You could pick iNCH Chua out from a crowd anywhere. Her short platinum-coloured 'do bobs along as she talks animatedly, lugging her guitar around. As far as references go, she's fun-sized but fiery, like a walking bird's eye chili if you will.
We met in a café in downtown Singapore during one of her short breaks away from Pulau Ubin, the 23-resident island where she's temporarily based. After calling such places as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York and Santa Monica in Los Angeles as home in the last few years, it seems odd that the local singer-songwriter is now shacking up in a kampong house in Pulau Ubin. But to the 27-year old, it's her process of coming full circle and going back to basics.
In New York, she was guilty of the most ironic things — such as living in Williamsburg, where cult television shows such as Girls are filmed at. "I'm so guilty of living in the most hipstery place ever," she says, chuckling. "When you walk down, every man has a beard. At some point I wanted to walk up with a shaver and do something."
Chua's a nomadic person at heart. Prior to living in Williamsburg, the independent artiste packed her entire life in a car and drove across 12 states from Los Angeles, hitting cities such as Salt Lake City and Austin. She played in local bars, Collaboration — the biggest Asian American music event in America — as well as the mega festival SXSW.
As for now, she's happy being in a place where she gets to fetch water everyday, kayak around the island and stay inspired by the sights and sounds of nature. She's even adopted a nickname christened by the island's locals: kim moh cha boh (golden-haired woman).
Compared to Singapore, did people in Los Angeles take you a lot more seriously as an artist?
Yes and no. I think there was a lot more respect there and appreciation for the artistry of an artist. Here, I realize I've always had to perpetually explain what I do for a living. But back there, everyone gets you from the get go. The questions get really specific on what you do which is really exciting. But the downside is that when you live in a metropolitan city like L.A., there are a billion musicians just like you. So you do get lost in the mix a little bit.
So what made you stand out?
To be honest, being Singaporean made me pretty damn unique. But in the music scene in L.A., there is a bit of controversy with Singaporeans, I'll have to admit. They think of Sun Ho when they think of a Singaporean...
So they didn't think Singapore's a part of China then...
For a city like L.A., everyone knows where Singapore is because they have huge dealings with us nowadays. My English impressed everyone apparently. That is very patronizing — but I think it's about being forgiving as well. Every state in America is so different. They've got a lot of their own local culture to already consume.
How is Brooklyn, New York, a better place for your music?
New York is more indie. The population is much more dense and there is way more competition, but I enjoy it. It's very progressive. It's not looking for your staple. It's looking for something fresh, interesting, groundbreaking and that's kinda where I like to be, to be able to consume it and experiment.
Los Angeles, New York and now Pulau Ubin. What gives?
The point of me living in Ubin is to experience total immersion of that life of simplicity, and at the same time have the chance to explore that space. It's such a forgotten place and there's so much politics about it as well. So for the earlier part, I was just trying to discover all of that.
Apart from kayaking and cycling, you're spending time there writing songs as well. How has living in Ubin influenced your songwriting?
I'm trying to create a digital imprint of the whole place, musically. I'm sampling sounds from the natural environment but I'm introducing the element of technology into it with acoustic strings. The sounds can be beats, rhythms, and sonic textures — like a digital forest. It's a marriage of technology and the old world. This is how I feel Ubin kind of struggles with right now and it's how we interpreted it.
So how different is it really, to live in Ubin?
For one, it's much quieter in the day and at night. The pace is obviously very different there. There's something very — for the lack of a better word — gangster. Because the history of Ubin is so deeply rooted around people in the quarries and mines, and people who sometimes felt like they were outcast from most of Singapore society. They have this come-what-may, devil-may-care attitude for everything. That kind of seeps into you. So when you're there and something doesn't go your way, you don't freak out as much like you do. It's great for songwriting, and great for tuning out.
Lastly, do you want to be famous?
Very awkward question. I think everyone wants to be famous for something that they're good at. If there's anything I'd like to be famous for, it would be to be a decent human being.