Photography: Jovian Lim
How was the process of coming up with Tall Order and Paycheck?
It was a simple process. I don’t really put myself in a space or try to channel a certain energy. What I needed to get into the right mood was to be quiet and focused. Usually, I’m working on a feeling that I may not understand in the beginning but just know it’s something I need to get off my chest. These feelings will start making sense as I write, followed by the flow of the lyrics.
With Tall Order and Paycheck, I got everything out like word vomit. It was very intuitive, and that's when I knew that the idea of being succinct is when I don’t have to tease it out forcefully. Of course, there are times when my process can be a little slanted or forced.
The end process is often revelatory – the way I’d make comparisons and create metaphors for situations or emotions that I’m faced with. It wasn’t always like that.When did you discover the shift in the way you approached music?
Right at the beginning of the first EP that I released. I knew that I was ready to put my own music out. Before that, I was always very taken and enamoured by all the artists that I loved and wanted to make music like them. All that music would influence the way I write, which was a frustration for a long time as I felt that I wasn’t being entirely honest and as authentic as I could be.
Only after that did everything start falling into place. That was when I realised that each song I would release will only serve as a snapshot, and it doesn’t really matter if I eventually grow out of it. At least it will always make sense because that was exactly how I saw things happening in that particular state of mind or version of myself.
How did the video concept for Tall Order come about?
For music videos, I tend to stick to this principle of making sure that everything looks like how it should feel. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I’m not really too keen on the art house film technique in which the filmmaker teases the message out gradually from every shot and evolution of the plot.
Rather than having to connect the dots, I prefer to feel what I’m meant to throughout the film and come to understand that particular experience by the end of it. With music and any medium, what it offers you is an alternative to the language you speak. So to adopt a technique that’s not as straightforward means that I’m possibly the only person who fully understands the nuances.
The song is about feeling disappointed with yourself in a very melodramatic way, as if watching yourself deteriorate. Filming the video I felt like I was at a party for one, and really, just throwing a tantrum. It’s a kind of petulance that I've attached to the song.
Would you say the song is about reclaiming power?
‘Reclaiming power’ is a very hopeful and empowering phrase. When I write, I’m usually in an unmotivated, everything-is-hopeless state of mind. In other words, I rarely feel empowered when I write my songs. Most of the time, I seek a release to say something and put it somewhere.
In retrospect, I might feel pride in being able to come to terms with how I’m feeling and actually expressing these emotions in words – only then does it feel like I’m reclaiming power.Are your artistic choices today very much influenced by your background in history studies?
I think so. What got me to pursue history was an art history class that I took, and realising that studying the past could provide me with the context and vantage point from which to view all kinds of art. Being able to have that foundation and being aware of what's going on around – it is a practice that I still put in place today. I rarely view any experience as a thing of its own. Instead, it’s part of a broader narrative to me.
There isn't really a direct connection between history and my artistic work but seeing patterns have become a general governing as to how I approach life.Through these layers of observations, have you found yourself becoming suspicious of ideas?
In terms of my own work, I used to be very impressionable but now I have a very clear vision about what I want to convey. Even when listening to music, I know for a fact that I enjoy a particular track for a reason – perhaps a meaning that I’ve derived from it but it’s not because I want to replicate that kind of music.
You recently worked with poet Amanda Chong, who saw you as a soul sister. Did you find that your inclination towards literature helped to bridge certain gaps during the working process?
It was very natural, and I think my love for reading has something to do with it. Although I have to say – I don’t read that much poetry because I prefer poetry in songs, and I enjoy prose a lot more; yet with Amanda, it feels like I could easily have written this poem. She expresses her feelings in the same visual language as I do.
The first time she came to the recording studio, she sat down on this couch and we spent the next three hours talking when we were supposed to rehearse. I had never experienced anything like that before. Understanding her way of expression made working together seamless.
As an individual, what’s your approach to writing like?
It’s very free flow. My songs aren't directly inspired by what I read. Sticky Leaves was the only instance when another work (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) had informed my own. Yet I'm sure if you took away all the books I’ve ever read, I wouldn’t write the way I do. I think it comes from a sense of melodrama as well.
There are musicians who read books and become so inspired that they write a song referencing the narrative. Words can’t come out of me in an inspired way if it’s not an experience that I relate to on my own. I guess The Brothers Karamazov just hit me at the right time – it said a lot of things that I needed to hear. Still, the song wasn't created after the book.
Similarly, I find it difficult to translate the same emotions from writing my lyrics in the studio. Most of the time, I try to compartmentalise. One thing that I learned from working in Los Angeles is that I can’t co-write lyrics with people in general. It kind of commodifies everything and the sound that’s produced doesn't really mirror the original intention.
There’s a huge difference between art and craft, but I know that my music agenda isn’t to subscribe to a certain formula just to make it work – as much as I respect creating a good song to catch audiences. I’m a stickler for lyrics that way.You started out in music as a topline writer before going on your own musical path. What are your major takeaways from the various clusters of the music industry that you have been exposed to so far?
One of the biggest lessons that I learned is, you can’t—well, you can—just sit in a room and make music that only makes sense to you. That’s fine, but you can’t just expect people to get it.
A huge part of music-making to an artist is authenticity. At the same time, you can’t disregard the experience of listeners and expect the music to take off. Everyone’s going to come from a different vantage point, and they are not going to see things exactly the same way as you. Knowing that people are listening to my music has made me more aware of how the things I’m saying will be received, and how clear I need to be in terms of conveying a message.
Toplining knocked me off my lofty headspace. It made me realise that this is an industry.Even if you’re making what you feel is art, someone’s gotta sell it. Working with people who recognise the need to ‘pigeonhole’ your music somehow to allows it to reach the right audience.
At the end of the day, my hope is that there will be enough people who will see my music for what it is. I often get caught between artistry and business but I've also realised that people today are wise enough to choose. Our generation has gotten used to choosing what resonates with them, which forces the packaging to be less simplistic. Retaining the art is challenging but no one needs to be fed anything diluted anymore.
Even though there’s business involved, we no longer have to reduce our art to the lowest common denominator.
Listen to 'Tall Order' & 'Paycheck' here
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