Singaporean musician Hanjin Tan cut his teeth in the local pub scene and has since become a household name.
If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because he achieved his fame in Hong Kong.
The 37-year-old is known for almost everything in the music industry there – singing, composing and producing.
Testifying to how well he’s regarded, he has even been named a judge of a few talent competitions, including Hong Kong reality singing competition “The Voice”.
Early last year, the accomplished singer performed to a sold-out crowd at the Hong Kong Coliseum, drawing around 12,500 to listen to his pop and rock songs, whether they be in Cantonese, English or Mandarin.
Yahoo Singapore spoke to this king of music trades about his early years, love for music and new album.
‘Doesn’t have a good voice’
Tan’s passion for music started when he was a young boy growing up in Clementi, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to the people around him that he had talent.
“When I was seven years old, a report card said Hanjin loves to sing but doesn’t have a good voice. My whole family had a good laugh,” recalled Tan, who attended Anglo-Chinese Primary School.
But that didn’t stop Tan from pursuing music.
When he was 13, he started singing in the choir in his secondary school, Anglo-Chinese School.
Initially, he thought it was fun, but he took a more serious approach towards music when he joined the Anglo-Chinese Junior College choir.
Tan said he picked up all his vocal basics from the choir’s director Rebecca Ng.
He later picked up the guitar at the age of 19 because his mother had an old classical guitar.
And that’s where it all started.
He began playing in pubs, such as the Fat Frog Café and No. 5 Emerald Hill, when he was 20 and started writing songs when he was around 21 years old.
Tan said he’s very grateful to the Singaporean pub scene and was inspired by many of the musicians.
“I think there is nothing better than playing with other musicians who are better than myself to push me to improve, to make me feel guilty, to see where I can get better and learn from them and play with them and enjoy the moment,” said Tan.
When he was 23, he decided to pursue music full time, and when he told his father about it, the latter didn’t take it too well.
He got his big break a couple of years later, when on summer holiday from the National University of Singapore where he was majoring in Economics, he received a call to produce Eason Chan’s Mandarin album.
“It’s thanks to Eason getting me to be his producer that got everyone to give me a go… before that, nobody had hired me before,” Tan said.
After completing Chan’s album, instead of going to music full time, Tan went back to finish university to finish his degree, a wish of his father.
However, Tan’s detour didn’t affect his dream. When he got out of university, he started performing again.
He found he was getting more opportunities for gigs out of Hong Kong and so moved to the city seven years after he graduated.
The territory has since gone on to embrace this “Singapore music genius”, as Hong Kongers would call him, providing him opportunities to compose for singers like Jacky Cheung, Sammi Cheng and Edison Chen.
In 2007, he even went on to produce a commercial song for US singer Christina Aguilera and Korean star Rain.
In 2010, he ventured on to the big screens for his debut film “Bruce Lee My Brother”.
His impressive performance in the movie won him the Best New Performer award in the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Experimenting with different genres
Tan said different music genres inspire him across different aspects of music making.
Rock 'n' roll and 70s, 80s pop music were his early influences in songwriting.
He then turned to hip hop and R&B in music production as they are “the easiest way to get in and understand how a record is being made”.
Tan said because there are so few instruments and so few sounds, it makes it easier for him to understand and visualise what each part is supposed to do so when he does more complex arrangements, like in big orchestral songs, and when he does the mixing.
To Tan, jazz was his weakest link, but he wasn’t one to shy away from challenges.
In 2009, he released an English album titled “Raw Jazz” which was a “big breakthrough” for him.
He said it gave him more courage to ad lib and do improvisations.
Barbra Streisand as an inspiration
“I like Barbra Streisand and I’m not ashamed of it,” said Tan.
He recalled going to London to judge for singing competition “The Voice of China”, where there were four gigs going on.
There were gigs by Madonna, Rihanna and Beyonce, but he said he chose to go for Barbra Streisand’s concert and it was the “most wonderful thing”.
“I did not grow up listening to her music, but when I started playing music live, I started appreciating her more and more for her technique, her ability to be so consistent not just with the notes and the words of the song and delivery, but the emotions, she is the best singer,” Tan enthused.
Last month, Tan released a new Mandarin album titled “Stand Up” with the title track of the same name.
He explained that the song came about when he was traveling while shooting a movie at the beginning of this year.
“I started to see that it’s a common problem that children nowadays face when they get out of universities. They have difficulties finding a job that meets their expectations. It’s not so easy to find a job as an university grad as maybe ten odd years ago,” Tan noted.
He added, “I wanna share with these people that this is where your dreams are important, dreams are the things you have to hold on to, especially when opportunities are few and when you’re feeling a little grey about your future because dreams are things that can give you direction, give you motivation and push you to become the person you want to be.”
Tan is now living happily with his Hong Kong-born wife. Still, he misses his family and having suppers with his best friends in Singapore.
Though busy now promoting his new album in China, he has received some offers to do shows in Singapore and he hopes to play in the city-state sometime soon.
Watch Tan talk to Yahoo Singapore about his musical beginnings, breakthrough and inspiration: