Hitting the Right Note
Vocalist and actress Ms Joanna Dong (Arts and Social Sciences '04) is a self-professed latecomer to jazz, but she has since made her mark in the scene.
There’s no need to be too precious about jazz. So says crooner Ms Joanna Dong, who got into the spotlight after coming in third at regional singing competition Sing! China in 2017. Ms Dong’s sentiments about the genre hints at the fluidity of her musical leanings, having performed pop, folk, and of course jazz, in both English and Mandarin, over the years. “Art is always evolving after all,” says the 37-year-old.
By her own admission, competing in Sing! China has been pivotal to her career. “Prior to this I had some fans, but it was on a smaller scale — a niche audience,” she says. “Being on the show exposed me to a mainstream audience, and put me on the map back in Singapore.”
The exposure opened up a world of opportunities, including performing at the National Day Parade and the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix concert in 2018. Prior to this, Ms Dong also starred in various theatre productions. Her role in the 2007 musical If There’re Seasons... won her Best Supporting Actress at the ST Life! Theatre Awards. She has also hosted infotainment shows on television, including Homeward Bound and Life Extraordinaire on Mediacorp’s Channel U as well as City DNA on CNA. Singing, however, remains her first love, and she has every intention to keep at it — to the very end. “As morbid as it sounds, I’d be okay if I died on stage post-singing,” she quips, with a chuckle.
Have you always wanted to be a (jazz) singer?
I’ve been singing and performing since I was six, and was in the choir throughout my school years. I may have gotten the interest from my father, who’s into classical singing. But at the time, I never thought of singing, much less jazz, as a viable career, not least until I was in year two at NUS. The NUS Jazz Band was auditioning for a permanent singing section. My friend pulled me along to it and we both got in. The friendships I made in the jazz group became a great influence. My bandmates were my first mentors and collaborators. It was through them that I got paid to sing at gigs after graduation. It dawned on me that I could properly give singing a shot.
So NUS is somewhat responsible for your musical career?
Definitely. I loved my time at NUS. I was a late bloomer when it came to learning. Choosing the right major — Sociology — helped. I fell in love with the subject, my classmates, my tutors and our discussions. These became the cornerstone of my intellectual development. Apart from the jazz band, I also formed an a capella group and did lindy hop. The experience shaped a lot of who I am today and informed my creative endeavours.
Trust that whatever you spend your time doing will become a part of who you are. So be aware of your own experiences and how these set you apart from others.
Do you think jazz has a place in Singapore, and in this region?
There’s an active, sizable jazz community of musicians and fans in Singapore. There are many upcoming talents performing at excellent standards, and on a global stage too. I’m not at the top of the scene but because I do pop jazz, I am able to serve as a bridge between jazz geeks and those who find jazz to be inaccessible. My bilingualism also enables me to reach out to a previously-untapped Chinese-speaking community. It’s tricky to measure the influence of jazz, but the great turnouts at gigs indicate that there is a healthy, and growing, market. And I want to contribute to helping to grow this.
How are you navigating this newfound fame, so to speak?
It’s such a different world to be a public personality. I am conscious of my conduct on television and during interviews, and careful not to create a ruckus with something I say in passing. I have to be mindful about what I write or post, so I don’t offend people. I find that it’s so easy for words to be misconstrued, and taken out of context and proportion, especially on social media. That being said, I know I cannot live my whole life just worrying about what people may think. So although I have a responsibility as a public figure, I am increasingly willing to speak my mind, and stay true to my conscience.
When making music, what’s your process like?
There are a lot of expectations these days for musicians to be everything, but I’m not that self-sufficient. I see myself as a singer primarily; I interpret music. As such, I work with a lyricist, an arranger and a producer. I enjoy the symbiosis of skills and talents, and I think that’s how we expand our repertoire as well. I’m also not so ‘regimented’ — the kind of musician who devotes ‘x’ number of hours of practice each day. But I do commit to experiences that are outside my comfort zone, forcing myself to grow. I recently collaborated with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. It was stressful because a form of discipline is required in an orchestra, but I’m used to jazz, which is more spontaneous. Still, I’m glad I stepped up to the challenge.
You also act and host. Do you hope to continue to do it all?
I’m open to the opportunity, and will say ‘yes’ to a good project. I do after all enjoy acting and hosting. With hosting, I found my degree in Sociology useful. For example, when asking questions, I’ve been trained to never assume, and am always ready for all sorts of answers. But if push comes to shove, singing will always come first. And there’s a theatrical element to singing. I have to convey emotions and nuances while I’m onstage; singing is thus inseparable from acting.
What’s your advice for people who do want to pursue music as a career, as you have?
The truth is that there are many ways to arrive at your desired destination. So to me, to give generic advice would be irresponsible. This is why I often turn down invitations to give inspirational speeches. But I will recommend this: Trust that whatever you spend your time doing will become a part of who you are. So be aware of your own experiences and how these set you apart from others.
SHE’S GOT IT COVERED
Released last year, Ms Dong’s latest EP So Here I Am
comprises, in her words, “easy-listening Chinese jazz covers and original numbers”. It was launched over a two-night concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall in June 2018. She then took “a redux version” of the concert on tour to Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong. To listen to some of the tracks on the EP, go to redroofrecords.com/joanna
Text by Fairoza Mansor. Main photo by Teck Lim. EP photo courtesy of Red Roof Records.