On the process of making music, romance, and life itself – Big Duck has a candid discussion with singer-songwriter Amanda Ong, as she releases her first self-titled EP, Amanda.
Meet Amanda Ong, an indie-folk singer-songwriter following the sonic footsteps of songwriters from Sara Barailles and dodie, to Jacob Collier and Rachel Bloom. Following a series of singles and a capella YouTube uploads, Amanda is the singer’s first EP, with its stories inspired by episodes of the singer’s coming of age. Its six tracks are slices of intimate, acoustic-flavored pop, graced with comfortably layered guitars and her innocent, airy croons – as she strums and sings, she invites us into an intimate sonic journey, as we walk down memory lane, through the mindscapes of her late teens and early 20s.
It's about 6.20pm when Amanda floats into a little coffee shop on Tanjong Katong Road. Early to our meeting, what of her face that isn't obscured by a mask is arranged in a pensive expression. But as she comments on the difference between my hair irl and in my WhatsApp picture, she slowly breaks into a light-spirited giggle.
"Don't worry, my picture is from 6 years ago also!" Assuring me, she’s just come from her fiancé's home, working her day job in digital marketing. I sat down with the down-to-earth and shyly charming musician over a cup of tea, and we began to talk about music, love, life... and a quirky passion for Excel sheets!
When did you first discover you have a talent for music? Tell us your singer-songwriter origin story!
I don’t really think it was a talent, but like a lot of children in Singapore, your parents just send you for piano lessons, so that was how I started. My dad himself was a musician, so he wanted me to learn piano. He’s a pianist as well. I only realised I like to sing at about 15, and then I just sang in private, in the shower.
Do you remember any specific songs that got you into singing?
I remember on my 15th birthday, I sang 15 by Taylor Swift! I just did a little voice recording for myself. She’s still quite an inspiration to me, because she writes stories about her life. A lot of songs nowadays are just talking about one specific point in time, but her songs have a story, and that’s what I like to write about as well.
Ong's debut work, Amanda is quite figuratively a trip down memory lane – containing songs dating all the way back to her 17-year old self.
Your lyrics feel like diary entries – do you see songwriting as a form of catharsis? Because your songs are so personal, what does it feel like to bare your soul to the world?
Yeah, sometimes. I usually write when I’m frustrated. Like, if I can’t talk to anyone about something, I’lI write a song, and it’d be like, okay, it’s out there now. As for baring my soul to the world, it’s a bit daunting. One of the songs I put out, The Man I Knew Better, it’s about how I felt about my dad a few years ago, because there was someone new in his life and I felt like I was in second place to the person. I mean that was in the past, lah! And I got a song out so I feel better now. But it was daunting because what if my dad feels sad that I wrote this about him? Or what if other people start thinking he’s a bad dad? I asked my dad if he was okay with me publishing it, and he gave me his blessing (go dad!) because “it’s your song about how you felt in the past, so there shouldn’t be anything stopping you from releasing it.”
So, who inspires your music? You mentioned your dad, is it mostly people that you’re close to, e.g. family?
Yeah, mostly my dad, because he brought me up with all this music education. Also, in terms of songwriting, I guess dodie! Her lyrics just flow. She talks like she’s singing as well.
When do you do your best songwriting?
Hm... when I’m angriest. I don’t know, it just randomly comes to me. I could be really sad, and there’ll be nothing, I’ll just binge-eat and watch Netflix. And at other times, I’ll just be like, “oh! I think I have words in my mind!” Then I’ll just take a pen and write it down. If I feel like writing at the moment, it’ll just flow and the lyrics will be done in about 30 to 60 minutes. I usually start with lyrics, but sometimes while writing the lyrics, I already have a tune in my head, and then I’ll just sing it out.
So... your inspiration comes in bursts?
A lot of your songs sound like unsent letters, have you ever sung to someone you’ve written about?
I think not directly, but I’ve told some people I wrote about that it’s a song about them. Nice To Meet You, for example, is about two friends from two different social groups. They were really close to me -but when us three became a group, they started dating. I felt like I was going to be left out. I did tell them about that. But they then were like, “why do you feel like that? Don’t worry, we’re never going to replace you!” And all that. They’re still my very good friends!
I love your song You Don’t Exist – in it, you talk about a lover that is just a fantasy. Would you say that you’re a romantic or a realist when it comes to love?
I think I used to be a romantic. But I’m now a realist, because when people grow up, you need to think about bills, how you’re going to get your house, all the finances to think about. With my fiancé now, we finally got a good queue number after three years of trying for a BTO - but the house will only be ready in six years. So it makes you a realist in the end, things like thinking that I would want to have kids before getting a house. And so, in comparison to all these bigger life decisions, holding out for the perfect partner seems unrealistic to me.
The cover art is done by Eilis Ong, Amanda's cousin – who currently is also an illustrator on Instagram under the handle @unfrigerator.
Has it always been music that you’re interested in? What do you do apart from music and work?
I actually was thinking about this recently! I think apart from music, my next passion is organising Excel sheets – I get a real joy out of looking at a sheet, with all the numbers, and coordinated colours and everything. I think I realised that I like looking at data and sorting through it a few years ago. It really helps with finance planning as well!
Every time there was an overseas trip to be planned, I would whip out my travel template on excel and start charting down the itinerary along with wet weather plans, what the budget should be and how to maximise the commute. In my current job, I also create editorial, social media or campaign calendars so that everything is a lot easier to see at a glance.
My favourite sheet so far is my own financial planning sheet – it has all my rough income sources and expenses until I die, as well as my payment plan for future goals like my BTO and children. With that sheet, it's a lot easier to tell how much I can spare if I'm feeling spendy!
You’re part of an a capella group New Recording 47. What’s that like in comparison to your solo journey?
When it comes to my solo journey, I feel like everything is just own-time, own-target. I can complete all the tasks by myself, I’m not rushing anybody except myself – but that could be bad as well, because if I just don’t want to do shit, then no one’s going to chase me for it. I can just not get a song done for 3 years. In fact, that’s exactly what happened – this EP was actually meant to come out 3 years ago, as part of my university’s final year project! But in hindsight, I also knew so little back then, so I’m glad I didn’t release it!
I saw on Instagram that you had a really clever makeshift recording booth that involved a blanket. Walk us through your music making process, do you record, produce and distribute everything on your own?
For the first song, You Don’t Exist, that’s what I did, because I really like to do things by myself, instead of depending on other people. You can get disappointed when you depend on others, and I don’t want to get disappointed by other people, or the other way around. So I would just record in my own booth. As I went along, however, people would tell me what I was doing wrong with my recordings, or how I could’ve made it better, saying for example that the sounds were a bit too wet. They were all pieces of advice – you should use egg cartons, you should use blankets, and so on – so I just did that.
But the aircon was really loud, so I would turn it off and put the blanket on, and just be sweating in there! It’s kind of an ugly process, so one day I hope I can make an actual home studio, soundproofed and everything, so I can do it in comfort!
For the EP, I finally got some help, because I decided I can’t do all this by myself with a full time job and everything. I’m glad to support other artists as well! Like, other creatives in the industry, who are producing the cover art and everything. In fact, the cover art was actually done by my cousin, who just graduated from SOTA a while ago. I like to get the cover art done by a different person every time. Some people might disagree with that because branding is important, but I like to see different styles.
What has it been like releasing music in a pandemic, and how have you been coping these couple of months?
I think it’s actually easier to work by myself, because I don’t have to go out and meet friends. But at the same time, I can also watch Netflix all the time, so I need to really make myself do it. And I think I wasn’t really gigging actively before the pandemic, so my income wasn’t cut by that much. But I was putting up a lot of online covers, a capella covers. So I think when the pandemic hit, people already saw that I was quite active online, and I got some unique opportunities from that. Like, Carousell reached out to me.
With the #MadeInSG campaign, for example?
Yeah. Stuff like that! And National Youth Council also did a video with me. I'm really glad they wanted to showcase a full set of our originals, because most of the time, gigs just want you to play covers. It was a first for me, 30 minutes worth of original content!
Finally, is there anything you want to get off your chest?
I feel like it's a shame that marketing plays such a big role in whether your music gets heard, and it's getting increasingly hard for me to focus on both marketing strategies and creating my best music at the same time. I know there are options for others to help with the marketing, but I still really want to do it by myself so that I know what it all entails if I ever decide to delegate it in the future.
Amanda recently shared her work on Carousell’s #MadeInSG, a campaign to help creatives share work during the challenging times of a pandemic. Her work is also available on Spotify, YouTube, YouTube Music, Deezer, Bandcamp, and Apple Music.
Stream her EP Amanda here!