Deon Toh talks Icelandic influences, the local music scene, and releasing a concept album

Deon Toh talks Icelandic influences, the local music scene, and releasing a concept album

Finding the sweet spot

Text: Varsha Sivaram

Image: Deon Toh

Launching on 10 July, Deon Toh's album ‘Oceans’ is a conceptual wonder which took crossing continents to make. He gives us an insight on how it all came together

It was a relatively quiet affair when we sat down with local singer-songwriter Deon Toh at Group Therapy café. Yet there was something else present beyond its calm atmosphere: an almost insistent buzz of passion in the air. It can only be attributed to Toh's artistic satisfaction with Oceans — a well-deserved feeling.

"To be honest, in retrospect, I wasn't too happy about it," he says of his previous album Antiphobic, which was released in 2014. "The way it was recorded, the techniques used, even vocally the way it was presented — it wasn't that good."

The worries are long gone with his upcoming LP, the concept-driven Oceans. Themed on the circles and cycles of life, it's not too far a departure from his usual pop-rock roots. It still surprises, however, with some slick ambient electronica.

With new influences such as Icelandic musicians Ásgeir and Sóley added to the mix, tracks like Summer are now on Toh's repertoire. Starting with a smooth, Chet Faker-esque sound, Summer then segues into more of a rock track, a sound inspired by local band Caracal.

"We see them every week, and we've travelled together...a lot of it was inspired because I just wanted to be able to rock out like these guys," Toh laughs. And rock out he does.

Oceans by DEON

When did you first realise that you wanted to make music professionally?Professionally: 15. By then I was already playing in a local and school band. I thought I would like to do music on a professional basis, but as a drummer. At that point I decided I was going to practice really hard, and eventually I did make it to Berklee College of Music – but that was short-lived.

Oceans is about circles and cycles. How did the album's art and concept come about?
The album art is by Hana Wolhf. I told her the initial concept, which was of circles and cycles, and of having the guts to travel and leave a lot of things behind. I was at a transition period in my life: deciding whether to go into a corporate job, or to do music. Eventually, it was the latter. If you see all those articles on Buzzfeed, I wanted to see some of the countries that I'd been hearing about. Getting inspired during the travels, it just came by naturally. As a songwriter, that's my outlet. So everything fell into place, and the songs started to come.

So you've been to Iceland, Canada, UK...
And Amsterdam.

Is there any particular place where you feel your songwriting could thrive, or not thrive?
I think travelling to any city, you'll probably have something to say about the place, or it inspires you in a certain way. When I write songs, I need a lot of space. The more silence, the more space to think – the more things come out of it. So I would think somewhere like Bangkok, I'd feel more suffocated there. Recently I was in Korea and Japan, and those trips were very nice too. Sometimes it's just the space from the daily grind.

What do you think is the hardest thing facing you as an artist now?
Our country is expensive. Working as an artist, there are some sacrifices you have to make. That was the biggest struggle I had when I was deciding whether to take on a [corporate] job and be a responsible adult, as opposed to what I'm doing now. I'm still surviving, and of course there are always things you sacrifice, when you're facing your dreams. That's the biggest thing: the struggle of being able to sustain yourself.

Talking about costs, it's easier to put out a single or an EP, writing-wise as well. Why did you decide to do a full, coherent concept album?
My previous album was basically made up of songs I collected over the years. Theme-wise, it wasn't that strong. After that experience, I was very keen on coming up with something else that I feel would represent me proper. This time round I wanted a piece of art. I didn't just want to slap singles together. At the back of my mind, I constantly told myself: I want to write a concept album. I wanted a piece of work that, from start to end, would carry the same message. I was just going to put together an EP, then the rest of the songs came. [The band] travelled more and more, and before we knew it we had 12 songs. 

How did you come up with the concept for the Summer video?
A lot of people have been asking me if it's cut-and-paste. It's a one shot video, and only 15 seconds long. Whatever you see is captured on a camera that's 400 frames per second. There's a lot of art behind it. The producer of the video, Leonard Soosay, said we should just let people interpret it. At the back of my mind, I was like, "a lot of people are not getting it!" We're still struggling with whether to release [a statement on] why it was done this way.

Can you give us a teaser?
I can tell you the whole thing. The song is about the idea of reminiscence. The ballerina represents the calm in the eye of the storm. She keeps spinning, and she represents this art that she's supposed to be pursuing, while all this chaos is around her. The whole concept represents the local arts scene. The longer you stay dedicated to your craft, the more beauty will come out of it. It's a very subtle message: we want to encourage the local arts. Whether it's writing, or whether it's music, just keep pursuing what you're doing. It will work out. It will somehow get better.

Deon Toh

If there's one thing you want listeners of 'Oceans' to take away, what would it be?
Time is a precious asset. If the listeners have the time, I want them to sit down and listen from the start to the end. It's a journey – we wrote and arranged it in a way that it starts from the first track till the end. You get the seasons in order, so it's really a complete piece. And the takeaway could be anything extrapolated from that. We're already so trapped in our lives here. They can just listen to the music as it is, and put whatever the f*** they have behind.

Does music offer you that same respite?
That was the biggest thing for me when I was growing up. Music gave me that space. You have school, you go home, and after that there's nowhere to go! Like where, Bishan Park? There were many nights, as a growing teen, when I just listened to music and turned off the lights. Listening, and trying to find a better place, whatever it is for you: I just want to replicate that same experience.

Is there competition between artists in the local music scene?
There's no competition; everyone goes off and does their thing. But when we get together, like for Charles (local singer-songwriter Charlie Lim) we don't talk about music. We actually talk about life. So funnily enough, I'd say local competition doesn't exist – Charlie gave me my first gig. Even up till now, with up and coming acts like Theodora, we're like, "How can I help you?"

'Oceans' launches on 10 July at The Substation. More details here.