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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Waxing lyrical over words

Award-winning lyricist Xiaohan, who holds a PhD in virology, says words define who she is
The Straits Times - February 25, 2013
By: Boon Chan, Media Correspondent
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Waxing lyrical over words -- ST PHOTO: EDWARD TEO

Xiaohan is one of Singapore's most well-known lyricists who has written songs for top Mandopop stars including Sandy Lam, Tanya Chua and Eason Chan.

But what is less well known is that the 39-year-old award-winning songwriter has a PhD in virology from the National University of Singapore.

For 12 years, she led a double life - researching viruses and lung cancer in a laboratory and writing songs, including for local TV serials, at the same time.

In fact, Xiaohan, whose real name is Lin Kebang, decided to use a pen name after she was reprimanded by a mentor at work who felt that "entertainment corrupts the mind".

She chose the pen name, which literally means lesser cold, after reading that December babies are cold on the outside but warm on the inside.

"That's really me," she decided.

There is no trace of frost, though, when Life! speaks to her. She comes across as someone who speaks her mind and is warm, funny and straight-talking in a 21/2-hour-long chat.

Signed posters of stars she has worked with such as Fish Leong and Chua line the narrow corridor at Funkie Monkies' North Bridge Centre digs.

Xiaohan is one of the bosses at the music school and production company along with producer-songwriters Eric Ng and Jim Lim.

The road from science researcher to full-time lyricist has not been easy, with her suffering a nervous breakdown along the way, she admits candidly.

She recalls those "double life" hectic days: In the morning, she would set up an experiment to run at her laboratory in Buona Vista. During lunchtime, she would take the train to Bugis, where Funkie Monkies' office was located, to attend meetings and see to administrative matters. She would rush back to the laboratory at around 2pm and stay in the laboratory till about 7pm.

At the time, she had a two-year-old daughter to look after. She wrote songs only in the night and was getting by on three to four hours of sleep, writing songs till 3am and then waking up at 6 or 7am the next day.

In her own words, she had a nervous breakdown in 2008 around Chinese New Year.

"One day, I just didn't go home and wandered the streets for hours," she says.

Her memory of that day is hazy and she struggles to describe the stress she was feeling: "People who create things tend to be very emo sometimes and this emo-ness didn't go away for the longest time. And I felt I was responsible for everybody and that's when I knew I was having a panic attack."

Ng remembers getting a call from her that day and he and singer-songwriter Wu Jiahui ended up spending a few hours with her at a fast-food outlet in Kallang "just talking rubbish".

When she eventually went home, she had a long talk with her husband, Norman Koh, 39, a general practitioner, and decided to leave The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology to focus on music.

She says: "When I was researching lung cancer, I couldn't see myself genuinely helping the patients. I couldn't really see the end of the tunnel.

"I was impatient and looking for something more instant. Then I realised that writing lyrics or articles or books has a much more immediate effect on people's well-being."

She also had enough of using animals as guinea pigs for her experiments.

"Do you know how we kill mice?" she asks. She proceeds to demonstrate, holding an imaginary rodent and swinging it in the air. "They go giddy, then you hit them on the table and dislocate their spine. That's something I couldn't do. I really don't want to kill animals because their faces look like cute human beings."

Her science background shows in her songs as seen in the lyrics for hit songs such as Projectile, Amphibian and Darwin I.

Darwin I, sung by Tanya Chua, references the theory of evolution: "There's competition, there's sacrifice/The process of being selected by love" and "Evolve to be a better person".

Xiaohan is the only Singaporean to have been nominated in the category of Best Lyrics at Taiwan's prestigious Golden Melody Awards. She achieved the feat twice with Darwin I in 2008 and China singer Na Ying's Long Take last year.

She is also a five-time winner of the Best Lyrics award at Singapore Hit Awards, a feat matched only by Cultural Medallion winner Liang Wern Fook.

She has been working with her songwriting partner, composer Ng, for 17 years. Her first impressions of him were less than favourable.

"He had really long hair, never mind, but with split ends and his jeans had a big hole in the butt area and looked as if it had not been washed for one year. The impression was 'Ewww'."

Their first big break came when they worked on Hong Kong star Sandy Lam's Truly... Sandy album (2001).

Lam's husband at that time, veteran Taiwanese musician producer Jonathan Lee, had asked Ng to work on the project. The two had met when Ng took part in a songwriting competition in Singapore in 1996 that Lee was judging.

Xiaohan and Ng collaborated on five tracks. One of the songs from the album, Paper Plane, became a big hit and won the award for Best Lyrics at the Singapore Hit Awards in 2002.

People began to sit up and take notice of the Singapore songwriting duo. Ng set up Funkie Monkies Productions in 2000, and, with Xiaohan in 2004, turned it into a publishing house. In 2006, they added a pop music school and artist management arm. Their artists include Malaysian singer-songwriter Wu Jiahui, local singer-songwriter Serene Koong and newcomer Ming Bridges. They have around 180 to 200 students.

Ng, 36, says of their working relationship: "We're very focused on what we're supposed to do and we give each other total freedom."

Xiaohan's flair for writing was evident even during her school days. In primary school, she supplemented her pocket money with essays, receiving $10 for every article published in a newspaper's school supplement.

The self-confessed nerd said that she started writing lyrics in Cedar Girls' Secondary School to make friends. It struck her that since boys playing the guitar attracted an audience of girls, maybe she could get some attention the same way.

She approached a classmate to teach her to play the guitar but since she could not afford to pay the "school fees" asked for, the quid pro quo was to take part in a Chinese songwriting competition because the classmate had heard that Xiaohan's Mandarin was good.

The song won a consolation prize and Xiaohan won an award for best lyrics.

She says: "That was the first trophy I ever had in my life. And during the competition, everybody bonded and we all felt that we belonged."

Not only did she find her calling, she also met her husband during the competition.

She says with a smile: "I saw a boy singing in the competition and I thought this guy is quite handsome and I thought he sounded quite nice."

The couple have been married for 141/2 years and have an eight-year-old daughter, Ashley.

Ask her why she pushes herself so hard and she recounts the story of her birth. She was a breech baby and her mother had to undergo an emergency Caesarean operation.

"My mum had this ugly centipede-like scar on her abdomen which she would always use to guilt-trip me when I was young," she reveals.

Her mother later told her: "You almost died. Make great use of your life because you almost couldn't make it."

Her father, Lin Jianzhao, now 77, had a fish farm and later, an orchid farm in Mandai. As there were no schools in that area, Xiaohan grew up staying with her mother and elder sister and maternal grandparents in a one-room HDB flat in Jalan Bukit Merah.

Her father wanted sons and her given name, Kebang, and her sister's name, Kebin, are masculine-sounding names.

Her sister, 41, is a banker and married with three children.

Xiaohan had a rambunctious childhood as, together with her father and sister, they would explore railway tracks and climb durian and rambutan trees.

Her mother, Gu Miaoxiang, 73, a housewife, paints a different picture. She says: "She seemed to live in her imagination and she was very introverted."

Apart from writing lyrics, Xiaohan writes regular personal columns for Lianhe Wanbao and Chinese fashion magazine Nuyou, blogs for bilingual multi- media Web portal omy and has published an essay collection Teardrops Are Capsules (2011).

She has a 140,000 word novel, Count Less Happiness, due out next month. It was inspired by a photograph she took three years ago in Europe of a girl who has no fingers on one hand.

She also teaches lyric-writing at Funkie Monkies and gives talks in schools. She will be holding Mandarin language and songwriting workshops from today to Thursday as part of the Singapore Writers Festival's Words Go Round programme.

She says that her love affair with words defines who she is.

"I'm not particularly smart, not particularly rich or pretty or talented. The only thing that represents me is words. I have a wacky brain that is translated into words. You take away that and I'll probably be very depressed."

Her first set of lyrics for a musical even pulled her out of post-natal blues after Ashley was born in 2004.

The Theatre Practice's artistic director Kuo Jian Hong kept calling her to check on her and to ask if she wanted to write the lyrics for Lao Jiu, a musical about a young man who yearns to be a puppeteer.

"I was really grateful to her because she pulled me out of depression. She kept me so busy and she bugged me every day," adds Xiaohan.

She worked again, with Ng, on the well-received 2012 reboot of Lao Jiu: The Musical and it was a process she enjoyed tremendously.

She says: "People base their artistic work on yours and it's a very, very nice feeling. You're not alone and you feel very, very involved and appreciated. You are one of the pillars of the show."

Xiaohan says her writing is inspired by all that takes place around her, often from ordinary things others do not think twice about.

"I wrote the song Long Take when I was half-asleep. We went to Marina Barrage to fly a kite and our kite just couldn't fly. I got frustrated and I realised kites are very pathetic things. The wind can push them high up but, to fly, they need to get pulled and pushed and they can't even move on their own," she says.

The Golden Melody-nominated song opens with the lines: "We can see the rainbow but we can't see the wind/Hence love watches as the kite is manipulated".

Kaiyang, 33, is a software engineer who had taken her lyrics-writing class in 2006 and later co-wrote the lyrics to Stefanie Sun's Chase (2011) with Xiaohan.

He says: "She would notice things others don't and that makes you think that some very insignificant things might have stories behind them."

Singer Tanya Chua, 38, says of Xiaohan: "We're pretty similar in the sense that we're very neurotic and we overthink all kinds of situations. We relate so well to each other to the point that if I have a song, I would just throw it to her and say 'Write whatever you want'.

"And she would come back with something that makes me go, 'Wow, that's really cool because I can relate to it'."

Xiaohan says that her goal - to write a lot more lyrics - may sound pretty simple but it is not easy to do.

She says: "It is not easy to find inspiration every day especially when I'm in a stable relationship. I have a normal family life and I don't have a lot of ups and downs in life."

It is a good thing then that she is sensitive and loves to eavesdrop on strangers' conversations, which become fodder for her lyrics.

She says with a laugh: "I'm sure to get whacked one day. When I hear couples quarrelling, I sit closer to them."

She reasons that whatever is said in the heat of a quarrel is "most real".

Once, she saw a man feeding his girlfriend soup after they had a huge tiff and then he said: "Can you stop crying? Your soup is getting saltier."

She adds: "All these small little incidents are so precious to me. If I can capture all these, then I can write more songs. It's my mission."

My life so far

"You'll just be satisfied with whatever's given to you, you can just follow.

I have too much pride, I cannot follow and that's very tormenting for me.

I would not repeat myself. Sometimes, people ask if I can write a part two to a hit song. I can have a similar concept but it will never be the same idea exactly. For example, Darwin and Better Me are both about evolving but the angles are different."

On why she wants to be reborn as a bimbo

At a birthday party in 2007 with husband Norman Koh and daughter Ashley and as a seven-year-old in 1980. With Joi Chua in 2011. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF XIAOHAN

"We communicate through words and that's fine. You don't need to know who I am and I don't need to know who you are, let's keep it that way. It's not that I don't like them but, sometimes, when you communicate so much over a set of lyrics, it's like you have stripped yourself naked and told your most intimate stories to this stranger. You share so much through the whole process, it just feels weird seeing each other, so I'd rather not."

On why she does not socialise with pop stars she works with

"They would throw me demos and I would write the lyrics. It never was lyrics first and then melody. Chinese is a tonal language and it can sound very funny if the melody does not fit the lyrics. I prefer to have control over what the words should sound like."

On the process of songwriting

"It shows two things. Not only am I good at writing, I teach well too and I can discover talent."

On why she would be happy if a student beats her to an award



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