Hong Kong Canto-pop duo at17 talk about finding fame as teens, breaking up and why they’re getting back on stage together
Eman Lam and Ellen Loo found fame in the early 2000s, but split after almost a decade in the spotlight. Now the musicians, who have been focusing on solo careers, are back together again, older, wiser and on a creative high
Some people have to grow apart to find their way back together – and this is true for Canto-pop duo at17. In the 15 years since the pair launched their music career, Eman Lam and Ellen Loo have experienced ups and downs, and gone their separate ways, but now they are ready to walk down the same road together again.
“After all these years, we are now at the best place for each other,” says Loo. “We have seen various highs and lows. Our personalities did not always match. We had our fights. We have made some great records that sold a lot of copies, and we went our separate ways. But now we feel that our creative spark is at its peak. We have found a very comfortable way to stay together.”
Loo and Lam are keeping themselves busy preparing for “Girls Girls Girls Live in Concert” – their first stage show in seven years. “This will be the reunion of two grown-up women,” Loo says of the shows that run from December 22 to 24 at Queen Elizabeth Stadium.
The show will not only reunite at17, but also the People Mountain People Sea music ensemble, including composer and producer Jason Choi and keyboard player Veronica Lee. Concert producer Ida Wong will lead a team of stage designers and stylists to present a mature version of the duo and “the memories of two not typically pretty girls”, as Loo puts it.
At17 were never a typical Canto-pop act. Loo and Lam met as teenagers in the early 2000s at a singing contest, in which Loo came third and Lam came second. The two then began performing together and were discovered by Anthony Wong Yiu-ming of Tat Ming Pair.
In 2002, Loo and Lam, who were 15 and 19 at the time, were signed to Wong’s label People Mountain People Sea and emerged as at17, a name inspired by the Janis Ian song At Seventeen and their average age.
The appearance of at17 was a breath of fresh air in Hong Kong’s Canto-pop scene. The local industry was dominated by manufactured pop idol groups, such as Twins and the nine-piece girl band Cookies. Not only did Loo and Lam project a gender-neutral image, as opposed to the overtly feminine style of Twins and Cookies, they also built a reputation for being true musicians.
On their debut album, Meow Meow Meow, released at the end of 2002, Loo and Lam charmed fans with their vocals and sang their own songs – Lam’s brother, singer-songwriter Chet Lam contributed to some of the compositions. Songs including The Best Is Yet to Come, Chi Chung Yet Tin (At Last) and Nei Yau Ji Gei Yat Tou (You Have Your Own Way) became instant hits.
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Their follow-up album, Kiss Kiss Kiss , released a year later made them even more popular. The duo began performing in China and elsewhere in Asia. They also performed in Europe, in cities including Amsterdam. They won accolades at a number of music awards shows, and held their first large-scale concert, “Sing Sing Sing 2006”, at AsiaWorld-Expo next to Hong Kong’s airport.
Loo and Lam appeared to be on top of the world, but with their success came pressure. Eventually, the duo split in 2010.
“We gave our best to our fans, sharing the important moments of our youth and our music with them,” Lam says. “I remember that at our last concert together, we sang the song, To Me, 10 Years Later. We asked them: ‘Have you done anything in the past decade that makes you proud?’ At that moment, we both started crying, and so did many in the audience. Looking back, we have shared a great deal of our lives with our fans.”
Later, Loo launched her solo career, not only as a musician, but also a film producer and soundtrack composer. Lam also embarked on a solo career as a singer-songwriter and producer, while occasionally working with her brother, Chet.
There were personal issues to deal with. Loo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after her 2013 debut solo concert and had to take a step back from the limelight. Lam was troubled by health issues related to weight problems.
Both overcame their issues and say that having solo careers has helped them keep at17 alive.
“We are two individuals. Our love for music is very different and our styles are very different. We needed to expand and explore our creative realm on our own. We need to have our own solo projects, as well as projects together,” Loo says.
“Going solo has given me an opportunity to understand Ellen. I understand how much she’s sacrificed and I admire her even more. Our respect and love for each other has grown since we separated.”
Earlier this year Loo won the best arrangement award at the 28th Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan. On accepting the accolade, Loo came out as a lesbian and thanked her wife on stage. Having struggled with bipolar disorder and her sexuality, Loo feels she has a greater responsibility as an artist.
“At this time of my life, I feel that I’m more inspired by gender and political issues as a musician and as an artist. I want to speak up for women and sexual minorities,” says Loo.
Lam says: “I believe music is a reminder of the beauty and kindness of humanity. I just hope we can continue to move people with our music and bring them peace.”
At17 Girls Girls Girls Live in Concert, Dec 22-24, 8.15pm, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, 18 Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai, HK$400-HK$680 Urbtix