Musician Kelvin Tan, 54, is one of Singapore’s most prolific singer-songwriters with more than 145 albums to his name. He is also indie music royalty – the lead guitarist for seminal homegrown band, The Oddfellows.
But he is not traffic-stopping famous (yet), and he has no qualms about this. “I never sell much music. Maybe what I do is too eclectic, but it doesn’t matter to me,” he says.
Nor has the self-taught musician and multi-hyphenate, who has also penned books, plays and a film script, put the brakes on his prodigious music compositions.
One of his latest pieces is the song, 界 (jiè), commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 and sharing the same title as the Festival theme. The Chinese character refers to the different world(s) we live in.
He says: “I’ve spent my life under the radar, cut off from things, so that I can concentrate on creating.
“I’m writing in my mind all the time. I have words swimming in my head somewhere, and I record melodies on my handphone. I have this whole bag of tricks.”
So, the writing of 界 (jiè) came easily to him.
He drew on his personal journey through sorrow and doubt in the last year as he mourned the death of his dad at the age of 88, and grappled with human suffering around the world, including the global refugee crisis.
He says: “Seeing my dad deteriorate and suffer made me question what is death, what is meaningful in life. And writing the song opened doors of light for me.
“It made me realise that for all the struggling and darkness we experience, despite human frailty and human limitations, we still try our best to love and search for a sense of meaning and sense of self.”
He admits that when he was a younger musician, he wanted his albums to sell.
“But as the years go by, you realise that that’s not very important because you never really wanted to be a rock star anyway,” he says. “You just want to make music. My life is an act of creativity.”
While the former film lecturer is indifferent about being in the spotlight, he is grateful for the opportunities that the Festival has given him, including a chance to hold a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first solo album, The Bluest Silence. It earned a reputation as a cult classic when it was released in 1998.
The album is a personal tribute, he says, to famous songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who for him, blended poeticisms with philosophy and music.
He says: “I’ve never written lyrics like that ever again, lyrics that are more deeply, consciously poetical. I’m very proud of that album.
“But I will be reinterpreting those songs at the concert because I’m a different person now.”
For details about the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 events that Kelvin Tan is featured in, click here.