Interview: Nathan Hartono talks Asia Pop Fest and his love of music

Before stunning the Asia Pop Fest crowd with his incredible musicianship, Natalie Ng caught up with the Singaporean singer to discuss music, working with Jay Chou, and previous experience as an international student in the United States.

Photo: Mark Gambino

For more than ten years, Singaporean-born musician Nathan Hartono has performed in the Singaporean music scene, starting at the age of 15. Hartono had a banner year in 2016 competing on the international stage in Sing! China (China’s version of The Voice) and was mentored by none other than the King of Mandopop himself, Jay Chou.

The singer finished runner-up, and was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to Singapore after the competition, as no Singaporean could have previously dreamed of even making it past the first few rounds of the competition, much less come in second and win the hearts of a worldwide audience.

Hartono was recently in Melbourne to perform at the city’s first ever Asia Pop Fest and we sat down with the Singaporean crooner to talk about music, the creative arts, and his own experience studying abroad in Boston at the Berklee College of Music.

Welcome to Melbourne! Have you gotten a chance to see much of the city yet?

A little bit. It’s not my first time in Melbourne but every time I’ve been here it’s always been for a performance so I’ve never been able to come here and just completely relax. The performance is always at the back of my mind. We actually hired half the band from Melbourne. I sought out some Melbourne musicians, met with them yesterday, rehearsed with them and had a lot of fun.

So would you say you’re very hands-on with your music?

Pretty much. We just wanted to play with a full band. It’s just an itch I want to scratch. So I got a bunch of musicians here, came a day early to rehearse, and we’re all ready to go.

Are you excited to be sharing the stage with the other exciting performers?

Yes! This is by far the most random show I’ve done in terms of the lineup. I don’t fit in exactly — I’m sandwiched between a Korean popstar and a Japanese robot, so it’s quite surreal. It’s rare and fun to get opportunities like this.

Congratulations on landing your first leading role in a movie! How does it feel and what are you doing to prepare for it?

I’m trying to find as many opportunities as possible to exercise that acting muscle. It’s been a while since I’ve acted for anything — the last acting role I did was for a webseries I did back in Singapore and before that it was musical theatre.

As an actor I’m very untried, but I want to make sure I’m well-prepared when I go into the role. There’s going to be some pre-production and training with regards to the car racing part of the role, but I am working on what I can do on my own first, so that’s the acting bit, and the Chinese fluency bit, since the film will be in Chinese.

Photo: Mark Gambino

What would you say is the appeal of acting for you creatively that’s different from music?

I love watching movies and TV, so when I get the opportunity to be part of it, it excites me. Music is always going to be my first thing, my comfort zone, because I have control of myself on stage, and of the performance. I’ve been doing music long enough to have objectivity — I know if I’m having a good show, and if I’m having a bad show. I feel very in control of that realm.

In terms of acting, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. A lot of it is up to the director, and it’s a lot more about experimentation. It’s really nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing, but I think that’s part of the appeal; to not know what I’m doing.

You had a very exciting year in 2016 with Sing! China and winning second place and gaining a whole new army of fans both in China and internationally. Do you feel more pressure now  than you did before in choosing the next step in your career?

Not really. I think the only pressure I feel is that I am now entering a completely different market in the Chinese music scene, but other than that, I don’t think there’s that much pressure. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this — I’ve been telling myself quietly that when the next big break comes, I will be more prepared for it. I had a big push in publicity when I was 15, when I was first starting out on the music scene, and back then I was nowhere near as ready in terms of my musicianship. I had only been performing for about nine or ten months, and I was just very clueless and felt like a lost kid. So I told myself the next time you get this big break, you’re gonna get ready.

So between the ages of 15 and 25 I got very ready. I’m just a lot more well-equipped with dealing with whatever comes right now, and I have a group of people around me that I trust and that’s always good. There’s definitely pressure from the fact that I’m entering a completely new scene, but other than that I feel confident — or at least a bit more confident in my abilities.

You did start out very young, so what has changed over the years in terms of being a performer?

I’d say of course, my skill level, and the confidence in myself. I never had that kind of confidence when I was younger. When I started out, that was when my parents and friends first found out I could sing. I had kept it as a deep, dark secret for a long time because I had very poor self-confidence and self-esteem. It took a long time for me to tell myself that [singing] was not just a hobby; it was something I was good at, and that I wanted to pursue seriously.

Photo: Mark Gambino

What was the experience like, working with Jay Chou, and what were some of the lessons you learnt from him?

It was a lot of fun. It was very enlightening — he’s arguably one of the most famous people in Asia, and when I saw him work, I understood why. He’s not just famous because he had a couple of big songs in the ’90s. He’s still hustling, he’s still producing good work, he’s still touring, and he’s a father now and he’s still doing all that stuff, and you realise what it takes to get to that level — the commitment and dedication it takes.

That was my biggest takeaway, just watching him work, seeing how fast and precise he was with everything. It was very inspiring. It made me realise how and why he’s been on top of the mountain for so long.

Did you learn anything from the other contestants?

Most of what I learnt from the other contestants was very language based. At the start of the competition, I’d give my Chinese language skills a two and a half on a scale of one to ten. Now it’s about a six. [laughs] It’s not great yet, but I passed the test. I can carry a conversation and a decent interview in Chinese, so not too bad! No one else there spoke English, so I was so immersed into [the language], so it really forced me to use it, as opposed to cheating and using half English, because I couldn’t do that at all.

Many of the people attending the Asia Pop Fest concert are young people from all over the world who have come to Melbourne to pursue their passion and studies. What advice would you have for them as someone who has also moved countries to pursue your passion?

Whenever you’re going to go out of your comfort zone to pursue your studies, the best advice I can give you is to put yourself out there. Don’t box yourself in. Don’t just mingle with the people who are familiar and safe.

When I studied in Boston, I didn’t live in the dorms, so it made socialising a little harder. The first few months were rough, and then I made a proper decision to put myself out there more. Saying yes to more projects, auditions, whoever needs help, and I found myself working with a lot of really diverse people.  Sometimes they were great projects, and sometimes they weren’t so great projects, but either way you come out learning something and with deeper relationships. After two years in Berklee, I can say I can go anywhere in the world and reach out and find musicians. It was great to be in that community, and I felt like if I didn’t reach out and do that, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. Even now when I look back on it I still think I could have done more.

So if you’re studying overseas and you find yourself surrounded by the exact same people you see back home, kick yourself and branch out more.

Photo: Mark Gambino

You’re well-loved for being very vocal about supporting the Singaporean music scene. What do you think the public can do to support local musicians?

I think it’s becoming easier and easier for students and young people to connect with local artists and local musicians. There’s just so much content coming out, and it’s all of a pretty decent quality. When I was growing up in the music scene around ’05, ’06, I didn’t really have any peers. All of my peers were three, four times my age. And that made connecting to the community I was supposed to be closest to very difficult. But nowadays you have people of all ages creating music in Singapore. I honestly believe there’s something for everyone in the Singaporean music scene. If you’re into reggae, you’ll find a reggae band. If you’re into hip-hop, you’ll find some rappers.

When I was younger, there was always this “support local” chant and it seemed like they were forcing it down our throats and it made a lot of people reject it more or avoid it. But now I think good content will find a home, and there’s so much good content being put out now, I’m not that concerned. If not Singapore, it will find a home. But I hope it’s Singapore. I have friends who put on shows, and it’s great to see a decent amount of people come out for these shows, and it’s not something you could’ve said five or six years ago.

One last fun question — what are you listening to now?

I’m listening to a band called Thirdstory now, they’re really good. I’m also listening to a lot of Chinese music, because I’m trying to familiarise myself with the catalogue. Fang Da Tong, always. I’ve been going through Stefanie Sun’s old catalogue, just because I missed out on a lot of it when I was younger, and Jay Chou’s old catalogue, because I missed out on that a lot too. Other than that, I’m just always on Spotify shuffling and trying to understand the structures and forms of Chinese music, since I’m learning how to compose Chinese music now.

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