Chart-topping Songwriter and Producer Tat Tong Shares Creative Process and His New Foray into China

From spending six years in the Navy to jumping ship and moving to the US to pursue music full-time, Tat Tong has done what most Singaporeans believe to be a huge career risk. The decision paid off because Tong is now the first Singaporean to secure a Top 10 spot in the famed Billboard 200 charts. The Los Angeles and Singaporean-based producer has been signed to Universal Music Publishing since 2009 and boasts an undeniably stellar track record.

Tong is no stranger to busting out hits with Hollywood and Asian stars. His discography includes 80x platinum hits, and global credits feature huge names such as Luis Fonsi, Troye Sivan, CNCO, SHINee, Show Luo, and JJ Lin.

In fact, the 38-year-old co-wrote, and co-produced Troye Sivan’s Happy Little Pill”, which catapulted to #1 on iTunes in 55 countries and reached Top 5 in the Billboard charts. The electropop track speaks of coping with loneliness and touches on themes of depression and drug use. With over 60 Top 20 hits under his belt, Tong was also one of the masterminds behind the Mandarin remix of Despacito”, in collaboration with JJ Lin and Luis Fonsi.

Tong’s move to Los Angeles had further kick-started an exciting partnership with American Idol alumnus, Jovany Javier. The duo writes and produces songs together under the moniker, The Swaggernautz. Last year, they debuted their Latin-pop band, WAPEA. The band’s most recent single, Maldita has amassed over 500,000 views on YouTube.

Tong’s impressive credentials only continue to soar. In a classic industry role reversal, the Singaporean-born producer was recently scouted to head the A&R team with Sony Music in Greater China. Tong started his new role a few months ago and will be uprooting to China as soon as international borders reopen.

Popspoken: Seeing as you have clinched over 20 #1 hit tracks to date, could you share what goes into the process of crafting a hit?

Before I went to the US, my process was very analytical and structured, which mirrors my approach to life in general. I felt like every section of a song had to have a hook and melody. Looking back, it was bordering on rigid, but it did work for me. I had some chart success before going to the US, mainly working with artists in the Southeast Asian and K-pop market. Then when I went to the US, I met Jovany. He is the polar opposite of me – I’m a very technical analytical person, and he’s a very emotional person. So his main criteria, which was absolutely alien to me at the time was, “How does this [song] make me feel? Can I dance to it?”

Eventually, I came around to his viewpoint, because ultimately, I realised music is about emotion. You need your audience to feel something. So, I think a balance of both approaches is necessary. A trick I learned from Mike Caren, who runs APG in the US is that if you write a song, the next day, you should have total recall. If there are parts that when you wake up, you feel fuzzy on, then you need to rework those. For emotions, you need to ask yourself: Does it make me feel something? Do I remember the feeling of the song?

Popspoken: Artists may sometimes be distrustful of major labels. How would you assuage some of the players you’re about to work with of their concerns? 

In my history, I was signed as a label act to Universal Latin, together with Jovany. From there, I did get the experience of being an artist signed to a label. Now, the perspective is flipped as I have artists to manage. I do not think there is a specific issue between labels and artists. The important thing is to communicate and have expectations set correctly on both ends, just like in any relationship.

Popspoken: How did your JJ Lin collaboration for Despacito come about? Is there an interesting story that led to the partnership? 

To be honest, I have to give credit to Jovany. One day he woke up and said that we should pitch a collaboration to Luis Fonsi and JJ Lin since we have been working with them for a while now. At that point, JJ and Fonsi were both huge enough career-wise and in exactly the same spot in the markets. And so it was a really a very easy conversation to have. I sent a WhatsApp message to JJ and Jovany messaged Fonsi – and they were both very keen.

We linked everyone together on a WhatsApp group chat, and you know it happened… just like that. It was easy, but of course, it was because we had already gotten to a point where we had worked with both of those artists before, so there was a lot of trust and goodwill on both ends. The relationship is definitely vital. And so at that moment, it was a really easy sell. Plus, with Despacito being the number one song in the world at that time, it kind of tends to sell itself.

 Popspoken: What made you decide to leave your role as a producer to join Sony’s Greater China A&R team?

The opportunity came to me unexpectedly. Being an A&R for a major label in a significant region was always a possible career path in my mind. But Jovany and I have been having a blast making music, and it was not an immediate possibility, and I did not have a concrete plan until Kevin Foo from Sony approached me. I was on the fence until I discussed with Jovany about it, as this would change both our lives drastically. Being the ultra business-minded person he is, he told me that I should definitely do it. So I thought about it and eventually decided to go for it.

Right now, I am still very much in transition. I have been with the company for two and a half months, it is entirely new, and I am still learning the ropes. But it has been great, and I feel happy to help musicians in my new role.

Popspoken: How do you feel working with Sony can help you advance your career and build your skills?

 I feel like I am learning a lot in a new aspect of the industry, which is excellent for personal development. As a producer and an artist, you do learn a little bit about labels. But it’s like a blind man touching an elephant. Now, working with Sony, I am inside the elephant, and I can understand why labels do things a certain way. You get to see the industry from a different perspective.

Popspoken: Do you have any advice or tips for artists trying to break into the industry?

Working hard and being persistent are the key factors. Having been in this journey for several years, and going from a hobbyist to making music professionally, the hard work and persistence is really to position yourself for when opportunities come. Again, this might seem super cliché, and everyone says it, but it is completely true. For some people, the window of opportunity happens early, and they’re not prepared for it, and then they don’t make the most of it. For some people, they might give up right before they get to that window. Treating people well and networking are also important in this industry. But besides that, it’s very much about having multiple things cooking at the same time, so you’re not entirely reliant on just one thing working out.

Popspoken: If you weren’t headed to China to work with Sony, what would your next venture be?

This is a weird period, and so much has changed. If not for the call from Kevin Foo, and if not for COVID-19, I will probably still be writing songs with artists in the US. Jovany and I will still be continuing with our band, WAPEA. The reason why we put the project on hiatus is because of this opportunity for me to work with Sony. If I did not get this opportunity, we would be continuing with the band, and possibly touring together, granted if COVID-19 did not happen.


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