We now live in a world where artists must increasingly become personalities, especially if they want a pop career. Marketing threatens to outshadow the music, the influencer looms larger than the artist, the social media statements begin to speak louder than the songs.
In Singapore, Joel Tan appears to be the exception to the rule. Since his debut in 2013, the 27-year-old better known as Gentle Bones has become a name in local and even Southeast Asian music – but a notably low-key one.
Tan isn’t oblivious to the pressure to become the all-rounded, self-marketing pop star. “Everyday I wonder if I should go into TikTok,” he tells NME, letting out a tentative laugh as he leans back in his chair, next to the two minders from his management company chaperoning our conversation.
Gentle Bones would rather concentrate on the songs. That focus defines his new self-titled album, which comprises – at present – seven pop songs, each one a collaboration of some sort with a different Asian artist, most of them fellow Singaporeans.
Many artists treat debut albums as precious opportunities to make their own singular statements. Why fill his with other artistic voices in the form of credited collaborators?
“I’d gone through a journey where I was tired with my own sound and writing,” Tan says. “I was just trying to learn from people I respect and just create together.
“And I’ve found out that when people get on the same page of what they feel is good, compromising with each other to come to a consensus of writing music that is bigger than both of us, our preferences and ego – it’s damn good.”
The songs on ‘Gentle Bones’ are often selfless in more than one sense. Tan has long written about romance, relationships and all the complications therein (see his 2018 song ‘I Wouldn’t Know Any Better Than You’), and there are several such songs on the album. But they take a backseat to the tracks like playfully sympathetic opener ‘Positive Procrastination’ and gently cheerleading closer ‘A Day At A Time’, which are about pushing past the pain and slowly trudging out of the fog towards a lighter future. Ultimately, ‘Gentle Bones’ is a record that hopes to serve as a balm to uplift and encourage those who are struggling.
It’s a new, wholesome chapter in the Gentle Bones story – one that began with the 2013 single ‘Until We Die’, later the opening track of the 2014 EP ‘Gentle Bones’. “The reality of the ‘Gentle Bones’ EP is that it was never planned,” Tan says. “I thought I had only had the chance to do one song.” That was his breakout single, ‘Until We Die’, bankrolled with $1,500 he had saved up. After that song did well, and Tan played some shows, he had the funds to record one more song, and then another, culminating in the five-song ‘Gentle Bones’ EP in August 2014.
Tan describes the EP’s release as a “special moment” whose energy he wanted to recapture on this album, which has been coming for years now. The last time Tan released projects as Gentle Bones was 2018, the year he collaborated with Singaporean DJ-producer Myrne on the joint album ‘B4NGER PROJECT’ and dropped his third solo EP ‘Michelle’. Both were released on Universal Music, the label that picked him up in 2015 as its very first Singaporean signee. After a quiet 2019, Tan started 2020 as a fully independent artist, and began working with new management later in the year.
“My old music was always very ‘big’ and I tended to dramatise the unknown a lot”
“A lot of different factors have to come together for an album to be released,” Tan says when asked about the yearslong road to a full-length Gentle Bones record. To hear him tell it, he’d spent some years as a full-time musician and suffered a few false starts along the way: songs that “did well” and seemed they could generate enough momentum for an entire album to start coalescing, only to be stymied by budgeting and timeline issues.
Another thing, Tan notes, that prevented an album from coming together was his penchant for exploring new genres and styles. “By the time I find new sounds, or work with a new producer, find new textures – the songs don’t line up.”
And Gentle Bones’ earlier material is characterised by this kind of genre-hopping, in tune with prevailing pop music trends of the time: on the ‘Gentle Bones’ EP, soaring folk-pop reminiscent of Mumford & Sons and worship music; on the 2016 ‘Geniuses & Thieves’ EP, future bass-influenced R&B; and on the aforementioned ‘B4NGER PROJECT’, electronic pop with undeniable hooks and tongue firmly in cheek.
“I was younger then. There was so much of life I didn’t know about,” Tan says of his past material. “[The music] was always very ‘big’ and I tended to dramatise the unknown a lot.”
Indeed, old Gentle Bones cuts like ‘Save Me’ and ‘This Hurts’ sound overblown next to his new songs, which eschew flash and melodrama for sleek but unobtrusive production and plainspoken lyrics anyone can understand and take to heart.
“I personally want my music to be able to resonate with as many people as possible,” Tan asserts. “If I’ve come up with a helpful message… I want as many people to understand it as possible. So the simplicity of the language is very important to me. Bombastic words, I feel are not very necessary.”
“Singaporeans have never been close to the epicentre of where things were happening, culturally… We were always consuming it, as people who were very far away from it”
The Gentle Bones song that ticked several of those boxes and, as such, kicked things off for the new album was the 2020 single ‘Don’t You Know Yet?’, the Mandarin-language collaboration with Singaporean singer-songwriter Tay Kewei that officially inaugurated him as a bilingual artist.
He followed that up in December with ‘Better With You’, his collaboration with Benjamin Kheng that is the “best song I’ve done to date”, Tan pronounces. Though it’s about the duo’s friendship and mutual admiration, the song’s encouraging message – “You could never let me down / This world is better with you around” – has struck a chord with listeners who’ve told Tan that the song pulled them out of a dark place and kept them going.
The reception prompted Tan to explore this theme further. How could he write uplifting songs that didn’t resort to empty platitudes? He decided to do some research, delving into psychological and self-care material. “The amount of reading I’ve been doing just to write positive songs well is not funny,” he remarks, a slight note of disbelief in his voice. “You can’t just say this world will be a better place – how do you get to a root of a pain that can resonate with everybody?”
One thing Gentle Bones has been mulling is self-love, which he and Filipino singer-songwriter Clara Benin sing about on ‘A Day At A Time’: “Love yourself today if you can / It’ll be fine tomorrow, my friend / Let’s take this from one to 10 / And once we dance, it’s never gonna end.” “I think there’s a fine line between basing your self-love on externalities and basing your self-love on what you truly feel is beautiful to you,” Tan muses. “Many times we get caught up in thinking that the only way to be impressed with ourselves is when others are impressed with us.”
The cast of collaborators supporting Gentle Bones on this album reads like a who’s who of Singaporean pop music, from Benjamin Kheng to lewloh (who recently released his own folky album ‘michigan/missinghim’) to Jasmine Sokko, who co-wrote the danciest single ‘Help!’. But there’s also Benin, Indonesian singer-songwriter Gamaliél (member of the pop group GAC) on ‘Positive Procrastination’, and Chinese American artist Karencici on Gentle Bones’ second Mandarin song so far, ‘Daily Dose Of Love’.
Tan takes pride in how ‘Gentle Bones’ has made these connections between various Asian artists, all the while being produced in Singapore. “We’ve never been close to the epicentre of where things were happening, culturally,” he says of the iconic pop culture that informed Singaporeans’ childhoods. “We were always consuming it, as people who were very far away from it. ‘I Want It That Way’: a huge song for us, but at the same time we never got to be the true fanboy or fangirl of the Backstreet Boys, because we weren’t there.”
Gentle Bones wants to make music that Singaporeans can feel they were there for – to write songs that form a time capsule for 2021 the way ‘I Want It That Way’ captured 1999. It’s how he approaches the work he thinks Singaporean music needs to develop. “I feel like there’s a lot more ground to cover, and I appreciate anybody that covers some ground.”
He recalls something fellow Singaporean singer-songwriter Linying said to him four years ago. A nugget of wisdom she dropped just before she played a show in London, it also manages to summarise the kind of impact he’s currently trying to have as an artist: “All of us are foraging into the darkness, and going wherever we can carry some light into.”
‘Gentle Bones’ is out now, with more new songs on the way