Cover story

Char­lie Lim

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - WORDS BY JOY LING PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY RON­ALD LEONG STYLING BY EU­GENE LIM

TAO NAN SCHOOL, SIN­GA­PORE

An­gled by the school an­them board of his alma mater, Char­lie Lim stands be­fore the cam­era. He shifts in re­served frames, face stoic as the cam­era flashes ap­pear in his eyes as the fi­nal shot for the look is taken. The photo shoot team am­bles off to the next lo­ca­tion when a fac­ulty of teach­ers spills out of the ad­ja­cent room. Some of them recog­nise the singer and be­fore they could make the first move, Lim greets one of them, his Man­darin teacher who is ev­i­dently de­lighted to see him, by name.

There are two ways one would get to know of Lim. Through his first EP Time/Space– the lyrical ge­nius in ‘Blah Blah Blues’; the dis­il­lu­sioned lover in ‘Bit­ter’; the cat­a­loguer of rem­nant feel­ings in ‘I Only Tell The Truth’. And the other is from his in­volve­ment in this year’s Na­tional Day as song­writer, co-pro­ducer and per­former of the theme song. But that’s just a sliver of who Lim re­ally is.

“I’m not a pop star so that prob­a­bly helps in my favour.” Lim re­gards him­self as be­ing rel­a­tively shielded from the press, which doesn’t pry too much into his per­sonal life. A quick search on­line and you get the stan­dard ar­ti­cle head­lines; scat­tered rep­e­ti­tions of the ad­jec­tive ‘me­lan­cholic’. There are not even con­tro­ver­sial Red­dit threads.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are war­ranted dur­ing the first en­counter with some­one you’ve con­sumed sec­ond­hand in­for­ma­tion about. The mem­ory bank kicks in, pro­ject­ing prior de­scrip­tive key­words and search­ing for their ac­cu­racy in the per­son be­fore you. His stature is taller than most would gather; and his sig­na­ture cen­tre-parted hair and brow­line glasses are con­sis­tent. There are no airs or stiff for­mal­i­ties with Lim as he breaks the si­lence, he car­ries no in­sin­u­a­tion of ‘soft-spo­ken’. In­stead, he em­anates a quiet self-as­sur­ance with each sen­tence; the even pace he in­tones is de­cep­tively calm for some­one who calls him­self highly strung.

Lim con­fesses that he is full of anx­i­eties. Quar­ter life ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, as he puts it. Anx­i­eties that stem from an in­nate de­mand to live up to his fullest po­ten­tial. As much as it is a First World prob­lem, the bur­dens it im­poses are very real. Throw in his in­her­ent dis­po­si­tion into the mix—poor pri­ori­ti­sa­tion skills that equate to the propen­sity of get­ting over­whelmed at the lit­tle de­tails—and you can see why it does his head in.

“It’s like hav­ing per­fect pitch. I haven’t met some­one who has per­fect pitch and is not mis­er­able. A cou­ple of guys in my band have per­fect pitch and they’re just con­stantly in agony be­cause things are not in tune,” he says, chuck­ling at the flash­back. “We laugh about it, but I guess I’m like that with other things as well.”

He fur­ther elab­o­rates on his point with iki­gai, a Ja­panese con­cept that roughly trans­lates to ‘rea­son for be­ing’. Iki­gai is typ­i­fied in a Venn di­a­gram of four as­pects: What you love, What the world needs, What you can get paid for and What you’re good at. Within the over­laps, you get the quad­rants Mis­sion, Vo­ca­tion, Pro­fes­sion and Pas­sion. In short—a vis­ual de­pic­tion of the value of life. Lim en­dorses its in­spi­ra­tional pur­pose, es­pe­cially for dispir­ited work­ers, but to artists, mu­si­cians and cre­ators in gen­eral, iki­gai presents it­self as yet an­other stress fac­tor. It is easy to be un­happy with the things you are pro­duc­ing and si­mul­ta­ne­ously dif­fi­cult to an­swer to how it con­trib­utes to so­ci­ety. You’re not ex­actly sav­ing lives.

“I don’t know how to not be hard on my­self,” he says re­signedly. “Catch­ing your­self in the mo­ment, learn­ing to bal­ance when to step in and when to let go, is one of the tough­est things to do.”

To that ex­tent, his mu­sic video in ‘ Wel­come Home’ is a meta­phys­i­cal study into that. You get a peek into the sup­posed be­hind-the-scenes of the mu­sic video with an ex­ag­ger­ated ren­der­ing of Lim’s mi­cro-man­ag­ing. It opens with a cut­away in­ter­view with the di­rec­tor, who is vis­i­bly trau­ma­tised

from the in­volve­ment with a prob­lem­atic mu­si­cian. The drama un­folds into the jock­ey­ing of con­cepts be­tween the two; where the di­rec­tor pro­poses for him to take the con­ven­tional, al­beit sappy route, but MV Lim in­sists that he “just wants to dance bro”. “So do you want to dance?” I in­quire for the masses. It’s a no from Lim. In fact, he goes on to share about the feed­back he re­ceived from peo­ple who have wel­comed and ap­plauded it as a se­ri­ous change of style di­rec­tion… which com­pletely misses the point. Smil­ing, he con­veys that the ini­tial con­cept from the real mu­sic video di­rec­tor Jonathan Choo be­gan on a more ab­stract level, per­haps pitched as such to avoid of­fend­ing the real mu­si­cian Lim. But of course, Re­al­ity Lim is noth­ing like MV Lim.

“Dude, we should just go for it and take a com­plete piss out of ev­ery­thing,” he quotes him­self. “Not just about pop cul­ture but also my­self, what I’ve been do­ing, what peo­ple think of me—or at least what I think peo­ple think of me—then it just spi­ralled out of con­trol very quickly.”

Both a re­sult of the trust Lim had in his team, and them col­lec­tively en­joy­ing the process, the spi­ral got to the point where every­one had to step back and won­der if any­body, apart from them­selves, could dis­cern the in­tent they were go­ing for. A gru­elling shoot­ing and edit­ing process nonethe­less, but one he feels he had the most fun with.

“How do I por­tray my­self in the worst pos­si­ble way?” It wasn’t about show­ing a dif­fer­ent side of him­self to counter the ‘sad boy’ im­age that he car­ried, but an ex­pres­sion of the be­lief that hu­man be­ings are com­plex and that no one is truly one-di­men­sional. From there springs forth the hi­lar­i­ous, bril­liant twist we see in ‘Wel­come Home’. Even the Chi­nese sub­ti­tles are loosely trans­lated on pur­pose; di­rectly in­ferred and de­void of proper gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture. The high­light be­ing the word ‘meme’ in Man­darin.

What MV Lim yells be­fore get­ting into a phys­i­cal brawl with the di­rec­tor is prob­a­bly an au­then­tic opin­ion of Re­al­ity Lim. Memes are cool to him. Apart from the nec­es­sary brand pro­mo­tion, Lim’s Twit­ter page is a com­pound of so­cial com­men­tary, sup­port for the lo­cal mu­sic in­dus­try and highly re­lat­able meme con­tent. He clearly takes plea­sure in be­ing the sub­ject of meme cul­ture as well, re­post­ing them on his so­cial me­dia ac­counts.

“I have peo­ple tag­ging me on these ran­dom things I never thought would be tagged in be­cause the song is called ‘Wel­come Home’; like floor mats, or when they come back to Changi Air­port. To me, I know the song is play­ing in their head when they see that.”

Specif­i­cally, where, or what, is home for Lim? Shut­tling be­tween Mel­bourne and Sin­ga­pore through­out his grow­ing years, up­root­ing and mov­ing is sec­ond na­ture to him. He was the first of his fam­ily to move to Mel­bourne at just 14 be­fore they joined him a year later. Even when he re­turned to Sin­ga­pore for Na­tional Ser­vice, he spent his res­i­dency ro­tat­ing among the homes of rel­a­tives. It’s un­der­stand­able then, when he finds the no­tion of home some­what dis­mal, the nos­tal­gic cling­ing to a false sense of com­fort. If home were a lo­ca­tion, it would be shift­ing sand be­cause the place could re­main, but cir­cum­stances would have changed. Try­ing to grasp what he was once at­tached to would only lead to a per­sonal emo­tional demise.

I see him slip­ping back into the broody artist per­sona most type­cast him as, ex­press­ing his views in the way I imag­ine an­cient Chi­nese poets did of the moon. But like light fil­ter­ing through the cracks, the pos­i­tiv­ity comes through. What I mis­took for a de­fence mech­a­nism was, in truth, a prag­matic ap­proach for Lim. He doesn’t stay an­chored to the past only be­cause he fo­cuses on build­ing a new home. One founded upon time spent with loved ones and new con­nec­tions made. For Lim, home lies in the safe zone pro­vided, in the ab­sence of façades and judge­ment.

Still, home as a na­tive land must hold some sen­ti­ment to a self-pro­fessed cynic. “I couldn’t be hap­pier to be part of NDP… and I never thought I would say that. I don’t usu­ally buy into these things, but I still cry ev­ery week at re­hearsal,” he says with a laugh, “like [Boo] Jun­feng do­ing such a good job, just be­ing there and see­ing all the kids, el­derly vol­un­teers and every­one slog­ging it out, re­al­is­ing I don’t re­ally have a right to com­plain when all I do is walk up and sing one thing.”

I sus­pect words are just not suf­fi­cient in the ar­tic­u­la­tion here. Lim does more than just walk up and sing one thing, surely. Rewrit­ing a clas­sic prac­ti­cally in­doc­tri­nated into Sin­ga­pore­ans is no small feat. When the theme and song ba­sis for the year was set in place and the cast­ing call for song­writ­ers sent out, Lim went ahead with his ground­work. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion only led to his hor­ror at dis­cov­er­ing that 1987’s ‘We Are Sin­ga­pore’ was com­mis­sioned by the govern­ment to be com­posed by ad­man Hugh Har­ri­son, who is Cana­dian.

Lim then dove into an au­dio­vi­sual re­search on YouTube last­ing a cou­ple of weeks on Na­tional Day songs over the past two decades to find points of ref­er­ence, be­fore spend­ing the next cou­ple of weeks mulling over it. His hand­scribed love let­ter to Sin­ga­pore fi­nally spilled out within a day, and its demo

pro­duced and recorded shortly af­ter. Lim refers to the sub­mis­sion as a bit of an ul­ti­ma­tum—a take it or leave it— as he couldn’t see him­self change much of it. Fun­nily enough, what you hear as the end prod­uct is the pre­served vo­cals of the demo track recorded in his bed­room.

De­spite his true-to-self de­sire to rere­cord to per­fec­tion, which was at­tempted, Na­tional Day Pa­rade di­rec­tor Dr Sydney Tan even­tu­ally went with the orig­i­nal ver­sion. Lim hon­ours the man who fought for his ren­di­tion through mul­ti­ple lev­els of ap­proval, to whom he believes more credit is due. “‘Home’ and a lot of SG50, ba­si­cally all the good years or any­time there is some­thing good to say about NDP, he’s be­hind it.”

TERELJ ROAD, MON­GO­LIA

Im­me­di­ately af­ter a Mon­go­lian tune ends, a Korean pop song fol­lows suit. Then the lat­est Amer­i­can chart-top­per. Then an old Chi­nese movie soundtrack. On a car ride on an ex­tended tour, mu­sic

cush­ions the bore­dom. Among the ran­dom med­ley sur­faces, How many times have you heard them say / The fu­ture is un­cer­tain and ev­ery­thing must change. Ears prick up as the un­mis­tak­able cho­rus chimes in. ‘We Are Sin­ga­pore’ is, in­deed, play­ing.

I re­late this mo­ment to Lim. Whether it was the lo­cal ra­dio chan­nel or the lo­cal driver’s playlist, it was cer­tainly a sur­prise to hear the Na­tional Day theme song among a plethora of in­ter­na­tional songs. If Lim was sur­prised, he didn’t let it show.

“Wow, I wish I had roy­al­ties,” he says in a dead­pan voice, “but that’s whack. Maybe they were sam­pling a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent coun­tries, but this was the one that rep­re­sented Sin­ga­pore.” That he found amus­ing.

Given the hy­po­thet­i­cal chance to write the theme song from scratch, Lim prob­a­bly would have done it quite dif­fer­ently. Al­though there is the is­sue of the sub­ver­sive nu­ance of his lyrics. The first line of his pre­lude raised the com­mit­tee’s con­cerns on its am­bigu­ous un­der­ly­ing im­pli­ca­tions. Valid, he con­cedes, but open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

It’s no dif­fer­ent with his mu­sic. He falls into a brief pause when I ask what ‘ Wel­come Home’ is re­ally about. “I don’t like an­swer­ing what or who the song is about,” he re­sponds. “It’s a tough ques­tion to an­swer be­cause I don’t write a song for some­one or be­cause of some­thing. It’s very hard to go in with a pre­con­ceived idea and try to ex­e­cute it as if you knew the en­tire pro­ce­dure or recipe to get the fi­nal prod­uct.”

Lim may en­ter the stu­dio with a loose idea, but as he plays around with the beats, chords take shape and the tenor of it forms a life of its own. As he starts vo­cal­is­ing even be­fore lyrics are put to pa­per, the ini­tial idea un­spools to re­veal a spark that he is pre­dis­posed to chase. It’s al­most ex­per­i­men­tal how lyrics, chords and even ideas stored in the back­burner are taken out of the bag and thrown in to try what works.

“Spec­u­late ev­ery slight sit­u­a­tion / Just a sign of the times we live in” was a line Char­lie wrote ages ago, but seemed to fit the mood of ‘Wel­come Home’ and what he was try­ing to ex­press in it.

It’s straight­for­ward to post-ra­tio­nalise a story. Many in­tro­duc­tory texts of art pieces do this, as though the fin­ished prod­uct is a car­bon copy of the artist’s rudi­men­tary vi­sion. It just doesn’t hap­pen that way and I’m glad Lim did not up­hold that cha­rade. Yet the pol­ished patch­work reads as a smooth nar­ra­tive and that’s when it’s ob­vi­ous mu­sic is his call­ing.

Mu­sic was the path of least re­sis­tance for Lim since young. Be­ing in­tu­itively good at it only in­di­cated that a min­i­mal ef­fort was re­quired to yield the max­i­mum re­sult. As all kids are at that age, he picked the easy way out. “So I just dug my­self into a hole I can’t get out of,” he says. “Had to learn the hard way that it’s re­ally not that easy.”

Be­fore mu­sic got its ten­ter­hooks into him, there were two op­tions Lim con­sid­ered when he first moved to Aus­tralia: a doc­tor or a writer. What would you have done if not mu­sic is not just an in­ter­view ques­tion to him; it’s the nag­ging doubt that prods at his be­ing ev­ery dry sea­son. We’re back on the iki­gai paradigm. “Maybe I’ll be bet­ter off at a sem­i­nary or teach­ing. Do some­thing that’s more use­ful to so­ci­ety than me be­ing stuck in my room.” The room where most of the work gets done, which Lim ad­mits to be in­cred­i­bly un­healthy since he can never fully rest at home.

“Then again, I can never fully rest any­where. I’m al­ways on emails, on edge, want­ing things to be done as soon as pos­si­ble.” He finds peace in ar­rang­ing, fil­ing and colour-cod­ing his stuff. Right down to his pedal board, which to date, is in an al­ter­nate black-and-gold scheme. Lim di­vulges that he goes to the trou­ble of sell­ing his pedal for one that fits the colour com­po­si­tion, even if it meant a trade down. “My band’s face-palm­ing, go­ing, ‘Why are you do­ing this? Come lah I spray paint for you.’” He sighs lightly be­fore trail­ing off into si­lence, the vir­tual list run­ning off in his head.

“I was just think­ing about my in­box and Drop­box right now, all the things I need to sort through. I hate a messy desk­top, but I know mine is re­ally messy at the mo­ment. Files ev­ery­where, just think­ing about it gets me trig­gered. I’m go­ing to sort that out right now be­fore sound check.”

You must have a lot of fold­ers, I re­marked, guilty of hav­ing the same mildly ob­ses­sive­com­pul­sive symp­toms.

“Yeah, many that I try to colour tag, but the Mac doesn’t have enough colours for me to use,” he runs his fin­gers through his hair in mock ex­as­per­a­tion. “I don’t think I’m an easy per­son to live with, so I’m very thank­ful for my fi­ancée who has ac­cepted me, or loved me un­con­di­tion­ally, the last two years.”

As I quiz him a lit­tle about his beau, a men­tal pic­ture of the re­la­tion­ship is painted be­fore me. Be­ing a mu­si­cian is fun­da­men­tally run­ning your own busi­ness. It’s no reg­u­lar nine to five, but that’s not an ex­emp­tion from bring­ing home the ba­con ei­ther. The sense of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties on tour can be over­whelm­ing, and his stresses, in turn, take a toll on her. But she has been very un­der­stand­ing. Though based in Sin­ga­pore, she’ll join him on his tour at times. She even helped with the Ja­panese ver­sion of the songs, be­ing flu­ent in the lan­guage. You can sense the grat­i­tude when he speaks of her em­pa­thy for him. “We are quite sim­i­lar in that we are both over­thinkers, so we sup­port each other that way.”

He al­ludes to the new al­bum as an ode to over­think­ing. The way it has been pro­duced, ar­ranged and per­formed is a re­flec­tion of that headspace. He con­trasts Time/Space as a drawn-out process of try­ing to fig­ure him­self out, only to re­alise that he didn’t have to. “You just have to write from an hon­est place, keep show­ing up and putting in the work. Things will evolve any­way.” He main­tains that he is a lot more con­fi­dent in his work and in him­self as a per­son. The new work is a nod to the re­flect­ing and search­ing. “The per­pet­ual tug-of-war— tugs- of-war—” he cor­rects him­self, “in my brain is on this al­bum.”

In terms of the beats, it’s a switch up from the down tempo and al­ter­nate R&B. Hav­ing dis­cov­ered UK Garage un­der the in­flu­ence of dream pro­duc­ers and com­pat­i­ble col­lab­o­ra­tors, Yeo and Si­mon Lam, the al­bum grooves at a faster bpm and two-step rhythm. A lot of which is dance mu­sic.

“So you do want to dance,” I in­ter­ject. “Yeah, in my own way. At home, in my chair. I like to make dance mu­sic for peo­ple who don’t go to clubs, like my­self.” In the same vein of genre-bend­ing mu­sic, the aim is not to sub­vert the ex­pec­ta­tion of oth­ers, but to chal­lenge one’s own thresh­old. The mu­si­cian’s pre­rog­a­tive; and now is just the time to ex­plore it.

It was planned to be an EP, but be­came a seven-track af­ter some ne­go­ti­a­tion from higher-ups, ie, “To­long can you make it a cou­ple more songs”. A nice length, he at­tests, co­in­ci­den­tally what is trend­ing be­cause peo­ple no longer have the time to sit down to lis­ten to a full al­bum now that stream­ing has taken over. “Or maybe peo­ple do, be­cause of who they are. But if you are, you know… Char­lie Lim,” he name-drops in feigned ar­ro­gance, “no­body cares.”

MV Lim in­stantly dou­bles back to Re­al­ity Lim. “I still be­lieve in the in­tegrity of this al­bum. A sin­gle can only give so much without telling a story. Sure, you can get it on a playlist, it may be a main­stream break­through, but I don’t want to be known just for writ­ing a smash hit. I want to have a body of work that I’m proud of, where ev­ery sin­gle song tells a story. Where there is rea­son be­hind the track list­ing, like a col­lage you as­sem­ble to ap­pre­ci­ate from start to fin­ish.”

That jour­ney is for the au­di­ence to take. Per­son­ally, he is un­able to lis­ten to his older ma­te­rial without tak­ing ev­ery­thing apart. Lim adopts the com­mon at­ti­tude of most cre­atives, ac­ced­ing that in all the im­per­fec­tions, early work ex­ists as fruits of the best ef­fort then. “At this point, I’m def­i­nitely proud of this al­bum. It was writ­ten much faster than the pre­vi­ous, and I re­ally en­joyed the process a lot more. Not say­ing it wasn’t hard, and not say­ing I didn’t bang my head against the wall.”

One main source of the press­ing weight is the fear of be­ing medi­ocre. More than sharks, more than fall­ing, roller coast­ers and bungee-jump­ing. Oh, and sky-div­ing, which Lim never wants to try. Rather than a com­pet­i­tive streak, it’s the in­ter­nal af­fir­ma­tion that he’s at op­ti­mum on the road he has mapped. “You’ll al­ways em­bark with these grand ideas, but it in­evitably comes down to what I can live with. If I’m happy with what I put out into the world, oth­ers will be as well, and that’s all that mat­ters.”

RIC’ S BIG BACK­YARD, BRIS­BANE

It’s a small but lively evening crowd at the set of Hear65, a part­ner­ship plat­form for Sin­ga­pore mu­sic, in Aus­tralia’s an­nual mu­sic fes­ti­val BigSound. In a com­mend­able act of mul­ti­task­ing, Lim ad­justs the mic stand while singing and play­ing the key­board, but the stand re­fuses to ad­here to its place. Lim sig­nals for lo­gis­tic as­sis­tance in the mu­sic in­terim be­fore delv­ing back into the per­for­mance. He doesn’t break key. So, where is Lim? You can find him in the Venn di­a­gram com­pris­ing the pur­suit of har­mony be­tween push and pull, the con­tin­ual re­minder that ex­ter­nal mea­sures of hap­pi­ness are sim­ply ‘pseudo sta­tis­tics’ and the com­plete com­ing to terms with self.

But as the song con­cludes, when Lim ad­dresses the at­ten­dance in the same grace ex­uded in the in­ter­view hours be­fore, I’d like to imag­ine he’s liv­ing in the mo­ment and there’s no other place he’d rather be.

Polyester jacket and polyester trousers, both by 132.5 Is­sey Miyake; cot­ton belt, by Chris­tian Dada; tech­ni­cal sneak­ers, by Nike­lab; frames, by Oliver Peo­ples.

Ny­lon-and-cot­ton layer coat, cot­ton hoodie, cot­ton T-shirt, cot­ton denim jeans and leather shoes, all by Ba­len­ci­aga; frames, by Oliver Peo­ples.

Polyester jacket, cot­ton shirt and wool trousers, all by Comme des Garçons at Dover Street Mar­ket Sin­ga­pore; frames, by Car­rera.

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