Inspiration / 18 February 2021

Coffee Talk @ Swee Lee Social Club: Marcus Lee

Marcus Lee in a coffee shop in Singapore

Marcus Lee is a bonafide media triple-threat with a strong body of work in music performance, acting, and modelling. Having started his foray into the entertainment world since his teenage years, his career has taken him from participating in talent competitions to fronting an indie pop-rock band all the way to performing on international stages and being cast in TV serials.

We managed to squeeze in a chat with Marcus at Swee Lee Social Club over a decadent plate of Caramelised Waffles and coffee. We talked about the year 2020, lessons learned from a career in music, and what is coming up next on his calendar.

Read more: Coffee Talk @ SLSC: 17-year-old Singer-songwriter Advaitha on Starting Music Early, Her New Single, and Being Fearless

What’s been your highlight of 2020? You’ve already dropped two singles and one is coming up real soon. What has been your high point?

I feel like with any single release, each one is a highlight in itself. This is because so much effort, time, and other things go into each release. So definitely, regardless of the circumstance  – whether it be in 2020 when we’ve had plans changed and derailed – the fact that my team managed to come up with ways to get my music released is a highlight in itself. 

Yeah, I think 2020 was supposed to be a year of executing a lot of plans. For example, I was supposed to shoot my previous single’s music video in KL. We had already planned for everything but unfortunately because of the whole lockdown situation, that shoot was not possible. But I think in the end, we still managed to make it work.

I think this whole year a lot of people might see it as something negative, but for me, it is just an opportunity to step out of one’s comfort zone and choose to respond positively. I think that’s the only thing we can do. Whining and complaining won’t change anything about the situation so the only thing that you can change is your attitude and your perception.

Can you tell us about your latest single? What is the song about, what inspired you to write it?

It’s a song about loss, and about just learning to let go of someone that you have lost. This song was inspired by another song by Tanya Chua. So Tanya is someone who I look up to as an artist because she also made the transition from performing English songs to Chinese songs. This is also similar to my roots – I started with doing English songs, and now I’m doing Mando-Pop right now. So I was listening to one of her songs (“If You See Him”) and it was written in the context of imagining what it would be like to meet her ex-lover and what she would say to him. 

So in the theme of breaking up and losing somebody, my song “Without Reason” is about the other person (in the relationship) choosing to leave without a reason. It’s not about the initial phase of dealing with the loss, but choosing to let go, learn (from the experience) and to look back at the relationship from a grateful and thankful position. 

It’s definitely not easy to start a successful music career here in Singapore, what are some of the lessons you have learned from your years of making it to where you are today?

I think of two main lessons. I think the first thing is to not be afraid of trying different things. For me, I kind of did a lot of things – I was doing busking, open mics, resident gigs, composing my own music,  and even being involved in a bit of acting and musicals as well. 

So I think the nature of the performing arts industry is that you’ll never know when your next gig is going to be or where it’s going to come from. So take every opportunity, don’t be shy to try something new and just be open minded.

The second thing is to not be afraid of failure, because I think it’s very normal to be discouraged. But I think there’s a Chinese saying something along the lines of “failure is the route to success” or something to that effect. But rather, failure helps you to appreciate the success that you have in the future. So I think that’s something that I’ve learned to embrace.

What guitar do you play? Any significant memories or stories with the guitar?

My first acoustic guitar was a Cort that I bought from Swee Lee in Bras Basah. I still have it and it is beat up. It has been dropped and there’s a hole in the back. It has stickers on it too, which doesn’t help right for resonance, but yeah, so I still have that just for memories sake.

What guitar are you playing right now here in Swee Lee?

This is the Taylor Builders Edition 717e. I think it’s the guitar that’s supposed to cater to non-Taylor fans. This (717e) definitely has a different kind of sound. This is a more fuller sounding Taylor than the usual fare –  when you think of Taylor guitars, you think of that jangly nature – the treble-heavy character you hear in the mix. But this one sits nicely. And I think like if you could record this on its own (without eq).

This guitar is really nice for what I did just now as a singer-songwriter just performing and accompanying himself on a guitar. This has a really nice sound for strumming – I think definitely this is a strumming guitar.

Read more: New Gear Day: Taylor American Dream & Grand Theater Acoustics

Why did you choose to learn the guitar? Was there an expectation that singer-songwriters needed to learn how to play an instrument as well?

I think for me, I always regard myself as a vocalist first. To be honest the main motivation to learn the guitar was to accompany myself as I sing so I don’t need to rely on someone else. Especially when I like when I’m busking or doing some individual solo gigs as well. 

Most of my playing revolves around strumming and what not – I can’t solo actually. So I really want to pick up the electric guitar but I haven’t done that yet. Most of my playing for the guitar revolves around chord shapes and inversions. I’ll think of different ways of playing the same chord but also to find out which sound would compliment my voice more. I actually play a bit with the keys and just find different voicings. 

Have you been eyeing any new instruments to add to your collection?

I don’t like to research new instruments because it’s like a rabbit hole you know – Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.). Like I said, I actually really want to get my hands on an electric guitar because I really want to improve myself as a guitarist. And I think when you go into the electric guitar, you get to explore a lot more sounds and a deeper understanding of the production side of things. But it also opens up the wallet as well {laughter} because with pedals and whatnot.

There’s one thing I hope to get too. It’s not like a set time tangible goal but I also really would love to have a hollow body guitar. Only because I see it being played and being used so nicely, like the Gretsches and guitars like that. 

Who are some of your musical inspirations?

As a vocalist, I really look up to people like Brian McKnight. I think he’s a really amazing class act and singer. And then in terms of singer songwriters, I actually look up to people like Kenny Loggins, Richard Marx and artists in that vein.

Even though I’m doing Mando-pop right now I actually really like the classics from the 80s and 90s. I grew up listening to the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and I started exploring soft rock from artists like Bread and Stephen Bishop. I really love the melodies, the lyrics and the whole storytelling aspect of the genre, which actually is quite similar to Mando-Pop.

Nowadays, I think the whole trend for English music is more towards maybe R&B and soul. Whereas in Mandarin, the staple power ballad is here to stay. So I think that’s also part of the reason why I gravitated towards doing Mando-Pop as it allows me that freedom to express myself.

In a Mandarin context, I’m very inspired by Tanya Chua. I look to her as an example of who I want to be because she also started with English songs and then later she went to Taiwan to further her music career. She made a seamless transition – well to us, on the outside as I’m sure there was a lot of groundwork to move over to do Mando-Pop, even writing her own lyrics for some of her songs. So I regard her as an example I’d like to follow. And I do believe that she still writes her demos in English and I want to be that kind of versatile singer-songwriter as well. 

Aside from your upcoming single, what’s next for you in 2021?

I’m hoping to write more and hopefully come up with some kind of like collection of songs, maybe an EP or album kind of thing. And I’m working on my next single already, which is going to be a collaboration with a Taiwanese singer. So stay tuned! You are all the first to know this news.

Listen to Marcus Lee’s single “Without Reason” here.

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