A Malaysian musician based in New York City, Andrew Cheng was messing around with a guitarat home one day, imagining himself to be a rock star.
Looking back, he said he was mesmerised by the guitar – and eventually became a guitarist because of it!
Born in Sibu, Sarawak, Cheng, 25, did not know anything about music then.
Then when he turned 14, he began to take a serious interest in it. He took up classical studies before trying to play rock music and, later, jazz.
Cheng went on to pursue his studies in music overseas. He has a Bachelor of Music in Performance from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, the United States. Berklee is the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world.
He has been living in New York City (NYC) for more than a year, right after college.
He is currently on his Asia Tour (Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan) with fellow Berklee alumnus, pianist and singer/songwriter Julian Moreen, with whom he recorded an EP recently.
In Malaysia, they closed the tour with a show at No Black Tie in Kuala Lumpur last night before heading to Taiwan, Germany and Switzerland for more concerts.
Cheng and fellow musicians took six months to plan for this tour. It is also his first tour with the current band.
Last year, he toured Malaysia with the Fluorescent Collective, playing at events such as the Borneo Jazz Festival.
Cheng said: “It always feels good to come back to Malaysia, as it gives me a different perspective. Every time I come back, I appreciate the music scene in a different way. I always want to give back to the people.”
Hence, on this tour, in addition to concerts, he and his fellow musicians also conducted a music workshop in Kuala Lumpur to encourage people to pursue the arts.
Living and working abroad, Cheng said he misses his family the most. And “it’s hard to beat Malaysian food!”
His parents still live Sibu, and he comes back every few years to visit.
In New York, he mostly works and does gigs with Moreen. He also does some teaching on the side.
Cheng said: “New York is a great place for art, although it is tough to survive sometimes. The environment, however, has the potential to bring out the best in you if you work hard.”
When Cheng first told his parents that he wanted to be a musician, they “had their doubts, like most Asian parents would”, he said.
“In the end, they’re the ones who have always supported me every step of the way till now, giving me encouragement even when life is not so great,” said Cheng, the older of two siblings. His younger sister is currently studying Fashion Communication in Britain.
“Berklee is known for having great educators in many different areas of expertise. So it allowed me to explore different avenues of music that I would not have been exposed to (otherwise),” he said.
Cheng had a substantial scholarship from Berklee College. Also, the various monetary awards/grants that he obtained from the college were a great help to finance his studies.
His musical journey
Cheng moved to NYC with Moreen and worked on new music together while doing various gigs around the city, in venues such as Rockwood Music Hall.
He chose NYC because of the amazing pool of talents and opportunities there.
“The amount of competition really pushes you to be a better musician,” Cheng added.
Cheng sings with the Julian Moreen Group but prefers to express himself on the guitar. The band is complete now, with another graduate from Berklee, Singapore drummer Eugene Seow, as well as Taiwanese bassist Liu Jack Yujia.
Cheng has also been working on concerts with famed Hong Kong singers/actors William So, Fred Cheng and Stephanie Ho.
He has also worked with various artist/performers, such as Matt Sallee of Pentatonix, and Shereen Cheong of the Victory Boyd band. (Cheong is a New York-based Malaysian pianist, composer, arranger and producer.)
Cheng became a session musician for large concerts after he was scouted.
He said: “I was at a jazz jam session in New York, when the music director for a Chinese concert company approached me after I played. I didn’t audition in a formal sense, which is more what it’s like in New York, people hear you and call you on the gig.”
So how does he feel to be involved in a large concert with star performers on stage?
“It’s great to see performers who are so good at their craft. Not only in terms of music or singing, but what really stands out is their ability to control the flow of the whole show and interact with the audience. It’s an honour to be part of their work,” Cheng said.
Inspiration and influences
Cheng picked up the guitar as his father was always playing rock music. He was inspired to take up guitar-playing when he saw his father’s love for guitar and bands like U2 (rock band) and Coldplay.
He recalled: “I was inspired at first by Edge (David Howell Evans, lead guitarist, keyboardist and backing vocalist) of U2 at first, but later on, jazz/fusion greats like John Scofield and Mike Stern were a big part of my early development.”
Some of New York’s modern jazz heroes such as Lage Lund, Charles Altura and Mike Moreno are “more recent influences”.
“They influence me in the way they are pushing the boundaries of guitar in the jazz world. I try to take inspiration from that.
He added: “In the pop world, guitarists such as Michael Landau and Allen Hinds are always amazing in the way they play the perfect part for each song.”
When on stage, Cheng will try to forget “those influences”.
Instead, he would “just make music in the moment, trying to let go of my ego as much as possible while serving the music”.
His guitar of choice is mainly a Warmoth Telecaster guitar but he also uses an Eastman Archtop.
Aside from the guitar, Cheng also plays bass a fair bit, but recently he has taken an interest in learning the zhong ruan, a Chinese stringed instrument.
Cheng regards music as a life-long process of learning.
His next goal is to write more original music. And he wants to continue to work and tour with Moreen.
If he were not a musician, Cheng thinks that he would be an engineer.
He said: “I think music is full of maths and using it creatively, I think I would feel at home.”
Asked if he wished to address any public misconceptions about musicians, he said: “You need talent to play or even enjoy music. People always think that master musicians are born with it (talent), but they put in the work to get to where they are.”