Award-Winning Lyricist Xiaohan on Combating Depression and Her Songwriting Process
A mark of a good lyricist starts with the ability to “move your readers to tears just by reading your Facebook posts”. If you are into Mandopop, the name Xiaohan should ring a bell. After all, she has collaborated with the biggest names in the industry, from A-Mei to Eason Chan, to homegrown singers, Tanya Chua, JJ Lin, and Stefanie Sun. Often nominated for regional music awards and emerging as a winner, Xiaohan is the reigning lyrics champion in Singapore, which shouldn’t be a surprise as her work is a heartfelt expression of feeling and soul.
She funnels her broad knowledge of the industry together with her PhD in Virology to churn out music that speaks not only of the deepest emotions, but also with a sense of intellectual relatability, which has become her signature style. 10 years ago, she left the A*STAR laboratory and founded Funkie Monkies, alongside local musicians Eric Ng.
Like the poetic nature of her lyrics, the origins of her name, Xiaohan, came about fortuitously when she stopped by a bookstore at a train station. A bookmark saying “十二月生，小寒之時” (Born in December, when it was slightly cold) caught her attention and she decided to buy it, since she was born in the month of December. 5 years later, she adopted the pen name, which has now taken on another meaning (小寒之時 also implies ” The time of Xiaohan”). In this candid interview, Xiaohan speaks to us about how she got started in songwriting, juggling multiple roles as a lyricist, author and a mom while coping with dysthymia, and overcoming depression.
On Growing Up:
Growing up was tough but fun. I was asthmatic since age one, so I wasn’t allowed to go out much. My family was poor so I didn’t have many toys and I didn’t watch much TV too. If we wanted toys, we had to make them. We made our own “hardcover” books and toy cars (with moving parts) from leftover cardboard given by my mother’s friend. I even made my own dollhouse by using cardboard for furniture, buttons for cutlery, and scrap cloth for bedsheets. During the holidays, we would spend time staying at my father’s orchid farm, and we would chase chickens, climb durian trees, play in the mud and make models out of stones. We did not have much, but it was fulfilling in many ways.
My parents were supportive of my career path in Sciences. Although they were worried about the potential of chemicals exploding in my face every day, to them, that was a proper job. They were worried when I switched careers because they weren’t sure if I was going to starve or not. Interestingly enough, they were sort of relieved that there wasn’t the possibility of my lab coat catching fire anymore.
I had different aspirations at different stages of my childhood, but they were never music-related. It usually changes depending on the books I read—one moment I could aspire to be a librarian, next a scientist and then a war journalist. The idea of writing a book did cross my mind once. Subsequently, in Secondary school, I wanted to be “cool”. I didn’t have a great fashion sense or any fancy toys to impress but that didn’t stop me. I saw that whenever boys played the guitar, they always got a lot of attention. So I came to the conclusion that if I played the guitar, I might gain some admirers as well.
I couldn’t afford guitar lessons then, so I approached a schoolmate and asked if she could teach me for free. She jokingly said no, unless we took part in a songwriting competition held in Chinese High Secondary School (the current Hwa Chong Institution). She had some tunes but she didn’t know how to write the lyrics and if I could help her win the prize, that would pay for the lessons. Since I was desperate, I agreed. After school, I went home and literally stuck my ear onto the radio, and tried my very best to copy the lyrics of the songs I heard in a fast and accurate manner. I also studied them to understand the techniques used and the flow of it, and to see if I could do a better job. That was the era of no internet, no lyrics writing courses and I couldn’t afford to buy cassette tapes, so the radio was the only source of material I could use to better my skills in lyrics writing. We took part in the competition with the song, “傳說”, and eventually won the “Best Lyrics” award. That was the first time I had something “shiny” to call my own, and I took it as a sign that lyrics writing could really be my destiny.
The most important gain from the competition was the friends I made, who went on to introduce me to more talented friends—one of whom eventually introduced me to a music publisher and kickstarted my lyrics writing career.
On Being a Lyricist:
While pursuing my postgraduate degree in 1996, I was also writing lyrics for Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now known as Mediacorp). I was doing a lot of theme songs for local drama series and many were sung by local TV personalities such as Zoe Tay and Kym Ng. One day, my mentor saw my name at the end credits for a song he had heard in a drama serial. He asked me about it and said that if I wanted to make a real contribution to the world, I should not come in contact with the Entertainment scene which would corrupt my mind. I rebelled against the idea and continued doing research in the Science and Medical field, and that was when I started writing under the pen name, “Xiaohan”.
My big break came in 1998 when my lyrics was picked up by a Taiwanese singer, Denise Ruan. The song was recorded in her first single and used as the theme song of a Hong Kong drama. I enjoy the freedom of my job. With my laptop, I could be writing lyrics in the park while waiting for my kid to finish school, or at the hospital waiting room, while my parents are having their medical checkup. I also have the liberty in my work to include life lessons and positive messages in my lyrics, and hopefully, it will change the listener’s outlook on life.
On Choosing between Music and Science:
I am a dysthymia patient (chronic low-grade depression) and frankly, it can be damaging to my family. Ashley was only 3 when she had to understand that the reason why her mother couldn’t hug her wasn’t because I did not love her, but because I did not have the mental strength. It is unfair for a young child to learn how to read and deal with her mother’s moods. I had a few episodes of major depression since she was born and one of the trigger points was stress. While I was working at the lab, my typical schedule would entail waking up early, and after work, I would continue to write lyrics until dawn. Simultaneously, I also had to juggle being a new mother. I couldn’t possibly shirk my responsibility as a mother—and having to choose between research and lyrics writing wasn’t easy. Eventually, I left A*STAR. My husband bravely shouldered the financial burden to give me the freedom to pursue lyrics writing and I had to make a career out of it.
I have always wanted to work with a Taiwanese singer called Chi Chin (齊秦). While learning to write lyrics, he was one of the few I listened to—and recently, I managed to pen a piece of lyrics for him. I have worked with Eason Chan, Khalil Fong, Jolin Tsai, and A-Mei, among others, whom I have never met in person before. I did, however, manage to meet JJ Lin, Stefanie Sun and Tanya Chua—local artists who I have worked together over the years.
If I were to introduce one song to you, it would be “達爾文” by Tanya Chua. I want people to know that in Mandopop, we don’t just write about matters of the heart or bubblegum pop with empty words. If you pay attention to the lyrics, you will realise that there is a deeper meaning.
On the Writing Process:
People from record labels, movies or musicals would contact me directly or my sub-publisher with an invitation, followed by the demo, and overall direction. I would listen to the melody, decide on the theme and work in the imageries as well as the taglines. I typically take a week to finish one piece of lyrics, after that we will have an email discussion, and the singer will typically do a test run on the recording of the song before the amendments are confirmed.
Once, I drank a 1.5L of diet coke, went to sleep, had a lucid dream about drinking diet coke in my room and woke up to write “Mr Lonely” (寂寞先生) for Gary Chaw in 45 minutes.
On being a Mother:
My daughter, Ashley, turned 13 last year. She can act very well. She auditioned for her school’s drama club and took on some lead roles. She also writes with a lot of ease. In fact, she published a bilingual novel under her name when she was in Primary 5. In the future, if she does decide to enter the Entertainment Industry, I would make sure she understands that it is no different from any other job. You need to respect your peers, be on time, work hard, work smart, and most importantly, know how to motivate yourself during difficult times.
At home, my husband is the “Minister of Fun”. They play with lego, learn Dutch and Japanese together using an app. I pay a lot of attention to my child’s behaviour, manners and most importantly, values. And I will seize any opportunity I get to lecture her about life. I am not the kind of mother who wants their child to be the top in class; I just want her to do her best. I think it’s important to strike a balance, and I’m not afraid to break into a song and dance in the middle of a crowd.
Being a visual person, I love movies. The last movie I watched was Justice League and when I stayed behind to watch the end credits, I realised that behind every superhero is a group of people who are there to support him. No man can attain greatness without the help of those who are seemingly insignificant.
I like listening to soundtracks of movies especially those I have not watched. It trains my mind to feel the emotions and “see” the transitions between the scenes and images of the scorer.
Advice for Inspiring Lyricists:
Getting a degree in Chinese studies or an ABRSM degree or having the ability to sing does not necessarily mean you will be a good lyricist. Fundamentally, you need to be a good storyteller. If you can move your listener to tears just by them reading your Facebook feeds, then you can consider taking up the challenge of becoming one. Lyrics are essentially stories presented in the format of a poem, and a poem is created based on another art form: the melody. And you must also take into account the person who is going to sing it.
On the future:
My job involves a lot of stress (incredible datelines), brain power (new original ideas) and a sedentary lifestyle (that’s why we are called 作家: 坐在家 (wordplay: on sitting at home)).
But I guess the most important thing is to constantly outdo myself, no matter how commercially or artistically successful I am. I have to be able to come out with something more impactful than what I have done previously.
Image Credits: Funkie Monkies