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18 Oct 2002

beneath the skin of mark chan

Fridae's Alvin Tan interviews multi-hyphenated Singaporean artiste Mark Chan and gets him to talk about his upcoming performance Beneath The Skin of Things.

Mark Chan, considered by most as a pioneer of the Singapore music scene, is a multi-talented artiste with six albums and numerous other collaborations under his belt. Fridae catches up with the prolific Singapore singer-songwriter as he prepares for his upcoming musical showcase at The Esplanade, Singapore's new S$620 million performing arts centre.

Singer-songwriter Mark Chan - considered by most as a pioneer of the Singapore music scene.
æ: Your upcoming performance at The Esplanade is titled Beneath The Skin Of Things. Is there any significance behind your interesting choice for a title?

Mark: I've always been fascinated by the unseen, the hidden meanings of life - I truly believe that the most important and precious things are often the hidden or half-hidden things. And in our modern facile world with its bizarre emphasis on all things physical and visual, this is even more true. So, I wanted to dig a little deeper beneath the skin and find another way of looking at things. I wanted to touch the SECRET...

æ: So what can our readers expect from Beneath?

Mark: Well, it's a very different world from my past works in that I've ditched the World Music and New Age tag for a more Urban, Trippy and Contemporary sound. The songs are about being in the big city, living on the street, in bars, in clubs, living in addiction (to love, to habits, to whatever other obsessions). They are also about being alone and afraid yet finding some strength and beauty in the midst of all that... Plus it's all a lot of fun! Nothing too high brow at all.

æ: As a singer-songwriter, you have an impressive body of work from 1985's Face to Face to the trilogy of China Blue (1991), Nature Boy (1996) and Travelling Under the Lights of the Full Moon (1997/98). How has your musical style evolved since then?

Mark: My range has increased: Beneath The Skin of Things will be more urban sounding and more 'now'. And yet it's simultaneously more 'pop' and more topical. At the same time over the past year and a half, I've also started composing more serious and classically-slanted material. For instance, I'm now working on a score for a silent black and white Chinese movie Toys using erhu, pipa, cello, piano, percussion, guan and assorted keyboards for both the Hong Kong and Singapore Arts Festivals next year (2003).

æ: And speaking of impressive bodies, I just have to ask how many tattoos do you have and where do you have them?

Mark: Oh godwell, I have a total of 14 tattoos. They're pretty well distributed all over my body - my chest, arms, back, legs, wrist you name it. They are the visual tracks of my life, the scars left behind of a life lived in secret passion and pain... Grief! Did I just say that? (Laughs)
æ: Getting back to the topic, do you see yourself more as a commercial pop artiste or the alternative "artistic" type or neither at all?

Singer-songwriter Mark Chan - considered by most as a pioneer of the Singapore music scene.
Mark: Well, I'm not a commercial pop artist although I do occasionally write pretty commercial songs and I have two songs in the national songbook (audible gasp from the writer) but it's definitely not what I'm all about. Still, I do NOT like to make music or songs that are hard to listen toand I especially don't like self-indulgent music taken to the extreme. So you could say I am pretty alternative but without really trying to be.

æ: You are also the composer-in-residence for Theatreworks. Do you have any other theatrical collaboration in the works?

Mark: I took a self-imposed break away from music for theatre over the past 2 years as I felt that I needed to concentrate on music for music! Now that my music-based projects are moving along well, I'm starting to re-explore some theatre collaboration both within and beyond Singapore. I've also been in discussion for 2 projects with a French director, Frederic Fisbach, possibly in opera or a music-driven play.

æ: Besides your achievements in the fields of music and theatre, you also paint and write poetry. Do you have any plans to showcase your other talents?

Mark: Wellthe big thing in my life for the past 2 years has been photography and the combination of photography with my music in a very peculiarly still and zen-like form. I am planning my first small exhibition in conjunction with the silent film scoring for Toys at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in February 2003 and maybe later in Singapore. As for poetry, I write all the time but it's mostly for private consumption. Painting I've had to shelve... no time.

æ: Permit me to borrow the title of your performance and try to get beneath your skin. You are a composer, recording artist, lyricist, singer, flautist, guitarist, poet and painter. But what's the real Mark Chan like?

Mark: What a question! Quite boring actually. Love reading. Love passionate music. Love movies - everything from B grade horror flicks to real art-house stuff. Love exercise and being outdoors. Love animals, often more than people. Love clubbing but not all the time. Love privacy. Love staying at home in my cave with my 2 cats plus a friend or two or just some music. Love good food. Love the sea.

æ: And what gets under your skin?

Mark: Passionless people. Bigotry. Prejudice. Conformity for the sake of. Lack of balls. Lack of imagination. Colonialists stuck in a post-colonial world. Small minds. Bad music.
æ: It is also interesting to note that you once donned our nation's colours, or more accurately trunks, as a national swimmer. How has that phase of your life influenced or shaped you to become what are you today?

Singer-songwriter Mark Chan - considered by most as a pioneer of the Singapore music scene.
Mark: Well, it was a lot of hard workand I guess that it taught me that if you want to do something you have to work for it and work really hard at it. It also brought me all over the world... and there is no better education than traveling. The downside is that till today I still feel sick at the smell of chlorine.

æ: And what would make you wear your competitive trunks again?

Mark: Nothing.

æ: Reflecting back on your experience with local music and arts industry, have you ever encountered any incidence of homophobia?

Mark: Nope. I guess I'm either lucky or really thick-skinned! All the musicians and theatre people I work with know I'm gay. Although most of my musician friends are straight, they tend to judge me more as a musician, a singer and a composer. My sexuality was never an issue. The only vaguely homophobic experience I had was in Japan. I met the now deceased gay artist Sadao Hasegawa in Tokyo and he was keen to design the artwork for my next album. But my then Japanese label said that it would 'not be a good idea' despite my insistence. On hindsight, that is probably one of my biggest regrets. I have such respect and love for his work and I would have loved to be one of those gorgeous Asian men in his erotic drawings. Alas, the time has passed.

æ: And what parting words of advice would you give for other aspiring gay artistes?

Mark: Make sure you're good at what you do. Very good. Do good work. Your peers and your audience will not really care about anything else. First and foremost be an artist. A good one. And only after that, a gay one. It's not a side issue but the art thing is so big it requires the whole of you.

æ: Thank you for sharing with Fridae and we wish you all the best for your upcoming performance.

Mark: Thanks and see you at the concert!

Event info
Beneath The Skin of Things
(part of the Alterzone series)
Recital Studio, The Esplanade
22 & 23 October, 8 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC and the Esplanade

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