Baybeats 2019: Singaporean singer Lewis Loh overcame his bullying history to build a music career on authenticity
Singer-songwriter Lewis Loh — or LEW as he is better known among his fans and friends — might have recently opened for British pop talent Rhys Lewis in Singapore, but he wasn't musically gifted while growing up in Hong Kong. He listened to his parents' favourite Top 40 hits blaring on the radio, before he was thrust into panio lessons when he was just three years old. He wasn't any good, but looking back, he admits that he is happy that he kept to it.
That might be due to the fact that he has made more than a couple of headlines throughout the course of his young music career. While serving National Service in 2015, he blew up locally when he fronted the Singapore Police Force band's cover of the National Day song "One Singapore". The music video was shared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who commented that it was a "beautiful rendition".
The viral video provided him the exposure to be then talent-spotted by the producers of Sing! China and NBC's The Voice. When Lewis turned down both offers, the Straits Times attributed it to his National Service commitments but he clarifies that these competitions "saturate your career extremely quickly, so you peak in the year you join these competitions, and you end up simply being a product of that system."
Currently in his third year at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Lewis's songwriting and sound have matured to mirror the magical lyricism of American singer-songwriter Sufyan Stevens.
I caught up with him ahead of his Baybeats set this weekend to get some insight into his songwriting process, his willingness to be vulnerable on social media, and his affinity for love songs.
Let's talk about your songwriting. You post some of your lyrics on your Instagram profile. I don't see other musicians doing that often. Why did you choose to do that?
My audience listens to me because they like my lyrics. They also like the tone of my voice, but a lot of my appeal happens to be in the lyric writing, so it would be silly not to use it as an asset. I take pride in my lyricism, because that's where a lot of my mental energy goes to. Just like how a painter might show off their watercolour painting when they're done, I show off my lyrics.
What's one verse that you are most proud of, or perhaps holds some significance?
I plan to release "Carlessly Killed" next year. The first verse goes like this, "Even if I was carelessly killed, I won't go back to hate, cause back in the past, I'd see red in my eyes, I'd never forget, or forgave".
The song is about the manipulative person that I was a long time ago. I was the popular kid at school and I hung out with the mean girls. The 'Regina George' in me still lives on. She's a little underfed at the moment. She still comes out of me, but I try not to let her.
Mental health and self-care are clearly big portions of who you are right now. How have you arrived at this place?
I was a pretty happy-go-lucky and naive guy when I was growing up in Hong Kong. Things changed about four years ago, when I came to Singapore for National Service. I moved to Singapore alone, and had to start another chapter in my life.
I slowly understood that I shouldn't run away from my problems and avoid suffering. Instead, my eyes started opening up to mental health when I embraced it and anticipated the silver linings.
I take my responsibility and influence as a singer-songwriter seriously. Mental health was such an important issue for me to talk about, so I'm lucky that I've built a brand that's all about being open, honest, and real. I hope that my music and platform can become a place where people can come to learn, reflect and grow.
Love is also one of the central themes in all your songs.
Love is such a big umbrella term though. There are all kinds of experiences: self-love, toxic love, falling in love, the honeymoon phase, breakup, and cheating. This year's EP was about toxic relationships, while my previous EP, ENFJ, was mostly about introspective love.
How much of songwriting is a cathartic process?
I want to say maybe 90 per cent of it is cathartic. I write songs when I have an abundance of energy. That's why I don't usually write happy songs, because when I'm happy I'm living in the moment and the excess energy feels good. In contrast, if you're feeling excessively sad, it doesn't feel good so you want to get rid of it.
Songwriting is about freezing a mood in time. When I sing a love song, it can trigger a certain memory, but after awhile those triggers start to neutralise and it just becomes a song that people love to hear.
Has anyone reached out to confide in you after hearing one of your love songs?
I screenshot and save the reflective DMs and emails in a folder, so when I feel discouraged about my music, I can look at them and remember the impact that I have on people. A particular one that stands out was from a guy who was suffering from depression for about 30 years. He said the first time that he could breathe and let go in 10 years was when he heard one of my songs. From that day, he used my song as one of the ways to feel again and be present.
You've written over 300 songs about love over the years. What have you learnt about love during this process?
I learnt that it's not black and white. I used to write about it like it's black and white, but I soon realised that the spectrum is so wide and that there is no right answer in love. You can be with the wrong person and feel so happy, and you can be with the right person and feel so sad.
My experiences and definitions of love are relative, and they do not define other people's experience of love. You cannot tell a 14-year-old that they don't know what love is, because they might know it better than you.
Some people might actually discount the feelings of a 14-year-old's love.
Art is in the hand of the interpreter. If the song makes sense to you and a 14-year-old wrote it, you can't say that they don't know what they are talking about. There are also songs that are written by older people that I personally don't connect with. If you've experienced heartbreak, you understand that it's one of the most painful things anyone can go through regardless of age. You literally are sick. It sucks.
What's the best love song that you've heard?
One of the first songs that come to my mind is "Patient Love" by Passenger, who is one of my influences. The lyrics might be cheesy, but the way that he wrote about the emotion was just so smart and sweet.
Baybeats is coming up this weekend. What can you tell us about your set?
I'm so excited! My guitarist and keyboardist will be joining me on stage. We're going to do a lot of songs that are not on the EP and haven't been released yet. In retrospect, it isn't great that my EP is made up of only duets, which mean that I can't do them live on my own. It's going to be intimate.
Check out LEW's songs on YouTube before catching his sets during Baybeats 2019 at 7:30pm and 9:40pm on 23 August. LEW is set to release his new EP, Red Flags, on 18 October. The third track off the new EP, "Serendipity", is available now on all digital streaming platforms.