MELD’s Iona Salter interviews Charles J Tan, Storytellers songwriter competition winner, as he heads out on tour with YouTube sensation Clara C.
CHARLES J Tan’s folksy acoustic tunes, often brightened up with the cheerful strumming of a ukulele, have graced Melbourne cafes and pubs since he arrived to study in Australia more than ten years ago. Now, the Singapore-born singer is due to support American musician Clara C’s Melbourne tour, as well as her shows in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Sydney.
Tan released his third EP, The Pelham Sessions, late last year. In tracks like Almost Sunday and What It’s All About, Tan’s lyrics (which he writes himself, along with his music) express a desire to explore the world and to find his own place within it.
Meld catches up with the man behind the lyrics to talk musical pilgrimages, uni courses, and the necessity of a good pair of slippers.
You’re heading off on tour with Clara C, what are you most looking forward to?
I think, being a fan, I’m looking forward to meeting her and just seeing her in action. And of course travelling to all the different cities to perform. I’ve performed in Singapore and KL before but this time round is different because I’ll be doing it in a proper auditorium – it won’t be a pub sort of show. And also going to Manila as well, because it’s my first time going over. I guess I’m looking forward to living the pseudo-rock star kind of thing, because I’m going to be hitting four cities in just a week and under so it’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be fun.
You’ve travelled quite a bit in the past to work on or perform your music, including a trip to Nashville in the US last year. How was that?
I think Nashville was really a pilgrimage, I would call it. It was kind of like me stepping out of my little cave because I’d been writing and performing in small coffee shops within Melbourne, and by that time I had won a little competition and I thought, “I need to go see the world and do something different.” And Nashville was one of the places in my head – I was going “it would be such a dream if I could go to Nashville and, God forbid, perform” [laughs]. And it all happened. I was there for a songwriters conference and it was really good learning about current trends in songwriting and meeting songwriters who have had hits. And just soaking up the country vibe – there’s a bit of country soul in me [laughs].
Well the city is synonymous with country music, and also with the Christian rock scene as well. Was that part of your reason for going over there?
The Christian side of things wasn’t really a big thing for me, it was just the fact that it’s a songwriting town. But a lot of the Christian artists that I grew up listening to, they all came out of Nashville, so I think that place had a special place in my heart, even though I’d never been there. And the place kept coming up a lot. Because I’m a bit of a music nerd, I read [album] sleeves, and I read names of the people who produce and the people artists thank, and Nashville, Tennessee comes up a lot.
In 2009 you won the Storytellers songwriters competition and, the next year, were named among the top 50 acoustic songwriters in the MusicOz Awards. How do those achievements make you feel?
I think it was good validation for me, because every person who has a little bit of talent – there is what I call the hedging effect. Your friends and family are always going to think you’re the best, and then you go into a completion and suddenly you get told that, “um, actually, you suck”. I want to get that, if I actually suck [laughs]. And I didn’t, and I won, which was a huge thing for me. And it gave me a lot of confidence to think, “What can I do next? Can I take this seriously and do this on a full time basis?”
Before embarking on a serious music career, you studied Media and Communication at Melbourne University. What was it like juggling music and study?
Well I’d like to say that I was juggling them but I wasn’t [laughs]. Because I think I was very distracted. I grew up in Singapore and I came to Melbourne to do something totally different, and music was something that was on my mind. But doing media and communications was kind of like a fall back position. I kind of told myself, “okay I’m passionate about music but I’m not sure if I can make it as a songwriter and performer.” And I told myself if I did a degree that’s kind of in that zone, maybe I could go into something within the industry. I dreamt of writing for Rolling Stone.
Having lived in and travelled to quite a few different countries, your lyrics have quite a travelling theme to them, and your music has been described as “nomadic folk rock”. Do you consider yourself a bit of a nomad?
Definitely. And I think it’s got to do with the fact that I came here as an international student and over the last ten years or so that I’ve been here I’ve moved eleven or twelve times. And the whole sense of home – which I talk about a lot in my songs – is very fragmented for me, and wherever I am I kind of make that my home. And going to Nashville opened up this whole passion for travelling, realising that I really do enjoy flying, you know, sitting in a little spot with little cutlery [laughs]. It’s a bit nerdy, right? But I really enjoy the whole experience of travelling and transiting. Especially as someone dealing with something creative, [travelling] puts me in a spot where I have to be uncomfortable and I think that was very good for me, creatively. So ever since then I’ve been like, “why do I want to just stay in one place if there are opportunities for me to go somewhere else and perform to a new audience?” I thought, “just take it by the horns while I’ve still got the energy for it.”
The cover art of your third album, The Pelham Sessions, depicts two little suitcases. Say you were to go on tour overseas, and you were only allowed to take five things in your suitcase – what would they be?
Ohhh…wow! Five items? Does it include instruments?
Yeah, say it was a really big suitcase! But you could only put five objects in it, the things that you treasure most.
Okay, I’ll bring my guitar. I’ll bring my…I know it sounds really geeky, but I’ll bring my iPhone. Three more to go, um…I kind of got stuck at guitar! My ukulele, and my shoes…
Are you a bit of a shoe nerd?
I am. I’ve got too many shoes. I would bring my sneakers – probably a Converse – and my Havaianas and my slippers.
So music, an iPhone and comfort for your feet. They’re the things Charles J Tan values the most?
Charles J Tan will perform with Clara C in Melbourne on Saturday December 3, 6pm, at Arrow on Swanston, 488 Swanston St, Carlton. Tickets are $29 (General Admission) $39 (A Reserve) and $55 (VIP), and are available from Monsoon Productions.