Singaporean Music Icon Dick Lee Talks Upcoming Christmas Concert, Young Musicians and Reflects on His Illustrious Career

Dick Lee is someone who does not need an introduction. A household name in Singapore and the rest of the region, this Asian music icon has undoubtedly seen it all. Perhaps you know him as the composer of ‘Home’, a staple at every National Day Parade, or as The Mad Chinaman, a moniker he adopted for his breakthrough 1989 album, Dick Lee’s illustrious career is one of the rare constants in Singaporean music. 

This holiday season, on 22 and 23 December, Dick Lee, alongside vocal groups Vocaluptuous and Third Degree, is ushering in the festive spirit with his concert, ChristmasTime with Dick Lee, at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands. 

Ahead of the concert, Popspoken had honour to catch-up with the acclaimed musician, during which he talks about the production of the show, his new single, his thoughts on the new generation of musicians and technology, as well as reflect upon his decades-long career.

Firstly, congratulations on your upcoming Christmas show! It’s known that it’s been almost 20 years since you last did something similar, why did you choose to do one now? And what are some differences between your last Christmas show compared to this one?

The only other time I’ve done a Christmas show was for a church fundraising concert at the Esplanade, and it was with a full orchestra – I think it was with the Singapore Youth Orchestra, if I remember correctly. It was very grand and I had lots and lots of guests. It was a bit of a community-style show.

And then I didn’t do another Christmas show for a long time until now, but I’ve always wanted to because I do love Christmas music. The opportunity came when BASE Entertainment invited me to do the show this year, and so I thought, “Why not?”, since we’ve been in the doldrums and I think we all need something to uplift us. 

This time, it’s a little bit different compared to the last one. I have a nice band with me for this one, eight musicians and three backing singers. I also have Vocaluptuous with us, which is my brother’s group, and that’s really nice, too. 

Notably, this concert will feature the vocal groups Vocaluptuous and Third Degree, the latter being a new addition to the vocal community in Singapore. How did this line-up come about? What made you choose to add them into the bill?

First of all, I invited Vocaluptuous because it’s my brother’s group, and they are really the best a capella group here. They have a huge Christmas repertoire, and a capella and Christmas go hand-in-hand. In fact, some years ago, they did a Christmas show which I directed, so I’m already very familiar with them. Also, Christmas is a time for families and I thought it’ll be nice to have my brother with me – we are also doing a duet together, just him and I! 

In Third Degree’s case, they came about via another project, actually. I just released a new single, ‘ENOUGH FOR ME’ with Omnitones. It’s so exciting to have a new song out, and I never thought I’ll be releasing new material again. But, last year, the pandemic forced me to stay at home and I started writing. I decided to play the songs with a young band, and I contacted the individual musicians from Instagram, can you believe it? I Direct Messaged them and put together a first rehearsal, and it was really exciting to have this new energy. In the past, when I played shows, there was always a music director and there’s a band of session players. But this time, I wanted to organically grow the music – with ‘ENOUGH FOR ME’, I wrote the song, but the way it sounds is all the band. 

And then, I got invited to have another concert next year at the Esplanade, and they invited me as part of a series they’re doing on local musicians. I decided to do the concert with Omnitones, and then I thought we could bring in some backing singers as well. While looking for the backing singers, a friend of mine introduced me to this group called Third Degree – they are a ready-made group of three vocal artists, and I thought that’s very rare. Normally, a capella groups are very big, and they’re not really an a capella group in the traditional sense. And, they are all so young and have a very fresh sound that I thought would really make a difference in my music. So I also wrote to them on Instagram, and they came on board for the show next year. 

After that, we got the Christmas show, and I thought I could bring them in as well. Third Degree is mentioned as a featured band because, during the Christmas show, they will be performing on their own as well, besides being the backing singers, and I will be doing duets with them too. 

With more up-and-coming local acts such as Third Degree emerging from the shadows, where do you think Singaporean musicians are positioned, both locally and globally? How do these new musicians sustain themselves and expand their exposure?

If you’re talking specifically about vocal groups, they are very, very rare. I don’t think I know of many vocal groups – there are soloists, there are bands, but this is a very unique thing. The last vocal groups that we know about, are more rather a capella groups, so it’s a very unusual thing. But, the interesting thing about Third Degree is that they are soloists in their own right, they have their own plans for their individual careers. They just decided to come together, because they’re still so fresh out of school, that’s where they met. It’s a very interesting concept. But there’s not really a track record for vocal groups like them, I wonder how they are going to continue. I hope that they will find an audience, but I also hope that individually they can have their own careers because they are all very talented. 

For Singapore bands and musicians in general, on one hand, it’s not difficult to release a single now. A lot of people are using their computers to make music and are putting it out on YouTube or whatever platforms they use, and it’s very easy now, not like in the past. In my time, you needed a deal, you had to get signed to a label. Of course, now we still have some artists who are signed to a label, but, in my time, it was a must to sign to one. The label had to assess you very carefully because it involves different aspects such as marketing, recording, promotion, and all that. Nowadays, you can do that all by yourself and it’s easy to put out a song, but it’s very hard to get it noticed – you had to do your own marketing and so on. 

If I go on Spotify, for example, and I look for Singapore music there or on Apple Music, I see a lot of artists and singles, but I wonder what’s going to happen to them and I wonder who they are. A lot of them I don’t know who they are: Could they be just kids playing around, put out a song and instantly become an artist? So, how serious these new artists are in this business, I don’t know. Maybe they’re just doing it for fun – many of them put out just one single and you don’t hear from them again. You can’t really track their career, so to speak. 

This is a problem, because it means that the audience does not have enough material to follow, there’s no continuity and you lose fans. I think new artists need to realise that you have to put out more than just one song and disappear. There are some acts that put out really good tracks but you don’t really know much about them. You don’t see them in the news, and there’s nothing to follow when the artist is not present. 

In my time, of course, being present was a whole other thing – you had to be in magazines, you had to go on the radio frequently, and you had to do a lot of promotion. Right now, I guess you have your Instagram accounts, your TikTok accounts, and then what do you do with those platforms? You have to put content out, and I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians, even the established ones, are very busy putting out content. The content is a lot of endorsements and partnerships, or funny videos to keep the followers interested – but then you remember suddenly that this content creator is actually a musician! I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just losing track of their music careers and I wonder sometimes if that’s not important to them anymore. 

Of course, not everyone is like that. Some are really focusing on putting out a lot of music and there’s a lot of collaborations going on. Recently, even JJ Lin has collaborated with Gentle Bones, for example. I wish that there was more exposure for these musicians, even with social media like Instagram. We don’t even have music shows on television anymore, and who watches television anymore? So, it’s quite tricky. I just put out my new single, and I’m perplexed at how it’s going to be exposed and how people are going to hear it. Sure, you can put up ads on Facebook and platforms like that, but it really is a whole different game now.

Another problem I find with the Internet is that, although it’s very easy for you to upload and share your music, you are also now competing with the whole world of young musicians because everybody’s on the same platforms. It’s really tough, lah. I think we need to look inwardly first before moving outwardly, and we need to build our music industry locally, and it’s important for our music to be known locally. I went to Japan in 1990 and that was my breakthrough. But before that, I had eight albums in Singapore, and the album that broke me was The Mad Chinaman. It went platinum in Singapore first before Japan noticed me. People always say you can make it abroad and then come back, but I didn’t do that, for some strange reason, I was the other way around. I had to make it locally first before anyone would take notice of me. So, I’m thinking that maybe our musicians should come together and really boost the local music industry, and that broadcasters and platforms should really help to promote them.

Dick Lee with Third Degree.
Photo from Facebook (@dickleeofficial)

In your opinion, as a long-time Singapore music icon, how have you been supporting the new acts you’ve come across over the years?

Well, I have of course tried to work with them in some way. For example, I got Ben Kheng to feature in my movie a few years ago, and now, getting the boys from Omnitones together and involving Third Degree in this project. For this project, we are really gearing up for the concert next year at the Esplanade. But, I’m hoping that I can have some other opportunities to stage music shows and feature young talents. 

I see a lot of singer-songwriters, and I’m a singer-songwriter myself, so I might want to pull them all together to do a concert or something. There’s a lot of talent all floating around out there, they need to come together in some way, and maybe they need someone to bring them together. I’m not sure whether it will work or whether anyone would be interested because I’m kind of old-school already, but I’m still active and working. In 2024, it will be the 50th anniversary of my career. I hope that 50 years from now, people such as Ben Kheng will still be singing. So, this is the thing I’m a bit worried about: What their staying power is like. 

The music industry and the way people consume music were undoubtedly flipped on its head by the ongoing pandemic. What are your thoughts on musicians utilising social media platforms, such as TikTok, as a way to spread their work to a wider audience in a time of physical separation?

The thing about TikTok, or even platforms like Snapchat and all that, is that the content is created for short attention spans. But an artist does not really require that – when you listen to a song, you want to listen to the whole song and not just 30 seconds of it. So, I think those platforms are good for quick bursts of information.

The bad thing about catering to short attention spans is that no one is putting out albums now, just singles and EPs, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. But, I feel that the thing that has sustained me and my career, even at this point, are live performances. I try to do at least one concert a year, and I don’t know if many artists do that often, even locally. Earlier this year, I did a concert and we had a restricted audience size. It was a solo show and it was just me on the piano – no band, no fancy anything, and it’s not very difficult to put on a show. I think musicians should do that a bit more so that they can reach out to people live.

How has the pandemic affected the way you work or record music? Have you employed any new post-COVID technology in that process?

Well, I haven’t employed them but I’ve been exposed to it. Personally, I’m very old school: I wrote songs on the piano with a pen and a notebook. I do it manually like that and I still do because it’s organic and it feels more natural for me. As a result, I have books and books of lyrics and manuscripts – every song I compose, I write the notation down rather than playing it into the digital audio software and let it write out itself.

But then, working with Omnitones, they all recorded at home and sent them to my producer, Sydney Tan. He took all their tracks, enhanced it and tweaked the sound from his end. But, that’s the way it goes now, and nobody went into his studio to record. The only one that went into the studio was me, to sing, because I didn’t want to sing at home and just send in the track. 

So, is it right to say that the pandemic has not exactly changed the way you work?

It has in one respect: I started writing songs, because I have not written songs for years and years! I never wrote unless the government asked me to write something. [Laughs]

Staying home, I was reminded of my passion and my music roots. That was the best thing that happened for me. I started to write songs to express my feelings, not because I was commissioned. 

Photo from Instagram (@dickleeparadise)

How did it feel to tap into your inner fire again?

Oh, liberating! It feels cathartic. It made me think: “Where was I all these years?”

I spent all of the 90s being a musician and working in the music industry, I was really, totally immersed. But, I got burnt out when I came back in 2001 and I just did not want to look at the music industry anymore. I actually gave up. I gave up being involved in the music industry. Of course I still wrote, I wrote some National Day songs, and things like that. But, I felt tired of being part of the whole game.

Dick Lee (@dickleeparadise)

Now, I got back into it and I’m working with musicians. With this show and this band, going to rehearsals with everyone, it’s all coming back! It feels really nice and it’s reminding me of who I am and what I’m all about, so that’s been the greatest thing. 

Your entire career has spanned decades of technology and trends. Having interacted with the “streaming generation”, how do you personally discover and consume music?

Wow, nowadays, there’s just so much out there! There are so many genres, and the older you get, the more you rely on what you know to feel good. And, sometimes, to calm myself down, I don’t want to hear anything new and I’ll go back to my favourite old things. Having said that, my personal music taste is very, very wide, but I gravitate towards the singer-songwriters because I’ve just regained my identity as a singer-songwriter. 

So, streaming platforms such as Spotify is really good lah, in a sense where I can just go in and find new things there – especially new local music. Apple Music has this thing where all the new music is put up there, and I can easily just check them out whenever. Sometimes, I actually buy the songs instead of purely streaming them. 

The other thing I find very interesting is the BOSE equipment that I have and there’s an app that comes with it called Soundtouch where you can get a lot of music channels from around the world – thousands of them, I believe! You can receive local radio stations from every country, every city in the world. What I’d do is, if I like Brazilian music, I can put on a radio station from Rio de Janeiro! If something catches my attention, I can Shazam it and through that I’ve discovered something new! So, yeah, I do that a lot. 

Finally, with us being so close to the new year, what are some of your plans for 2022? What are your hopes and wishes for the coming year? 

Next year is going to be the year where I continue to rediscover myself. It’s a very strange thing but I feel very free, I feel like I’ve freed myself from certain things that have held me down and I’ve gained clarity on so many things. I’m ready to challenge the world, and I’m ready to challenge myself. 

Of course, I would like to travel and I hope I can travel more in 2022. Another thing is a movie that I’ve been working on getting the rights to for a long time. It’s an existing film that I’m trying to get the rights to remake, and I’ve finally obtained it. It’s going to be a musical and that’s something that I really look forward to. I also have a couple of drama pilots that I am working on, so that’s what’s in store next year.

ChristmasTime with Dick Lee will be held on 22–23 December 2021, at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start from $68 (SGD), and are available for purchase via SISTIC.

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