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Loud and queer: four local LGBTQ+ musicians are here to take up space – and they're not shy about it

We catch up with RENE, Jean Seizure, Marian Carmel, and lewloh on what it’s like to be queer musicians in Singapore

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar
Cheryl Sekkappan
Written by
Cheryl Sekkappan

It’s too early in the morning and we’ve got Kendrick Lamar blasting from the speakers with Jean Seizure in the hot seat, channelling her best sexy self for the cameras. Through the course of the day, our other cover stars Rene Ann Wong (RENE), Marian Carmel, and Lewis Loh (lewloh) take their turn, and we cycle through Chappell Roan, Clairo, Simple Plan, Avril Lavigne, and some meditative-nature music we’ve yet to figure the name of. It’s a dizzying array of artists and genres befitting our diverse group of independent musicians.

It’s June and Pride month, and there are few better to rep than this bunch. We first got properly acquainted with them and their music in 2022 (except Lewis, whom we interviewed earlier) at ‘Fire Sale! EVERYTHING MUST GO’, a mini concert featuring Rene, Marian, Jean, and other Singaporean singer-songwriters like Aeriqah, KHAi, and Cayes. At the time, Marian and Rene were fresh from the release of their joyous pride-themed single “we’re gonna die anyway!!!” which they performed at Pink Dot 14. Jean was depicting tender lesbian romances in music videos like “Do You Wanna”, while Lewis had long been out and proud (Marian distinctly recalls being blown away by his Instagram bio, which at one point said, “bisexy”).

Since then, they’ve continued singing about queer experiences, same-sex relationships, and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community through interviews and their own social platforms. And it’s no understatement to say that these are brave and difficult things to do. Being a musician in Singapore is in itself risky business – our small domestic market limits opportunities, and commercial success requires a combination of luck, connections, and serious hustle. When you’re a queer musician singing about queer things, it gets doubly challenging with conservative media red tape to sidestep.

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

Growing up queer in Singapore 

Not that you can tell from meeting the four. Jean is all languid smiles on shoot day despite being the first to call in at 9am; Marian is best described as a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, all zesty and effervescent; Rene is more comfortable posing for the ‘edgy’ shots than the ones where she has to smile, but makes wisecracks at the speed of a bullet train during the interview; while Lewis constantly flits around asking questions, horsing around with the crew, his dangling bird earrings spinning merrily with every move. 

They are a vibrant and technicolour crew, especially once garbed in full makeup and costume. But behind a beautiful picture like this are, of course, just ordinary humans with their fair share of struggle and self-doubt. With an ‘emotional support’ potted cactus on the table between us, Rene, Jean, Marian, and Lewis are startlingly vulnerable as they reflect on their queer journeys. Together, their experiences reflect the multi-faceted challenge of growing up LGBTQ+ in a society that takes heterosexuality as a norm. 

Of the four, Lewis seems to have had the most support, acknowledging, “I think I am very, very privileged in that from the start, my own community already supported me, especially my sister.” The rest come from religious families, which made coming to terms with their identity and sexuality more isolating. Rene, while sure of her sexuality from a young age, struggled to express that side of herself to her family – a restraint that bled into her music. Talking about her 2021 Something to Hide EP, Rene says, “I was very careful about not exposing myself. The songs [on the album] had nothing to do with my queer identity really, but I named it Something to Hide because it felt like I was really hiding something, holding something back.”

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel IskandarJean Seizure in jacket and pants from @ashita_ga_aru

Jean, in particular, recalls a dark period in 2017 when she faced what she calls “a huge betrayal” after coming out to her church. The traumatic experience spawned the heartbreaking single “Night, which pleads with a lover to stay despite “all these thoughts and all these voices”. “I didn’t have the support system that I wanted,” says Jean. “It’s very different being in a queer relationship versus a heteronormative one and [being able to be] open about it and having people to talk to as and when.” 

Marian’s story spotlights another aspect of queer experience – the sheer confusion that comes from a vacuum of LGBTQ+-related information and education. She shared a highly entertaining tale about watching two of her older siblings coming out as queer before her, her own trepidation at having to break it to her mother that she was queer too, and the final anticlimactic admission. But for the longest time, she couldn’t even make heads or tails of her attraction to both boys and girls. “I was really confused,” she says. “Because I only knew ‘lesbian’ and ‘straight’, and I didn't know about this term ‘bisexual’.”

Of all places, Marian learned about the concept from a true crime documentary her mom had been watching. “They were interviewing someone and they were like, “This person is bicurious” – which was the word they used then – and explained it in such a weird, gloom and doom kind of way. But then I was like, that makes sense to me! That was the word that put a name to the feeling.”

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel IskandarMarian Carmel in top, necklaces, boots from @re.drmg / pants from @fassbenderandmelloncollie

Healing through music

Whether consciously or subconsciously, Jean, Rene, Marian, and Lewis seem to have found comfort in music. Music, like all art, is after all highly personal, and as singer-songwriters, the four inevitably draw from their lives – their loves, heartbreaks, joys, and losses. Lewis describes songwriting as his form of journaling, saying, “I’m not intentionally using same-sex pronouns when I’m writing music. I’m just using these pronouns because that’s the experience that I had with this person.” Each song becomes a bookmark in his life, capturing his experiences from a moment in time – which, though past for him, might in turn become a bookmark for someone else listening to his music.

Marian and Jean each found different types of freedom in the process of making art. For Marian, being playful with pronouns in her music helped her to let go of the feeling of having to prove her gayness. She recalls an odd instance when rumours swirled about her being not-gay because she never posted about her female lovers. Bi-erasure much? Her swift comeback to the rumour-mongers: “What if the girl wants to be private?”. As for Jean, writing music helps her swim out of the murk from years of growing up in the public eye and denying herself to suit those around her. “As I’m writing, I’m also validating my experience and saying things out to myself, repeating all these emotions. I am giving myself a voice.” 

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel IskandarRENE in shirt from @loopgarms, blazer from @vintagewknd, pants from @ashita_ga_aru

As close friends and found family who share the unique experience of being queer musicians in Singapore, the group has found opportunities to work together, like Rene and Marian on “we’re going to die anyway!!!”, a devil-may-care song that laughs in the face of societal judgement of same-sex relationships. Marian and Jean also found healing together in their collaboration song, “Somebody’s Daughter”. As Marian describes, “That was a love letter to our younger selves, the preteen in the closet, baby gay, queer experience of knowing that you feel some type of way about people of the same sex, having to hide it, and not being sure about the spaces that are safe.” 

For Rene, who kept herself on a tight leash in her previous EPs, her upcoming album in 2025 is a chance to allow more of her queer self into her music. Explaining how she envisions it as a cohesive, narrative work, Rene says, “I really do want to write about queer love. I don’t think you’re going to see a “Oh, I love girls, I love you” kind of thing, but I’m trying to write more of that part of me into the music because I very much repressed that when I was first writing…This round, I’m trying not to restrict myself, go with the flow, and see where it takes me.” 

Spreading queer joy

When we met for the photoshoot in May, they were all bustling with different creative projects. Rene, Marian, and Lewis were in a flurry preparing for their upcoming The Lilypad Tour, which will see them taking the stage in Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines from June onwards. Independently, they were working on new singles and EPs too: there’s Marian’s gushy “What if nobody kisses me?” based on a “magical” fleeting romance she experienced in Amsterdam; Jean’s quietly defiant “Don’t tell me I’m going to hell”; and lewloh’s “I’m Just A Frog” in October. 

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel Iskandarlewloh in necklaces from @re.drmg / pants from @fassbenderandmelloncollie

Amidst all this, one thing’s for sure – they’re not going to shut up about who they are and what they care about. Jean wants to make space for these issues in the ways she knows best, by writing songs and coming up with art that people can relate to. Meanwhile, Lewis is determined to keep being out and proud, using his music, content and sheer existence to “demystify queerness and the LGBTQIA community”. He struck us with his especially deep sense of responsibility, saying, “I know that there are people who are queer who don’t feel supported, and so I’m hoping that if they see other people like them represented in the media, they feel less alone and ashamed.” 

Hilariously, Rene brings up the American comedy-drama series Glee, and how the Santana-Brittany lesbian relationship made a deep impression on her. “[The actors] definitely don’t know what they’ve done for me, but I know what they’ve done for me, and I think that it’s given me a lot of strength.” She pauses and adds, “Oh god, not me talking about Glee giving me strength.” Embarrassment aside, the story illustrates what Rene wants to be for others like her: “If I can be an extra song on a little closet queer person's queer playlist, then I am so happy to be that one song on the playlist.” 

June 2024 Pride Cover
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

Marian sums it up nicely, “It's very easy to be stuck on the metrics and how the song does and what playlists they're on. But when you really meet people and you see that there is an impact because of the music that you make, I think that's what matters the most. So when that happens, I'm like, ahhhh! Bawling home.”

It’s safe to say that Rene, Jean, Marian, and Lewis didn’t set out to be queer icons. But somehow, by expressing themselves unabashedly through their music, Instagrams, TikToks, and more, they’ve become the voice and safe space for queer (and straight, as their music touches on universal themes, after all) fans in Singapore and the region. So listen up, because they’re loud and queer – and as Lewis so aptly defines it – “taking up space, without being paiseh”. 

Photographer: Daniel Iskandar
Designer: Liqin Lau
Stylist: Mingli Seet
Props and set assistant: Xiaoqing Wan
Hair: Kenneth @makeupentourage
Makeup: Hazel @makeupentourage
Studio: Verta Collective

Huge thanks to these local thrift and vintage brands for the outfit loans: 
Marian: top, necklaces, boots from @re.drmg / pants from @fassbenderandmelloncollieLewis: necklaces from @re.drmg / pants from @fassbenderandmelloncollie
Jean: jacket and pants from @ashita_ga_aru
Rene: shirt from @loopgarms, blazer from @vintagewknd, pants from @ashita_ga_aru

Celebrate Pride

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