Charlie Lim munches on kimchi and nacho cheese fries while we talk. Mixing things is nothing new to him. His life is peppered with it. You see it in the face. There is a little of Colin Farrell in the thick eyebrows. The Oliver Peoples wayfarer eyeglasses beneath have something Buddy Holly about them.
Charlie is a singer-songwriter and has produced two albums of original songs, and his music is a blend of many things, too. He plays the piano, bass and drums, but when he is on the guitar, there are images of Lee Ritenour in the melody. On the mike when he hits mid range, Art Garfunkel is audible.
But Charlie, born and raised in Singapore, is not a mixed-up kid. Far from it. Local jazz doyen Jeremy Monteiro sees a “global star in-waiting”. That’s a heavyweight compliment from a highly regarded musician who has played with Grammy Award greats Ernie Watts and James Moody.
Whether it is folk, pop or rock, Singapore has never lacked musical talent. Artists from Ramli Sarip and Shabir to Kit Chan and Stefanie Sun have huge followings with the Malay, Indian and Chinese audience. Their fan base extends as far as Indonesia, India, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In the Western tradition, the field is dominated by classical music. Violinist Lim Pan Hon and Lee Chin Siow, and pianist Seow Yit Kin are global icons. Only Monteiro and, to a certain extent, Los Angeles-based folk singer Corrinne May have put Singapore on the map outside of the classics. Other English-medium performers have had limited success.
Charlie, who studied jazz performance at Melbourne’s Monash University, has already gone farther. He has toured London, Australia, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Hong Kong, but says they were small gigs for crowds of only between 150 and 200 each. His biggest date so far was last March’s Singapore International Jazz Festival (Sing Jazz)at the Marina Bay Sands.
If he breaches the international market as a sought-after performer, it will be the game changer Singapore artistes need to get the attention of music producers in Europe and the United States to scout talent here for their labels.
If I can keep doing what I am doing right now, if I can keep touring and get on a bigger international platform, I’ll get to where I want to be.”
The 26-year-old—whose music transcends jazz and covers folk-rock, soul and electronica—ponders the “if’s”.
“If I can keep doing what I am doing right now, if I can keep touring and get on a bigger international platform, I’ll get to where I want to be. But it gets a little slow when you are not based overseas and this is something that I have been thinking about. I am going to London next year and it is a matter of how long I can stay there to try and make things work. I need to hone my production chops and network with more people there.”
Charlie wrote, arranged and produced his two albums, EP in 2011 and Time and Space seven months ago. His inspiration, he tells The Peak, is rooted in his interest in psychology, the human condition, philosophy and theology. The albums were well-received and earned critical acclaim, but have not hit markets that matter — Europe and the United States.
“It’s about getting the contacts and network that is important. I don’t know how much of it is in my hands. I have a management team, but they are all based here. We try to cold call some places and we do get shows doing this. But I think Foundation Music is aso trying to step in and help me out as well.”
Charlie is talking about Foundation of the Arts and Social Enterprise. It is a venture capital-like organisation that looks out for talent it can incubate and develop for a worldwide audience.
Kick-started by former Singapore Ambassador to Russia Michael Tay in 2013, the Foundation has a simple but effective game plan. Tay zeroes in on targets and then pairs them with patrons from his network of business contacts who can give them a leg up. His war chest received a boost last year after he re-registered the Foundation as a charity. He now gets matching grants from the Government for money he raises to develop local musicians with institutions abroad.
Jazz quickly came under Tay’s microscope. He saw a vibrant community of about 100 talented musicians who had no viable platform to grow beyond small gigs at clubs and events. He helped launch Sing Jazz in 2014 to spice up the local jazz landscape and it was headlined by legends Natalie Cole, Incognito, Roberta Gambarini and Roy Hargrove. It gave Singapore’s crop of performers a chance to show off their wares.
Local quintet The Steve McQueens stood out and impressed the international big names, especially veteran music producer Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, founder of British acid band Incognito.
“When Bluey did a master class for The Steve McQueens (TSM), I invited a businessmen friend, Ravi Chidambaram (founder of investment bank TC Capital), to the session,” Tay tells The Peak. “Ravi liked their music so much that he decided he wanted to support them. He is now their patron.”
With the additional financial muscle from Chidambaram, the Foundation sent the band to Bluey’s London Livingstone Studios last year.
Under the Briton’s mentorship, they recorded their second album, “Sea Monster”. Some of the music industry’s illustrious names including top DJ and record label owner Giles Petersen attended the recording. Their stock grew and in May last year, they opened for Incognito at the prestigious O2 Indigo in the British capital.
Tay’s next project is Charlie Lim, but thinks he needs a slightly different strategy.
“Charlie is a young man and seems to know how to manage himself, and is very good at it. So with him, we have to decide what he wants to do and where he wants to go.”
Monteiro is on the same page. He says Charlie must fly the coop because although Singapore has a loyal jazz following, it is still not big enough to a budding star far. Jazz clubs, he adds, struggle to stay afloat.
“He is a global star in-waiting,” says the veteran pianist. “He certainly has the musical ability in his playing and writing. But with artistes like him, he has to look for the ‘wormhole’ that allows him to go through and emerge to the place where he realises his potential.
“I think it’s wonderful that the Foundation is supporting artistes like The Steve McQueens and Charlie. But I really think the National Arts Council should support our artistes more and see how we can keep exposing them overseas, not just for live shows, but also to get their recordings on the airwaves.”
Charlie got this far as a singer-songwriter, as he has been not weighed down by mortgage payments and having to feed a family. But he wants to see the horizon at some point and is giving himself another five years.
“It is a bit worrying sometimes when I think about what I am doing. There is very little security. I live for just that moment when I am on stage in the hope my music transcends and impacts people. I really live for the music and this is what I have been doing for the last 10 years and wish I can keep going.
Charlie is very much independent at the moment. He does almost everything himself, and gets some help in branding and design for his marketing collaterals. “It is just about finding the right partners to do the work for me.”
The singer-songwriter, says Tay, needs to plot his journey in music. As the Foundation has done for The Steve McQueens, he can also connect Charlie with a patron and industry players for major music festivals and recording.
“If he strategises in the next year, he needs to go to one top music festival and play in an amazing place in either New York or London. And he needs to do a tour in Japan or Europe. So, if he has these three things, we can work to raise a budget for him. Our projects do not cost millions and so it is not difficult to help him take the next step forward to go international.”
The proverbial ball, as the saying goes, is now on Charlie’s court.