Q&A: Khalil Fong
Singer-songwriter Khalil Fong Dai-tung has moved away from the R&B sounds he is known for and infused his new album with blues-rock guitar riffs. The 27-year-old musician named the album 15, the age when he taught himself to play guitar. Something of a wunderkind, Hawaii-born Fong was sending demos to recording companies a year later and was signed to Warner Music Hong Kong when he was 20.
He impressed DJs and music industry executives as a promising newcomer with his 2005 debut album, Soul Boy, although it wasn't a huge commercial successes. But his third album, Wonderland, won him a growing following, especially in Taiwan. In 2009, he was nominated for best singer, composer and arrangement at Taiwan's Golden Melody Awards for Orange Moon.
Fong will embark on a series on concerts in August to promote the new album released last week.
Your new album features a lot of guitar-driven blues-rock. Why did you go down that road?
I was at an award show in Beijing three years ago and, during his acceptance speech, a mainland musician said: 'Khalil Fong, I know you like blues very much.'
I didn't know how to react at the time, but he gave me an idea: why not add some more blues to my music? Blues was what I was playing when I first learned the guitar and it's the origin of soul and R&B, so I kept thinking about that. But it's tricky because blues is not widely accepted in the Chinese music scene.
When I heard John Mayer's album Continuum, I immediately identified with it; there's a lot of similar musical influences and stuff that I listened to. For me, it was an eye-opener, giving me ideas for how to fuse the style into my music.
For 15, I'm on the path I might have taken if I had continued focusing on guitar. But because I was interested in production and arrangement, I set the guitar aside when I was about 18 to teach myself piano.
Are you trying to regain that sense of enjoyment you had playing music when you were 15?
Yes, partly. I think it's to be able to expand my musicianship. Right now, I'm limited to either sitting at the piano or standing in front of the mic. Of course, there are some songs on which I play acoustic guitar. But those aren't nearly as exciting as having that Hendrix kind of sound and being able to rouse the crowd. I've improved as a guitarist and can bring a bit of live scene to what I do. I formed a trio for this album and hope there will be more opportunities to perform at live shows, large and small.
Was your group inspired by the John Mayer trio?
It's inspired by many trios and, ultimately, the most famous one, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But the sound is more influenced by the John Mayer Trio, White Stripes and a little Led Zeppelin. For me, this album is a mixture of what I like about soul and jazz, with a bit of Hendrix, John Mayer and throwback rock. It's all kind of related anyway.
Is there any song you want to highlight on this album?
I like the second track, Tan Hua. It's the most heavy-sounding song and features a lot of different musical elements. The subject matter is quite nice as well. It talks about single mother who has raised a child since she was 17. The whole album is kind of fun. The songs are all interesting in their own way. I know it's going to be challenging for some people.
Who introduced you to the blues?
I think it was my dad. I had heard it before but only started listening properly when I was learning the guitar. When I picked it up, I went straight to the blues because that was the guitar music I enjoyed.
Timeless, your last record, released two years ago, was a cover album. Was it because you wanted more time to write songs for this album?
It wasn't because I didn't have enough time to write. It's just because someone came up with the idea of doing a cover album. I enjoy cover albums if they are good. For me, it was an experiment and good fun. I might have another one in the future.
You had some health problems last year. Have you recovered?
Yes, I had pneumonia and had to rest for three months. I'm pretty much recovered but am not supposed to lift heavy things. I used the time to practise guitar. I had to really focus on certain aspects of my playing to carry this album forward. In a way, it was a blessing, otherwise I probably wouldn't have had enough time to practise. I still don't have enough time to practise as much as I want to, but it gave me a window to gather myself together.
In recent years, you've spent quite a lot of time promoting your music outside Hong Kong. How was it?
Everything so far is a bit tiring. Not only the promotion, but the recording and production. In Hong Kong, the average schedule is two albums a year. In my case, it's a bit easier - one album a year. But for the kind of production I do, it's not normal to have one album a year. In the West, people usually make one album after one to three years. But here I need to do all that in about six months, then immediately go to do the promotion and then I do live shows and tour until the beginning of the following year when I have to write songs again. For the past five years, it's just been like that. Basically, I haven't had time off for about five years, except for when I was sick. It's not very healthy.