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Interview: Kelvin Tan

Meet Kelvin Tan, the most prolific Singaporean musician you’ve never heard of

'I run counter to musicians who want to please their fans. I cater to no one.'

Kelvin Tan has written, recorded and released more than 130 solo albums to date. That’s a frighteningly vast body of work, averaging out to about eight records a year since his 1998 debut, The Bluest Silence. But Tan is far from a hit-making pop music factory. He prefers skirting the fringes to coddling the mainstream, and it is for this passionate obscurantism that the 51-year-old singer-songwriter should be both championed and crucified: as an idiot savant for whom art is anything but artifice.

‘I’m idealistic, so listeners aren’t a problem,’ Tan says. ‘They really aren’t. When you work on art, you can’t be bothered with people criticising you. I run counter to musicians who want to please their fans. I cater to no one.’ Like his songs, Tan can either be bold, blunt or brutal.

Throughout Tan’s almost-three decades of making music, he has never slipped into the same skin twice. From the troubadour folk of The Bluest Silence to the Motown-inspired a cappella of Mercy Soul! to the blistering guitar noise of Reconfiguring Axioms, Tan has carved for himself a swerving path around the back lots of rock ’n’ roll. Or not. As lead guitarist of power-pop group The Oddfellows, his musicianship extends to an accessible pop milieu, too.

‘It’s all about the passion for writing music,’ Tan enthuses. He is a firm believer in the ethos of free improvisation, using that vital energy to fuel his songwriting. ‘I try to improvise the songwriting itself, and not just the song. I use jazz improv in folk form. I want to break the genres, break the song form.’

Which also means that most of Tan’s work are one-take wonders. He enters the studio with a sketch, hits the record button, jams out his parts, and leaves with a full album. None of them are flawless; his voice shudders rather than soars, and bum notes from his guitar are left in. It all sounds rather home-made, but Tan maintains that ‘the process is as important as the final result, so you have to be pure and honest with yourself.’

Tan remains the essential paradox of the scene: wonderfully prolific, shamefully overlooked. And there’s just no stopping him. With so much under his belt, finding out which albums he considers his best just adds to the mystery behind the man: ‘My favourites? The ones I haven’t done yet.’

Get his albums at www.dialecticrealm.com.

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