Melody Maker

Published on 28 January 2018

Credit: Raymond Kam

From gigging in pubs to judging The Voice Singapore/Malaysia, Hanjin Tan has made music his life’s work.

By Jo Tan

Hanjin Tan is known as a jack of all trades in the music industry, yet he’s assuredly not a master of none. He’s written and produced tunes for the likes of Jacky Cheung and Christina Aguilera, mixed and arranged tunes for countless other celebrities, and even acted for the big and small screen. His film debut in Bruce Lee, My Brother won him a Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer. Yet all this might not have happened if he hadn’t loved to sing.

“I was gigging in pubs while studying at the National University of Singapore. I made enough to pay my bills, but wanted to play bigger gigs, and the only way to do that was by becoming a recording artist. But I couldn’t get a record deal anywhere, perhaps because the genre and style I was doing was too new. I thought then that I should learn to produce my own songs — which included arranging, recording and mixing — so that record labels would listen and realise this was what they wanted.”

People did listen, with his compositions being picked up by the likes of Cantopop star Cheung. By the time he graduated from university, he’d produced Eason Chan’s first Taiwanese album, and went into freelance producing to keep learning about music. “Better than having teachers and reading theory, I was learning from the professionals working with me.”

While record companies continued telling him that as a singer, he still wasn’t commercial enough, the music he did release — with influences ranging from jazz to rock and reggae — is often described as “edgy” and even “trendsetting”. His concerts constantly pack out venues and he has fans all over the Chinese diaspora.

Says Tan, “When music labels were in their infancy, they dared to be market leaders, introducing material that was new, fresh, culturally exciting. Now it’s like, what did you like yesterday? I’ll give you more of that to be safe.”

As a mentor on televised singing contest The Voice Singapore/Malaysia, Tan makes it a point to never impose any particular style on his mentees. “I give them everything I can — from creating the arrangement, style and even choreographic design — to help them be the best version of who they want to be, in the style they want to sing and perform.”

He offers sound advice based on life experience. “Find ways to get your records out and make your gigs happen, even if it’s in a small auditorium or café. If you have to plaster stuff all over your school and get scolded by a student council, then that’s what it takes. It will be hard, but keep trying.”

He also encourages others to trust their instincts more. “Don’t wait for a billboard to tell you what you should enjoy. Seek out things you like, even in void decks or cafés. Snap, share and repost.”

Credit: Raymond Kam
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