It has been 20 years since her first ever album, 1999’s Grown Up Overnight, was released, but Fish Leong is not ready to swim away just yet.
Am I Okay? The Sun Also Rises, her thirteenth album, and first in seven years, is arguably the Taiwan-based Malaysian singer’s most personal album yet, but it also sees the 41-year-old singer add a new dimension to her title as the ‘Queen of Ballads’.
Leong’s last album was 2012’s Love In Heart (Ai Jiu Jian Ren Xin), and following that, the singer took a hiatus from showbiz in 2014 after giving birth to her son to focus on her family.
During a recent interview, Leong said the reason the album took so long to make was because she had to get back into the right frame of mind after she ended her Tu T’appelles L’amour (Your Name is Love) 2016 World Tour in 2016, which saw her performing in Malaysia, and also becoming the first Malaysian Chinese to hold a concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York.
“When I sing at a concert, I am singing and expressing myself to so many people. The volume is also much louder and I need to do it every week,” she said.
“It’s very hard to go back to the studio after that – your heart is not as sensitive to the music and emotions of a song. That’s why after ending a tour, I would have no energy or heart to go into the recording studio.
“Recording is a very quiet, personal experience, so you can’t be too stressed. I needed to go back to a quieter life, have time to myself in order to work out, read some books, and spend time with my family. Only then would I be ready to go back to the studio.”
Leong also said that she struggled to find a theme for the album at first.
“In the end, I decided that I wanted a producer who could really understand me. All my past albums had a number of producers involved, but this time, it was just my production house, and the record label was not involved at all. I also found a producer I have worked with a few times before, Tiger Chung, who really understands my vocals.”
Together with Chung and A&R director Huang Ting, Leong listened to over 200 songs before narrowing them down to the 10 that made it into the album.
“We each made a list of songs we liked, then compared our lists to see if there were any crossovers,” she explained. “In the end, we went back to basics – the song has to be moving, portray my story accurately, and were ballads that are more of my style.”
The result is Am I Okay? The Sun Also Rises, which took two years to produce, and manages the feat of sounding quite unlike a typical Fish Leong album, while retaining the singer’s signature style.
Named after The Sun Also Rises, a 1926 novel by Ernest Hemingway, the new album doesn’t stray far from her usual formula on the album (she’s known as the Queen of Love Ballads for a reason, you know,).
However, the first song, Wei Guang (Glimmer) sees Leong trying out something new. A dreamy, melancholic song that puts her voice front and centre, rising into an elaborate, soaring peak before falling back on the emotions of her voice, it doesn’t sound like a typical Fish Leong song at all.
“I do try something different with the song in terms of the vocals, and because of that song, I was encouraged to try some new ideas with some of the other songs,” she said.
As mentioned, the recording itself was a deeply personal experience, and she would often struggle with her own emotions while recording.
“If the song made me cry, I would cry. If it made me think of any sad memories, I would have to stop singing and take a long walk by myself,” she recalled.
“These days, when people get sad, they would post on social media to get responses and comfort. I think that is not enough. Sometimes, you really need to think about why something makes you sad, and how to overcome it. I would need some time to myself to collect my feelings before I can continue singing.”
Leong also reckons her fans have come to expect a certain type of love song from her. “Imagine you’re writing a diary about a break-up and put it into a song… I think that would be the type of song I would sing,” she said.
In this age of streaming, singles and EPs, releasing an album seems like a slightly old-fashioned way to release her music, but Leong was unperturbed.
“This feels more complete to me. It feels like a proper gift to my fans, to give them one complete collection of songs. Having this album will remind fans that you should try and finish the whole song first instead of skipping through each song after 15 seconds before going back to the one that makes the most impression,” she said.
“We made sure there are no long gaps between songs, and arranged the flow of the album so that you won’t want to skip any songs!”