“In general, I’m a very shy person who likes to keep to myself. The moment I’m on stage though I become a different person,” proclaims Singaporean born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Ong who also serves as frontman of bands Holy Roller and The Smoking Guns and The London Fog who have performed at the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix and ZOUK Singapore. Gifted with a distinct raspy baritone that is instantly recognisable, Jonny Ong’s psychedelic soul music is a refreshing entry in a time where vocoder auto-tuned vocals and rap beats sweep the charts, and his upcoming and recent releases might just stand out from the pack for its richness in production and emotion.
The Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) graduate pens music that brings listeners back to a time when things were simpler. Yet, that is not to say that his rich and layered sound lacks complexity even if it is sonically a blast from the past. Experimenting with originals sounds from multiple countries and cultures alongside his signature hand pan underpins inspired by Davide Swarup, a busker in Amsterdam, and the trumpet from Neo-soul tradition, Jonny’s sound has culminated in a universally unique sound melding jazz, folk and rock. His latest two singles ‘Chloe‘ and ‘Fools‘ serve as a prelude to his upcoming 15-track album ‘Isolation‘ set to be released in early 2021.
The most important thing in my childhood that influenced my musical journey was when my mum bought me ‘The Complete Beatles’ CD collection. That changed my life and made me decide to pick up the guitar,” recounts Jonny on his early musical influences.
From singing Frank Sinatra covers on family birthdays since the tender age of 10 to developing a deep obsession with psychedelic music, unconventional instruments and 60s music through his teenage years, Jonny decided to learn the guitar in his high school years in a time when the rest of his classmates would obsess over American hip-hop. Adorned on his bedroom walls were posters of Cream, The Fab Four, The Stone Roses and Oasis. He has since picked up writing, recording and producing his own music and his most prized possession to date is a guitar signed by Noel and Liam Gallagher which currently still hangs in his room. His debut album ‘Visions of the Aquatic‘ was released last year and is described as a ‘more experimental album focused on the hand pan, generally happy lyrics and a world music vibe‘.
Since then, Jonny’s upcoming sophomore full-length release will evolve to incorporate a more ‘cinematic vibe’ and darker thematic content and visuals as reflected from the single art from ‘Chloe‘ and ‘Fools‘. His latest single ‘Chloe‘ starts off hypnotic and mysterious before evolving into a thumping ballad packed with electronic swirls and a highly emotive trumpet riff that softens into a mellow ending. Working alongside his producer-band mate Callum Rose, Jonny has managed to create timeless songs with the backing of massed strings, evocative trumpet parts and a Link Wray-esque guitar line to evoke beauty and emotion in expressing the longing of lost love and acceptance even after the ordeal of manipulation from a past relationship.
I think we all know the heart is a very fragile thing and whether in love or in war, it must be treated with respect. Learn to accept both sides of the emotions it can bring and learn to utilise these emotions to full effect in the lyrics and feelings the heart can bring to your song,” reflects Jonny on his process of melding real-life emotions with the artistry of songwriting and music composition.
What started out as a suggestion from his mother to apply for Berklee College of Music resulted in a decision to pursue his further studies in the United Kingdom instead by which the multi-instrumentalist claims is where all his musical heroes made their careers. Describing himself as an ‘old soul’, Jonny reflects on his experience studying abroad, detailing that ‘classes would constantly get disrupted by students who really had no interest of being there’ and that ‘it was a bit of a circus’. However, things turned around when the recent gardening enthusiast found his bandmates through the degree program. Through it all, the true-blue music lover affirms that it was his education at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore that nurtured and shaped him as a musician.
The word ‘enigmatic’ may be used to describe the songwriter, but Jonny Ong’s music clearly captures the truth behind matters of the heart even through sophisticated instrumentation and unanticipated stylistic swerves that transport listeners back in time. Yet, the music is arrestingly beautiful in documenting pain, grief and sorrow. As The Beatles enthusiast pithily recounts: “I was going through a break-up and music has always been my escape. In the past, I’ve tended to avoid writing lyrics that are personal, but with this, I really went deep into the heart. It’s quite dark in places, but there’s a lot of hope.”
Follow Jonny Ong‘s journey as we eagerly anticipate the gradual roll out of the rest of his sophomore release through the rest of the year and completely in early 2021.