Angled by the school anthem board of his alma mater, Charlie Lim stands before the camera. He shifts in reserved frames, face stoic as the camera flashes appear in his eyes as the final shot for the look is taken. The photo shoot team ambles off to the next location when a faculty of teachers spills out of the adjacent room. Some of them recognise the singer and before they could make the first move, Lim greets one of them, his Mandarin teacher who is evidently delighted to see him, by name.
There are two ways one would get to know of Lim. Through his first EP Time/Space–the lyrical genius in ‘Blah Blah Blues’; the disillusioned lover in ‘Bitter’; the cataloguer of remnant feelings in ‘I Only Tell The Truth’. And the other is from his involvement in this year’s National Day as songwriter, co-producer and performer of the theme song. But that’s just a sliver of who Lim really is.
“I’m not a pop star so that probably helps in my favour.” Lim regards himself as being relatively shielded from the press, which doesn’t pry too much into his personal life. A quick search online and you get the standard article headlines; scattered repetitions of the adjective ‘melancholic’. There are not even controversial Reddit threads.
Expectations are warranted during the first encounter with someone you’ve consumed secondhand information about. The memory bank kicks in, projecting prior descriptive keywords and searching for their accuracy in the person before you. His stature is taller than most would gather; and his signature centre-parted hair and browline glasses are consistent. There are no airs or stiff formalities with Lim as he breaks the silence, he carries no insinuation of ‘soft-spoken’. Instead, he emanates a quiet self-assurance with each sentence; the even pace he intones is deceptively calm for someone who calls himself highly strung.
Lim confesses that he is full of anxieties. Quarter life existential crisis, as he puts it. Anxieties that stem from an innate demand to live up to his fullest potential. As much as it is a First World problem, the burdens it imposes are very real. Throw in his inherent disposition into the mix—poor prioritisation skills that equate to the propensity of getting overwhelmed at the little details—and you can see why it does his head in.
“It’s like having perfect pitch. I haven’t met someone who has perfect pitch and is not miserable. A couple of guys in my band have perfect pitch and they’re just constantly in agony because things are not in tune,” he says, chuckling at the flashback. “We laugh about it, but I guess I’m like that with other things as well.”
He further elaborates on his point with ikigai, a Japanese concept that roughly translates to ‘reason for being’. Ikigai is typified in a Venn diagram of four aspects: What you love, What the world needs, What you can get paid for and What you’re good at. Within the overlaps, you get the quadrants Mission, Vocation, Profession and Passion. In short—a visual depiction of the value of life. Lim endorses its inspirational purpose, especially for dispirited workers, but to artists, musicians and creators in general,ikigai presents itself as yet another stress factor. It is easy to be unhappy with the things you are producing and simultaneously difficult to answer to how it contributes to society. You’re not exactly saving lives.
“I don’t know how to not be hard on myself,” he says resignedly. “Catching yourself in the moment, learning to balance when to step in and when to let go, is one of the toughest things to do.”
To that extent, his music video in ‘Welcome Home’ is a metaphysical study into that. You get a peek into the supposed behind-the-scenes of the music video with an exaggerated rendering of Lim’s micro-managing. It opens with a cutaway interview with the director, who is visibly traumatised from the involvement with a problematic musician. The drama unfolds into the jockeying of concepts between the two; where the director proposes for him to take the conventional, albeit sappy route, but MV Lim insists that he “just wants to dance bro”.
“So do you want to dance?” I inquire for the masses.
It’s a no from Lim. In fact, he goes on to share about the feedback he received from people who have welcomed and applauded it as a serious change of style direction… which completely misses the point. Smiling, he conveys that the initial concept from the real music video director Jonathan Choo began on a more abstract level, perhaps pitched as such to avoid offending the real musician Lim. But of course, Reality Lim is nothing like MV Lim.
“Dude, we should just go for it and take a complete piss out of everything,” he quotes himself. “Not just about pop culture but also myself, what I’ve been doing, what people think of me—or at least what I think people think of me—then it just spiralled out of control very quickly.”
Both a result of the trust Lim had in his team, and them collectively enjoying the process, the spiral got to the point where everyone had to step back and wonder if anybody, apart from themselves, could discern the intent they were going for. A gruelling shooting and editing process nonetheless, but one he feels he had the most fun with.
“How do I portray myself in the worst possible way?”
It wasn’t about showing a different side of himself to counter the ‘sad boy’ image that he carried, but an expression of the belief that human beings are complex and that no one is truly one-dimensional. From there springs forth the hilarious, brilliant twist we see in ‘Welcome Home’. Even the Chinese subtitles are loosely translated on purpose; directly inferred and devoid of proper grammatical structure. The highlight being the word ‘meme’ in Mandarin.
What MV Lim yells before getting into a physical brawl with the director is probably an authentic opinion of Reality Lim. Memes are cool to him. Apart from the necessary brand promotion, Lim’s Twitter page is a compound of social commentary, support for the local music industry and highly relatable meme content. He clearly takes pleasure in being the subject of meme culture as well, reposting them on his social media accounts.
“I have people tagging me on these random things I never thought would be tagged in because the song is called ‘Welcome Home’; like floor mats, or when they come back to Changi Airport. To me, I know the song is playing in their head when they see that.”
Specifically, where, or what, is home for Lim? Shuttling between Melbourne and Singapore throughout his growing years, uprooting and moving is second nature to him. He was the first of his family to move to Melbourne at just 14 before they joined him a year later. Even when he returned to Singapore for National Service, he spent his residency rotating among the homes of relatives. It’s understandable then, when he finds the notion of home somewhat dismal, the nostalgic clinging to a false sense of comfort. If home were a location, it would be shifting sand because the place could remain, but circumstances would have changed. Trying to grasp what he was once attached to would only lead to a personal emotional demise.
I see him slipping back into the broody artist persona most typecast him as, expressing his views in the way I imagine ancient Chinese poets did of the moon. But like light filtering through the cracks, the positivity comes through. What I mistook for a defence mechanism was, in truth, a pragmatic approach for Lim. He doesn’t stay anchored to the past only because he focuses on building a new home. One founded upon time spent with loved ones and new connections made. For Lim, home lies in the safe zone provided, in the absence of façades and judgement.
Still, home as a native land must hold some sentiment to a self-professed cynic. “I couldn’t be happier to be part of NDP… and I never thought I would say that. I don’t usually buy into these things, but I still cry every week at rehearsal,” he says with a laugh, “like [Boo] Junfeng doing such a good job, just being there and seeing all the kids, elderly volunteers and everyone slogging it out, realising I don’t really have a right to complain when all I do is walk up and sing one thing.”
I suspect words are just not sufficient in the articulation here. Lim does more than just walk up and sing one thing, surely. Rewriting a classic practically indoctrinated into Singaporeans is no small feat. When the theme and song basis for the year was set in place and the casting call for songwriters sent out, Lim went ahead with his groundwork. The investigation only led to his horror at discovering that 1987’s ‘We Are Singapore’ was commissioned by the government to be composed by adman Hugh Harrison, who is Canadian.
Lim then dove into an audiovisual research on YouTube lasting a couple of weeks on National Day songs over the past two decades to find points of reference, before spending the next couple of weeks mulling over it. His handscribed love letter to Singapore finally spilled out within a day, and its demo produced and recorded shortly after. Lim refers to the submission as a bit of an ultimatum—a take it or leave it—as he couldn’t see himself change much of it. Funnily enough, what you hear as the end product is the preserved vocals of the demo track recorded in his bedroom.
Despite his true-to-self desire to rerecord to perfection, which was attempted, National Day Parade director Dr Sydney Tan eventually went with the original version. Lim honours the man who fought for his rendition through multiple levels of approval, to whom he believes more credit is due. “‘Home’ and a lot of SG50, basically all the good years or anytime there is something good to say about NDP, he’s behind it.”
Immediately after a Mongolian tune ends, a Korean pop song follows suit. Then the latest American chart-topper. Then an old Chinese movie soundtrack. On a car ride on an extended tour, music cushions the boredom. Among the random medley surfaces, How many times have you heard them say / The future is uncertain and everything must change. Ears prick up as the unmistakable chorus chimes in. ‘We Are Singapore’ is, indeed, playing.
I relate this moment to Lim. Whether it was the local radio channel or the local driver’s playlist, it was certainly a surprise to hear the National Day theme song among a plethora of international songs. If Lim was surprised, he didn’t let it show.
“Wow, I wish I had royalties,” he says in a deadpan voice, “but that’s whack. Maybe they were sampling a whole bunch of different countries, but this was the one that represented Singapore.” That he found amusing.
Given the hypothetical chance to write the theme song from scratch, Lim probably would have done it quite differently. Although there is the issue of the subversive nuance of his lyrics. The first line of his prelude raised the committee’s concerns on its ambiguous underlying implications. Valid, he concedes, but open to interpretation.
It’s no different with his music. He falls into a brief pause when I ask what ‘Welcome Home’ is really about. “I don’t like answering what or who the song is about,” he responds. “It’s a tough question to answer because I don’t write a song for someone or because of something. It’s very hard to go in with a preconceived idea and try to execute it as if you knew the entire procedure or recipe to get the final product.”
Lim may enter the studio with a loose idea, but as he plays around with the beats, chords take shape and the tenor of it forms a life of its own. As he starts vocalising even before lyrics are put to paper, the initial idea unspools to reveal a spark that he is predisposed to chase. It’s almost experimental how lyrics, chords and even ideas stored in the backburner are taken out of the bag and thrown in to try what works.
“Speculate every slight situation / Just a sign of the times we live in” was a line Charlie wrote ages ago, but seemed to fit the mood of ‘Welcome Home’ and what he was trying to express in it.
It’s straightforward to post-rationalise a story. Many introductory texts of art pieces do this, as though the finished product is a carbon copy of the artist’s rudimentary vision. It just doesn’t happen that way and I’m glad Lim did not uphold that charade. Yet the polished patchwork reads as a smooth narrative and that’s when it’s obvious music is his calling.
Music was the path of least resistance for Lim since young. Being intuitively good at it only indicated that a minimal effort was required to yield the maximum result. As all kids are at that age, he picked the easy way out. “So I just dug myself into a hole I can’t get out of,” he says. “Had to learn the hard way that it’s really not that easy.”
Before music got its tenterhooks into him, there were two options Lim considered when he first moved to Australia: a doctor or a writer. What would you have done if not music is not just an interview question to him; it’s the nagging doubt that prods at his being every dry season. We’re back on the ikigai paradigm. “Maybe I’ll be better off at a seminary or teaching. Do something that’s more useful to society than me being stuck in my room.” The room where most of the work gets done, which Lim admits to be incredibly unhealthy since he can never fully rest at home.
“Then again, I can never fully rest anywhere. I’m always on emails, on edge, wanting things to be done as soon as possible.”
He finds peace in arranging, filing and colour-coding his stuff. Right down to his pedal board, which to date, is in an alternate black-and-gold scheme. Lim divulges that he goes to the trouble of selling his pedal for one that fits the colour composition, even if it meant a trade down. “My band’s face-palming, going, ‘Why are you doing this? Come lah I spray paint for you.’” He sighs lightly before trailing off into silence, the virtual list running off in his head.
“I was just thinking about my inbox and Dropbox right now, all the things I need to sort through. I hate a messy desktop, but I know mine is really messy at the moment. Files everywhere, just thinking about it gets me triggered. I’m going to sort that out right now before sound check.”
You must have a lot of folders, I remarked, guilty of having the same mildly obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
“Yeah, many that I try to colour tag, but the Mac doesn’t have enough colours for me to use,” he runs his fingers through his hair in mock exasperation. “I don’t think I’m an easy person to live with, so I’m very thankful for my fiancée who has accepted me, or loved me unconditionally, the last two years.”
As I quiz him a little about his beau, a mental picture of the relationship is painted before me. Being a musician is fundamentally running your own business. It’s no regular nine to five, but that’s not an exemption from bringing home the bacon either. The sense of responsibilities on tour can be overwhelming, and his stresses, in turn, take a toll on her. But she has been very understanding. Though based in Singapore, she’ll join him on his tour at times. She even helped with the Japanese version of the songs, being fluent in the language. You can sense the gratitude when he speaks of her empathy for him. “We are quite similar in that we are both overthinkers, so we support each other that way.”
He alludes to the new album as an ode to overthinking. The way it has been produced, arranged and performed is a reflection of that headspace. He contrasts Time/Space as a drawn-out process of trying to figure himself out, only to realise that he didn’t have to. “You just have to write from an honest place, keep showing up and putting in the work. Things will evolve anyway.” He maintains that he is a lot more confident in his work and in himself as a person. The new work is a nod to the reflecting and searching. “The perpetual tug-of-war—tugs-of-war—” he corrects himself, “in my brain is on this album.”
In terms of the beats, it’s a switch up from the down tempo and alternate R&B. Having discovered UK Garage under the influence of dream producers and compatible collaborators, Yeo and Simon Lam, the album grooves at a faster bpm and two-step rhythm. A lot of which is dance music.
“So you do want to dance,” I interject.
“Yeah, in my own way. At home, in my chair. I like to make dance music for people who don’t go to clubs, like myself.” In the same vein of genre-bending music, the aim is not to subvert the expectation of others, but to challenge one’s own threshold. The musician’s prerogative; and now is just the time to explore it.
It was planned to be an EP, but became a seven-track after some negotiation from higher-ups, ie, “Tolong can you make it a couple more songs”. A nice length, he attests, coincidentally what is trending because people no longer have the time to sit down to listen to a full album now that streaming has taken over. “Or maybe people do, because of who they are. But if you are, you know… Charlie Lim,” he name-drops in feigned arrogance, “nobody cares.”
MV Lim instantly doubles back to Reality Lim.
“I still believe in the integrity of this album. A single can only give so much without telling a story. Sure, you can get it on a playlist, it may be a mainstream breakthrough, but I don’t want to be known just for writing a smash hit. I want to have a body of work that I’m proud of, where every single song tells a story. Where there is reason behind the track listing, like a collage you assemble to appreciate from start to finish.”
That journey is for the audience to take. Personally, he is unable to listen to his older material without taking everything apart. Lim adopts the common attitude of most creatives, acceding that in all the imperfections, early work exists as fruits of the best effort then. “At this point, I’m definitely proud of this album. It was written much faster than the previous, and I really enjoyed the process a lot more. Not saying it wasn’t hard, and not saying I didn’t bang my head against the wall.”
One main source of the pressing weight is the fear of being mediocre. More than sharks, more than falling, roller coasters and bungee-jumping. Oh, and sky-diving, which Lim never wants to try. Rather than a competitive streak, it’s the internal affirmation that he’s at optimum on the road he has mapped. “You’ll always embark with these grand ideas, but it inevitably comes down to what I can live with. If I’m happy with what I put out into the world, others will be as well, and that’s all that matters.”
It’s a small but lively evening crowd at the set of Hear65, a partnership platform for Singapore music, in Australia’s annual music festival BigSound. In a commendable act of multitasking, Lim adjusts the mic stand while singing and playing the keyboard, but the stand refuses to adhere to its place. Lim signals for logistic assistance in the music interim before delving back into the performance. He doesn’t break key.
So, where is Lim?
You can find him in the Venn diagram comprising the pursuit of harmony between push and pull, the continual reminder that external measures of happiness are simply ‘pseudo statistics’ and the complete coming to terms with self.
But as the song concludes, when Lim addresses the attendance in the same grace exuded in the interview hours before, I’d like to imagine he’s living in the moment and there’s no other place he’d rather be.