No Such Thing as a Free Launch

Published on 13 September 2017

Photo: Crispian Chan

The building of Singer/Songwriter/actress Ethel Yap’s debut EP spans years and continents.

By Jo Tan

In the tune factory of today’s pop scene, some musicians pride themselves on churning out new singles every few months. 29 year-old Ethel Yap is not one of these.

“I wrote the four singles in my EP four or five years ago, when I was a musical theatre student in London, living alone for the first time and turning to songwriting to process what I was going through,” says the genial 29 year-old. “They were for singing to myself in my room, not for showing others. It was only years later, after I joined the Noise Music Mentorship (Noise Singapore’s program to develop young musicians) that I got the confidence to perform them publicly. Even then, I wasn’t sure they were good enough to record. However, I gave myself a deadline, to record this self-titled EP before I turned thirty. It’s pretty much the end of the deadline now, after many years” she laughs.

While not all songs age well, Yap’s have, not just because there’s more spit and polish through her co-arrangements with producer James Lye, but also because they have grown with her and feel more relevant and heartfelt than ever, and are already scoring reviews as ‘among the best Singapore-made compositions this year with sophisticated chord structures, honest lyrics, memorable tunes and lovely vocals.’

Says Yap, “I wrote one of the tracks – Marionette – as a response to what my performing teachers were saying in London- you have to look, sound and behave a certain way to get work. But I didn’t want to believe that. Marionette is an assertion that even if there is a struggle, you will find your own unique identity. After five years of performing and being put through the wringer, it feels to me even more important to stay true to that than before.”

Indeed, Yap is a rare bird in today’s increasingly image and branding-focused performing industry. While already acclaimed for her acting, gorgeous singing and even dancing, she continues to go for self-improvement programmes such as Noise, but refuses to alter her healthy weight and diet to reach screen-friendly skinniness. She wears minimal and often no makeup, speaks candidly and with a recognisably Singaporean accent unaffected by years of overseas study. So it’s perhaps no surprise that preparing for the Ethel Yap EP launch was something she found rather difficult.

Photo: Crispian Chan

“It was a challenge to create a website, put together a press kit and write blurbs about myself, and use those to pitch myself to the music and media industry…I’ve never been comfortable with self-promotion. But even while doing that, I still try to be truthful and authentic as possible. I don’t want to change myself to become a mass-market product. So even though I’m aware that as a songwriter, my music may not necessarily have great mass appeal, I’m very comfortable with that. If they become hits, that’s great, but it’s not something I’m chasing.”

Keeping it real is also why she has chosen a rather unconventional space for the album launch – the earthy black box theatre that is Practice Space, belonging to one of Singapore’s oldest theatre companies, The Theatre Practice (TTP). “It’s wonderful that they’ve come onboard as the venue sponsor! I’ve worked so much with TTP on shows like If There’re Seasons, Liao Zhai Rocks and Lao Jiu the Musical, and I’ve spent so many months rehearsing in that space, that singing my songs there feels like singing from home.”

Of course, Yap never feels fully at home singing her songs. “As an actress and a singer, I find these professions do exist in very different worlds. An actress can hide behind the mask of a character. But when I am singing my own songs I am really just laying bare my soul, something which makes me nervous even today. I don’t hope that everyone will love what they see, but I’m happy that I now have something recorded, lasting, that I continue to share with people in my life, including my future kids. And by the public – Because I’m finally sure that these songs are meant to be heard.”

The Ethel Yap EP launches on 29th Sep, at the Practice Space @ 54 Waterloo Street. Tickets here. Or listen to the tracks on Spotify, iTunes and Applemusic.

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