24OWLS Playlist Series

Vanishing Twins – The Playlist by Yeow Kai Chai

It’s odd to write about yourself, not when you’ve spent most of your career writing about other people. Regardless, duty calls.

Joining 19SixtyFive/24OWLS to help with editorial, publicity and programming was a decision based on gut instinct, as well as a friend’s recommendation. I had steered the Singapore Writers Festival for four editions from 2015 to 2018. I felt it was a good run. As much as I enjoyed the sadomasochistic thrill of juggling the demands of a ginormous, government-funded operation, it was time to move on. It was good to hand the reins to someone else, preferably one with a different approach towards things.

That was the good news. The bad news was, I didn’t have a game plan for my next move. I did not have some meticulously-thought-out career trajectory – except that I never want to repeat myself. I remember a quote from the late great David Bowie who said: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth.”

So I am – more than a little out of my depth. My current colleagues range from 20somethings to people about my age, and slightly older. I love music, and I love reviewing it, but that’s nothing compared to these folks who have the know-how of staging a mega-music festival (Laneway at that!). I was impressed by the calmness, the relative absence of temper flares, as they went about their business to stage our inaugural event at Pasir Panjang Power Station – The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions – in December 2019. There was risk. A female-fronted line-up full of worthy but decidedly leftfield names might draw hardcore music buffs, but not necessarily the mainstream audience. I like that. It was audacious. To hell with algorithms.

That said, I hope to bring what I’ve accrued – journalistic nous, literary expertise, and wherewithal in bridging different parties – to the table. The pandemic might have derailed some of our plans for now, but the plans are being worked on, ready for the day when we can enjoy live music, arts and entertainment, one way or another.

As for putting a music track-listing together, it’s a personal ritual of sorts. I would insert my favourite tunes released that year into an annual playlist on my iPhone – a totally biased compilation just for my own ears.

The following Playlist, however, is culled from songs released in 2020 thus far. It reflects the weird times we find ourselves in right now – an unease vacillating between unknowingness and horror. (It’s not a perk-me-up, sorry!) Who do we miss? Who have we lost? (Yes, the photo is of me and Ah Meng at the Singapore Zoo eons ago.)

In Phase One of our Circuit Breaker, one recalls eerily serene sights of empty beaches and roads. They looked welcoming yet were out of bounds. Now in Phase Two, we are still unsure how to feel, and hopefully these songs speak to our collective, inchoate emotion, adrift between fear and a flicker of hope for a clearer, brighter future.

Here’s the playlist:

1. Empty Beach – Coco

“Nobody knows who these people are. That’s how mysterious they are. Yes, the song is calming and unharried and spectral. The light-as-air vocals. Some fella online says it sounds like Weyes Blood meets Rhye in some far-flung field.”

2. Garden Song – Phoebe Bridgers

“Phoebe Bridgers is among a new brigade of young female musicians who are writing intelligent and emotionally acute songs. Look out too for Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Adrianne Lenker, and Emily Sprague.”

3. Heart to Ride – Nadia Reid

“Another wise, underrated, young songsmith, this time from New Zealand. That voice is so wonderfully assured and understated, you’d slowly fall under her spell.”

4. Cayendo (Side A – Acoustic) – Frank Ocean

“I can’t wait for the next full length album from Frank Ocean. This strange ballad, ‘Cayendo’, is among a series of one-off, stripped-down singles he’s released over the past few months. ‘Cayendo’ means “falling” or “falling down” in Spanish. And oh, look out for that little nod to Sade.”

5. Vanishing Twin – Blake Mills

“Blake Mills has produced albums for everyone from Fiona Apple to Perfume Genius, but it’s this production on his own album, Mutable Set, which gets under your skin. You can barely hear him articulate, but you want to pay attention to every single thing he mumbles.”

6. The Line – Westerman

“This west London newcomer updates the angular synth-pop of 1980s (close to someone like Arthur Russell), layers it with soft-rock flourishes but makes it sound somewhat alien, futuristic, a little off-kilter. The chords are complex and insanely precise at the same time.”

7. Without You – Perfume Genius

“It’s intriguing to witness how Michael Hadreas aka Perfume Genius has morphed from his very first album, Learning, from 2010. He’s moved beyond the fragile confessional alt-folk into something beyond labels, genre or gender.”

8. The Moon – Andy Shauf

“Another name to watch. Andy Shauf has the same reedy, soft-spoken quality as his Canadian forebear Neil Young. A master, concise storyteller with a Raymond Carver undertow that takes you out.”

9. Cenizas – Nicolas Jaar

“Nicolas Jaar makes huge, conceptual records that sound supremely cinematic, but also deep, investigative, and infinitely spiritual. ‘Cenizas’, which means “ashes” in Spanish, taps into the geopolitical unease of the times – of both Chile, his father’s homeland, and of America.”

10. Sinning – The Soft Pink Truth

“The Soft Pink Truth is Drew Daniel, one-half of the experimental electronica duo Matmos (who worked with Bjork on her album Vespertine). This track, ‘Sinning’, is utterly compelling – jazz, classical, tribal, house – conjuring up a vivid 21st century soundtrack of progress and anomie, war and peace, past and unknown future.”

11. The Sound Of The Engines – Owen Pallett

“Owen Pallett may be better known as a frequent collaborator of his Canadian compatriots Arcade Fire, but he is a unique artist in his own right. This beautifully, strings-fuelled track is taken from Island, which is a sequel to 2010’s Heartland, the fantastical 14th-century land of Spectrum. I think video gamers will call this “world-building.””

12. Kinda Dark – Destroyer

“Another Canadian gem – Dan Bejar is so deadpan and dry, you can’t help but love this misanthrope. ‘Kinda Dark’ is an apocalyptic anti-ballad with some of the best lines of 2020: “Gasping for anything, there sits the Boston Strangler.””

13. Blow By Blow – Laura Marling

“British songstress Laura Marling justly earned her fourth Mercury Prize nomination, this time with Song For Our Daughter. And this track, taken from that album, exemplifies her uncanny wisdom and warmth.”

14. Weight (feat. GABI) – LEYA

“LEYA is a New York-based duo comprising harpist Marilu Donovan and violinist Adam Markiewicz, and their latest album, Flood Dream, is beautiful, in a gothic, scary-good way.”

15. june 14th – Lauren Auder

“You notice the exquisitely painted nails first. This 21-year-old London-based singer makes anachronistic baroque pop with a decidedly classicist bent and a dollop of millennial angst. Watch their name rise.”

16. Twin Soul – Christian Lee Hutson

“Christian Lee Hutson is an unflashy songwriter who write self-deprecating songs about mortals who try but fail. ‘Twin Soul’ is taken from his acclaimed Beginners record, subtly produced by Phoebe Bridgers.”

17. Here in the Dark – Aoife Nessa Frances

“Dublin’s answer to Wales’ Cate Le Bon: Aoife Nessa Frances revels in unusual chords and nuanced lyrics, topped with that voice which does not reveal its tricks too easily.”

18. Chamber Music – M. Ward

“M. Ward’s reverbed voice is a thing of wonder, and ‘Chamber Music’, taken from Migration Stories, expands his vision of Americana, so timely when anything south of the border is villainised by Agent Tangerine.”

18. America – Sufjan Stevens

“ “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” sings Sufjan Stevens on the stomping, defiant first single off his forthcoming album The Ascension. Less fragile than his last album, the superb Carrie & Lowell (2015), it’s calling out the selfish narcissists who are taking down the country with them.”

20. In Light (feat. Jónsi) – Julianna Barwick

“Julianna Barwick’s newest record is called Healing Is A Miracle, and it’s the one thing we didn’t know we needed dearly in these pandemic times. This track, featuring Jónsi of Sigur Ros, reaches for the skies. It’s as if we’ve drifted above the madding crowd, looking back at the virus of fear and fear-mongering… and are finally free.”