Lenny Wee: The Music Virtuoso Who’s Kinda a Big Deal in the US
At a very young age, Lenny Wee lived and breathed music; from listening to oldies with his father, to undergoing formal music education, to singing a capella at school performances, to creating unique CD mixes for his friends. Although these undertakings may not stack up against teen prodigies who record entire albums in their basements, the 37-year-old LA-based Singaporean is proving to the world that there is not only one road to success.
It was in America where Lenny honed his musical proclivities. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music, he moved to Los Angeles and opportunities came knocking. Soon, he was collaborating with music titans like Stevie Wonder, Adam Lambert, Natalie Cole, Jennifer Lopez and Gladys Knight. These golden moments included composing and orchestrating music for the Academy Awards, American Idol and the Grammys.
If you had asked Lenny how he envisioned spending the past year, he wouldn’t have imagined spending it in isolation. So to cope with lockdown, he turned to his first love: writing and making music, even producing his own infectious a capella composition about social distancing entitled “Corona”.
In January, he reemerged at President Joe Biden’s inauguration as the music director who arranged and directed Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the landmark ceremony. Apart from such prominent gigs, he has a Zelig-like ability to oscillate between genres—mixing and composing songs for Kanye West’s EP ‘Emmanuel’ with the Sunday Service Choir and even heading the musical direction for Nickelodeon Jr’s production of PAW Patrol Live! at home.
Not to be easily pigeonholed into a particular style, this multi-hyphenate virtuoso (who is a music arranger, orchestrator, composer and producer) has worked ceaselessly to pave the way for more Asian representation in the US music industry.
High Net Worth: Growing up, was music an important part of your childhood?
Lenny Wee: My dad loved playing music around the house and I remember listening to classics from Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis with him.
How did you get into music?
Like most Singaporean parents, they put me in music classes and piano lessons at a young age.
Do you remember writing your first song?
I started composing music when I was around 15-16 years old. Most of it was instrumental or arranging songs for choir.
After junior college, you went to the US to study music. Why did you decide to stay on and pursue a music career overseas?
I was allowed a one year visa to work in the States after I graduated. so I moved to LA to look for work to get experience in the industry. Eventually, I stayed on because there were more opportunities to pursue what I was interested in (arranging and engineering) and I took advantage of that. Singapore has a small population and less of a local entertainment scene, it doesn’t provide as much opportunity to grow and get experience, as compared to the US, which has top-level arts communities.
What is it like to navigate the US showbiz scene?
My biggest learning lesson is to be ready for anything, and that it is not like a regular full-time desk job. Work tends to come all at the same time, so it can be stressful but also extremely rewarding.
Has the pandemic changed your relationship to music?
No. I guess the only difference is most of the music can now be made separately in each other’s homes rather than in a studio together. In that sense, you lose a little bit of the community, but you gain efficiency.
As the music director for J.Lo’s segment at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, do you consider that as a watershed moment of your career?
I put the same amount of effort into every show I work on, and honestly, I try to make music that I’m proud of every time. I’ve worked on other shows of that scale like the Grammys, the Oscars and the Superbowl, so I didn’t feel like it would be that different of an experience compared to the other times. But, I was very proud to be representing minorities at the inauguration especially in such a contentious time in American history.
What have your experiences taught you about the music business and working with other artists?
The key thing during the creative process and experience is to learn to go with the flow and accept restrictions and differences of opinion as challenges so as to make your art better. And if anything, it makes you a better problem-solver. That’s what is actually celebrated in the music business.
Imagine your life to be a television show. If you could choose one theme song to sum up your entire life, what would it be and why?
Gladys Knight and the Pips “You’re The Best Thing That Happened To Me”. I’m a sentimental old fool—every time I play this song, I still get the feels. The very first lyric of the song is “I’ve had my share of life’s ups and downs but fate’s been kind, the downs have been few.” It’s a good reminder for me to take stock of how privileged I am for every blessing that has brought me to where I am today.
Do you think that we need more Asian representation in the music industry?
Definitely. I think as Asians, we tend to keep our head down and try to work hard and not get noticed, but visibility is important. We definitely need to encourage more Asians to pursue the arts as a career.
As a composer, how do you know when a song is finished or perfected?
Unfortunately, I’m a perfectionist and as such, I don’t think anything I ever do is completed. I find myself tweaking old songs or arrangements or mixes years after they have been released. That said, there does come a point where if something is “good enough” for the intended purpose or if the deadlines are too tight, then that will dictate when a song is considered finished.
You’re known to be a music arranger, orchestrator, composer, keyboardist, engineer and producer. That’s quite a title! Is there one that you particularly enjoy over the rest?
It’s so very hard to describe what I do in my career with one title because each job requires using a different skill set. Of course, I try to wear as many hats as I can on each job, but the uniqueness of creating the music for each gig is really what makes it so enjoyable for me. If I had to pick, I’d say working with artists to realise their vision of a performance via a new arrangement gives me the most amount of joy. The fact that another artist can trust you with their performance and even allow you to put your own sound on it is really fulfilling.
If you had to create a playlist for a Zoom date, what songs would you choose?
I’m an old soul. My playlist would probably be the whole Stevie Wonder catalogue along with some Frank Sinatra, Hall and Oates, Doobie Brothers, Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole.
Have you tried TikTok? Do you think it’s a good platform for performing artists to get a head start or is it just a space for self-indulgent narcissism?
Wow, that’s a loaded question, haha. I think technology has allowed so much access to fans and for fans to discover new artists. For artists to be successful these days there’s always an element of being good at harnessing the power of these social platforms. That said, I’ve tried TikTok, but not so much for the music. It’s more of a fun thing I do sometimes with my family.