It’s always a pleasure working with singer-songwriter Deon Toh cos the man is genuine, down to earth and serious about his art. His new album is one of the best I have heard in 2015 and thus, it was illuminating to pick his brains for the stories behind the songs. It’s really in-depth so buckle up!
What was the primary inspiration behind making Oceans a concept album?
As a songwriter, I’ve always viewed the creation of an album as the process of creating a standalone piece of work; a piece of art. I’m one of those musicians who still believe in coming up with a good 10 songs LP, and making sure that those songs make a collective statement.
As such, I did not craft singles and slap them together, but rather, I crafted an entire album. With that intention in mind, I dedicated myself to the challenge of coming up with something magical.
No disrespect or offense to musicians who launch singles, or demos, or EPs that are just a collection of unrelated songs (there’s nothing wrong with that); on my part, this was a personal challenge to push my songwriting limits and come up with a concept album.
The theme of circles and cycles seems alien to Singapore where the seasons remain constant – so is the music a product of travelling beyond Singapore?
I traveled with the intention of personal growth. I wanted to discover more about myself and see the world, and to understand the value of coming home better. Back home, life was changing at a rapid pace, with my graduation from university, evolving relationships, and aging parents. I had constant emotional and rationality debates, epiphanies. And at the end of everything, I walked away with a deeper understanding of myself.
What was the motivation behind incorporating post-rock and ambient electronica into your pop-rock sonic agenda?
During this period, my band and I had the privilege to witness one of the best musical performances during an Iceland Airwaves showcase at Canadian Music Week. We stumbled upon singer-songwriter, Asgeir, and fell in love with his brand of music. He incorporates loads of ambient electronica, which influenced us eventually.
The post-rock aspect came out of listening to loads of music from local band Caracal. We are huge fans of the band, and also spent a short period traveling with them, it was fun.
As for my pop-rock roots, I still listen to loads of Rachael Yamagata, Brooke Fraser, and Coldplay, which always keeps me grounded to my roots.
Can you recall which songs were specifically conceived in Reykjavik, Toronto and Liverpool? And what was unique to those locations that brought forth your creativity?
Yes. I can remember each story behind the songs, it could fill pages. While traveling, I made vocal notes on melodies I’d write. I would write the first draft of lyrics to these melodies, but really only do my own demo recordings and arrangements when I’m finally back in Singapore. So here’s the list:
a) Toronto – Circles, Summer, Winter
b) Reykjavik – Home, Silence, Fall, Cycles, Lights, Stars
c) Liverpool – Oceans
d) Amsterdam – Spring
Toronto living was simple, and happy, and meaningful. It gave me mental space and lightness that allowed my creative juices to flow.
In Reykjavik, I witnessed many wonders of nature. It made me think more than I’ve ever done so. It’s impossible to be un-emotive after visiting the place.
Liverpool was the last stop of our tour in 2014. It was a bittersweet end to a life-changing experience, and it was time to go home.
Amsterdam was a fantastic place for self discovery and out of body epiphanies. The country has so much soul and it had beautiful people and architecture. But somehow, it made me think about my aging parents.
“Summer” – the first single – is a very evocative tune with strong hooks and melodies. Can you describe the process in which you were able to capture its melancholic & wistful tone? Who is the female singer that backs you on the track?
I can’t remember how the melody for Summer arrived. It came out pretty much naturally over a chord sequence I was stringing together. I thought it sounded promising and decided to write over it. The first person who heard the song idea and melody hooks was Mindy Kon, who is my keyboardist and also one of the producers. She gave the thumbs up and I continued working on the song, and it was done within 12 hours.
The female singer who backs me on all the tracks on this album is Mindy. Her voice is evocative and soulful. More importantly, it accompanies my voice well and we work brilliantly together. Listen to the track, ‘Fall’, I think listeners can hear how our voices melt together well.
Why is it important for you – as an artist – to capture an emotional resonance within a song? What do you hope to achieve and what is it you want the listener to experience?
Purpose. To me, every move while crafting a piece of work as an artist should be purposeful. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it has to have meaning. Songwriting is my voice. I’m quietly opinionated, and don’t always air my views in public. When my internal pressure cooker of opinions reaches its limit, I will speak through my songs (haha). ‘Oceans’ is about my journey and growth and I want the listener to experience it with me. As such, “emotional resonance” within each song is important, cause music has a higher purpose than just being a string of notes combined, it is supposed to enable you to feel a whole spectrum of emotions.
I want audiences to, turn off the world, sit in a comfortable room, plug in, and listen to the album from start to finish. I think they’ll experience the album on so many levels. On a personal level, I hope that this album would propel me to have more writing, performance, and touring opportunities in the future.
Describe your working relationship with your co-producers Mindy Kon and Leonard Soosay – what did each person bring to the table?
Oh man, where do I start. Let’s begin with Leonard. Leonard has been my friend for 10 years. I got to know him after he took over recording my old band from Wayne Thunder (when Wayne passed). Over the past decade, he has guided me musically, and also helped me find my footing when I was a budding musician. He showed me the ropes when I wanted to begin as a singer-songwriter, and navigate the local scene.
On top of that, he is a fantastic producer and sound engineer, imbued with a unique pair of ears that are unparalleled. His experience and skills are more important that all these plugins and presets on software that make things convent now a days. I think his work speaks for itself; Leonard has been pivotal in improving the local scene all these years. With that, the only person I’m extremely comfortable working with right now is him. He understands my music, and understands me as an individual very well. I’m used to his working patterns too, which makes it a breeze working with him. Traveling together and listening to the same artists also helped Leo and I forge the new music. So he worked as a producer, sound engineer, and mixing engineer on the new album. He balanced the music to give it an appropriate touch for the message.
Mindy worked on production as well. She did a lot of sound-scaping for the tracks, making sure that each patch and sample and sound that was on the tracks suited the music and worked seamlessly. Whenever I was unsure of my arrangement, melody, or chord choices, I was sure to bounce it off Mindy and the rest of the band before coming to a decision. They have been integral to the structure of this album. Ultimately, the songs were written by me, but it only came together as an album when I worked with Leonard, Mindy, and the rest of the band. It was like working with family, and I had the most fun, meaningful, and purposeful time working with everyone at Snakeweed Studios.
With the renewed appreciation being accorded to Singapore music this year, do you feel any pressure at all? What’s next after the launch of Oceans?
I’m loving the growth of the local scene now. People are being signed to major labels, the government is pumping huge investments into the scene, and more projects are being created everyday. Local musicians are getting more recognition overseas, and traveling all the time to bring their art to foreign lands. The industry is not complete yet, but it is definitely improving, and I’m proud to be part of this generation of musicians. For example, I was extremely excited about the release of Time/Space by Charlie Lim, and Welcome the Ironists by Caracal. I love their works, and they have anchored the local music scene over the past few years. Its an exciting time to be alive. I don’t feel any pressure from being around other local acts, but I do feel the pressure to perform at my best (within means) so I won’t let myself down.
I feel that as a local act, I’ve always been slightly under the radar, doing my own thing. I’ve always received more recognition from overseas, from places like Canada and Australia, but Singapore has always been where it matters. I’m hoping Oceans would open up more listeners to my music. As long as I can change people’s lives with my music, and at some point it becomes the soundtrack to their day/month/year, I would be extremely grateful.
The process for me has always been the same. I write, arrange, produce, record, then release music. Once the project is out there and we’ve played our fair share of shows, and promotion; I will reboot the process and try to come up with something that tops the last effort.