From the military to musician: Charlie Lim's path to music faced challenging internships and heartbreak

By Melanie Leung

The deep-thinking singer-songwriter tells Young Post that he loves what he does so much that he missed his own birthday last year

By Melanie Leung |

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It has taken Charlie Lim years to polish his songwriting skills.

Singaporean singer-songwriter Charlie Lim may be a natural procrastinator, but one day last May there was little time for dawdling. He had a double EP due the following month, so after wrapping up a four-day music video shoot in Melbourne, Australia, he headed straight back to the studio. On the way, he grabbed a burger from a McDonald’s drive-through. Eating it alone in his car, he suddenly remembered that it was his birthday.

Lim thought about everyone else celebrating the end of the shoot together, and felt a pang in his heart. But he laughed it off. He had songs to finish, and he wasn’t a huge party person anyway.

His hard work paid off. Time/Space hit the top of the Singaporean iTunes chart within an hour of its release last June. As well as Lim’s soulful voice, the record’s varying styles, from the big band-influenced (Blah Blah Blues), and folk rock (Bitter) to electronic pop (I Only Tell the Truth), appealed to listeners with diverse music tastes.

Young Post caught up with Lim, who recently performed in Hong Kong.

Having played the piano since he was four, Lim grew up listening to the likes of Damien Rice, Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. He decided that his life would be tied to music at the age of 16, when he performed for 2,000 people at the renowned Hamer Hall in Melbourne. He was one of the “Top Acts” chosen from the A-Level music students in the city, where Lim had been studying for two years.

“There was a huge sense of validation and I thought that must mean something,” the 27-year-old tells Young Post. “A light bulb went off in my head and I thought, ‘I could give this a shot’.”

But not before completing his two years of required military service back in Singapore. Lim joined the army band and played lots of different styles: covering jazz for top ministers, rock for the army boys, and folk songs for kids.

Lim says actually working in the music industry as a producer's intern gave him a reality check.
Photo: YN Dali

Despite the versatility, Lim views the experience as a “very uninspiring” time of his life. He barely wrote new music. Instead, he interned for a music producer, an experience that popped all delusions of grandeur that Lim had about the music industry.

“I was thrown into the deep end. He’d give me a list of instructions and leave, and I wasn’t able to get anything done. I didn’t even know how to use a Mac, let alone the software. It was a lot of pressure,” he says. “In my teenage years, performing came very naturally. I got to see the other side of the industry, where you have to set up your own stage, worry about gear, logistics ... I struggled a lot and many times I just wanted to quit. But somehow I stuck with it. I guess it’s like an ongoing relationship, you make a choice every day when you wake up to be the best version of yourself.”

Lim returned to Australia to study music at Monash University, where he fell in love with R&B, neo-soul and hip hop. In his final year, he was invited to open for New Zealand singer Kimbra, and released his self-titled, self-produced debut EP not long after. In the years that followed, Lim toured Asia, stopping by Hong Kong in 2012 to play at Clockenflap.

Being a procrastinator and a perfectionist, Lim sometimes takes years to get a song right. Songwriting, simply put, is “tedious”.

“It’s more of a logical and problem-solving process than what people might think,” he says. “I’ll have an idea, a melody or lyric, and sing that to my phone. But growing that into an entire song complete with full arrangements takes a lot of time, to make sure it sounds just like it should.”

It took him three whole years before he was happy with Bitter. It took a breakup to inspire the heart-wrenching lyrics. “I’m a tired lover wilting hours in the waiting room,” he sings in the mournful song, which is about trying too hard to make a relationship work. He finished it during a two-month house-sitting stint for Kimbra, using the gear in her studio while being inspired by the books in her library.

As well as books on theology and philosophy, films are also a source of inspiration for Lim, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at the top of his list.

Though his journey to fame has been an interesting one, Lim doesn’t like to dwell on the years it took him to find his sound. His advice to new artists is: “Copy and learn as much as you can; work on your craft and you’ll find your own identity along the way.”

Limis currently working on his next album. While Time/Space had a heartbreak theme and cinematic feel, Lim wants his next record to pay tribute to soul and groove. “I need to figure out how to channel and distil it in a way that makes sense to me, because a lot of it is tied to African-American culture. I want to put a new spin on the subject matter,” he says.

But for now, Lim has time to chill. His birthday last month was a much better one: he spent it playing Defence of the Ancients with his buddies.