Profiled by Natalee Ho
“My theory is persistence/ Overcomes anything that resists or makes me think twice/ The science of achieving my dream, is sacrifice/I know it too well” – Kevin Lester, Rockstar
Mention the word “rapper” and a couple of things come to mind: bling, baggy clothes, and tough, high-rolling men with the tendency to cuss and say “dawg” a lot. Kevin Lester, however, is rather surprisingly devoid of all these attributes. Dressed in a cheery, pink button-up shirt, he is all smiles and eloquence, about as far from the stereotypical rapper persona as possible. He acknowledges this fact, chuckling, “Sorry I’m not really gangsta. You probably thought I’d be like, “Yoo waddup.” And here I am in my pink shirt.” I assure him it is a pleasant surprise, and it is. In person, Kevin is laidback and sincere, although there is nothing laidback about his attitude towards music – a solo rap artiste, songwriter and producer, Kevin also leads the 9-piece band SIXX, creating music that combines elements from soul, electronic rock and hip-hop.
Named ELLE Singapore’s Music Act of the Year in 2011, Kevin’s music career has been on a steady rise in recent years. His debut solo album, Let’s Talk About Kevin Lester was released in 2010 to rave reviews, with UK’s The Guardian picking the song “Rockstar 2.0” as one of its top 35 songs from around the world. SIXX has also been burning up the airwaves, playing at ZOUKOUT’s 10th Anniversary 2010, Mosaic Music Festival 2011, Sunburst KL international Festival 2009 and the Asia Hip Hop Festival 2011, amongst others. And they’re just barely getting started. SIXX also has plans to release a full-length studio album this year, and have been flying to countries like France and the UK to promote their music.
Amidst all this excitement is Kevin, the self-styled “Lion City Boy” and fan of milo peng. His music is big, bold and unpretentious, with lyrics referencing places and events in his own life in Singapore. Each song is refreshing in its honesty, proud products of his talent and his roots. In his own words, “You’ve got to know who you are. If you’re somebody else on stage, people can see right through you. I’m still Kevin Lester no matter where I’ve been. And I hope people can see that in my music.” Singapore has just begun to see Kevin Lester in his own light, and I’m betting that they will like what they see.
When did you decide to become a musician, and what inspired you to make that decision?
I’ve been a musician for about 11 years. I was quite young when I started from those dingy clubs with open mics and black and white posters. Then I joined a group with Taufik Batisah and Mark Bonafide. That group however, disbanded, and I worked in an IT company as a marketing manager, selling budgeting solutions, reporting, forecasting, shirt and tie. (laughs) During that time I also started my own band, called Sixx. With Sixx the momentum really started. It was then that I decided I really wanted to do something with this. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who wish they had done more in their youth. I kept my resignation letter for a while, but after that I realised that music was what I really wanted to do. When it comes to these things there are no real plans, but when the day comes that you are ready, you will know.
I don’t really know how to tell people when I knew I was going to become a professional musician. I’ve always had this dream and I’ve been making music for so long – but it was only with Sixx that I made this leap. It took some time to get that confidence in my own art.
Did you do anything to prepare yourself for the big change?
Before I left I saved up a lot. It wasn’t a calculated decision to save up and leave, but I was always saving up. So then I had enough buffer time to leave my job and create something sustainable. It’s exactly like in the movies – some days I wondered why I was doing something like this, with so little money. But right now I’m glad I’ve come to a point in my career that I am comfortable.
Local musicians have always faced the problem of a very limited audience. Why did you choose to stay in Singapore?
I’ve not exactly “stayed in Singapore” when it comes to music, to be honest. I move around quite a bit. I’ve done shows around the region, performed in the Netherlands, France – I just came back from London. I’m going to New York soon. But Singapore is my home. I want to go everywhere and see everything, but there’s so much here, like my friends, my family, etc. We tour and move around as a band because our music has to be of an international standard, but we will always come back here. This is our home. I mean, they call me the Lion City Boy, so I have nowhere to run. (laughs)
It’s funny – back in the 70s, local bands were the biggest thing ever. People would rush out of schools and workplaces for teatime dances. There were packed crowds all the time; the major labels were all here. But then there was a ban on local music. Local bands couldn’t perform anywhere, if you had long hair you were regarded as a hippie and picked on. It was the kind of ban that stopped everything, and this happening at the peak of the local music scene has made it hard for us to get back up. Everything since then, including music, has always been imported.
But I think it’s much better now. When I first started word got out very slowly, but now there is a real following when it comes to local music. Slowly but surely we’re getting there. There is a stigma, definitely. People are always asking me, “You’re a rapper? That’s all you do?”. (laughs) But it’s nice, in a way, that people are surprised. If I can do it, why not them? I’m not saying that every band that comes out is going to be successful, and it’s not going to be crazy every night, but there are a few of us who are helping to make that change. People have been so accepting of Sixx. Whenever we do shows it seems to always be packed, and people want to come and watch us perform. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re helping to bring local music back.
How do you feel you have grown since stepping into the music industry?
I have never worked harder in my life. There’s no real “industry” in Singapore. It’s a scene, it’s a gathering of a handful of people most of the time. (laughs) There are a lot of things you have to find out on your own; if something isn’t there you have to create it. You need to have initiative and put yourself out there. Thankfully with social media, it’s been easier to spread the word. It’s cheesy and people always say it’s a cliché, but if you love what you do there are definitely more rewards than losses.
Do you ever have any doubts? Has it ever crossed your mind that you shouldn’t have made this leap to the music industry?
I’ve never thought that I shouldn’t have done this, but of course I have had doubts. The first day I was in London I met with Snoop Dogg’s producer, with big shots from the music industry. People with the power to really help you break through. In Singapore we don’t have anything like that. The people that are the gatekeepers of the music industry don’t have the experience to push the musicians forward. So it’s so much harder to make it in Singapore as compared to places like London. But I recognize that, and I’ve always known this fact. I never thought it was going to be easy. Musicians always complain that no one’s going to their shows, no one’s listening to their music – but that is the choice you have made by staying in Singapore. You have to acknowledge that, and move on. Try even harder.
What do you like most about Singapore and what would you change?
One thing that I’m always missing when I go overseas is the food. (laughs) I’m a big hawker fan. I grew up in Serangoon Gardens, and my friends and I always go to Newton, Chomp Chomp…you can’t go wrong. Everywhere else it’s always sandwiches, kebabs. And then there’s the fake Asian food. We were in London, and there was a restaurant that sold “Singapore noodles”. What are “Singapore noodles”? I asked him and he showed me something that looked like bee hoon but was more like spaghetti. So yeah, I really like the food here. There is nothing that beats a milo peng. (laughs)
What would I change, though…I think people need to lighten up more? People need to take it easy, maybe smile a bit more. Just have some fun – I think everybody deserves that. We all work so hard in Singapore, when it’s our time to relax why not be happy?
Do you think radio stations need to be more receptive to local music?
I think so. I think there needs to be a shared percentage. I’m not saying that they should play local music all day, but maybe at least 20%. There shouldn’t be just one show, on one radio station that is dedicated to local music.
Why do you think radio stations are not supportive of local music?
Like you said earlier, there is a stigma attached to local bands. Even if the song is great, they won’t put it up. Maybe that’s what I want to change, actually. Have radio play more local music.
Do you have any advice for future musicians?
I heard this speech recently by a guy called Eric Thomas, and I really agree with him. You need to want to succeed, you cannot “kinda” want to succeed. Especially in Singapore, you need to want to be successful like you need to breathe. This place is not for the weak. You need to be persistent with what you want to do.
A lot of people say they want to be a musician, but they do nothing at home. They just play a few songs on the guitar and then go out clubbing. You cannot do that. You really need to put time aside and realise that there are days when you don’t sleep that much and days when you can’t meet your friends. You have to put in that amount of effort. I think that would be my main piece of advice. To want to succeed in Singapore you need that kind of conviction. You have to put in all you’ve got.
You also need to have a plan and figure out where you’re going. Like I said, there is no map in Singapore, there is no industry. Different bands have made it here, and we all did it in different ways. There is no one specific way to do it, you just need to know what is yours.