'if they don't see my face, they don't think it's an Asian singing.
'I want people to feel that it's an international sound,' she says. 'That's important to me, and I want to make sure it happens.'
Ho has been so immersed in putting the record together that she hasn't been able to return to Singapore during the past year, relying instead on her husband to come and visit her. 'He's been my number one fan,' she says. 'He believes in what I'm doing.'
Somewhat more sceptical are her friends back home, who, Ho says, have questioned her decision to decamp to the US.
'They kept saying to me, 'Are you sure you're going to do this?'' she says. 'But I knew this was a good opportunity for me. I'm not the sort of person who likes to live life thinking, 'what if?''