PHOTOGRAPH: The Straits Times
Before he captivated audiences in the popular talent show Sing! China, Singaporean singer Nathan Hartono faced far less admiring national servicemen when he performed during his army days.
His stint in the Music and Drama Company (MDC) of the Singapore Armed Forces shaped his cool stage presence, in front of any crowd.
“I attribute a lot of my on-stage comfort to being in the MDC because the number of shows we did that nobody cared about – there were just too many to count,” says Hartono, who sang in places such as army camps.
“And when you do enough of those shows, at some point, you figure out how to entertain yourself on stage. No matter how good or bad the crowd is, you always know how to have a good time on stage.”
That composure, and charisma, was clear in Sing! China, where Hartono, 25, won second prize after losing narrowly to Chinese singer Jiang Dunhao in the Beijing finals on Oct 7.
While Hartono’s Mandarin fan base may have grown exponentially since then, the bachelor is no newcomer on the home-grown English entertainment scene. He released his debut album at 15 and has been building a name for himself as a jazz and pop singer, as well as an actor on stage, television and online.
However, his career, which includes a discography of three albums, an EP and several singles, almost took a different trajectory.
While he was in the army, he found himself at the crossroads when he had to decide whether to pursue an academic or music degree.
He had already secured a place in the arts and social sciences faculty at the National University of Singapore, but he also wanted to study in the United States.
His mother, Madam Jocelyn Tjioe, 59, a senior vice-president of restaurant chain TungLok Group, suggested that he take up architecture in the US as he loved to draw.
On the other hand, his father, Mr Thomas Hartono, 61, a semi- retired resort consultant, advised him to continue with music.
The senior Hartono recalls: “I just gave him my opinion and said, ‘If I were you, I would pursue what I already have.’ Whether you end up an architect, singer, lawyer, gardener or cook, you’re trying to earn a living like everybody else. But if you can earn a living with your hobby, you will be very happy.”
Says his son: “The less practical side of me went, ‘Of course, you pursue the things you love’. But the practical side of me was like, ‘You should get a proper job’.”
Music won and Hartono, an alumni of Nanyang Primary School and Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road), enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the most established contemporary music schools.
He studied music production and engineering and found it useful to learn multiple aspects of making music. More importantly, he could connect with musicians from different backgrounds from all over the world.
The singer, genial and forthcoming throughout the interview held at his record label Warner Music Singapore, says: “I can go to any country in the world and reach out to somebody I met in school and go, ‘Hey man, playing a gig? Mind if I join you for a session?’”
In 2014, he took a sabbatical and returned to Singapore to focus on his singing career. He intends to finish his degree sometime in the future.
His parents, who flew to Beijing several times this year to be with their son every time he performed in Sing! China, are highly supportive.
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According to them, he showed his penchant for performing at a young age. His father remembers a Mid- Autumn Festival show which the family attended when his son was three. When the emcee called for volunteers to sing, little Nathan ambled up gamely to the stage and sang a tune from the children’s television show, Barney.
“That’s when I realised he had no stage fright,” says his father.
A couple of years later, Hartono sang at a family gathering and Madam Tjioe recalled how her brother- in-law, a pianist, was highly impressed. “He told me, ‘Wow, Nathan has a really sharp music sense.’”
Soon after, she enrolled him in a music class at Yamaha, but that did not last long as he was not interested. A few years later, she found a violin teacher for him, but that did not last long either.
What he was keen on was singing. At 14, during a karaoke session, he sang what his father describes as “hard to sing” tunes by the likes of singers Elvis Presley and Van Morrison.
A few weeks later, he saw an advertisement for Teenage magazine’s talent contest, Teenage Icon, and encouraged his son to join. Taking his cues from classic singers such as Frank Sinatra, he aced the auditions.
When he reached the semi-finals, his parents sent him for lessons with singing coach Peter Tan, who had also trained Mandopop star Stefanie Sun.
He won the competition, a victory that effectively kick-started his singing career. He made his big- stage debut at the 2005 ChildAid, an annual concert that raises money for The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and The Business Times Budding Artists Fund.
The following year, he released his debut album, Let Me Sing! Life, Love And All That Jazz, a collection of jazz-pop numbers that also included self-penned tunes. It went to No. 1 on the now-closed HMV Singapore’s jazz charts.
At 15, he became the youngest performer to do a headline show in the Esplanade’s Late Nite series at the venue’s Recital Studio. The art centre’s head of programme partnership, Ms Amy Ho, recalls that his “charming ways” were “quite unusual for a young person and made him seem older than his years”.
Hartono would feature in many Esplanade presentations over the years and he was part of its Bright Young Things, a mentorship programme for young jazz talents.
He would also headline two more shows at the Esplanade, a second Late Nite Series gig in 2014 and, more recently, in July this year at the art centre’s crown jewel, the much bigger Concert Hall.
The Esplanade’s Ms Ho, 49, says: “We are very proud of his achievements through the past decade and have seen him mature from a mere jazz crooner to who he is today – a consummate entertainer as well as a down-to-earth music mentor for many young aspiring singers.
“He’s very committed and involved in all that he does and remains very humble and warm despite all his successes.”
Born Nathaniel Hartono @ Nathaniel Xiang, the singer and his siblings – Norman, 28, and Nydia, 22 – were born in Singapore. Their mother emigrated from Jakarta to Singapore in the 1970s and their father settled here from Bandung about a decade later. They met and married in Singapore.
The family speaks a mix of English, Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin at home. Hartono says one of his most significant achievements in Sing! China was being able to not just sing in Mandarin, but also converse competently in the language.
“In the early stages of the show, back when my Chinese was not great, sometimes I’d mix up my Bahasa and Chinese because they take up the same space in my brain.”
He surprised himself with how much his Mandarin has improved since taking part in the show.
“It’s something I want to work on because language is a terrible thing to waste. I’m realising that now. I regret not putting in more effort back in secondary school. That’s where I messed it up the most. I did not care for the second language thing, but yeah, it’s biting me back right now.”
His grandfather is Mr Tjioe Ji Nan, founder of TungLok Group. After the Sing! China finals, the restaurant chain celebrated his achievements with three days of promotions that included free servings of spinach tofu, his favourite dish.
That was not all. After he made a joke in a Straits Times interview about treating Singaporeans to iced Milo, the chocolate beverage’s parent company Nestle sent out vans to dispense free Milo to the public. Last Saturday, he made an appearance at one giveaway outside Bugis+ mall and personally handed out free Milo to fans.
As younger sister Nydia is studying film at Emerson College in Boston in the US, older brother Norman, general manager of Dancing Crab, TungLok Group’s chain of Cajun-style seafood restaurants, is the only sibling in the family business.
While the star can cook – his mother vouches for his pasta – his only stint in the family business so far was to briefly help his brother when Dancing Crab was short on staff. He was tasked with food running, making sure that orders were sent through from the kitchen to the serving area.
“I don’t know if I want to be involved in the family business, but I find customer service very rewarding. I love food. I love the food industry in general.”
He counts himself fortunate to be able to make a living from music, with his income coming mostly from live shows as well as occasional brand endorsements on social media.
“I think the current landscape allows for musicians, artists and singers to make a decent living in Singapore whereas before, it might not have been as conducive.
“Whether you are a comedian, singer or dancer, if you have the ability and willingness to push yourself further, there are platforms to make a decent amount to support yourself.”
Working with Mandopop king Jay Chou, his Sing! China mentor, has been an invaluable experience.
“He likes to innovate, experiment and push his own boundaries. He’s always challenging the perception of how Chinese music sounds and I think that’s what I learnt the most from him.
“No matter what level you’re at, never become comfortable, always want to do more and have a crazy work ethic.”
Chou has been a mentor who encouraged him to work on his strengths, he says.
Another mentor he looked up to earlier in his career was indie singer- songwriter Inch Chua, who first reached out to Hartono through YouTube in 2010.
“I was a bit of a fanboy. Of all the local musicians, she’s probably the one who affected me the most, in terms of how I want to carry myself and to function, because I see her out there putting out new stuff constantly. I see her always going on to the next idea – she’s never resting on her laurels.”
He credits his compatriots in the music scene – acts that include The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones – for inspiring “healthy competition and healthy jealousy”.
“I think envy is something that drives art more so than anything else. Being around people who are better than you inspires you to do more and do better.”
In 2012, he made his acting debut in Spring Awakening, a musical about teenage sexuality. Other gigs since have included a role in HBO Asia’s fantasy action television series Halfworlds.
With the buzz from Sing! China, acting will go on the backburner. He has been getting plenty of music, as well as acting, offers from China and he will spend the coming weeks deciding on the best course of action.
There is a possibility of working with Chou again and a live show might happen.
The only thing he can confirm is the release of his EP with Warner, which will be a mix of English and Mandarin songs.
“It’s all up in the air right now. There have been options of working in China that I still need to explore.”
With music such a consuming focus in his life now, there has been no time for romantic relationships. “It’s been way too busy and too many things have been changing to focus on that part of life. I’d like to focus on that part of life at some point.”
What is he looking for in a girlfriend? “Besides the outward appearance, good conversation mostly.”
To relax, he loves to cook. “I used to draw a lot as well.”
Meanwhile, he wants to be able to make music for as long as he possibly can and not just as a singer either. “When I get too old, I’ll probably start doing other things like writing, composition, arrangement, production – that’s what I went to school for,’’ he says.
“So I’d like to stay around music for as long as possible and hopefully be one of the people who add to the rich tapestry that is the local music scene.”
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.