“The next thing I knew, someone was banging on the toilet door. It was my manager, who told me Quincy was talking about me.” Shun Ng walked out nonchalantly in an attempt to calm his nerves, but he should have known better. And just as he arrived at the main area where architect Frank Gehry’s house party was swinging, he caught the eye of multi Grammy-winning producer, Quincy Jones, who duly introduced him to the audience.
Of course, the two men are no strangers. Ng had performed for Jones at his home upon the music legend’s behest, after the octogenarian had watched him in the music video for the song Get On With It with Singapore’s King Of Swing, Jeremy Monteiro.
Four years on, and that performance by Ng now marks one of many highlights in his young yet chequered career. It’s hard to fathom this was the same young man who was once dismissed as a failure because of his dyslexia. The ill-educated perceptions served nothing else but to hurt his confidence.
“I never realised how badly it affected me until later. I grew up with low self-esteem because of it,” revealed the Singaporean, who was born in Chicago, the United States.
As a child, though, he at least found a calling in gymnastics. “I was a hyperactive kid, and the one most likely to jump into a sponge pit. But that environment (gymnastics) became too competitive for me, and I began to hate it within a couple of years. My coaches pushed me hard, and my parents felt I should stick to something, but all I was trying to do was quit,” he said, ruing the time spent. Naturally, that interest died quickly, even though he persevered for several years – until a friend brought a guitar to the gym one day. That’s when everything changed.
In the instrument, Ng found a voice, a calling that would have him dedicate his life to the six-string.
“I felt like there was nothing I could do well at that age, but the guitar changed that. Learning to play that first chord felt like an achievement,” he shared, detailing his start as a musician.
That first chord learnt soon led him to learning all the parts on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, a challenge thrown at him by a friend which he duly took up and accomplished. Did he play it for Mr Jones, then? “No,” he responded sheepishly.
A stint at Singapore Polytechnic to pursue an Associate Degree in Music and Audio Technology when he was 16 did little to convince him that formal education was the way forward. Poor results needlessly discouraged him further. “I didn’t do well, and it was just a struggle. Reading music was tough, and it made me feel like I would never be good.” But even in the throes of despair, the guitar remained his guiding light.
Music not being predominant in his household barely deterred Ng, too, and soon, he was learning the classics by ear.
“I passed off (the Beatles’) Hey Jude as my own to my dad,” said the 27-year-old, with a hearty chuckle, revealing that it was his old man who bought him his first guitar for his 14th Christmas. “Music was an escape, and that’s how I became a student of it,” he added.
It was the blues that truly turned him on his head, the mournful, rootsy idiom resonating with him like no other.
“Blues is raw, and the way it’s played has an intellectual feel. Emoting is important, and though there are only five notes in the blues, I loved it and I dove straight into it.”
There’s the ill-advised belief that the blues is nothing but an interminable jam session, but Ng disagrees. “People need to listen to the great old stuff, where you can feel the pain in the music and lyrics. For some reason, people are scared to delve into the sorrowful element of the blues,” he opined.
Ng, though, dipped liberally into the wellspring of blues influences, absorbing the sounds of Robert Johnson, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Freddie King. While cutting his teeth in the genre, he was fortunate enough to ply his trade in the club circuit in Chicago, playing with grizzled old hacks and younger musicians alike.
“They taught me that the blues is about being a family. They all treated me like one of them and were so encouraging. They loved the idea of a Chinese kid playing the blues,” he said, of the experience.
The flame of desire in him grew exponentially, and in 2012, he released his debut album, Funky Thumb Stuff, which even drew the attention of revered guitarist Tuck Andress, of duo Tuck & Patti. The album was also the entry point in him gaining Jones as an audience and fan.
But fate had other ideas for the budding guitar player, and upon the recommendation of Singapore’s Cultural Medallion winner, Dr Kelly Tang, he was awarded a scholarship from Berklee College of Music, and was eventually selected for the prestigious Artist Diploma, an esteemed programme for highly recognised musicians.
This educational stint, though, yielded something much more meaningful – being in Boston allowed him to cross paths with 1970s blues rock outfit J. Geils Band’s harp player, Magic Dick. Ng and Magic recorded the God Of Father of Soul, James Brown’s classic Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, a cool bluesy rendition of the gem.
Ng currently tours with a duo of back-up singers, powerhouses Deon Mose and Angel Chisholm, who are collectively labelled the Shunettes, a moniker clearly inspired by 1960s vocal girl group The Ronettes.
He may still need years to emulate his heroes, but he has certainly set himself on the right path and dug deep into a genre that best represents him.
“I feel nothing has been more satisfying than learning life through music,” he said. And based on his meeting with Jones at the elder statesman’s home, where they spoke about everything but music (“We talked about life, ribs recipes, culture, architecture …”), life has already presented him with a perspective that could only serve him well in future.