We now live in a world where artists have to become more and more personalities, especially if they want a pop career. Marketing threatens to overshadow music, influencer is taller than artist, social media statements start to speak louder than songs.
In Singapore, Joel Tan seems to be the exception to the rule. Since his debut in 2013, the 27-year-old better known as Gentle Bones has become a name in local and even South Asian music, but particularly low-key.
Tan is not oblivious to the pressure to become the versatile, self-marketing pop star. “Every day I wonder if I should go to TikTok,” he said NME, letting out a hesitant little laugh as he leaned back in his chair, next to the two guards from his management company chaperoning our conversation.
Gentle Bones prefers to focus on the songs. That goal defines his self-titled new album, which currently features seven pop songs, each a collaboration with a different Asian artist, mostly Singaporean compatriots.
Many artists view early albums as valuable opportunities to make their own singular statements. Why fill his own with other artistic voices in the form of credited collaborators?
“I had been through a journey where I was tired of my own sound and my writing,” Tan says. “I was just trying to learn from the people I respect and create together.
“And I’ve found that when people are on the same page about what they think is good, compromising with each other to come to a consensus on writing music that’s more taller than the two of us, our preferences and our egos – that’s damn good. “
The songs on ‘Gentle Bones’ are often selfless in more than one sense. Tan has long written about romance, relationships, and all the complications that go with it (see his 2018 song “I Couldn’t Know Better Than You”), and there are several such songs on the album. But they take precedence over tracks like the likable and playful “Pocrastination” opener and the gently closer “A Day At A Time” cheerleaders, which aim to overcome the pain and slowly emerge from the fog into a future. lighter. Ultimately, ‘Gentle Bones’ is a record that hopes to serve as a balm to uplift and encourage those who struggle.
This is a healthy new chapter in the history of Gentle Bones, which began with the single “Until We Die”, later the opening track from the 2014 EP “Gentle Bones”. “The reality of ‘Gentle Bones’ EP is that it was never intended,” says Tan. “I thought I only had the chance to do one song.” It was his single “Until We Die”, funded with $ 1,500 he had saved. After this song worked well and Tan played a few gigs, he had the funds to record one more song and then another, culminating in the five-song EP “Gentle Bones” in August 2014.
Tan describes the release of the EP as a “special moment” which he wanted to regain energy on this album, which has been happening for years now. The last time Tan released projects under the Gentle Bones name was in 2018, the year he collaborated with Singaporean DJ-producer Myrne on the joint album “B4NGER PROJECT” and released his third Solo EP “Michelle”. Both were released on Universal Music, the label that chose him in 2015 as the very first Singaporean signatory. After a quiet 2019, Tan started 2020 as a fully independent artist and started working with new direction later in the year.
“My old music was still very ‘big’ and I tended to dramatize the unknown a lot”
“A lot of different factors have to come together for an album to come out,” Tan said when asked about the years on the road to a Gentle Bones album. To hear him say it, he had spent a few years as a full-time musician and had suffered a few false starts along the way: songs that “did well” and seemed to be able to generate enough momentum for them to do so. ‘an entire album begins to merge, only to be stuck with budget and schedule issues.
Another thing, Tan notes, that kept an album from coming together was his penchant for exploring new genres and styles. “As I find new sounds or work with a new producer, I find new textures – the songs don’t line up.”
And the earlier Gentle Bones material is characterized by that kind of genre leap, in tune with the dominant pop music trends of the time: on the EP ‘Gentle Bones’, soaring folk pop reminiscent of Mumford & Sons. and cult music; on the EP ‘Geniuses & Thieves’ 2016, future R&B influenced by bass; and on the aforementioned ‘B4NGER PROJECT’, electronic pop with unmistakable hooks and a tongue firmly in the cheek.
“I was younger then. There was so much about life that I didn’t know, ”Tan says of his past. “[The music] was always very “tall” and I tended to dramatize the unknown a lot.
Indeed, old Gentle Bones tracks like ‘Save Me’ and ‘This Hurts’ sound exaggerated alongside his newer songs, which eschew flash and melodrama for a sleek yet understated production and straightforward lyrics anyone can. understand and take to heart.
“Personally, I want my music to resonate with as many people as possible,” says Tan. “If I came up with a useful post… I want as many people as possible to understand it. The simplicity of the language is therefore very important to me. Loud words, I think they are not very necessary.
“Singaporeans have never been close to the epicenter of where things are happening, culturally… We have always consumed it, as people who were far removed from it.”
The Gentle Bones song that ticked many of those boxes and, as such, kicked off the new album was the 2020 single “Don’t You Know Yet? », The collaboration in Mandarin with Singaporean singer-songwriter Tay Kewei who officially inaugurated him as a bilingual artist.
He continued in December with ‘Better With You’, his collaboration with Benjamin Kheng which is the “best song I have done so far,” says Tan. While it is about the friendship and mutual admiration of the duo, the song’s encouraging message – “You could never let me down / This world is better with you around” – struck a chord with listeners who told Tan that the song took them out of a dark place and kept them alive.
The reception prompted Tan to explore this topic further. How could he write uplifting songs that don’t resort to empty platitudes? He decided to do some research, exploring psychological and self-care material. “The amount of reading I’ve done just to write good positive songs isn’t funny,” he remarks, a slight hint of disbelief in his voice. “You can’t just say this world will be a better place – how do you find the root of a pain that can resonate with everyone? “
One thing Gentle Bones brought up is self-love, which he and Filipino singer-songwriter Clara Benin sing in “A Day At A Time”: “Love yourself today if you can / Everything will be fine tomorrow, my friend / Let’s take it from one to 10 / And once we dance, it’s never going to end.” “I think there’s a fine line between basing your self-esteem on externalities and basing your self-esteem on what you really feel as beautiful to you,” Tan muses. “Often times we are caught thinking that the only way to be impressed with ourselves is when others are impressed with us. “
The cast of collaborators supporting Gentle Bones on this album reads like a who’s who of Singaporean pop music, from Benjamin Kheng to Lewloh (who recently released his own folk album “michigan / missinghim”) to Jasmine Sokko, who co- writes the most danceable single ‘Help!’. But there’s also Benin, Indonesian singer-songwriter Gamaliél (member of pop group GAC) on ‘Positive Procrastination’, and Chinese-American artist Karencici on Gentle Bones’ second Mandarin song to date. , ‘Daily Dose Of Love’.
Tan is proud of the way ‘Gentle Bones’ made these connections between various Asian artists, while being produced in Singapore. “We’ve never been close to the epicenter of where things are happening, culturally,” he says of the iconic pop culture that inspired Singaporeans’ childhood. “We still consumed it, like people who were very far from it. “I Want It That Way”: a huge song for us, but at the same time, we were never the real Backstreet Boys fanboy or fangirl, because we weren’t there.
Gentle Bones wants to make music that Singaporeans can feel they were there for – to write songs that form a time capsule for 2021 like “I Want It That Way” captured 1999. That’s how he approaches the work he thinks Singaporean music needs to develop. . “I feel like there is a lot more ground to cover, and I like anyone who covers a little bit of ground.”
He remembers something his fellow Singaporean singer-songwriter Linying told him four years ago. A nugget of wisdom she let loose just before playing a show in London, she also manages to sum up the kind of impact he’s currently trying to have as an artist: light in.
“Gentle Bones” is out now, with more new songs on the way