SINGAPORE — Creative muses can take many years to crystallise. For singer-songwriter Joshua Chiang, he was patient enough to develop some of the songs on his debut album, "Everything Under The Sun", for more than 15 years.
In between, the 46-year-old relocated from Singapore to Phnom Penh, got married, and jammed regularly with musicians from all around the world amid the Cambodian capital's pub circuit. Those experiences allowed him to hone his craft and build up a 12-track pop rock collection that crackles with modern energy while paying homage to his inspirations at the same time.
"U2's 'Rattle and Hum' has a very special place in my heart because the album was the gateway to many different genres of music that I would otherwise never have been aware of," Chiang told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore over an email interview amid the album's official release on Bandcamp and other major streaming platforms on 21 April.
"Similarly, this debut album of mine is an unapologetic love letter to the popular music and musicians that have influenced me the most. You can hear touches of punk-rock, blues, Motown, Brit-pop, early U2, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, even gospel in the album.
"My primary goal with this album is to give listeners a solid 48 minutes of enjoyment, but it would definitely be icing on the cake if some of them start taking a deep dive into all these different genres that I borrow from, as a result of listening to the songs on the album."
Inspired by thriving musician community in Phnom Penh
Chiang has been making pop-rock music since 2005, taking embryonic versions of his songs out on gigs around Singapore with his band A Lucid Trip.
When the band broke up, however, he stopped songwriting amid a deep dissatisfaction with his life, and it was far from his mind when he finally made the decision to leave Singapore for Phnom Penh in 2013.
"I just needed to be in a place that has far less expectations of you to be a particular type of person, where you can fail and no one will notice," he recalled of his relocation decision.
"In Phnom Penh, I found a thriving community of expat musicians from many different countries, playing all sorts of music. We would all show up at open mic sessions to just have a good time.
"For a while I was quite content to just perform cover songs. But one day, I got invited to perform at a singer/songwriter's event. I realised two things that night: people are really interested in listening to original songs, and I couldn't connect with those old originals I wrote anymore. I had outgrown them. And that's how I started writing anew."
Amid his day job as a graphic illustrator and animator, Chiang resumed writing songs and began on the steep learning curve to record his compositions in his home studio. He also taught himself to play most of the instruments on the album, save for additional lead guitars from Phnom Penh musicians ZyctDan and Jared Ferrie, as well as saxophone work by Singapore musician Christopher Yong.
The result is an album of wide musical scope that also manages to capture his knack for catchy melodies and memorable hooks - from the tongue-in-cheek first single "I Wanna (Spend All My Time In the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame)", to the new-wave-influenced "Into My Soul", the Motown-esque "Love Has Its Own Mind", and the folk-rock-ish "What Do You Say".
"I performed extensively within a short period of time after I arrived in Phnom Penh and learnt very quickly how to play many different genres of popular music," Chiang said. "I could try different styles, sometimes different chord progressions on those older songs, and from there I found things that were far more interesting than their original iterations.
"It also helped that the two lead guitarists I had performing on the album were really versatile and talented, and were able to deliver above and beyond what I wanted from them."
Documenting personal transition into middle age
Mixed and mastered by Singapore indie rock veteran Patrick Chng (The Oddfellows, Typewriter), "Everything Under The Sun" essentially documents Chiang's transition from young adulthood to middle age.
He revealed that life has been significantly happier and richer since he made the decision to relocate, with him meeting his wife in Phnom Penh and finally being able to rid himself of his fear of commitment.
"A difficult episode during my second year in Phnom Penh taught my wife and I to stop wasting time, and that gave me the drive to make an album, and also produce a graphic novel, both of which I have managed to do," he said.
"With her, I was determined to end my pattern of self-sabotaging behaviour. I had to be both strong and vulnerable at the same time. I had to learn to trust that the partner will want to stick around, even if she saw the parts of me that I reject in myself."
The global COVID-19 pandemic, however, delayed the album release as Chiang was stuck in Singapore amid the circuit-break period in 2020 for four months longer than he had intended.
Still, it produced one of the album's highlights, "A Friend For The End Of The World", whose demo version was voted into the No.3 spot in Cambodia's RadioOun.com's Top 100 Songs of All Time in 2021.
Amid all the patient gestation of his songs, did he ever wish that he could have put out the album sooner?
"When the idea for doing an LP came about, I wanted it to be named '42'. The nod to Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy aside, it was meant to be released on my 42nd birthday. I am now 46, so technically, I missed my deadline by more than four years," Chiang said.
"Having said that, while it was an incredibly tedious process to get to the point where you say, 'Okay, this is as good as it can get already', I think the album really needed that time to get to where it is."
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