[Interview] Nathan Hartono: Conquering the Unclimbable

He once said that learning the Chinese language is an “unclimbable mountain”. Today, he stands tall at the tip of that mountain, going from a boy who could not fathom the language to one who belts out songs in the very same language.

Nathan Hartono knew he had to improve on the Chinese language when he wanted to connect with a bigger audience and stretch himself musically. All the people he worked with in China speak almost only Chinese and he had to work on the language for everything to work out properly.

Now an official ambassador to promote the Chinese language with Ministry of Education, Singapore, Nathan feels a “strange responsibility to let people understand the importance of the language”. He wants to be as honest as possible about his experience with the Chinese language and to let students know that his Chinese is not good as well, but at least they can get better together.

Nathan made his debut in China on the 7 February 2018. Previously a contestant on Sing! China 2016, in which he emerged second – the highest any foreign act had been – he finally released his first single “爱超给电”, a rendition of “Electricity”, a year after the competition that brought his career to greater heights.

Despite receiving a number of contract offers in China, he chose to wait a year before his first release as he wanted to spend some time to understand the industry in China as much as possible before jumping into it. He added that it is a big move going from Singapore’s music scene to China’s as it was “a whole other universe”.

Nathan shared that he heard a lot of stories where people – some his own friends – signed contracts that were close to a decade long and they ended up stuck; not given jobs just like employees on standby, and it was something he did not want to fall into. He wanted an environment where he can “just do the music and not worry about anything else” hence, he decided to take his time without rushing into contracts that were offered in attempt to strike while the iron was hot.

When asked about the concept of his music video, he explained, “Showcasing love – showcasing love that is unexpected, love that is unconventional, love that might not look the way you think love and beauty always look like.”

“That was the essence of the song – love that is unexpected. We wanted to embrace people of any shape and size, be it someone that is dressed in a blonde wig and a pink bikini,“ he adds with a chuckle, “or someone who has tattoos and makeup – whatever it is, different standards of beauty, different standards of what love can appear to be and it can also be very unexpected sometimes.”

While in the music video Nathan was seen dancing with vigor, he was actually the “sickest he had ever been in a very long time”.  He could barely walk straight, had fever, cough, body aches all over, his back was “hurting like crazy” and “everything was in shut down mode”. After travelling from the UK straight to Japan, he had to wake up at 4am to start shooting at 6 the very next day.

However, when he started working on the video, everyone involved in it (the crew, cast, production) was so committed to the project that it inspired him. The video was shot by none other than highly sought-after Tokyo-based Singaporean photographer/director Leslie Kee.

He recalled, “If they’re giving so much of themselves, I have no excuse. Anything I may be feeling right now, just push it aside and do a good job.”

Unlike mainstream music styles, Nathan’s sound brings a bittersweet nostalgia. When asked where he got his inspiration from, he said, “Listening to a lot of music. There’s really no other way around it.”

He thinks that one thing a lot of musicians fall into is that they stop listening to music, either because they are performing too much or they cannot enjoy the music or performance because they know what effects and plug-ins were used in the music and they start thinking about all these things instead of just enjoying it. Lately, he has been throwing all of that aside to just let loose and listen to more music.

On top of his music career, Nathan had also dabbled in other areas like musicals and web dramas. He expressed that he would like to improve on his acting and also get into television, movie production and story writing. Nathan also mentioned that he will be releasing more Chinese music, with original compositions and collaborations with Chinese lyricists.

Prior to his debut in China, he had also made releases in Indonesia. When asked if he had plans to branch out into another country, he says that he’ll just “go where it takes him”. First, he wants to make sure he has his own music sorted out and from there, “just let it loose and see what happens”.

Being a rising local musician who started at a young age, we had to ask him what his secret to success was – aside from the typical advice of “working hard”:

“Find opportunities to perform. No matter what it is you do, whether it’s music, or dance, poetry, visual arts, painting, whatever it is – a chef even – find opportunities to demonstrate your skill. Sing for somebody, draw for somebody, put up a dance recital, cook for some people, find ways you can put yourself in front of other people so you know how it feels and when you see how people respond, you know what can be improved – that is the best way to learn.”

Interview by Germaine Leow