Sarah was one of those people you couldn't not notice in school. Even as a kid (a year below me in MGS), she had one of those voices that could raise the rafters off the school hall.
I still remember that day in the quadrangle in MGS, I must have been 12 or something insanely young like that, and it was some sort of special occasion. Up onto the podium where the principal normally stands walks eleven-year-old Sarah, all long limbs and lanky arms. The kids are fidgeting, talking among themselves, a quiet murmur as we waited for her to start.
And then she does. And there is complete silence. And all I can think is WHOA. Where in the world does she keep that voice of hers when she isn't up on stage? Her voice was so big, so generous, so rich and full - it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that it came from someone so young.
It didn't come as that big of a surprise (to me anyway) that she decided to pursue her passion and ditch the conventional route for the road less traveled, and honestly, we're all better off for it because talent like that should not be kept to a group of select few friends and family.
All these years later, I got a chance to chat with Sarah Cheng and talk music, art and making a living doing what she loves. I'm actually going to catch her performance this Friday, Sept 28, at the Esplanade, and I thought I'd share her musical journey with all of you, as part 2 of the series of Q&As I'm doing with young women who have decided to do what they love.
I understand that you have been in the music industry for a long time (and I know for a fact that you’ve been singing since you were in Primary school) – what made you decide to pursue your passion full time?
The definitive moment was winning the solo and group categories of a school talentime competition when I was 14 years old. (Ashley, you might have remembered that since we were in the same school) Since then it's a been a progressive journey, rather than a decision that happened overnight. But leaving a high-profile career in the media (I was a Radio DJ on 938LIVE) earlier this year was something I had to do in order to really focus on completing the songwriting and production for my debut full-length album, Brand New. It was not an easy decision to make. Thankfully, I've since received the support of Warner Music Singapore, who's distributing the album. I've also been very blessed and grateful to have the support of my family, friends and industry mentors, who have encouraged me, helped me, and continue to do so.
You have a new album out – Brand New. Could you tell us more about that?
Brand New reflects my new perspectives on life, love and music that I've come to realise in the last two years... I used to believe that music was like art. But I now believe that music is a gift that should be used to reach out to move as many people as possible. That's why musically, Brand New crosses the genres of Pop, Soul and R&B in a very contemporary and accessible way. Thematically, Brand New explores forgiveness, redemption, self-empowerment and love, inspired by the relationships with and of my friends and loved ones, and the realisation that with God's love, He gives us the chance to be brand new. Three of the songs were written after a traumatic car accident that left me miraculously unscathed. Such a near-death experience really forced me to look at life differently... and I hope that others will be inspired to treasure the gifts they bring to this world, and use them wisely.
What is the music landscape like in Singapore, how has it changed in the years that you have been involved in it?
It's definitely become more complex to be an artist in this day and age. Just five years ago, people still bought CDs. But these days. record companies and labels have stopped investing in creating albums for artists, because there's very little return in CD sales. With technology, it's much easier for everyone to create music, but not everyone has the expertise to create music that's of a high creative and production value, so there's a lot of clutter. On the other hand, technology has also created platforms for us to reach out to new fans and connect with potentially more markets.... It's clear that the music industry is changing towards another business model - but exactly what this is and how it will be sustainable in the long term is still very uncertain.
Specific to Singapore, there's definitely more original singer-songwriters and bands who are writing their own music, and it's great to be part of this movement. But audiences here are still very conservative towards local music - there needs to be greater interest and support for local, original music or else our talents will continue to move elsewhere for greener pastures. So it's great that bloggers like you are taking a fresh interest in profiling artists like myself :)
What are some of the biggest challenges/misconceptions when it comes to being an artiste in Singapore? Can the government do more to promote the arts?
The questions should really be, what can we do for ourselves as a community of Singaporeans?
Just recently, the Singapore Music Society, successfully negotiated with MediaCorp to have one local song per hour on all their radio stations. I'm not sure how compliant the stations have been, but it's a huge, significant win for all of us in the local music industry. Having worked at 938LIVE, I understand why it didn't make commercial sense to play local music, and yet music (and the arts) shouldn't always be driven by "commercial sense" at the expense of supporting good, upcoming, local artists.
I've spoken extensively with many people, including some radio programmers and officers from government agencies, sharing with them that the best way to encourage the growth of the local music scene would be to mandate a minimum percentage of local music programming. While we haven't achieved this mandate, our collective voices as represented by the Singapore Music Society has managed to create a win-win solution for radio programming in 13 of the 20 radio stations in Singapore without an outright policy change from MDA. Sometimes, the way forward isn't the most direct route, but this experience should encourage all of us (audiences, private companies and artists), to continually explore more avenues of collaboration to increase exposure and support for local music, and by extension all the creative industries in Singapore.
One piece of advice for other young artistes?
It's natural to face obstacles in any career path. But if you're pursuing a true passion, you'll find a way to overcome them. I can only speak from my own experience... but it is important to build relationships with mentors in the industry who believe in your talent. Also, consider music as a business too, not simply something that's a "passion". Then, you will find ways to make it sustainable for yourself as a longer-term career.
Sarah's performing tracks from her new album at the Esplanade this Friday, September 28. If you love live music, you love jazzy songs with an injection of pop, and you want to see what our local music scene has to offer, then may I recommend you purchase tickets from SISTIC ? You won't regret it :) I will see you there (don't forget to say HI!)
In the event you need a teaser - Parallel Lives is on repeat in my room right now.