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 catch up with the Los Angeles and Singapore-based record producer and songwriter Tat Tong who was responsible for some of the biggest international hits like pop star Troye Sivan's Happy Little Pill and the Mandarin version of Despacito.
What gets you excited about Singapore?
That we're constantly and relentlessly transforming, in so many ways - besides the breathtaking physical changes in our city's skyline and architecture, I feel like areas like food, art, and music aren't far behind these days (even though the scene isn't perfect and it's always fashionable to complain). My hope for Singapore would be that we mindfully conserve the best parts of what makes us special, but also be unafraid to reexamine our assumptions, cast aside unnecessary baggage, and be optimistic in the face of trials as we grow from a young nation to a mature one.
You did not start out in the music industry – what made you do a career switch?
Growing up, I did pretty well academically, and so getting a scholarship to go study abroad was a big dream of mine. I eventually took up the SAF Merit Scholarship when I was undergoing officer training in the Navy, spent 4 years in upstate New York studying Computer Science (and singing in an a cappella group!) at Cornell, then graduated and came back to Singapore to serve out my six-year bond with the Navy. After a relatively rough two to three years, I wasn't sure if the career was the best fit for me, or whether it would ever make me happy; on the flip side, I felt like it was terribly self-indulgent for me to even prioritize that so highly, as after all, it paid pretty OK, serving the nation is a meaningful calling, and my parents seemed proud of me.
In the midst of all this internal conflict, music once again became my outlet for my feelings. I dusted off the old MIDI keyboard and wrote a very cathartic song about my career struggles called When It’s All Done that I uploaded on soft.com.sg - and was then randomly talent-spotted by a representative of Touch Music Publishing. Flattered but well aware that I wasn’t able to make this my career while I was still in the Navy, I took a meeting with them and thereafter decided to continue writing songs as a hobby. By the fifth year of my stint with the Navy, and having amassed some savings, I was weighing my options - between getting a PhD, and going into music full time with my savings as a safety net. In the end, Universal approached me to sign me to their songwriting roster, and music won.
What was your first big break?
There have been so many turning points in my career thus far, but one of the biggest turning points was getting a single with Taiwanese artist Show Luo - The City Is In Love in 2012. That song was pitched to Show’s label by Universal Publishing, and went to #1 for three consecutive weeks in Taiwan. It was then placed in two major ad campaigns: for 7-Eleven Taiwan and PepsiCo Foods China. The success of that song didn’t go unnoticed within the broader Universal ecosystem, and after a regional conference of high-level executives, the US office was interested to speak with me.
As you can imagine, this was pretty exciting and a rare opportunity as the US territory is full of amazing creatives and the flow of material tends to be quite one-way - from the US to the rest of the world, instead of the other way around. I jumped on a flight to Santa Monica and met with then-Senior VP of Creative/International Donna Caseine. Despite her insanely busy schedule, we sat in her office for a full 2.5 hours, talking and playing music. At the end of the meeting, she set me up for two sessions - with Grammy-winning songwriters Jackie Boyz (Madonna, Justin Bieber) and Damon Sharpe (Jennifer Lopez, Ariana Grande), and told me that I had her support if I decided to move to the US to make inroads in that market. And that's how I decided to make the leap over.
What are some of the highs in your career?
I’ll never forget the night (in 2014) that Troye Sivan’s “Happy Little Pill” went to #1 in 55 countries (eventually 66) on iTunes - Jovany (my creative partner in The Swaggernautz) and I were in the studio working on a tune when Wes our then-roommate burst into the studio, telling us to check our Twitter feeds. That song has since opened so many avenues for our team, and I feel so blessed that this major break happened so quickly, barely a year into my stint in the US.
Since then, there have been ups and downs, but the highlights have thankfully continued to roll in - getting to write and produce with Wang LeeHom, in person, for 2 months in Taipei in 2017; arranging the end credits theme for The Great Wall starring Matt Damon; writing and producing tracks on chart-topping albums with Latin boyband CNCO and Korean boyband ShiNEE earlier this year; and of course, working with both JJ Lin and Luis Fonsi in person on the Mandarin version of Despacito.
What’s next for you?
I recently got signed to Rebeleon Entertainment/Universal Music Latin Entertainment in the US as a performing duo together with Jovany Javier. Our name is WAPEA which is Caribbean Spanish slang, loosely translated to “work it” or “be yourself”, and our debut single will be launched on January 11, 2019 worldwide. So far, it’s been a truly fascinating journey seeing how US major labels operate from the inside! Also, as the only Asian person signed to a US Latin label, I’m now desperately trying to brush up on my Spanish so that I can eventually hold a conversation in Espanol!
We recently went to New York City for some pre-launch promotion, and will be doing the same in Los Angeles and other US cities when January rolls around. While the first single will be in Spanish and English, we will also be releasing English or Mandarin material in the future, because boxes are for cats.