Charlie Lim on Not Believing His Own Hype and Making It Outside the System

Grounded, humble and soft-spoken. Charlie Lim could well be our generation’s poster boy for local music. He has sold out gigs in Esplanade, co-produced the National Day Parade 2018 song, has played in multiple regional festivals and is now mentor to two of ten emerging music acts for Season 2 of The Great Singapore Replay (TGSR).

These ten acts were chosen from more than two hundred submissions that were led by industry experts from Sony Music and Warrior Records. Presented by Temasek, TGSR will be giving these young talents a platform to be coached by industry’s best such as Joanna Dong, Kelly Pan, Seziari, Shabir and Charlie Lim, with the end goal of eventually listening their music on popular streaming platforms.

Charlie’s musical journey is often glamourised because of his current success which, he himself constantly questions. What is success? How should it be quantified? He reminds us that it is not something that comes without sheer determination and battling the highest peaks as well as the lowest troughs of the entertainment industry. Putting out new music and continuing this journey isn’t an easy one. To keep himself grounded, Charlie reminds himself to be kinder on himself and to be a constant state of play.

Popspoken: Tell us more about your involvement in TGSR and the role that you play as a mentor to Rene and Marian Carmel. 

Charlie Lim: As a mentor, I don’t want to overstep too much. I wish to guide them as much as possible to help them find their their own voice so they can release tunes that they’re proud of. What this means is stepping in and telling the producers that a track might be too polished so they can revisit it and release something that they want. My role is to facilitate this process and be a listening ear to anything that they need.

Popspoken: Which mentors do you look up to and how have they impacted your career thus far?

Charlie Lim: I interned for Dr Sydney Tan when I was in National Service more than 10 years ago. It was also where I had my first rude awakening as to how tough being a music producer is. It was a really good learning experience and we’ve kept in touch since. He’s been a great mentor to me. It came full circle when the opportunity to co-produce the National Day Parade as well as SEA games closing theme song came up.  As a doctor in the day and a music professional by night, he’s someone I look up to as he puts up so much effort and thought to serving a higher purpose. He has deeply inspired and shaped the way I want to make music.

Popspoken: Young musicians have to go through a lot of anxiety in the entertainment industry. Any words of advice you would like to impart to them? 

Charlie Lim: Mental health awareness is very important. That said, I’m no spokesperson of mental health. To be honest, I’m barely keeping it together. The lows are very low, the highs are very high. It’s part of the journey and the way the entertainment industry works, especially in exacerbating the peaks and valleys.

We are now part of a homogenized platform with a new world currency where everything is measured. The truth is, relevance is relative and when you put a number to something – it’s terrible. It doesn’t mean something is not good if the number of likes is low. It just means that not everyone likes this one thing. Maybe it’s not marketed a certain way, or the timing is just not right.

It’s pretty much like doing your own startup. Glamourized. Romanticized. Running your own business is really tough and up-keeping the constant flow of ideas is even tougher. As you’re basically bootstrapping everything at the start.

A program like TGSR is great, but is far from a ticket to success. How do even quantify success in this crazy industry. I know personally people who have massive record deals, they tour and they’re still not happy. Everything is really relative. It’s good to know what’s your version of success. You have to be aware that those goal posts move as well as you go along. I think just being in a constant state of growth is the best thing you can do for yourself than to seek affirmation or validation from awards or online / number of comments you have. All those things will change. I grew up in a pre-YouTube era, I’ve seen MySpace come and go and now we are just in the Instagram arena.

As well as TikTok – the methods of delivery and how consumers consume has changed so much. I don’t have a lot of the answers, and I struggle a lot of it myself. I think you have to know what you don’t like and what you like to do. I think you need to seek strength. Lose yourself in the work itself. See that the work itself is the reward. If you just focus on that, everything else that comes along is a bonus. I think it’s a respectable thing, because everything else is relative and fleeting.

Popspoken: What do you think brands roles are in a young musician’s career? 

Charlie Lim: By doing a collaboration with local artists, brands can elevate us to hopefully reach a wider platform. I don’t know how it can be quantified until you actually get there for some big festival or international talk show, or a brand deal that could be international. Brands are more open to this these days. I don’t think Adidas was doing this sort of thing 20 years ago.

I’ve been very fortunate to work for a number of brands that have been incredibly supportive of my career. It’s a catch-22 though. If you’re not big enough, why should they bother to support you, but then again you also need their support to be big enough. You basically have to make it outside of the system. Even within the Universal Music record label infrastructure, they can try their best to push me to other regions. However, if I’m not Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift, why should they choose to prioritize me over them?

Ultimately, I think it requires people to believe in you and to put their belief into action. People in Singapore need to take more gambles on local artists, if not we will never get bigger.

Charlie Lim at Apple Music

Yet, part of me is goes “screw it” – why do we need this affirmation or international credibility. Why do we need to jump through all these hoops and plays all these games, if Singaporeans don’t care about the local artist per se. It makes me a little upset somethings. When I see Nathan Hartono only entering the public conciousness after SingChina. Why can’t we just support them at the start?

Political correctness aside, Noise Singapore’s mentorship program is useful in helping budding artists. When I was in my in my early 20s, if only I had all these platforms to meet people and get the same amount of exposure. I am very excited for the new crop of mentees, but I also advise them not to get lost in all the noise.

Popspoken: How do you maintain your focus? 

Just don’t believe in your own hype. I picked up boxing a couple of years ago and started taking it very seriously. My last album is named after a boxing move. Just having something else to devote your time to. When it’s busy, it gets really busy. I think having good family and friends support, people who might not have answers for everything. Who are there for you. I’m lucky enough to have a really good wife who understands my job scope. She’s very supportive.

Popspoken: What is your creative process like?

Charlie Lim: When I have time to get restless, I try to scribble down some ideas. Record stuff on my phone, or get on the piano or guitar. I will then try to sketch out a demo on the computer. A lot of the work starts in the editing process. Everyone has ideas. The tricky thing is to find time to join the dots.

There are many ways to make environments more conducive. The hardest is to always trying to follow through with the initial cause of action. I’m meticulous by nature and that sometimes gets in the way of me finishing a product. These days, I try to be a bit kinder to myself. To be more in a state of curiosity – like playing, than to be too critical about everything.

TGSR Season 2 will culminate in a Showcase Concert to be held at Gardens by the Bay on 18 January 2020. Catch Charlie Lim at White Label Records alongside Kiat (Syndicate), Linying and Funk Bstrd / Kaye (Darker Than Wax) on 21 December 2019. Details here


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