52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG: Week 19 with Joanna Dong

Nicole-Marie Ng
Written by
Nicole-Marie Ng
Joanna Dong
Photograph: Joanna Dong

Welcome to Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG – our commitment to showing you the best of what's going on in the city this week. Every Monday, a guest writer who's "in" with the scene shares a recommendation on what to see, eat, do or buy in the city. This week, we chat with Joanna Dong, a Singaporean jazz vocalist, actress andhost that made us proud during last year's Sing! China.

What gets you excited about Singapore?

I enjoy attending gigs, especially because I have friends in the scene playing and they always have something exciting going on. Inch Chua recently did a show about her trip to Antarctica and even though I missed it, I thought that it was a cool thing to be happening in Singapore. I remember that about 10 years ago, when the National Arts Council rolled out the Renaissance City Plan, some people were scoffing about how we can't have a cultural renaissance if we never had culture in the first place. Now looking back, I think those people have to take their words back because Singapore really has a lot going on – there is so much talent bursting at the seams! All it takes is for you to take the time to go find it because it is all around you.

Where do you get inspiration for your music?

I don’t actually write much music, but I do a lot of covers and my inspiration for how to cover songs comes from my entire history from having lived here in Singapore. I was always in a school choir and my conductor, Mr. Nelson Kwei, always exposed us to so many different genres. The wide variety of musical styles I was exposed since young gave me a great foundation to draw inspiration from. Because of that, I find myself traversing genres comfortably. I think this access to a diversity of musical styles could pretty much only happen in a place like Singapore where we have such a huge cultural diversity and tolerance. I know it sounds like a spiel but having been to so many other places for work and travelled so extensively, I’ve come to appreciate the social and cultural capital that Singaporean musicians have. This is what we have to offer to the world, it’s almost nice that we can take it for granted because it comes so natural and seamlessly to us.

What are your thoughts on Singapore's music scene?

I think it’s a great and exciting time to be a musician in Singapore. We have so much talent and I feel constantly stimulated by the young musicians around me. I think it’s just so encouraging and I am so so proud of our music scene. We are playing music at such a high level and it is comparable. I think it would be something that we would be proud of anywhere in the world. I think both the English jazz scene and the Chinese pop scene are growing, but in different directions. I just wish that there were more platforms for live performances, especially at bars, so that people stop thinking that they can only watch gigs on special occasions. I wish that our local music scene becomes a greater part of our daily experiences. At the same time, I do think that with the millennials or the generation after the millennials, the landscape is changing. They are definitely more proactive in seeking out local music. The Hear65 website is a repository for local music, which I think is a great initiative. It is also a very bold and ambitious one, so I think there is just no excuse for Singaporeans to not be excited about the local music scene now.

What do you think needs to be improved for us to compete internationally?

For Singaporean musicians, one of the biggest struggles we face is that our domestic market is really small. After all, it is a numbers game and it is very hard to make us heard on international platforms. It’s almost as if our voices are drowned out because other people just come in bigger number. But I think there are a few exceptions recently. For example, Linying, one of her tracks did really well on Spotify. That gives us all hope and a greater courage to venture out. I think the other thing that we struggle with is finding what our “Singaporean Sound” is. It doesn’t seem like we have something that we can really consider as a Singaporean brand, in the same distinct manner that Jpop or K-pop is. But again, I think that will come in time. If you were to ask me what I think can be improved on, it's how we should think of ourselves as not just situated in Singapore. Similar to how Sweden is a small nation in terms of population, yet they have a huge presence and impact on America’s music scene – I think Singapore is actually primed to do the same for Southeast Asia and the rest of Asia. We can become movers and shakers in the music scene because we do have a great combination of expertise and exposure to various styles. More than that, we also have musicians who are really willing to work hard and collaborate. I think collaborations are really one of the key things that define Singaporean musicians, which I love that about us. I think that is a role that we can really shine in.

Are there any acts you're excited to catch in Singapore this year?

I’ve already caught Jacob Collier earlier this year and I think that has been a highlight for me thus far. It was amazing but what was even more amazing than his performance itself is the audience off stage. When we were asked to sing along to some pretty difficult lines, we nailed it and I was so proud to be among the crowds singing along and modulating key changes in the middle of a line, and a very difficult single plated rhythms. That is truly a sign of how sophisticated we have become as an audience. Granted that Jacob Collier’s audiences that day were made up of a lot of musicians, but it was still a sizeable crowd who were very discerning about music. That made me so excited and thrilled, and I can’t reiterate how it is a great time to be a singer and a musician in Singapore.

You're holding your first ever solo concert soon, tell us more about that.

It is nerve-wracking and there are days where I am in pure panic mode. But there are also days that I am completely revelling in the entire process, along with the fact that I even have the opportunity to realise this goal! Also because this is my first major solo concert performance after the whole Sing! China experience, it feels like a homecoming to me. I think I’ve gained a lot of new following since the contest. However, with it being a contest I had to throw out some showy numbers. Whilst that is a very real part of me and I am a showgirl at heart, there are also sides of me that enjoys singing a simple and straightforward melody with very little embellishments, just to tell the story as truthfully as possible. That is also why this concert is titled 我是真的 in Mandarin, which translates to mean “I am real”.

How can we get people more excited about local music?

I think local music goes beyond just local singers. There is a lot of great original content being written here, and sometimes I think it’s very hard for people to even know they exist. I remember quite a number of conversations where I mention Charlie Lim, and people are unaware of who he is – I simply couldn’t believe that! I think Singaporeans are rather passive because we have such easy access to music from all over the world. In China, I realised that the young people there are much more proactive in seeking out new music content. It might be due to the Great Firewall in China where they have to intentionally find out what is going on in their own country in terms of music. I think it is about raising everyone’s consciousness: local music is out there, so go and look for it. But at the same time, if we have more radio airplay and media coverage, that will help too. Singaporeans are just a very busy bunch of people who are trying to live out our own individual Singaporean dream. It is not that we don’t love local music, but as a nation, we sometimes forget that it’s there.

Joanna Dong is performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall on June 30 and July 1 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available via Sistic.

For more upcoming cool happenings, check out Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG challenge. Don't forget to show us how you're living your best Singapore life via the hashtag #ExcitingSG – we might just throw some free passes and VIP tickets to exciting festivals, gigs and events your way!

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