“Just do what you like. I believe that there is always a plan. Just do what you love and everything will happen.”
I first met Joel Tan, aka Gentle Bones at Starbucks, after his photo shoot. Though he may appear cool or hipster to some, Joel was really friendly and forthcoming in his responses. It was easy to tell that his life revolves around music, especially when he spends most of his free time devoted to preparing his EP and gigs.
Started in 2010 after his friends’ persuasion, Joel has gone from posting song covers on his Youtube channel to writing and composing his own songs. Most recently, he has released 2 singles, Until We Die and Elusive, claiming the 1st spot and 3rd spot on the iTunes Singapore chart respectively. Until We Die also broke the 100,000 views mark on Youtube, making it one of the most viewed music videos in Singapore.
Gentle Bones has since evolved from simply being a moniker to representation of a new style of Singaporean Alternative Music. With Joel’s passion and devotion to his work, it was no wonder he could attract such a huge following.
How did Gentle Bones come about?
It started in school, when I was still in Hwa Chong. I started playing performances because my friends said that I could sing. So they sort of forced me to perform for the class and that’s when I realized that [singing] could possibly be something that I could do. That’s when I picked up the guitar; because I thought it was quite lame to be singing alone. And then I started writing songs. Then throughout junior college, I started performing here and there, and was invited to esplanade for a bit.
It was an on and off thing with recording and writing. And throughout those few years I have been trying to find a good place to record. When I finally found one, I did Until We Die in 2012. I didn’t release it for one whole year because I was busy with army. So it slipped off my mind for a bit. Then I got slightly freer after a while, and it was perhaps the best chance that ever happened. Had I not gotten back to music at that time, I guess none of these would have happened.
I decided to film a music video in August, and put in up in December. When I put it up [on to youtube], everything changed. It was crazy.
Why not call your band by your own name?
I was seventeen when I created the name [Gentle Bones], and it was in trend to name a one man band. My idols were Christofer Drew, who was called Never Shout Never. And I loved his music. Another person I really look up to is Wei Wen Seah, known as For This Cycle. So the whole trend of one-man band stuck on me. Before I started I really looked up to For This Cycle, Wei Wen. I really liked his music and he showed me that a young dude could do this alone.
I named it Gentle Bones, and it has not changed since. Maybe had I got a more special name, or surname then I might have used it. But Joel Tan is so common. There are probably thousands of Joel Tans if you were to google it!
Would you then attribute your keen sense of music to musical influences when you were younger?
I was never a musician until I reached 16. That’s when I picked up the guitar. I have always been the listener, the audience. I have always loved all different types of music.
How would you describe your style?
My style would have to be defined by “Ed Sheeran” because he was the reason why I picked up music and started song writing. He showed me a lot of stuff. I was a beginner who could only play a few basic chords.
But what he could do with his music was using those few basic chords, and make a much more complex song out of it. The whole idea of lyrics with simple chords was something he made into an artform. And that’s where I learnt from him a lot.
Obviously after that I grew slightly out of it. But my roots are still very much into the idea of simplicity and complexity at the same time.
How did you juggle all your commitments (Studies, NS)?
I didn’t. It was always music first! But thankfully, I managed to scrape by [for my studies]. And people in NS are also quite supportive.
Why do you think your youtube channel became so successful?
I wouldn’t say successful. But when I first started, I made covers and stuff. That got me some following. With that following, I put up some of my original music, which I recorded by myself. And people liked it. It continued over the years when I would continue to put up covers.
The small audience, albeit small really helped when I put up my first proper song, Until We Die. Though it was small, it was significant enough to allow a chain reaction to happen and could spread my music to more people.
Was songwriting your creative output? Or did you see it as a natural progression of a youtube artiste?
Before I started youtube, with the first four chords that I learnt, I immediately use those four chords to write a song. I knew that as an artiste, I wanted to be one who sings his own songs.
I knew that the doing covers was only a temporary thing;so that I could gain a following. But of course, by doing all those covers-I have put on many and taken down many as well- I learnt a lot on recording and the style of song writing of my favourite bands. That really helped me grow as a musician. Covers are really quite significant in my life.
Were there a lot of skepticism when you first started Gentle Bones?
My friends were really supportive! They really like my songs somehow. Even from when I first started with the few songs that I wrote. I still like the songs I first wrote, cos I think there is this flair to it. People often relate the slightly amateurish style to hipster stuff so its quite cool.
Do you see yourself continuing Gentle Bones during or even after University?
I do not have many expectations. For how far Gentle Bones has gone now, I am more than proud of it already. But I will push it as far as I can before I go into University. And perhaps if [Gentle Bones] goes to more than what it can, I may consider taking a gap year. I am one of the few with the privilege of choice. And I am happy enough with that.
Were there any obstacles or problems that you faced?
It was never serious until the singles came out. And everything just went pretty well. Music didn’t occur to me as a job. It definitely is taking more of my time now. I have practically no free day.
Is it a worthy sacrifice?
It’s not a sacrifice! I am all for it. I have never been so busy with music all my life and I enjoy it more than anything. But the thing is, with last time, it didn’t happen so often so it was very easy to give [music] priority. It was like once a month? And there were no issues. And I love it so much. But had I had my current schedule when I was studying, there probably would have been some obstacles.
What do you think of the local music scene? Do you think its good now? Or do you think it needs more support from the government?
I think the government is giving a lot of support already. The reason why I could record my EP is because they gave me a grant. It was great without the support, I wouldn’t have managed to get my first EP out.
What about the Singaporean community?
Yeah. I have seen performances by a local artise, Charlie Lim. He fills up the entire venue! That is insane! The support form the local community is really quite strong, even though large amount of [Singaporeans] do not listen to local music; those that do really support the local scene very strongly. And that is good enough. But it would definitely be good if more people are aware of [local music].
How do you think you can make people more aware of local music then?
If more artistes put out their own music, it would definitely help a lot. Good music transcends all boundaries. Not saying that the hipster scene cannot reach the masses but when one band reaches the masses with more commercial music, it will help shine light on the local scene. It is because everyone is so insistent on playing their own genre, or their own style, I feel that it may restrict us a lot. But as more bands put out more music, more commercial stuff, and people find out that local artistes wrote them then it will help [the local music scene]. To me, it is the responsibility of the artistes. It is a process I guess.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would have started earlier. I think I started too old. But then again, everything happens for a reason. So I wouldn’t change anything. But maybe just start earlier. I recorded an EP during my ‘A’ Level period. I spent a few months on it and was quite happy with it. But I decided to not do anything with it. So I wasted those few months of effort, which also affected my studies a bit.
You cut the whole project then?
I realized it was not good enough? Any sane person who invested so much time into an EP would have released, and I didn’t know why I didn’t. And it all happened for the better. Had I released that EP, I would not have been able to receive the current grant to fund my current EP. And all these wouldn’t have happened.
Do you pride yourself for being independent? Since you compose, write and sing your own songs?
I think every local artiste is quite independent. It is quite difficult to get help or mentorship; because the market is so small. But I would say that my sort of music is untouched by other influences. That’s perhaps why I sound so “fresh” in the local scene. Because everyone else is more technical, more polished. I think I stood out because I brought something new to the table?
Were there any memorable or crazy moments that you remember from your performances?
I had this gig once at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, after I put out Until We Die.
I started singing it and the entire crowd started singing the chorus. That was the most insane. Apparently there were quite a lot of students there who listened to my songs. So they sang along, which was quite insane. That was the best.
Any advice for aspiring local artiste?
Just do what you like. I believe that there is always a plan. Just do what you love and everything will happen. Always have a goal in mind. But at the same time, there is no need to rush into things, since we are young. Just take your time and do what you love.
Watch Gentle Bones’ performance at Music Matters here!
– Profiled by Lim Zi Song