Graduates of Berklee College of Music have almost always gone on to do great things, whether it’s working for some of the biggest global brands, to pushing themselves artistically, and working alongside some of the most exciting up-and-coming artists. But even with their prestige, few might ever imagine scoring a gig that sees them doing a national project.
For composer and producer Evan Low, that’s something he’s done for the last four years, having co-arranged and co-produced the music for Singapore’s National Day Parade from 2018 to 2021, under the direction of Dr. Sydney Tan. And this year, he’s taken that to the next level, working alongside indie artist Linying to pen and produce this year’s theme song “The Road Ahead”.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever be writing a song for the nation. I’ve always been in the shadows as an arranger or producer, since 2018,” says Evan, sometimes better known by his handle Evanturetime. “But this year, I felt like I wanted to say something, so I asked Dr (Sydney) Tan if I could try my hand at writing this year’s song.”
In contrast to last year’s song “Everything I Am”, which received feedback for being very sombre and reflective, “The Road Ahead” feels distinctly more upbeat and hopeful in nature. Already in its title, the song suggests looking forward into the future, and in its chorus, as the artists sing ‘Come whatever on the road ahead/We did it before, and we’ll do it again’, we draw strength from its lyrics, as we find the courage to come together and face further challenges ahead.
“Songs come from a place of longing, when I feel I have something important to say,” says Evan. “An NDP song is an interesting thing, because you need to tread this fine line of having tact and sensibility so that it doesn’t veer into something too cheesy or on the nose, then the whole thing would fall apart, because it won’t be sensitive to what the country needs at the time.”
“I didn’t consciously think ‘I’m writing an NDP song’ or checking off any boxes. We were just hoping to write an honest song, with a clear, simple message about how we were going through tough times, but could find strength as a collective, without portraying it in a cheesy way, and evoking that sense of patriotism.”
“Like Dr Tan says, each song is a timestamp, and we definitely had the pandemic in mind while we were writing it,” he adds. “It’s a reaction to our current times, to reflect the needs and wants of people. But even then, we didn’t need to be so over and say words like ‘virus’ or ‘corona’. I think we ended up with a song that was versatile enough to hit the majority of people in the right spot, to uplift and touch as many people as we can with the music and lyrics, and keep it simple but tactful.”
With Evan as an experienced producer, it stands to reason that he works with a collaborator who’s just as talented, and clear in their objective of writing the song. Linying herself is no bit player when it comes to music of course, having provided vocals for hit DJ Felix Jaehn, and a respectable artist in her own right, with hits like Sticky Leaves and Paris 12, both of which have garnered several million streams on Spotify.
“Talking to Lin, we were like, that would be crazy, what would we write about?” says Evan. “We went in with an empty sheet of music, and then Lin actually took inspiration from Cloud Atlas, one of her favourite movies, and that kickstarted a conversation about our love for movies, and things that kept our spirits alive. There wasn’t this idea that we had to ‘do better’ than the songwriters that came before us, but we were definitely nervous about the polarising effect it might have had.”
The feedback however, has been surprisingly positive, with mainstream media outlets calling it an ‘apt ode to troubled times’ (ChannelNewsAsia), and in the YouTube comments section, viewers praising it for its originality, beautiful lyrics, and even the ability to evoke tears. “We were fully prepared for hate, that it was too tacky or on the nose, or too simple. But we were so surprised at the public reaction to it, and we were so happy with the response,” says Evan.
Even when it comes down to the music video itself, co-directed by filmmaker Huang Junxiang and animator Jerrold Chong, there was plenty of positive response to the use of animation and live video in tandem, and how it helped get around the issue of social distancing, while still remaining vibrant and optimistic. “I really liked how this year’s music video showcased not just the musicians, but also the creative talents of those who contributed the art and animation to the piece,” comments Evan.
“But what I found was also important was an effort to use less established artists, like Shye-Anne Brown (Shye), to introduce them to the nation at this early stage of their career. It helps the nation to become more invested in their journey, and follow them as they scale even greater heights, and celebrate their milestones when they get there.”
“I remember how in the past, during Singapore Idol, I was so invested in watching some of the contestants talk about their story, and to root for them as they progressed through each stage. And even outside the MV, during the parade, you’ll see other indie artists being featured, and I have a lot of respect for Dr Tan for fighting for such representation,” he adds.
“It’s interesting how some of our biggest music people from Singapore have often been arrangers or composers of the biggest hit songs in places like Taiwan, or people who wrote for JJ Lin or Stephanie Sun. We often find more success in that field than as outright artists. TYes, there’s still the narrative that we have to make it overseas to get noticed, but I’m happy that this year, there was an effort to showcase our local talents more.”
With the exposure both Evan and Linying have received from the song, even as an introvert who’s more often behind the scenes than in the spotlight, he thinks of it only as a way forward for the local music scene, and for both themselves and the other featured artists in their careers. “Doing this song will certainly make the public more aware of our presence as artists, and for fans of Linying, they’re ecstatic that she’s being featured,” he says. “Definitely, it’s going to bring in more work, and I’ve never shied away from the fact that I do both personal, creative projects, alongside the more commercial ones.”
“I like to think of music producers and songwriters as cai png sellers. You have the same set of ingredients throughout the day, but you’ll serve something different to feed each customer depending on what they want. Likewise, I fit certain moulds when I need to, and I can’t overthink my work otherwise it won’t be sincere anymore, and I have to remain objective about the intent of the work.”
“Any press is good press, and I’m glad radio stations and other media have been putting a spotlight on both Linying and myself,” he says. “But my goal isn’t the exposure, it’s just to make a good song, and to have fun along the way. It’s never been about fame or glory for me, and honestly, I wasn’t ready to be placed front and centre with this work. My hope is that even within my scope, I can continue to hire musicians here and there to keep them afloat during this period too, and uplift everyone else, and stay true to what I do.”
“From the perspective of someone in the background, I guess NDP has established itself as an event that characterises August, and people always know when it’s coming. Certainly, it was toned down last year because of the pandemic, but it reflected the state of affairs,” shares Evan, with his closing thoughts on the NDP as a whole.
“It was a challenge both this year and last, where you have a huge team who’re working their butts off to adapt to a constantly changing guideline to even put up a good production. But in a way, maybe it’s not a ‘ra-ra’ celebration right now, but represents more of a unifying spirit, and galvanising the country to come together in these times.”
Find out more about the theme song here. National Day 2021 falls on 9th August 2021, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the annual National Day Parade will instead be held on 21st August 2021. More information available here