Interview: Singer Nigel Cheah on going solo

The singer-songwriter opens up to ZYRUP.
NOISE Mentorship Nigel Cheah Inch Chua
Photo: Isaac Chu/ZYRUP

The former lead singer of local band Before The Tempest has gone solo. Earlier this year in October, Nigel Cheah kickstarted his solo venture with his debut single, ‘Denim’.

Admittedly, striking it out on his own was something he had never imagined himself doing. It was the experiences of penning songs with the band that gave him the confidence to do so; Cheah had found that several of the tracks he had written were either too personal, or simply did not mesh with the band’s sound.

Cheah is one of twenty selected for the coveted NOISE mentorship programme this year, with singer Inch Chua as his mentor.

On Dec 16, he will take the main stage at the Urban Ventures Street Party X House of Noise 2017, alongside the other NOISE mentees. The street-style event aims to bring together and showcase rising music talents in Singapore.

ZYRUP sat down with Nigel to find out more about his musical journey and what else he has in store.

NOISE Mentorship Nigel Cheah Inch Chua
Photo: Isaac Chu/ZYRUP

ZYRUP: When did you start dabbling with music?
Nigel Cheah: Like every Chinese kid, my mom sent me for piano lessons but I stopped after one or two years because I hated it. When I was around twelve, [she] signed me up for drum lessons; I was living in New Zealand where the local music scene was very different, it was more established and integrated with the culture. I joined my first band when I was thirteen or fourteen, and played a couple of shows around the city. We recorded our first EP when we were fifteen which was very cool. Coming back to Singapore, I continued to play [the] drums. They have been disbanded but they [still] play individually.

Could you share with us what ‘Denim’ is about?
It’s a song about an estranged relationship that did not work out. I wrote it about someone I had a relationship with and it was not going the way we wanted it to. It was not so much to capture the breakup, but rather to humanize the whole experience and the struggle of not being in contact with someone that was once a big part [of] a person’s life.

How did the title, ‘Denim’, come about?
The name comes from this denim jacket that I was given before she left to go overseas.

People get very upset and ask like, “Oh ‘Denim’! Are you wearing denim?”, but I don’t actually wear it because it’s a bit weird. I think people would just think it’s funny if I were to wear a denim jacket, even all my jeans are cotton, because [of] Uniqlo. The name’s not important lah, I guess. [laughs]

Who are some of your musical inspirations?
One big inspiration to me is Charlie Lim. He’s such a big inspiration to many young musicians in Singapore. I remember the first time I watched him – he was with his band. But the experience that really changed my life was when I watched him play a solo show at this charity concert. It was amazing how it was just him and his guitar, but it felt like time was suspended. To me [it] was amazing to [to be able to] truly captivate an audience using [just] a guitar and his voice.

Initially, a lot of [my] songs emulated his sound, but I try to put my own spin on it. A lot of people have been saying that I sound like Charlie, which is always a very nice compliment, but I’m also trying to distinguish myself as an artiste.

Are there any songs that you are currently working on?
Yes, the next song that I’m putting out in January is called ‘Asylum’. It’s a song about isolation because when I wrote it I was going through a difficult time in my life. I was secluded because all my close friends were all over the place, and my family was overseas. That loneliness channelled into the song. It was a way for me to try to understand what the hell was going on. It has a lot of meaning to me, and I think it sounds very different from ‘Denim’ so I’m very excited about that.

How have the responses been like from friends and family?
For ‘Denim’, it was very positive. There were a lot of kind words and they were genuinely interested. My friends and family were buying my song and that to me was crazy like “Why are y’all buying my music? I can just give it to you for free!”

Me getting to put out my first official song that’s just “me”, a representation of myself that is vulnerable, getting such responses like “I connected with that song!” remind me of why I do it. I don’t really care about the numbers and the streams.

Is it intimidating to put yourself out there in this way?
Yeah, it definitely is very intimidating. I work alone for the most part in terms of production and the songwriting so I don’t really get another person’s opinion on it. At this stage, I’m like, “This is my baby, don’t touch!”, and it’s scary because you will always second-guess whether people will like it. When I put [‘Denim’] out, I remember I couldn’t sleep for an hour or two, [I was] like, “Oh shit, what are people going to think?”

But then, if you’ve got the audacity to put out your music, you’ve got to be prepared for any sort of positive or negative type of feedback.

What made you want to join NOISE?
I actually signed up for NOISE with my band a few years ago and we got our asses kicked, like it was really bad, to be honest. We were totally just torn apart and it was the worst experience ever. I didn’t know why I wanted to go back to be scrutinized again because the comments they gave us were very fair, and I thought I would never go back again. But other people who had gone through [it] told me it’s a good thing to join, because I’d get to meet people in the industry and like-minded people.

How has working with your mentor been like for NOISE?
Inch Chua, the one and only. I showed her some of the tracks that I had and she really liked [them]. We are on the same wavelength in terms of artistic integrity and not compromising what I want to do [as a musician]. She’s very much about the whole song as a theme and the message of the song. She makes me look and analyze my music through a different lens.

What’s the highlight of NOISE for you so far?
We had this band workshop with different classes and a sharing session where every band went up to play their own music. That was something very cool and very special. It’s a rare opportunity because you can’t just go out and get a bunch of people together to sit in one place at one time. I got to meet a bunch of musicians who are so talented and they share the same passions and the same difficulties as being [artistes] in Singapore. That is something I would not have gotten to experience without NOISE.

What can audiences expect from you for the showcase on Dec 16?
I’ll be playing with my backing band – two of them are from another band in NOISE: Josh and Russell from the Royal Estate. Josh is in
Before The Tempest, so like we’re super close. We do everything together, so it made sense. Our drummer is Shawn from The Façade. They were also in NOISE a few years ago, so it’s like a family thing. I don’t think anyone has heard the music with the full band set up.

NOISE Mentorship Nigel Cheah Inch Chua
Photo: Isaac Chu/ZYRUP

Catch Nigel Cheah at the Urban Ventures Street Party X House of Noise 2017 at Keong Saik Road on Saturday, Dec 16. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page and website. Check out Nigel’s music here.