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, 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, 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 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.
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.
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.
In 2006, 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.
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 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.
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, artistes 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. 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.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Eddino Abdul Hadi