The Lion City finds its global voice in homegrown musical talents
Singaporean music acts find confident voice by rubbing shoulders with the world's best, writes Zul Andra
On January 25, the Laneway Festival will return to Singapore for the fourth year running. The event at the 30,000-capacity open field at The Meadow, Gardens By The Bay, will feature 15 forward-thinking acts such as Mercury prize winner James Blake, synthpop trio Chvrches and indie band Jagwar Ma.
But there is something different about this Laneway festival: in an unprecedented move, a third stage is being built solely for Singaporean acts. The inclusion of three homegrown artists on the Laneway roster - solo electronic songstress Vandetta (born Vanessa Fernandez), DJ-producer Gema Putra, and veteran avant-garde band The Observatory - sparked waves of positive online buzz from local fans when the news was announced earlier this year.
These acts are no strangers to the media circuit, having graced the pages of respected publications and websites, but the interest didn't come overnight - musicians from "the little red dot" have become progressively aglow on the global music radar over the years.
LA Weekly, Pitchfork, XLR8R and The Fader have all featured Vandetta's latest self-titled a capella-laced EP. The Guardian hailed Gema - dubbed locally as "the James Blake of Singapore" for his lush, heart-tugging productions - as one to watch. Decade-old veterans The Observatory, on the other hand, have been featured by MTV Asia and SmartBeijing.com
Also in the recent past, The Guardian featured local rapper Kevin Lester, synth-pop outfit Riot !n Magenta, and singer Weish's electronic side project .gif in its monthly music round-up.
This all begs the question: is Singaporean music experiencing a renaissance?
Laneway founder Danny Rogers - who selected the three Singaporean acts - certainly thinks so. "It's a really great time for [Singapore] local music and any promoter that overlooks the scene is discrediting themselves," the 39-year-old says.
Rogers should know. His Australian-born music festival has positioned itself as a rite of passage for the country's burgeoning talent since its inception about a decade ago in a back alley behind a dive bar. As the festival expanded from a five-city Australian tour to Auckland in New Zealand, Detroit in the US, and a standalone stage at London's Field Day festival, local artists were always included on the rosters - but, until now, not in Singapore.
Laneway Singapore executive producer Marcia Tan, 41, is pragmatic about the development. "There is no point having local acts just for the sake of it. I feel bands need to want it and work for it, and not be complacent or feel entitled," she says.
However, Vandetta - who recently opened for celebrated English producer Four Tet at Singapore dance club Zouk and is also the assistant programme director and host of alternative radio station Lush 99.5FM - says she feels a sense of déjà vu. "Those of us who've been around longer have seen this spike [of interest in local music] more than once," the 31-year-old says. "The difference I think is that more within the Singaporean community at large are coming around to the idea that local music is not inferior to western music."
The Singaporean music community has always been small, but it has never lacked heart. Government grants, crowd-funding through the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and local-infused festivals such as Mosaic Music and Baybeats have become part of its growth.
Local acts such as hardcore band Caracal, post-rock group I Am David Sparkle, acoustic folk quartet The Sam Willows, and indie singer-songwriter (and South By Southwest festival veteran) Inch Chua were able to finance everything from an EP launch to a tour of America through such financial aid.
Other artists have branched out on their own. Singapore's proudest electronic music export, techno DJ-producer Xhin, fills his schedule with gigs in Europe and has become a familiar name in the international underground scene.
Folk-rock band Monster Cat recently completed a tour of Australia, while The Observatory just returned from an 11-city Asian tour of the Philippines, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.
Vandetta also has global experience under her belt, having performed in Hamburg, Geneva, the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Festival 2011 in France and in Los Angeles where she was based in 2012.
Graham Perkins, president of Singapore's non-profit Music Society, agrees that playing on foreign soil is a highly crucial experience. "Singaporean artists have been playing festivals such as Canadian Music Week and South By Southwest, music trade shows including Midem in France, and regional music festivals such as Clockenflap in Hong Kong, and Urbanscapes in Malaysia. Being a part of such festivals has given local artists exposure to markets and musicians from around the world."
Zouk's head of marketing and events, Timothy Chia, believes that one way to showcase the high calibre of Singaporean artists is to place them shoulder to shoulder with other global acts.
At the recently concluded dance music festival ZoukOut at Siloso Beach, Sentosa, the Localized Tent - where homegrown DJs took to the decks - again proved to be a major feature alongside the other stages. "Since we started the Localized Tent in 2010, the response to the acts has gotten better and better each year," says Chia.
Gema - who will also be performing at Laneway - played at the Localized Tent in front of a capacity crowd of about 300 revellers together with five other DJs: techno pioneer Gerald Ang, house music DJ Maurice Simon, and emerging talents William J, Amada Keisha Ang and Marco Weibel. "The Localized Tent is a great way to expose some of our island's finest dance music talent to a wider public," says Chia.
The tent has been a mainstay of ZoukOut for four years. Although its turnout has seen a meteoric rise, commercial-leaning revellers and electronic music zealots have questioned its viability. Is the tent more of a sideshow? "Not at all," Chia retorts. "I personally know of quite a few punters who attend ZoukOut just to see the local acts as opposed to the international names."
Chia adds: "For some who chance upon it, they often stay much longer than they intend to. It has also been said that the Localized Tent is the 'hidden jewel' of the festival that boasts the 'intimate, small room' feeling. It's hard to find that at other global festivals."
Zouk doesn't only support homegrown acts on the postcard-friendly beach of Siloso once every year; in the past, the club has collaborated with local electronic labels such as Darker Than Wax (DTW) and Midnight Shift. The two globally respected labels together with audio-visual collective Syndicate are known as the three flag-bearers of Singapore's independent electronic music.
DTW boasts an international stable of 28 producers including New Zealanders Wayvee and Samuel Truth, the Netherlands' Trian Kayhatu and Jaël, and Philippe Edison from the US. Two of its artists, William J and Marco Weibel, also represented the label at ZoukOut.
Label co-founder Dean Chew believes that maintaining a holistic view is integral to the development of the electronic music movement, "because what you do outside of your home will eventually define it. We see DTW more as a movement of ideas, not so much as a 'label' per se, very much like how the Situationists saw themselves."
Kavan Spruyt, who co-founded the Midnight Shift label, believes it is important to build an international presence because, fundamentally, electronic music has no language or cultural boundaries.
"Singapore is remote from the centre of the electronic music industry, which is arguably in Europe," says Spruyt, who's also the marketing and music manager of Kyo club.
"Technology has made our work easier, but it is still important for us to make business trips to Berlin, London and the United States to touch base with partners and artists," he says.
His four-year-old label's efforts and persistence earned them an international debut at Decibel Festival in Seattle. The label releases works from electronica luminaries such as Deetron, Secret Cinema, Terrence Parker and Recondite.
Midnight Shift's only Singaporean artist, Eddie Niguel, is a success story himself. His work has been released on Germany's Get Physical label, and played by everyone from former Underworld DJ Darren Emerson to hot British deep house duo Disclosure on their Essential Mix on BBC Radio 1.
Meanwhile, Syndicate is an on-going audio-visual project initiated three years ago. Co-founded by the forefather of Singapore's bass scene, Jonathan Nah - commonly known as Kiat - together with his wife DJ-producer, Cherry Chan, the collective is a proponent of a soundscape synonymous to electronic producer Flying Lotus' Low End Theory (a weekly experimental hip hop club night in Los Angeles). From Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Festival in France to Low End Theory in the US, they've exported the Syndicate brand of sound. And under the same banner, Vandetta and Gema will be doing the collective justice at Laneway.
"The music market is starting to re-discover itself again; it's all about cycles," Chew says.
"I don't think the current surge [of Singapore music] is any different from previous eras; rather, I see it in the form of an overall consciousness gathering ground once again, but one that's specific to the 'now'."
From bands to DJs, clubs to independent labels and music organisations, Singapore's current music landscape is seemingly built on a particular philosophy that can only be described as "global focus towards a local opus".
The Lion City's music talents have realised the only way into the consciousness of potential listeners is to step outside the country. The web is just one of the many tools to empower that. But the real empowerment of discovery lies in the age-old method of setting sail to gain new ground. And the current crop from this "little red dot" is doing exactly that.