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Grooving to their own beat
A jazzy love affair
WINNING the Sing Jazz Emerging Jazz Vocalist of the Year award this year isn't what Melissa Tham would call her biggest accomplishment. Her greatest achievement was taking the plunge and applying herself completely to becoming a professional musician upon finishing secondary school.
"You should have seen me in secondary school," she says. "I was a very shy bookworm . . . so making the untraditional decision to do a diploma course despite knowing that others would question it, was a huge thing for me."
It looks like the decision paid off in spades. Tham has built a solid reputation in the "live" scene from playing regularly; and her debut album, Falling in Love Again, will be released in early May on Jeremy Monteiro's Jazznotes Records label. Recorded in Germany, the album features jazz standards as well as two originals, including the title track with lyrics penned by Tham.
The road that led Tham to music wasn't an altogether smooth one. Having been signed up for piano lessons by her father when she was five, it wasn't until her teenage years when she decided to go for it, thanks to Ms Wong, a particularly inspirational piano teacher. She says: "Ms Wong's teaching style inspired me to want to do more on the piano, maybe even teach it myself."
Tham fell in love with swing music while getting her diploma at Lasalle College of the Arts, where some of her jazz school friends introduced her to the scene. She says: "I love the way the bass player plays quarter notes, and the way the drummer uses his brushes instead of his sticks. You get this feeling when swing is played - it's like you're skipping or falling without ever hitting the ground."
Tham made the transition from playing the piano to singing when she was asked to stand in for someone who'd taken ill, and sing in the lounge at the Meritus Negara Hotel, which is now the Pan-Pacific Hotel. "I was very shy, and didn't know if it would work out, but I really enjoyed it. That was when I knew I wanted to sing too," she adds.
Apart from performing on stage and at gigs, she also teaches singing at local jazz clubs including the Singapore Polytechnic Jazz Club and the NTU Jazz and Blues club to supplement her income. "I didn't decide to become a jazz singer for the money," she laughs. "You have to be realistic and make sure you have the means to sustain the kind of lifestyle you want."
By Avanti Nim
Tham can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for bookings and further enquiries
Best-kept secret no more
NEO-SOUL singer-songwriter Charlie Lim's star has been rising fast of late. He's already played two major international festivals here in the first two months of the year and in less than five years, he's gone from critic's darling and best-kept secret to now become one of Singapore's biggest indie music exports because of his relentless touring schedule.
The 26-year-old has been on the road virtually non-stop since the release of his now-sold-out debut EP in 2011 - playing shows big and small, on his own, and in festivals alongside big international acts, here in Singapore and all over the region.
To think Lim initially wanted to study medicine or journalism while he was in Australia but it all changed when he took music for the equivalent of his A-levels there and topped the state of Victoria. "It was quite glamorous for a 16-year-old and gave me illusions of grandeur," he half-jokes.
It eventually led him to study jazz in university, where he also recorded his self-produced debut EP and plugged it by touring around Australia. Lim admits the competition Down Under was tough: "It's so saturated - which can be a good thing if you want to learn - but in order to cut through, you need to know the scene."
The exposure, however, was invaluable and he felt what it was like "to play to an international audience".
Since returning to Singapore in 2013, almost not a month goes by without Lim playing a gig here or in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, China or Japan.
He's also been getting more local airplay with his slow-burning single, Bitter, and has been commissioned to pen theme songs for the upcoming SG50 project and 2015 SEA Games. His debut album - technically two EPs titled Time and Space - is due in June.
Like the lush, introspective ballads he pens, Lim reveals he's not comfortable with being in the limelight. "Somebody I look up to is (Singapore-born, US-based folk-pop singer) Corrinne May - she's the epitome of an English songwriter who's accessible to the local crowd even though she sings in English," he says, "And she works on the music, not on the marketing thing."
While grateful social media has helped spread the word about his music, Lim says he's more comfortable trying to perfect his craft than breaking the Internet. "I'm happy with the response to my music and, of course, the more the merrier," he adds. "(But) to me, songwriting is a tool to ask questions about life; I'm not a poet, so this is the closest thing I have to expressing myself."
Charlie Lim will launch Time and Space on June 6 with a show at the Esplanade Theatre. For more info, check charlielim.net
Playing by their own rules
MOST bands go through a standard life cycle of forming, making music, and trying to get gigs. It's safe to say The Steve Mcqueens aren't like most bands. For one, they were formed after already securing a regular gig.
Keyboardist Joshua Wan, 48, says: "I knew a booker at Marina Bay Sands, and he was looking for a regular band. The musical community in Singapore is very small, so we all already knew each other. But when we were picking people, it had to be people we could stand."
A part-time lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, Wan was already performing with singer Eugenia Yip, 26, at the Oriental Hotel. The duo had jam sessions to find potential bandmates, and following a few line-up changes, The Steve Mcqueens had a permanent group by June 2013 made up of Wan, Yip, bass guitarist Jase Sng, 28, saxophonist Fabian Lim, 42, and drummer Aaron James Lee, 19.
From there, it was a rapid rise to the top, thanks to their reputation for playing blistering "live" shows. The band has performed at festivals like Sing Jazz and Java Jazz, and is set to perform at the O2 Arena in London with British acid jazz band Incognito in May.
Incidentally, their upcoming debut album, Seamonster, is also produced by Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick, a legendary guitarist and founding member of Incognito. Recorded in London, it will be released on the Japanese label P-Vine in May and features 10 original tracks.
There is a strong sense of democracy within the band's songwriting process: a member will bring in a new tune in its draft stages to a group rehearsal, and then just feel the rest of it out.
Wan says: "Stylistically, it would just be whatever everyone wants; when you try not to guide the music too much, it ends up becoming far better than you thought it would."
Without a clear structure for composing their original tracks, it wouldn't be far-fetched to imagine the jazz quintet frequently at loggerheads, but The Steve McQueens don't believe in being predictable.
Wan says: "We even lived in the same flat in London for two weeks, sharing a single bathroom, and didn't have a single fight!"
Yip chimes in: "It was a very nice homey feeling. The guys even cooked for me!"
By Avanti Nim
The Steve Mcqueens perform at The Powder Room at The Black Swan, 19 Cecil Street, every Tues at 8.30pm. For bookings and other enquiries, contact the band at email@example.com