My Brother

I met Dave* when I was 9, and he was 7. Life revolved around church, both of us at an age when we had to follow our parents every weekend for mass or retreats. It was the only form of social life I had as a kid. Dave was always the “naughty one”, he was bold and always got into scraps or skinned his knees.

We spent a lot of our time playing together, or getting into trouble together.

Fast forward years later – as teenagers, Dave and I drifted apart. I was a few years ahead of him in school and I didn’t see him in church often. I wasn’t going regularly myself. I wondered if he was able to cope with his studies.

I was 17 when Dave died. My dad broke the awful news to us the moment he came back from work. This was before the Internet and social media. No one really knew what happened. But from what I gathered, Dave was found hanging in his bedroom.

Losing someone is unbearable. When it happens suddenly, without warning, it shatters our lives, the very ground we walk on. Although we were not close friends at that point, it was like someone hit my chest with a bag of sand. At Dave’s wake, everyone from church was there. I cried, though I tried not to. We all were crying. Someone handed me a tissue. At his funeral, I watched as they lowered him into ground. A woman collapsed, sobbing, by the side of his grave.

I was moody for a while in school and I remember a friend in writing me a note to cheer me up. She told me to remember the good times I had with Dave. I do remember them. We might have been great friends, he might have been one of my groomsmen, been there to celebrate my daughter’s full month party or an awesome beer buddy for Fridays, who knows? I’ll never get to know him as the man he could have been.

It’s been nearly 20 years. From time to time, I think of Dave, remembering him as a young boy and wondered how he would look as an adult. One day, I tried looking up his name on Google, just to see if anything had been written about him over the years. I uncovered an obituary by his family, published five or six years after his death. There is not a day that they do not think of him.

There are no words I could say to his family, even now, that could offer any comfort. Writing this post is painful. But through this song, I want to acknowledge Dave for the friend that he was and could have been.

He did what he did, for whatever reasons he had, and it left a gaping hole in many of us. A sense of loss, frustration and constant pining for someone you will never meet again.

Whatever happened, I’ll always remember you, Dave. I’ll always remember the good times we had.

For me, this is closure. This song is for you, Dave.

*I’ve changed his real name and age because this happened a long time ago and I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to his family.

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Japan!

Japan – two words: simply wonderful. I fell in love with the people, the food and the culture. It was a short trip – just a week – but it was a good mix of sightseeing, shopping, and of course performing with The Glad Stones.

Tokyo
Spent three days in Tokyo with Carol and her colleagues who were there on a company trip. We were fortunate to be put up at the luxurious Hilton Shinjuku for most of our stay. I enjoyed just soaking it all in, walking around the streets at night with the temperature below 10 degrees:

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It’s colder than it looks.

We also had time to squeeze in short trips to the Harajuku fashion district and the famed pedestrian crossing at Shibuya. Carol took this shot of Shibuya from the Starbucks outlet there:

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View from the Starbucks – Shi-booya!

One of the highlights of Tokyo was an amazing dinner the bunch of us had at an upscale Japanese restaurant. We sampled everything from sea urchin to tuna belly sushi. It was the first time I actually enjoyed sake (Japanese rice wine), it was warm and fuzzy and the cold made it taste heavenly.

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Sushi with a dual topping of Sea urchin – the yellowish stuff on the right – and salmon roe (the orange balls).

Kobe
We travelled to Kobe via the Shinkansen (bullet train), a journey of about three hours. Shinkansen tickets are pricey (about 14,000 yen, or S$180, one way), but thanks to the Japan Rail Pass (available only for tourists), we had an unlimited number of rides on the high-speed train – and other trains run by the Japan Rail company – for 7 days, all for about S$360 per person! It was a sweet deal.

From the Shinkansen, we changed to a local line bound for Sannomiya, the biggest downtown area in Kobe, where two of our live gigs would be. This is me on the regular train, acting emo:

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On the road again…

In Kobe, our hotel of choice was the B Kobe. I was glad that we picked it, despite having to lug our suitcases and my guitar up god knows how many steps at the station. It turned out to be an extremely central location in the heart of Sannomiya. The room was bigger than the ones you usually get in Tokyo.

Like the true food connoisseurs we are, and having heard so much about Kobe beef, we decided we just had to try it the moment we arrived 🙂 Just across from our hotel was a decent looking restaurant, and it was open even after 10pm. So we popped in and got a set for about S$80 each. Here’s Carol’s medium steak:

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Kobe beef: Succulent and tender, and the meat seemed to melt in your mouth. Worth the price.

We spent the rest of our first evening in Kobe just walking around Sannomiya, which had a multitude of bars, shops, eateries, and interesting architecture such as this:

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The next day would be TGS’ first gig at a live music house called Varit. It’s a good-sized venue, with a large, spacious stage and two dressing rooms backstage.

How live music houses usually work in Japan is that bands pay to perform. Yes, they pay the venue in order to have a slot. It’s a strange practice that I don’t entirely agree with, but that’s how it is there. What I gathered about Varit was that bands from Kobe have to pay a certain amount, but bands from out-of-town don’t. Generally, foreign acts are exempt from this.

We arrived at the place at around 4pm for the sound check, then returned in the evening for our 30-minute set. It was nice to see this at the entrance:

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And this backstage:

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The somewhat-dynamic duo. Lights always add a touch of grandeur.

Varit is well-run, and boasts professional gear and lighting. It was certainly a pleasure performing there. There were three acts that night, a solo singer-songwriter and a young funk band played first, and when it was our turn a modest crowd had gathered.

You might wonder how it feels to sing to a non English-speaking audience, and I must say, apart from Jaye having to (with great effort) translate everything I said in between songs into Japanese, I noticed that people were grooving and getting into our music, proof that music does indeed transcend boundaries and languages.

We hit Andy’s Imagine the following night. It’s a cosy bar owned by a nice British man named (you guessed it) Andy. He’s been running the place for nearly 13 years, imagine that! The bar is located in the Rokkomichi area of Kobe, a place with high-rise apartments that look just like the HDB flats of Singapore!

Anyway, at Andy’s, everyone knows everyone, and it’s a great place for intimate performances. It’s got a corner that’s been carved out as a stage and we played two sets there. Andy himself got into the action by urging his customers to buy our album (he got one himself :)). After the gig we spent the rest of the evening mingling with the people.

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TGS and Andy!

Sometime before leaving Kobe, Carol and I managed to see the last of the famed sakura (cherry blossom) at a shrine near our hotel. It was lovely. We were lucky because we arrived just after the end of the season but there were a few trees still in bloom. And we did the touristy thing by snapping pictures and buying some good luck charms from a souvenir store there.

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Osaka

Osaka is a 40-minute train ride from Kobe. Our plan for the last day of our tour was to busk at the Osaka train station, which is about as crowded as Tokyo’s Shinjuku, and a very popular spot for “street music”, as it is known there.

But before leaving for Osaka, I had to get a portable battery-powered amp for the performance. The good thing about Japan is that music stores are large and well-stocked. I found a decent Roland at the Ishibashi store in Kobe. That’s me trying out the guitar and mic functions. Cost: about S$200.

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Armed with gear, Carol and I boarded the train and arrived in Osaka in the afternoon. We spent some time walking around Shinsaibashi, a popular shopping street, and she went crazy at the Sanrio store.

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Busking night, and there were performers literally at every corner outside Osaka station. So we decided our first spot would be on a link bridge above the bustling traffic. It was freezing out there in the open, but we gave it our all. At the end of our set, Jaye’s friend Marina – who’s a trained opera singer – jammed with us. The moment when acoustic folk music met classical opera, was awesome.

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TGS & Marina

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The second spot we picked was at a large pedestrian crossing at one of the station entrances. It was a strategic location because we could get the attention of the crowds waiting to cross the street.

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The night ended with both Jaye and I playing our solo creations. I did a few songs with Carol harmonising with me.

To all the good folks who bought our CD as we busked on the streets of Osaka, a big thank you! To the fellow-musician who came up to us as we played and got our CD, keep the tunes alive mate. It was a fantastic feeling connecting with an audience from a different country, and seeing them enjoying our music.

I respect musicians in Japan. They take their art very seriously – even on the streets. They give their all, as if they were holding a performance for a 50,000 strong crowd. We saw so many bands, all dressed up and with their gear, taking a long train ride somewhere just to perform. Watching them inspired me to work even harder.

Thank you, Japan. I have a feeling I’ll see you soon.

What’s next for TGS? We’ll reunite in June for some shows in Singapore, so stay tuned!

Updates

I know. I haven’t kept my promise to update my blog. Apologies if you’ve been following and wondering what’s been happening! I’ll try to bring everyone up to speed, and in as few words as possible. So, here goes:

  • The Glad Stones’ album “Unfold Your Heart” was launched on 25 April 2012. Here’s the link to our website and micro blog. You can listen to all our songs here too.
  • It was a limited-edition handmade album – only 300 or so copies. We made everything ourselves (including burning each CD individually). Jaye designed the album cover. We had that made into stickers, and pasted them on regular envelopes. Inside, was our CD in a plain white pocket, and a thank you card.Here’s a picture of the album in progress. (We think it looks great, but it’s not durable enough to be placed in a store, so we’re in the middle of revamping the packaging to a more professional looking and long-lasting one.)

Making the album

  • Together with the album, we released a music video for our song “Before The Lights Go Out” on 1 May. It was shot in the space of one immensely fun and tiring day. Check it out below!
  • Oh, and we had a t-shirt made too. Nice?

Before The Lights Go Out

  • At long last, we started busking on the streets. It was probably the best thing we did as a duo, and we certainly met some interesting people at the same time.Here’s a shot of us at Haji Lane, one of the hippest spots in Singapore these days. Our friend Jason Cruz (the tall guy in shades) accompanied us on the cajon. Oh, and the guy in blue with the tambourine just happened to be walking by and wanted a picture.

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Here’s another one of us from the same day.

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  • We staged “Gypsy In The City”, a mini-concert/carnival at The Arts House on 9 Sept. Over 100 friends and family came to watch. It was a massive amount of work, and we couldn’t have done it without my aunt Jearina, who did most of the arranging and even had the hall transformed into what could pass off as a gypsy carnival. Our friends Les & Claire, otherwise known as the brilliant folk duo One Hat Town opened for us. On top of that, there was a carnivalesque line-up of performers (a mime, magician and tarot card reader!) to add to the atmosphere. (I don’t have any nice pictures yet as our photographer hasn’t got them to us, but I’ll post them once I do.)
  • A few days after the concert, we did a photo shoot for our revamped album packaging and publicity, etc. Many thanks to our friend Mary-Jane Leo for the amazing shots. Here’s a sample:

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So, what’s next?

Jaye has left for studies in Japan – He’s having a blast at the Koyo Conservatory. So yes, TGS sadly is on a hiatus (for now), but will reunite sometime in April 2013. We’ll definitely be doing some shows then so watch this space (promise!).

As for me, I’m working on my own material, and hope to launch a solo album next year. Later today, I’ll be performing a solo gig at Viking Coffee, as part of the Diarist Sessions. Do drop by if you can!

What are The Glad Stones up to? Recording an album in a month!

It all started with a crazy idea – Given exactly four weeks to complete a project, what would you choose to accomplish? It was part of a life development course that Jaye attended last month. and as an act of courage, he must take action and complete a project successfully within the given time-frame. So I said to him, let’s think big and do something nearly impossible, something that we’ve been talking about for so long but haven’t even come close to finishing… What if we recorded an entire album in a four weeks?

And that was how it started.

So far, we have picked 8 songs for the album, found a producer who’s going to help us arrange, mix and master the tracks in two weeks. One of the 8 songs is going to be a new one, which we are halfway through writing. We’ve got t-shirts designed and they are being made as we speak. We’re also designing the album artwork, and did I mention we’re going to shoot an MTV for our new song?

*Takes a deep breath* Wow, that was a mouthful.

And when is this all coming together?

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Oh, and we’ve emailed everyone about it too.

Watch this space.

Hangin’ By A Thread (Or how we tried to write a song for the environment)

In this post, I’d like to share a little about how my band, “The Glad Stones” came up with an original song about the environment. But before that, you can take a listen to it in the video above 🙂

Writing a song about “green” issues is challenging. I say that because it’s so difficult to be fresh and original when your message is usually the same as everyone else’s.

I mean, how many times can people listen to a song about the Earth dying without tuning out, right? You really need to stand out from the crowd.

So, when Singapore’s National Environment Agency launched the second season of its Eco Music Challenge, a songwriting competition for aspiring composers to express their love for Mother Earth – and spread the Green message far and wide –  Jaye and I took some time to decide on whether to take part or not.

After all, both of us sent in separate entries for the first season last year, and neither of us won, so we wondered if we should do it all over again.

I must add, however, that the contest is quite a novel way to get people engaged with such issues, through the powerful medium of music. As a songwriter myself, I appreciate the fact that my government is including original music as part of its environmental campaign.

Finally, we decided to take part again, as a band this time.

I’ll go into that in a bit, but as I was saying earlier, it is pretty darn hard to write a brand new song about saving the planet…

That’s why I really like the song “I Need To Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge, which she wrote for Al Gore’s famous environmental documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”. It was nominated for the “Best Song Written for a Motion Picture” Grammy in 2007. Take a listen to it below:

When I first heard it, I was moved because it spoke to me as a person. It was insistent without being preachy; it did not go into the details about what I already knew was going on in this world; it did not have the word “green” in it at all.

Instead, it appealed to a deeper sense of responsibility, a personal responsibility to change. That’s something I thought was fresh and unique.

Taking a leaf out of Melissa Etheridge’s masterpiece, we deliberately chose not to write an overtly environmental song.

Instead we wrote a love song, yes a love song – from the perspective of Mother Earth herself.

“Hangin’ By A Thread” is all about love’s ingratitude. A woman has given everything to the one she loves, but all she has gotten is hurt. She is empty.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a painful experience many of us can relate to.

And that became the premise of our song: Mother Earth pleading to us.

We are the ones she loves and she has nothing left for us to take from her. We’ve taken it all, and more. She’s hanging by a thread, and yet she’s holding out, hoping, knowing that there’s still time if we change our ways – now.

If you put yourself in Mother Earth’s shoes as you listen to the song, you’d come a lot closer to feeling her pain…

We chose the lovely Singapore Botanic Gardens to shoot our video. (One of the many “green” enclaves on our little island.)

In case you’re wondering how we did the outdoor shoot, both of us wore wireless clip-on microphones, which fed both our vocals and guitars directly to a receiver connected to Jaye’s MacBook. Everything was recorded in Logic Pro.

And as for the video, we propped a digital camera on a tripod and just let it roll.

After we were done, we went to a nearby cafe called “Hatched“, opened by a friend of mine, and sat there for a couple of hours mixing the tracks and editing the video.

There, that’s about it. It took us an entire afternoon and we were really pleased with the result!

Oh, and by the way, we performed the song in a single take with a small impromptu audience of kids and their parents who happened to be walking by.

If you look closely, a little girl comes into the frame somewhere after the halfway mark. Isn’t that adorable?

As I said earlier, I sent in an entry to the same competition last year, called “This Little Earth Is All I’ve Got”. You can check it out here:

I tried to write from the perspective of a child telling us that Earth is the only place he has, so please take care of it. I admit, however, that I was guilty of going into the above-mentioned descriptions of the planet dying, etc.

Plus, I did a slightly-cheesy picture slide show to go with the lyrics, and put it on YouTube.

Well, it didn’t get into the finals, but the video has over 10,000 views now!

Let’s see if the new song does any better…

So please, please, please visit the Eco Music Challenge 2011 submissions page and click “like” on our song, “Hangin’ By A Thread”!

(You’ll need to scroll through the entries to find our song, because there isn’t a way to link directly to it, but do listen to the other songs too!)

52 Weeks, 52 Songs: Looking back on “A Song A Week”

I thought I’d spend some time to reflect on my songwriting journey over the past year in this post. (Warning: It’s going to be a long one so please bear with me :))

Honestly, I am still in shock over how fast the 52 weeks went by. Scrolling through my previous entries, I ask myself sometimes – did I really write all this?

Now, I’m not the kind of guy who talks about his feelings that much (I’d rather much sing about them ;)), but this blog has become more than a place for my music. It is my personal diary, and that’s saying a lot because I have never kept one. Every week, I’ve written about the inspiration behind each song, and shared a little of my life in the process. Putting your own music on the world wide web, baring your soul with each song… it exposes you to both the compliments and the barbs. It takes getting used to.

“Songwriting is a stream of creation that flows faster and stronger the more you give”

… That was what I wrote on 3 May 2010, the day I started this project – and I’ve found it to be true.

I’ve always felt a burning desire to express myself through songwriting, but because of work and other commitments, I knew I could never do enough unless I threw myself entirely into it.

It’s funny how life gives you what you wish for.

Last year, I lost my job, thanks to the financial crisis. Lo and behold, right in front of me was a real opportunity to launch myself into what I was truly passionate about – with the blessings of my wife of course, without whom I never could have done this.

And so for the past year, songwriting became my life. I lived and breathed it. One song every week, for one whole year. Frankly, I didn’t know how I was going to do it; I only knew I had to compose something by midnight every Sunday.

The only thing I could do was to keep going at it, week after week. I kept my eyes, ears and heart open. I tuned in to the smallest details; everything around me became a potential song idea: a newspaper article, an overheard conversation, the book I was reading, even my dreams at night…

After several weeks had passed, I realised that I had unconsciously developed a system of sorts. It went something like this: brainstorm an idea, write the lyrics, put them into music. I’d divide my week into writing days and recording days. Generally, I’d spend the early part of the week crafting the lyrics and music, and the weekend recording the video. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Far from it.

Coming up with ideas was a big challenge, of course. Some people say you can’t force an idea out, no matter how hard you try. You have to wait for inspiration to hit. While that’s true to some extent, I firmly believe that being disciplined and consistent about creativity stimulates us to do more good work at a faster rate. That is, the more you create, the faster the flow of new ideas, and the better and quicker you become at creating something. That’s one thing I’ve learnt from this project.

Ideas aside, the biggest stumbling block I faced in this entire journey was – me.

… You see, I had one entire week to devote to a song, but I’d find myself getting distracted easily, going online, eyeballing my Facebook page, obsessing over how many (or few) views I was getting on YouTube. I had to constantly push myself, no, discipline myself to write.

Always, I heaved a sigh of relief by the time Sunday came and I had a new song uploaded. Then, I’d worry about the next song, and the one after that. Often, I’d find myself crippled by self-doubt… was I doing the right thing? Was I wasting my time chasing a silly dream instead of settling down and looking for a job? These were the demons that I battled, day-in, day-out.

Isn’t that the way with any dream, any creative endeavour? Perhaps, but I know I needed a lot of encouragement. My wife was a major inspiration to me of course. I also drew strength from the positive comments I received from complete strangers about my songs. Lastly, I believed wholeheartedly in my music – and I still do.

All this kept me going.

As the weeks went by, I began to pay more attention to the videos themselves. Before this, a passable recording was all I needed. I didn’t really care much about how I looked, whether the audio levels were too soft, or if the lighting was bright enough. I began to realise that on a platform like YouTube, I was competing with songwriters who were churning out professional-sounding recordings and classy-looking videos all the time. I certainly could do a lot more.

Thankfully, I had a pretty decent audio/video recorder – the Zoom Q3, which was able to give me good sound levels, and pretty okay video quality.

I experimented with different camera positions and settings. I remember once placing the device at a corner of my room to allow sound to bounce off the walls. I hoped that it would create a natural reverb, but I felt the difference was not noticeable in the end. So much for that.

At another point, a friend told me he was tired of watching the same old room in the background. So If you check out some of my later videos, you’ll see a completely black background, which I created by stringing a black cloth behind me to hide the mess. To add some variety, I also experimented with photo and lyric slide shows in my videos.

Yes, slowly but surely, I was writing one song every week. But if you ask me now whether I have a formula for writing a song – I’d say no.

… Sometimes, I’d finish a song in an hour. Other times, I’d spend days crafting the lyrics. It always varied. And do the lyrics or melody come first? It really depends. I often started with the title, which gave me the general theme of the song, and then went on to write the lyrics, coupled with a rough melody which I would fine-tune once I had the lyrical structure in place. That was one approach.

However, my recent collaborations with Jaye Foo were done using an entirely different method. Jaye would come up with a basic chord progression – we would “feel” the rhythm and the music, and think of the kind of song we wanted it to become. Then, I would focus on developing the lyrics and let him expand on his chords. After that, we’d finalise the lyrics and chords; and finally, sing countless melodies out loud until we heard something we liked.

Like my dad always says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

If you look at the past 14 or so weeks of my project, you’ll find that they’ve been collaborations.

… I’m thankful that towards the end of my journey, I found a fellow songwriter to come along with me. The Glad Stones was born early this year, and I’ve been nothing short of stunned by the feedback we’ve received.

Interestingly enough, we both initially felt that our styles were worlds apart. When we tried writing songs, however, it just worked out. It’s been a blessing to have such a hardworking and talented songwriting buddy, especially on the last leg of my journey, when I felt that it was getting harder and harder to produce fresh material. Plus, with Jaye’s home studio, we were able to produce videos that not only sounded good, but were entertaining as well!

I’m tremendously grateful for the many high points of my journey, one of them being my first solo showcase at the Esplanade Library in August last year. I was really encouraged by how it went and the audience turnout was larger than I expected. The show was such a confidence-booster for me; after that I continued to perform whenever I could.

My performance at TAB early this year, as well as the gigs at the Maestro Acoustic Lounge, were some of the ones I enjoyed tremendously. (In fact, it was at my second Maestro gig that I met Jaye, who performed immediately after me.)

So, what’s next?

Well, Jaye and I will be working on a Glad Stones’ album! It will include some of the songs we’ve written together, plus others that both of us have written individually. I’ll keep everyone posted on our progress in the weeks to come.

We’ll continue to write new songs and upload videos on YouTube, that’s for sure. We’re even planning some outdoor shoots, so look out for that on our channel!

“A Song A Week” has well and truly come to an end.

Looking back, I have no regrets whatsoever. I’m glad I did it. I’ve met so many people on this journey, and learnt so much from it. It’s a cliche to say that this is only the beginning, but it is.

Thank you for being a part of it, and please continue to walk with me.