Thriving musically in a borderless world
In a special collaboration with Manual Jakarta from Indonesia, B-Side brought together three creative figures from each city to chat about their works and how the environment and culture of their homes have shaped their career in the industry. The last of the series invites Neonomora from Jakarta and KIAT from Singapore to share about the plunge they each took as independent artistes in the music industry.
Conversation Between Two Cities is a series of three articles that aims to showcase the glimpse of differences and similarities found in Jakarta’s and Singapore’s creative industries, as two noted figures exchange their working experience.
Read Conversation Between Two Cities: Chris Bunjamin & Juliana Tan here.
Read Conversation Between Two Cities: Ayu Larasati & Tok Yu Xiang here.
Neonomora is an independent artist whose sonorous vocals and style have been internationally appraised. Her latest album, Waters, was released in 2018, while KIAT has gained recognition as a DJ in the underground music scene. He’s the founder of independent label Syndicate, a creative audiovisual collective in Singapore.
KIAT (K): Ah, so what does Neonomora mean?
Neonomora (N): I feel like it was a word that came to me. I didn’t want to just use my real name. I needed a stage persona, someone who’s just beyond me, but it doesn’t really have a specific meaning.
K: When I first saw [your name], it reminded me of… I’m not very good at astronomical stuff, but there was a rock from another solar system that fell into ours and came past earth and left, and it was called Oumuamua. Some scientists from Harvard thought it could possibly be a probe from another galaxy. But yeah, the name had a nice, same feeling to yours.
N: Wow that’s deep, I can actually use that as the meaning! Thank you for telling me that.
K: You’re welcome. I can send you the link, no problem.
N: So, have you lived in Singapore most of your life?
K: I was born here, but my granddad migrated from China to Singapore during the Second World War. So I’m a second-generation Singaporean. I spent a couple years of college in Sydney and Melbourne studying design, but I did spend most of my life here. This is where I call home. What about yourself?
N: I’m a third-culture kid. I moved from one place to another because of my parents’ jobs, basically. I moved back here five years ago from Australia. I went to college there too. But I’d like to ask you — who and what inspired you to pursue your career?
K: I used to get inspired by artistic heroes when I was a kid, someone like Prince. When my dad took me to see the movie Purple Rain, the energy in his music really moved me. I was like 7 or 8, but something changed in my head, I could feel that. But I think a bigger and lifelong inspiration came about when I watched a movie called Wild Style. It is a movie about hip-hop with all the original hip-hop artists who created the hip-hop scene as we know it today.
The whole [hip-hop] movement was a big motivation to me as a child in terms of how I tried to approach the things I did, tried to be an individual and improved myself. Because I was bullied a lot, I got really tired and started to listen to my cassette tapes and draw. I think all of these gave me strength in hindsight.
It wasn’t one person. It was the whole movement that kept me inspired, right to this day.
N: Man, that’s inspiring. So what kind of music do you play?
K: I like all sorts. I used to play a lot of hip-hop and went through phases with house music back in the early 1990s, and in the early 2000s, I was doing a lot of drum ‘n’ bass.
As time went by, I realised that music is music. I don’t like the idea of genres because I don’t feel people should go, “This is old school, this is new school.” I think if it’s interesting and it moves you, then why not?
It’s kind of like food. It doesn’t have to be street food versus restaurant food. So right now, most of my DJ sets comprise everything from hip-hop, to experimental music, sometimes jazz and sometimes-
N: Really? All of them together?
K: Yeah, in one entire set. It just depends on the moment and what I feel the crowd could react to, but it’s a lot of what inspires me at that point of the day or evening. Things always change and you can’t really predict what people are feeling in the club; it’s not something you can pre-plan. It can get stressful in a fun way, like a roller-coaster ride. But that’s what keeps it fun for me.
K: How about you? What sort of music do you like?
N: I listen to pretty much everything. I’d listen to Blondie Bear, but at the same time I love Spice Girls a lot — a mix of genres, basically. But currently I am listening to Florence and the Machine. I love folk rock very much, and it inspired me to do what I do now.
K: But have you ever tried listening to other genres, like say, R&B?
N: I listened to R&B a lot, like a lot. But when I moved to Perth, my surroundings were introducing me to — you know Perth right? It’s very small and it has these small pubs where people hang out. There was always new music.
I used to just listen to one genre, R&B, but after Perth, my music library widened.
K: Did you ever perform in Perth?
N: I’ve never, but I really wanted to. So what kind of experience do you want your audience to have and feel when you’re making your music?
K: As in the emotions from my own productions? Or from when I’m DJing or performing?
N: Maybe the whole process of producing?
K: Strangely enough, when I make music, it’s usually for myself. Not in a way ‘it’s for me’ me, but it’s what I would imagine myself to feel like at the time.
But I also try very hard to create something that my future self would still listen to 10 years down the road.
So that’s the good thing with electronic music, in a way that it takes apart references to time. But back to the question. My audience might be surprised as to what comes from me because a lot of the music I make is not necessarily what I would play in the clubs, but it’s music I would listen to when I’m driving down the countryside or at home relaxing. Sometimes, but not all the time. I try not to keep it predictable for myself, even. Is it confusing? Because I sound confused.
N: Not at all. And how long have you been doing this?
K: I started playing on turntables when I was 14, then I started playing in clubs when I was 17. But I started making music really late — around my mid 20s, only because I never thought I’d be involved in music.
It really was a hobby and passion that kept me sane because I was doing design and advertising, which drove me insane. It’s meds for the poison, right? Music was my medication that took me out of the whole toxic world of capitalism.
It wasn’t a conscious thing where I decided to make music for the rest of my life. But it has been a long time.
What images do you keep in the space where you work? In your studio, do you have photographs, paintings, poetry or anything that keeps you inspired?
N: I have a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the wall. The History album.
K: So do you think he really did it?
N: [laughs] Please don’t go there; he’s my king!
K: I, too, was a big fan of Michael Jackson as a child. And I don’t believe he did it. I just think he was a victim of the media.
N: I don’t believe it as well. Nope, nope.
K: Oh yeah, your artwork! For your record covers and releases, are you involved in the artwork? There’s one where it looks like a Renaissance painting of people swimming.
N: Yeah, that’s actually from the album I released just last year, and I’m very much involved in the artwork. It was done by my good friend, but I love painting as well, and I have a community of painters in Jakarta. It’s just a small community. When I was about to release my Waters album, I talked to a friend about making an artwork and I just poured out my feelings — what I wanted to make in the album and what I wanted to convey.
K: So was that a painting?
N: It’s a painting, but it’s done digitally afterwards. After they painted it, they put it on Photoshop. So how many albums do you have?
K: I have two full-length albums on Spotify and a ton of singles and collaborations, and few EPs but mostly on like vinyl for club music. But my own personal music, I got two. Oh three!
N: [Laughs] How can you not remember your own albums?
K: The last one, I did music for an iPhone game called Zen Koi. Some people who really liked the game kept asking the developer where they could buy the music. So I decided to make it into an album, but no one bought it after that.
N: Do you feel like you’re privileged as a musician, rather than doing what others do? Because, you know, as a musician you have to have like that sense of depth.
K: Or craziness? I think in the current age of technology and being able to access or communicate with people around the world kind of brings the whole idea of breaking borders.
We could write songs tomorrow, or we could go to Iceland and record a music video next week.
I think the whole idea of being in Singapore or Jakarta doesn’t have any hurdles compared with 15 or 20 years ago. So things have changed. Of course, maybe having a nicer scenery like Bali or Bandung would be nice. But I guess in Singapore we’ve got nice food. Do you like Singaporean food?
N: I love it. The chicken rice there is legit good. Do you face any challenges being a musician in Singapore?
K: Definitely. I think being a creative in Singapore is challenging. I’m going to correct that. This city is very focused on economic gains and business. And sometimes, business and art have a bit of a conflict. And me, I’m doing electronic music and because I don’t sing or play the guitar, it kind of reduces my chances of surviving in the long term. Which is why I make electronic music in my bedroom where no one sees. Singapore is my home, but I don’t see Singapore as a place where I’m super keen to share my music, to be honest. But I don’t let the challenges of a country get too much to me. Do you perform much in Jakarta?
N: Pretty much. I do everything independently; I’m not under a label. When I just started, I put my music up on my website and let everybody click for free. A year later, I got a contract from a label, but I decided to drop it after two years. I feel like it’s better for me to be as independent as possible.
K: Do you use Bandcamp? You should try it because the fact that you’re based in Indonesia where you’ve already got your fan base, Bandcamp might help your fans from YouTube and Instagram buy the music, and the money goes directly to you.
N: Do you manage your own stuff as well?
K: I wish I could, but I’m terrible at managing stuff. That’s why I have 13 people behind me, sitting in on this interview right now. [laughs] I mean I have a label. It’s called Syndicate. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people who have the same vision and can complement my weaknesses in planning. I’ve been quite blessed in that way.
N: But it’s good to have people that click with you right? Do you consider your music an independent music?
K: Hmm. Next question. I think independent music – I would say my music is independent because it’s not from a major label.
All the artists we represent are indie in terms of their approach to music and their production, you know. I like it that way. It allows the ideas to be a bit purer, musically.
You can take different risks. Whereas if you’re with a label, you might have different things to consider because you have a partnership with someone else.
N: Is there anything you have or wish to pursue outside your music?
K: Hmm, right now, in the past or in a parallel universe?
N: It could be parallel. [Laughs]
K: Right now in my life, I wish I was a super successful painter and artist who could sell stuff in the galleries for like millions of dollars. That way, I could chill and just write music.