It seems like Gentle Bones came out of nowhere. The 21-year-old (his real name is Joel Tan) has stolen the hearts of many a local teenager, and successfully signed on to a major record label. He burst into the scene in late 2014, debuting his self-titled EP at the top of the Singapore's iTunes charts. The first single from the album, Until We Die, reached number one on the local iTunes charts within 24-hours of its release.
In May this year, Tan signed a multi-rights deal with Universal Music Singapore — the first Singaporean artist to ever do that. A string of successes soon followed, including the chart-topping Sixty Five, a song written for the local movie 1965. Brands have also reached out to him for collaborations — TOPMAN recently partnered with him on an Unlock Gentle Bones journey, which will see fans accessing 30-second snippets of his new tracks from his upcoming EP, due for release at the end of the year. Recently, Costa Coffee picked Tan for its first installment of 'Costa Coffee with', their new effort in bringing together musical, visual and literary forms with coffee making.
It's at Costa Coffee's VivoCity outlet that I meet the young lad in between his set. I was taken by how incredibly youthful he is — of course, at 21, you couldn't be anything but — but he had a face which, frankly, wouldn't stand out from the crowd. That is, until you hear his voice. After our chat, he returned to perform his number one hit Save Me, much to the delight of his fans. Yes — although he's only been in the scene for a year, he's garnered a huge fan base, with supporters from the region and as far and wide as Germany, the UK and America. On the local front, we trawled his Facebook page to find a fan asking if Tan could "unlock me". He has yet to reply.
Why the moniker Gentle Bones?
I was 16 and needed a platform to upload my songs on. So I came up with Gentle Bones in order to have a Facebook page I guess, and that kind of led to now.
We have to ask: What's the gentlest thing about you?
I like to keep to myself most of the time. I'm not very outspoken, as much as people think I put myself out there and like to speak about issues.
To people who haven't heard of Gentle Bones (for shame!), how would you describe your genre?
At the moment it's more folk pop. But I'm trying to move towards Rnb, still retaining the elements I feel that describe Gentle Bones.
What were you listening to when you were growing up?
My parents got me into music with a lot of Chinese songs. As I grew older, Mtv was a huge thing then — I would sit in front of the television and watch music video after music video. I listened to a lot of pop music: Clay Aiken, Simple Plan — all the heart-wrenching stuff.
Did listening to those early 2000s artists translate into your music now?
It definitely does. There was a sense of music in the past where they liked to keep things very simple, but yet have the melodies and hook structures showing the song off. So that rubbed off on me a lot. There are a lot of musicians who don't like to stick to the "verse-chorus-verse-chorus" structure, but I decided to use it because that's what I grew up with and that's what I learned to appreciate.
And then you picked up the guitar...
I got super into the whole English music scene in secondary school, so I listened to a lot of Arctic Monkeys, Pete Doherty in The Libertines, and Two Door Cinema Club. Being an acoustic guitarist, I've always loved a lot of folk music as well, so people like Ed Sheeran, James Bay and Ben Howard are artists that really resonate with me.
Oh yes, you also covered James Bay's Hold Back the River with Kurt Hugo Schneider — great stuff. Some people say you're the Ed Sheeran of Singapore. What do you think about that?
I'm quite honoured. He was the one who really inspired me to go into songwriting and take it seriously as well. I heard his first album (+) immediately after it came out. He played very simple chords as well, so it's the whole idea of simplicity but coming up with complex melodies and lyrics.
Since you've been signed to a major label like Universal, how do you stay true to artistic value — are we expecting more radio-friendly hits?
I've always believed that you need to be radio-friendly. I feel like the categorisation of "radio-friendly" music differs with everybody. People take it as a bad thing. Being "radio-friendly" might restrict a song to having a specific structure, but in the end, a good chorus is a good chorus and a good guitar line is a good guitar line. Whether or not you repeat it is another issue altogether.
Who are the local artists you admire?
Charlie Lim and Inch Chua are artists I've always liked when I was a kid. I would go to their shows and queue up to get photos with them. But I know them personally now, so it's pretty cool...someone you've fan-boy-ed for, and now you hang out with.
What do you think the local music scene needs right now?
We just need to embrace the idea of a wholesome product now more than ever. Especially with the Internet, there's so much content out there. It has to be unique, this is how the Korean industry has done for themselves. They've made it something sustainable and worked with their limited resources to come up with a whole new style of music that appeals to people. I don't see why Singapore can't do that.
You're working on your upcoming EP now. What are the themes surrounding it?
I'll discuss on a lot more topics I never felt that I was in the position to talk about.
Life experiences, I guess. For example one of the songs is on my opinions on our music and entertainment industries. Other songs talk about love, but in an interesting way, rather than songs about me singing to a girl and confessing my love to her.
For someone who's 21, have you had a lot of experience in the romance department?
I don't think so at all. But a girl in primary school bullied me, so I had a phobia of girls for a number of years. Now it's better.