Hello Asia editor Johnny Au sat down with Hong Kong pop star Phil Lam (林奕匡) recently.
Let’s take our minds back a few years. You grew up in Canada?
Yeah, I born in and grew up in Canada, in a place called Vancouver Island. Its a small town with very humble roots. My parents owned a restaurant and since I was 6 years old I would go over there and help out. Well, I couldn’t really do much but they would keep me within their vicinity so I could keep speaking Chinese because there was nowhere else I could practice. I had no Chinese friends, no Chinese classmates and ever since I went to school I started to forget how to speak it.
What was it like growing up there as the only Chinese kid?
I was bullied a lot. I felt different. I felt little. That aspect is very humbling. It’s weird, I always considered myself a proud Chinese and I always listened to Chinese music and Chinese radio. Probably because my parents had this habit they gave me of always playing the radio and TV, I was interested in it and I would buy Chinese CDs. I actually can’t recall the first English CD I bought.
That’s interesting. Who were the artists you would listen to?
My first idol was Jackie Jo. He was the first artist whose voice I could recognize, and the first artist I bought a CD of. He was very inspiring. Whether it’s his voice or how he interprets a song- it’s mesmerizing. I would go ‘Wow! It would be amazing if I could sing like that’. When I was growing up, I started to study music and science and through high school it was a kind of push and pull between the two. I was doing well in science, getting really high marks- in fact, the highest in my province. On the music end I was getting lots of scholarships from music schools so I had to decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to university. Should I do music or science?’ I always told myself music is just a hobby. It can’t be a career. I think my parents probably agreed. In fact, they agreed, but I should stick with studies. So I took cell biology and genetics, which sounds really complicated but it’s basically medical-related, on the forefront of life sciences. One thing was good, I went to UBC and they had a very open music program and these open auditions before the week of school started. They prioritize music students, but they accept students of other faculties. So I went to audition for the jazz band, on vocals and the choir.
Just out of interest?
Yeah, because to be a full time music student you had to have so many credits, and I was just joining the band. I wanted to play, keep practicing and have fun. I got in and every year, I was getting better and better. But I got to the point where I was enjoying it, but I just didn’t have the time. By I think the 4th year I think I told my director, ‘I can’t do jazz band again because it’s like whiplash’. Usually those practices are late at night and by morning, I’m like a zombie. I can’t really focus at school.
But your director wasn’t holding you back right?
Yeah, he was great and really inspiring. Funnily enough, at that time I was focusing on saxophone and when I stopped playing- well, going to rehearsals and stuff- I had more time to do singing. One of the biggest singing competitions of the time was always the New Talent Audition in Vancouver, which is actually all around the world. It’s in Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto and then the winners meet again at Hong Kong, Shanghai or Malaysia and they’d have the world competition. I’d watched it since I was a kid, so thought why don’t I try this? As it turned out I won the Vancouver competition and represented Vancouver in Hong Kong. I went through the finals, got to the semi finals and got to the top 4. That was as far as I got. I did get a talent award though, because I brought my saxophone out, which makes sense.
You were a bit of a dual artist in a sense?
Yeah and at the time there was a record company that wanted to sign me on the spot. Not because of the competition, because I just happened to walk into an audition with a friend. Both of those things made me think I could actually become an artist. I’ve won awards, and someone actually does want to sign me. They were a local company and [I] asked, ‘I have one semester left. Can I finish that off? I would feel a lot better and my parents would feel a lot better.’ They said okay, so I finished that, came back to Hong Kong and they said, ‘Hey, sorry man. Change of plans.’ That was 2008, so I’d just got to Hong Kong and been turned down. I didn’t have any family there.
Nobody at all?
Yeah, I was completely on my own. I needed to find a place to stay, pay my own bills.
You have to be an adult now Phil.
I know! I had to grow up, because I’d always been taken care of by my parents or my older brother. I bought a keyboard and lots of recording equipment so I could make demos and record songs. I started learning piano from scratch. I always knew the chords but not the proper technique, so I thought I should start from scratch. I got to about level 5 and I moved out, because things started to get busy. Pop piano and classical piano are different. Then, after about a year I sent out a lot of demos and after about a year, Sony gave me a shot. I went to see them, and it was an audition at a karaoke place. I sang some songs and they said they wanted to sign me and that’s how it happened.
That’s pretty quick from sending your demo to being in the Karaoke bar.
Well, it still took me a whole year before I actually found a song. It was one of the most difficult times of my life because you’re alone, spending money every day. It could be one year, two… it could be never.
It teaches you resilience though. As we know it’s quite a cutthroat industry.
It does harden you up, I guess. So it was 2009 when I signed with Sony and there were some rights issues, whether it’s the karaoke bars, TV networks… There were certain places I couldn’t go to promote. We held back on the debt till 2010 and had pretty positive feedback, but the masses didn’t get the chance to know who I was.
Those songs were written yourself?
Yeah, my songs.
From that, did you understand why people didn’t get to know you?
It’s a change in market, because first of all, Sony is an international company, so the way they market is more conventional and at the time, people were looking for alternate ways of getting music. We didn’t touch that part and I didn’t actually go on mainstream TV, but radio was quite supportive. Also, being the good guy, I didn’t end up on any gossip magazines or anything.
Do you find there’s a bit of a detriment there? With that squeaky-clean image, and people who don’t have it still getting publicity? Is that frustrating?
Only to a point, and then there’s understanding [that] you need patience. In all honesty, I looked on YouTube a few years ago and saw a video of Miley Cyrus, I think was ‘Wrecking Ball’? That was a huge commercial success but I thought in the back of my mind if a guy decided to do that there’d be lots of hits on YouTube. At the time, no one had done it yet and it’s like hell, I could do it. Then someone does it, and I think yeah, the person got hits, but if I did it, would I be popular for the right reasons?
It’s an integrity thing isn’t it?
Yeah, why do people know about you or search for your music? It’s just a path I chose that’s slower, but more steady.
So you’re building a fan base up to the point where very recently you had a huge hit with ‘High Hill, Low Valley’. Can you tell me a bit about how that song came about?
In 2013, I had my new lowest point. I had my record label, two albums that weren’t commercially successful, even though there was some music in there that I thought was pretty good. The second and first albums had the same problem: they couldn’t reach the masses and going for 6 years, [I’d] run out of money, I’m not getting any younger, my friends are betting worried, my parents are getting worried, it’s like, ‘What’s happening, Phil? Are you still on the right path?’ On the other side, some of the rights issues were all gone, everything was a lot more positive in Sony- especially because we signed several other singer songwriters.
One thing I could always control was writing. How many I could write for myself, other people, it’s not held back by anything but me. I don’t like to give bad news so I don’t ring often [laughs], so one time I called my parents after I ran out of money and they weren’t worried about me, they were heartbroken. So I was going to do whatever I needed to get back on track. Whether I write songs for other people or myself I’m going to work my butt off and get onstage to make people know about my music. That’s when I wrote a bunch of songs including this one, and when we produced it, I had a good vibe, like, ‘this is my story’. But at the time I didn’t expect it to be a big hit. If people heard my name and thought, ‘Oh he’s a singer,” I’d be happy. If they were like ‘Phil Lam, he’s a singer, I don’t like his music’ I’d be like, ‘Ok, I tried my best, I can go back to Canada.’ But if people are like, ‘Actually, I don’t know who he is, his music isn’t bad,’ then I haven’t given people a chance to listen to me. So, we pulled out all the stops, we played the small venues, we played on the street, just performing and enjoying every moment.
Was that solo or with a band?
Not exactly solo, but with some friends. It started to catch on and it was funny- in April the songs started getting more and more views month by month. By the end of the year, I guess it went viral. Which was the biggest relief for me because I don’t need to worry about shit I need to change, all I need to do is enjoy and make great music.
Do you think that song touched a nerve with other artists in the industry who’ve dealt with those trials and tribulations?
Definitely because ‘High Hill, Low Valley’, you can use that phrase in many different situations and I’m sure there are any artists in Hong Kong and elsewhere who have their ‘High Hill, Low Valley’. On awards night, several big name artist were calling out my name. Miriam Yeung was like ‘Phil Lam, thank you for writing this song’. She really understood the song and [was] touched by the lyrics.
How’d you feel when she said that?
I was in shock because I’d never actually met her before. There was 10,000 people out there and suddenly she’s like ‘Phil Lam’. Whaaaat??
An emotional moment for you?
It was emotional for me! Friends and artists that had seen me around would go up to me and be like you’ve waited so long, I’m so happy for you! There were so many times I was on the verge of crying from that. When I was on stage, I couldn’t control my emotions. Friends were down in the artist area crying while filming, it was a crazy moment.
That was last year (2014) was it?
Well this year, January 1st 2015.
Ok, and I’m looking at this list of very accomplished list of major awards: Metro Radio, TVB Jade Solid Gold, that’s a really great portfolio of awards.
It’s pretty crazy yeah, I had a song ‘Things You Want To Accomplish By The Time You’re 30’ and that was kind of a joke we threw around. I literally did have some things I wanted to accomplish before I was 30 that I’d put away like I was 28-29 at the time, there was no way I was going to achieve that and I just turned 30 like a week ago. This was all before 30 so I’m like wow, didn’t expect that.
A little bit after that, Hong Kong superstar Sammy Chang, she sang your song onstage. Tell us the details about that because that’s a pretty big deal.
I need to thank Sammi and Andy Hui because in September 2014 he told me he really liked my song and if he could sing it in a concert that would be cool. But he introduced the song to Sammy and they both liked it. I thought, ‘Wow they both like my song,’ but I never thought Sammy would actually sing it! The timing was crazy because it was January 2nd just after the CRHK Awards. I went to bed at around 6 in the morning because there were lots of phone calls. Then I got a call from the office saying Sammi is going to sing it tonight. No way! It turned out she was considering it because she had to do a rehearsal right before the show. Around 7:15 I got the call saying 8:15 be at the Hong Kong Coliseum she will sing your song don’t be late. I couldn’t tell people why I had to leave [laughs]. It was a great seat, great show, Andy Lieu was the guest who I’d never seen live before and the concert was pretty much over except for the encore so I was like….but she still hasn’t sung my song? And for the encore she came out and it wasn’t my song. Then she comes back for a second encore saying there’s a song that’s not mine I want to sing and the company says no but I’m going to sing it anyway. I understand like she wasn’t 100% familiar with the song and had to have lyrics so why potentially ruin her reputation. That was probably one of the biggest 5 minutes of my life, apart from the previous night at the awards show.
Did she reinterpret it or did she sing it pretty much as you did?
She sang it very similar to my original song, the later cover was different though.
What did you feel hearing your song sung by someone like Sammy?
I think just overwhelmed. There’s so many things going on like the fans are yelling ‘He’s right here Sammi!’ and she can’t hear because of the ear monitors. A funny thing actually, at the beginning of the song, I was going to record it and one of the security guards was like ‘Hey mister, no recording’ and I was thinking…It’s my song? [laughs] But I thought there will be people filming it and they say sometimes we record so much we forget to experience it for ourselves so I was like, just live in the moment.
Did you meet her afterwards?
Yeah they had someone take me backstage right after that part and I actually got lost getting swarmed by other fans and I couldn’t find the security guard [laughs]. That was the last show so there were lots of artists backstage and I hadn’t actually met her before so they were like, ‘Oh, lets get Sammi to meet Phil first because she just sang his song.’ So I took a picture with her, met her and there were lots of words of thanks from me because that’s such an amazing moment and no one could describe, I didn’t know I was just like ‘Thank you so much!’. Then across social media and the news they were talking about me and my followers were jumping up. That was the perfect springboard for 2015. It’s always said every new artist needs a big song that everyone recognizes and sometimes I’d joke about it. Well, I think I did find my first hit.
What are your plans for 2015? What have you been up to?
Actually, in Hong Kong I’m not performing this album anymore because it’s last year’s album, but I’ve been promoting this album elsewhere in Macau, Taiwan and China. Doing lots of writing for myself with the upcoming album, and other artists, that’s a blessing when lots of artist want to play your songs. Well, at the moment lots of artists ask for songs, it doesn’t mean they’re going to use them [laughs]. So I’ll keep working on that.
When is the album going to drop, do you have a date in mind?
Well, 2015 [laughs]. It’s going to be a full album, half and half Mandarin and Cantonese songs and the next one should have 10. We are going to have a Mandarin version of ‘High Hill, Low Valley’ and I’ve never done any of these duel language songs but for this one, everyone wants it. The lyrics itself, lots of people around the world, especially China, will feel that and appreciate it. We’re actually writing lyrics and getting ready to record right now. Other than that, spend time with my family.
Cause you went back to Vancouver?
For the last 3 years, I didn’t go back and you know, for the first two I said I would go back until I had something to show. When I did get something to show, I was too busy. So Chinese New Year after the awards ceremony they were like you can go back, you really need a break. I went back to Canada to see some close friends and basically spend time with my family. Actually, we did do some work because they have Chinese Radio and TV stations but on the off-time I’d still be writing music. I could make use of the time and the atmosphere to see if I could write something else.
Is there a theme for the album coming up or is it so organic that you don’t need to focus on one?
I don’t think there’s a specific theme. I always think there’s two things in music that are important. One, music needs to make you feel good, and music needs to touch your heart. My music will always have this direction.
Any chance we’ll see you in Australia one day?
I do want to. We’ll see if there’s any chance because I’ve never been able to go to Australia and I don’t think I have the time at this moment. If it’s work related, maybe I can combine a little vacation and work, that’d be great.
What about an English album one day?
Well technically speaking, I write English demos all the time, because it’s my native language so it’s about spending less time writing words, more time writing melodies. I do like to sing in English because it’s probably the most free language. There’s almost no boundaries in terms of your tempo or how melodic your melody is, quite different from Cantonese where it’s difficult to write melodic lyrics. It can’t be too fast, it can’t be too slow- in English you can do anything. English songs, in general, have the most variety and it’s always been the forefront. I listen to a lot of it right now actually, even though I did before and it’s always inspiring.
Just quickly lets talk about your duet with Sammi.
Yeah, so she played my song at the concert and others around the world. At a Macau concert she asked me to be her special guest, and I couldn’t tell anyone even though I was so excited. Instead of her singing my song, I sang it myself and had a duet with her. For me, that was quite an experience, because I’ve never been a guest of someone’s concert apart from Jason Chan, so I felt so honored. Also, to see how she rehearsed and performed, she’s a complete diva. The whole experience itself was great for me because I’ve never performed at such a big arena as the one in Macau. The audience was great as well.
Do you have a dream collaboration with anyone in the world?
I want to collaborate with a lot of people, so it depends what kind of collaboration.
Let’s say a Chinese collaboration.
Chinese…David Tao, Joey (Yung), Eason Chan… because I’ve listened to their music for so many years, and they’ve had so much inspiration on me.
Well who knows you’ve collaborated with Sammi, the sky’s the limit from here.
[Laughs] The limit’s beyond the sky, in fact. I guess I’ve always believed dream big, stay hungry, but stay humble. You’ve got to stay hungry, because that teaches you to ask for more from yourself. Most importantly at the end of the day understand you’re still small. That would be the perfect combination and what we should be anyway.
To follow Phil Lam on his journey, check him out on Facebook at: Phil Lam Official
Transcribed by Leah Williams