Embarking on The Ship of No Return

I am all done with the outstanding projects that I had set out to clear up before starting on my debut album. It feels good to get all that stuff out of the way.

Right now, as I consider all that I need to do to produce my album, I feel like I am staring out to the vast blue unknown sea, about to board the ship of my dreams, that will take me to… who knows where?

I do know that producing this album will be a major milestone in my life, and that once I have produced it, there is no going back again to the life I knew before.

At least, not in the same way. It will be akin to emptying a wineskin that has been holding new wine for quite a while. The wine has finally matured and is ready to be poured out and enjoyed. The old wineskin needs to be emptied, and abandoned.  The old self has to die to make way for new growth.

It’s been about five years since I’ve written the first song that will be included in the upcoming album. In between that first song that I wrote, and the many more that came later, I went through many ups and down in my journey as a musician. In 2006, when I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Southeast Asian Studies from The National University of Singapore, I knew that I wanted to study music in earnest.

“What? A little late in life to discover THAT…” you may think, but the old adage “somethings in life are better late than never” has never rung truer in my life.

All through my teenage days and my early twenties, I had wanted to study music, but I never did it, because I never figured out how to approach learning music. I knew I loved music, my first Paul Simon record “Negotiations and Love Songs” that I had borrowed from my brother, was played so many times that all of the lyrics were singularly etched into my mind. I lived for the achingly beautiful lyrics and the intricate guitar arrangements that Paul Simon masterfully crafted. I wanted to learn his songs, but many of them were out of my reach. But where my musical abilities failed me, my “Happy Feet” took over: I spent many sun-baked afternoons indoors, jiving to “Kodachrome” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” “Mother and Child Reunion” and not least, “You can call me Al.”

Whatever I had learned of piano and music theory in my childhood and early teenage years were based on rote and repetition, not on understanding and creativity. The thousands of dollars that my parents had poured into my piano lessons and the many painful hours that I had spent banging out the piano examination pieces on the Yamaha upright, day after day, added up to a grand total of diddly-squat. This is an indictment of the old approach to learning the piano which has suffocated many a budding musician.

All through my teenage years I would wish that I could play the guitar better, and in vain I’d try. Finally in a fit of stress and exuberance before a major math exam when I was 17, I figured out how to strum the guitar with grace and ease. It was exhilarating to say the least. But that was the extent of my guitar playing.

When I finally went to University, I had no idea what I wanted to do, well, except to study music. Unfortunately, at that point, I still couldn’t tell my C major from my G, so if I talked about music school I knew that I would get laughed out of town. However, I knew that I loved Thai people and their culture and language and so I followed my heart and majored in Southeast Asian Studies, which afforded me the opportunity to take many classes in the Thai language, and gave me ample excuse to travel to Thailand for “research.”

For my final honors thesis, I was going to write about “Urban Poverty in Thailand” but in my four years in college, I had grown deeper in love with music, and also become more intimately acquainted with the foibles and peccadilloes of Singapore. I was intrigued by the fact that not many Singaporeans knew about their own homegrown indie bands and singer-songwriters. So I thus embarked on a journey to find out more about indie music in Singapore.

This resulted in my Honors Thesis, which examined why the homegrown indie bands in Singapore were known only to a miniscule percentage of Singaporeans and also why these bands even existed in a culture that was averse to artistic exploration and expression.

Carrying out the fieldwork prior to writing the thesis put me in touch with many musicians and artists in Singapore. Finally I got to meet people who gave me a vision of who I could be, of how I could choose to persist in following my heart (and music) even in an environment that constantly pressurized me to do otherwise, in a culture that cried out to me to settle for the well-trodden path. These musicians that I met, their music and passion for it, and indeed, their courage to pursue music, inspired me and gave me a foolhardy determination to finally be able to study music.

At that time, just by listening over again and again to  my favorite songs and figuring out how to play them, I was starting to make significant advances in my guitar playing. I was also starting to compose my own songs and had played one of them on a Live! Session on National Radio! ( thanks to abit of luck, and a very kind friend of mine who believed in me) I really was starting to think that it was possible to think of myself as a musician, and that it was viable to work towards building a career in music. I was dead-set on giving myself a fighting chance at this dream. I had some time and savings, so after I graduated, I took a year out to practice guitar and try for a music scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The year ended in burn-out and depression, I got accepted into Berklee but without a scholarship. I was bitterly disappointed and in a fit of frenzy and nights without sleep, I smashed up my acoustic and electric guitar. In case you were wondering how it feels to smash up your guitar, it sucks. So unless you’re a metal-head on stage with a flaming guitar, I do not recommend it.

Looking back, I probably should have gotten a part-time job and a guitar teacher to steer me along.

Yet, even in this final broken act, I found grace: a friend of mine who found out about what had happened loaned me his beautiful Crafter guitar indefinitely. I finally managed to buy it from him much later on. I was also able to salvage and restore my electric guitar with some help from a highly skilled guitar-smith.

In the aftermath of my breakdown, I fell into deep depression. For over a year, I tried getting over the disappointment of not being able to go to study music in a college. I knew that I still wanted to study music in spite of the setback, I thought perhaps if I had some time, I could figure out the rudiments with some help from a teacher.

Another door opened to me in the form of a research scholarship to study my Masters in Southeast Asian studies. I would get a small stipend and plenty of time to work on my musical skills outside of my responsibilities as a research student. I took what I could get, and signed on with the scholarship.

Those two years as a Master’s student in the National University of Singapore were the most healing years of my life. It was the chrysalis where I could grow and heal from one of the most heart-rending bitter disappoints of my life.

Still, as I gradually emerged from depression, there was a long hiatus where I did not touch my guitar. I didn’t know when I would play the guitar again, if ever. But almost a year later, when I finally dusted off the guitar again and played it with no agenda except to enjoy and discover it, many more songs came as a gift: “Lullaby!” is one of the first songs I wrote after that time and it practically wrote itself. I had to go through insomnia to write that song though, it was the best pay off ever from my chronic sleep deprivation.

In those two years, I research extensively on film-music and Thai culture. I finally wrote my Master’s Thesis on Thai Film Music and how this was inextricably linked to Thai identities. Outside of academia, I also took private lessons in piano and music theory. This opened up a whole new world to me in music, giving me a much more sophisticated set of tools for my craft.

Another door opened for me when I graduated, I was given the chance to study film music composition in UCLA Extension. The money left over from my college fund was just enough to put me through a year and a half of the certificate film-scoring program in UCLA, this was my huge break at last, 10 years later from when I had first started dreaming about studying music in school!

I packed my bags, said my fond farewells to all at home and headed off to Los Angeles with my acoustic and electric guitar and two large suitcases, not knowing what lay before me, except the chance to finally study and write music for orchestral film-scores. I was stoked. In the ensuing 1.5 years of relentlessly churning out score after score each week, and programing reel after reel, I put my singer-songwriting life in the back-burner to focus fully on acquiring the skills needed to write and produce orchestral scores for movies. I got very little sleep.

Towards the end of my studies in 2011, I got hit by a trailer (the kind that carries movie sets) whilst cycling, and was out of commission for a few months. I graduated in March 2012 instead of December 2011.

The trauma from my lower back injury is finally gone and I am all done with medical treatments. Now that I am also done with Extension school, and have all the chops necessary to produce my own album, I can finally pour myself into producing my debut sing-songwriter album. It’s been  a long time coming for a bunch of songs to make its way into an album. But I guess the time is right.

We’ll see what mischief Esteban and I get up to with this upcoming album.