Charlie Lim : Carvers & Co, East Coast : Singapore
“I think people who are naturally talented tend to take the easy way out –it’s definitely the smarter and lazier way to do things sometimes –but it’s just as important to understand the reward of doing a task with a lot of care and detail too”
Of all the things that spring to mind when you think of Singapore, a thriving music industry isn’t necessarily one of them. And although that would certainly be a reasonable perspective of the city state for the decades leading up to today, there is now a strong and growing local scene – supported by a forward thinking government – that is committed to developing music and the arts within its tight-knit community. However, the international penetration of any one group or artist has basically been non-existent, but Charlie Lim is on the road to changing all that; not only for his own music, but by using his self-generated popularity to help shift the sands of opportunity for a whole new generation of Singapore based artists.
As a singer-songwriter who has found tremendous success in his home country, Charlie’s approach to music is an interesting blend of formal education and exploration across two continents. Born in Singapore, he was always very musical but had little formal education and the household he grew up in wasn’t one with a strong mainstream-music imperative.
“You know how some singer-songwriters are, “Oh yeah I had the Beatles and Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan playing in the background when I was growing up”, but I never had that experience. In fact, I grew up listening to a lot of crappy contemporary Christian music (laughs). My family goes to church, so I played a lot for the church band growing up. It was my first real experience leading a band and learning how to improvise and play by ear”
Whether it was drama or music, Charlie displayed a natural leaning towards the creative arts, and this was something he would continue to explore after his parents moved the family to the cultural epicentre of Australia: Melbourne. His involvement in music continued with the change in scenery, and while completing his high schooling he was discovering a motivation to turn it from an enjoyable creative outlet to a long term aspiration.
“I did the VCE and music performance as a subject, and somehow topped the state of Victoria. I got to play the Hamer Hall (Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne). Obviously that put a lot of delusions of grandeur in my head, being in year 11 and thinking, ‘Oh yeh I can definitely do this for sure!’”
His reality check came immediately after high school when he returned to the Lion City to undertake his National Service training – a two year full-time obligation for all Singaporean men at age 18. But amongst the realities of the challenging army discipline, he was able to navigate his way to the Music and Drama Company (MDC) within the armed forces and manufacture a few outlets to continue developing his own creative skill set.
“There were nights we’d be playing in front of a whole mosh pit of recruits celebrating their passing out parade. Other nights we’d be playing in front of ministers and important foreign dignitaries playing silly jazz standards. Other mornings we’d be playing to schools. We did a bit of touring as well while we were in that unit, so that was a lot of fun. I also moonlighted for one of Singapore’s top music producers (Dr Sydney Tan) – he pretty much showed me the ropes and taught me the importance of putting in the hours and made me realise it’s a lot less glamorous; that the industry is not just all about the glamour of being on stage”
On completion of his national service training, Charlie quickly boarded a plane back to Australia. The allure of the Melbourne scene was an irresistible side benefit to being back with his family, and he started to develop his networks and test his music within the thriving live scene. He also enrolled in a music course at Monash University, which he considered somewhat of a distraction to the networks and gigs he was generating, but was driven by a sense of respect and gratitude to complete the degree.
“I actually wanted to drop out at a certain point, but I think it would have greatly disappointed my parents if I had done so. To them it was a huge investment… my entire family moved to Melbourne, and I’m very grateful that my Dad took that huge leap for the whole family. So I think I wanted to honour their wishes for me to at least get a basic degree. I stuck with music because it was just the path of least resistance. I would have gotten a lot more out of the course if I’d paid a little more attention, but I guess I was just too caught up in trying to run my own thing. What I got out of it was sufficient, and I definitely don’t regret going to university, and it was because of the course that I got to meet all of these amazing people. For some reason I did pretty well for a minimal amount of effort, but I guess I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. A lot of last minute cramming and studying, but I did enjoy the things I went for”
Melbourne indulged him with a fantastic network of likeminded artists, and he played shows in many of the go-to venues in Melbourne including The Evelyn to the Northcote Social Club while constantly looking for outlets to develop his live show and inspire new writing. His future direction was now clear, and in between final exams and graduation he was already playing shows in Asia and planning a larger tour of the region – all as an independent artist.
“It was more of a vanity thing, now that I think about it…it was really just me going: ‘I’m going to do it because I can…I have no real support or network and I’m a terrible hustler, but whatever. Let’s just do it and see what happens.’ It went surprisingly well. We applied for a grant from the National Arts Council and we got a bit of money to cover a small leg of the tour. We went to Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, The Philippines…it was pretty full on. I could play some of these shows by myself, and we brought the band for the rest. It was a really good experience and sort of seeded a little fan base in all these countries, so every time we go back we find that it just keeps growing. Word of mouth has been kind to us so far”
Charlie’s committed fans are with him, that’s clear. His first EP release in 2011 was recently followed by his latest LP released in 2015 and, despite the four year gap, his fans have been champing at the bit to get their hands on it. But he makes no apologies for the hiatus and nobody is asking for them – he’s comfortable with his pace and wants to ensure that he’s completely satisfied with anything that’s released under his name.
“It took me a long time to get this new album out. I wish I was a bit more prolific, but I’m a very slow writer and very meticulous…a bit of a perfectionist. And I procrastinate a lot. So that’s a killer combination. But so far the response [to the album] has been good, and the support – locally in particular – has been overwhelming and I couldn’t have asked for more. I’m very grateful. The next challenge, I guess, is just getting the music to a more international platform. We do have followers – from Australia, for example, and some in the States and the UK, but getting it to the next level is going to be a bit tricky”
This is the glass ceiling of many independent artists and inevitably leads to conversations with larger record companies and distributors. The only sticking point is control; Charlie likes to steer the direction of his music, set his own pace, and – most importantly – is on the lookout for something that benefits his vision and not simply his ego or bank account.
“I’m very precious about my work, but in terms of distribution, I’m happy to work with partners if it serves a bigger purpose and gets the stuff out there. I’m in talks with a couple of labels now, but we’ll have to see if it benefits my position and what I want to achieve. If it’s a label that just wants to work within Singapore, then there’s nothing that I can’t do myself. It has to be a good partnership and make sense in the long run. It’s all about longevity for me –I’m not just in this to make a quick buck or be famous for a short burst of time”
Ultimately, he would be completely satisfied playing to houses of only 500 in intimate spaces in any developed market – it’s not about number one records, E! Channel mentions, or social media numbers. This seems inline with the measured and deliberately under-paced approach to his music, where he has created real connections through live shows, great music, personal risk and determination. It’s certainly been a challenging road to now, and he recognises the difficulties musicians out of South East Asia face with no tangible community within which to work, develop ideas and find support. But he’s committed to changing that, and now spends a large portion of his time working with Bandwagon – a startup company in Singapore dedicated to creating a go-to community for musicians and artists alike to communicate and work with each other, helping to connect creatives from around South East Asia.
“There’s so much I can do for my community as an artist, and working with a bigger platform (with Bandwagon) allows me to make more of a difference on a more lateral scale. It’s all about education and influence, and advocacy is important. We also need to let people know not just to support local for local’s sake; music is essential for our culture and identity. It should not be looked at as just entertainment alone”
But it’s not as simple as being part of linking the ground-level music and arts community in Singapore and South East Asia, but also finding ways to improve the quality of the work. To challenge and learn from each other with a view to producing the better results.
“It’s all about creating an ecosystem and creating a foundation for the next generation to do their own thing. We need to up the game –it’s really important that everybody levels up and help one another. Even it means being critical and calling out certain things when they are not cool. It’s the danger of being a bit too self-congratulatory, which is very symptomatic of a small community – everyone’s afraid to step on each other’s toes when the scene is so fragile and tiny – but I think the next step would then be to openly but also constructively critical and be very conscious and self-aware of where we’re at and where we need to go. Whether you’re a musician or producer or a band or a photographer or journalist, we should always be asking ourselves, ‘How do I keep improving on my craft?’”
Making money comes a distant second to creating great work for Charlie, but he is all too aware of the essential balance you need to strike between the two to ensure viability. It’s the inevitable struggle of the talented artist in a commercial world, but he’s created a fortunate position for himself where his fans are more than happy to walk slowly with him and trust that any wait will be worth it. And it’s unusual that, in the midst of riding the momentum his long awaited new release is generating, this 27 year old is dedicating so much time to pave the way for new talent and afford others in his community support that didn’t exist when he was blindly feeling his way. He certainly has one eye firmly focussed on the development of his own audience, but this other choice to pursue a 360 involvement in his local industry will have the reciprocal benefit of creating a new raft of fans who not only see Charlie as an aspirational artist, but as a leader; someone to be followed for not only his talent, but for his decision to change the landscape for all artists in the region by providing a network and new opportunities to those looking for avenues to be heard. And the depth of that genuine dedication is something that no degree of fame could ever provide.
“The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t. And the more you understand how things work, the more you realise how much more time and effort you have to put in. It’s an ongoing thing; the cliché of the journey is that it never ends.”