Natalie Hiong — Right at home with music
Posted on February 21, 2014
Natalie Hiong, SINGAPORE
Akin to starting a business, kickstarting a professional music career and building a name from scratch is by no means easy. Many would dream to bask in limelight with their favourite music idols, yet few would take a leap to pursue their passion relentlessly and eventually play alongside their idols. Not Natalie Hiong, she traded the bullion for the piano and has never looked back since. Her latest EP, Beautiful Mess, pens a heartfelt rendition of love and ambiguity. Inspired by experiences true to life, nothing is quite perfect. Yet in music, she finds comfort knowing everything can end (or begin) on a good note while she sings.
What inspires you to keep writing and singing songs?
Love and personal experiences in life.
What has been some of your most interesting experiences to date as a singer-songwriter?
Opening for Marie Digby’s concert here in Singapore, writing lyrics for the magic extravaganza show, Incanto, previously shown at Resorts World Sentosa and performing at the MEOW Con Showcase in Austin, Texas.
Who are your muses?
Singer songwriters like Sara Bareilles, Christina Perri and Brooke Fraser.
So you’re a fan of Glee?
Not exactly, but I do admire Rachel Berry (played by Lea Michele) and Finn Hudson (played by the late Cory Monteith) performance in Season 1. That’s as far as I’ve watched for Glee the TV series.
Any professional training in songwriting?
I graduated with a Masters of Music (Songwriting) from Bath Spa University in the UK. And I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager.
What was it like growing up?
I grew up in Singapore and came from a family who loves music. As a kid, my cousins and I would stage Broadway musical performances, like Cats, for my family during the weekends.
Awesome childhood. Christmas must have been a blast then?
Yes, we have a tradition of singing Christmas carols together with our neighbours!
How big of an influence were your parents?
My dad, a doctor by profession, fully supports my siblings and I in what we do. My mum and my 2 aunts were musicians and music teachers, and were probably the biggest musical influence I had at home. I have a cousin who is a classical pianist in London, and my younger sister plays the cello.
Could you tell us more about your career path?
I first got into a banking job as a natural transition from what I majored in at the London School of Economics. There was a recession during the year I graduated and I was offered a job at the bank where I had my internship. I thought I would give it a shot but gradually realised that being a banker was not a career path I wished to pursue. During the time where I tendered my resignation, some of my colleagues were leaving the bank to pursue better paying jobs at other banks. But I left to pursue a career in music and my supervisor then was shocked.
What’s the biggest misconception about the work you do?
That I’m slacking most of the time. It’s quite the opposite, I teach piano a few days a week. The rest of the time is spent picking up music production and arrangement skills, improving my craft and dealing with the business side of things. Any free time is for self-learning and as artists, I guess we do need headspace to think and wander for inspiration.
What has been the most challenging thing to face as a singer-songwriter? How did you solve that?
There are several challenges. Getting heard as a local musician is difficult as we lack marketing muscle, and also, the pool of local audience isn’t as big as other markets to begin with. Funding the production of an album and filming music videos is also a challenge. Those are all barriers one has to overcome. My solution was to save up religiously from the income I had from banking and teaching piano.
So you haven’t signed with any label or have a business agent?
The right opportunity has yet to come. I was once in talks with a record label, however they wanted me to sing and write in Mandarin. Unfortunately, Mandarin isn’t exactly my forte and neither was it the kind of music I wanted to be making. Right now, I feel comfortable enough to handle the business side of things on my own.
Do you have a process for songwriting?
I have hundreds of short tunes that I hum into my voice memo app in my phone, either acapella or on the piano and guitar. I also take down lyric ideas which may randomly pop up when I am improvising on an instrument to kickstart the creative process.
What has been the most challenging part during the songwriting process?
Some of the best songs are written when you are overcome by emotions. And to relive the periods of being heartbroken isn’t the easiest thing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt along the way?
I’ve learnt so much about myself along the way – what keeps me happy and what stretches me. I’ve also learnt to accept criticism and praise graciously and learn from each.
Does social media have any effect on your work?
Yes, definitely! I do mostly updates through my Facebook page. I’m less active on Twitter (@nataliehiong) but I do reply to mentions there. It’s important to keep an open dialogue with your audience.
What has been the response from fellow Singaporeans?
Earlier in my musical career I participated in the School Invasion Tour, where I visited many secondary schools and polytechnics with other local artists. It was quite an endearing experience to share our story and hear a teenage audience sing along during our performance. We’ve all gained a few more teenage fans from there and the audience support from local students has been very encouraging.
What are your thoughts about the local music scene and where do you think it’s heading?
There’s support given through grants from the government, mainly National Arts Council (NAC) and Media Development Authority (MDA) and I’m seeing great local music. I personally listen to songs by The Sam Willows and Vanessa Faith (one of my collaborators). It’s a better time than it was to be a musician in Singapore. The SGMUSO, which is a ground-driven initiative to unite the local music scene, does a great job as well.
If you were to turn back time, what would you have done differently?
Maybe I should have quit the London School of Economics and enrolled in a music college!
What advice would you give your younger self?
Have a never-give-up attitude and always look to improve yourself. It is important to network and have friends in the industry. Be true to yourself. It is possible to make a living from your passion.
What do you hope to achieve for 2014?
I hope to spend some time abroad to record some tracks and pursue songwriting projects that are different from what I’m usually comfortable with. I’d like to explore a new sound, something more edgy perhaps.
More Natalie Hiong and her muses on her official webpage.