It’s time for singer-songwriter HeyMun
to take her international plaudits to a new level.
IT may not be obvious from the off, but HeyMun is one of those artistes inextricably attached to her craft. She’s able to absorb good and bad energy like a sponge and put it in songs – she sings what she means, and she means what she sings, as cliched as that may sound.
Credit where it’s due, though, because it must have taken something to knock the judges off their feet with her submission, By Sea, to the American-based Unsigned Only songwriting competition (by the organisers of the International Songwriting Competition) – the winners of which were announced in September last year – bagging the award in the folk/singer-songwriter category. The competition accepts entries from unsigned artistes the world over and has had a stellar panel of judges, including the likes of John Oates (of Hall & Oates fame), Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC) and Rosanne Cash. Naturally, this is a big deal.
And riding that wave, she recently returned from performing at the CBGB Festival in New York City, which keeps the influential club’s spirit alive. The original club was the performance space for the likes of Talking Heads, Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and many more.
“For me to be able to go there as a Malaysian to play an hour’s showcase in Manhattan at Arlene’s Grocery is really an honour. The festival is such a coveted event,” enthused HeyMun (first name Tan) during a recent interview, intimating that she was particularly thrilled since The Strokes had played the same venue in 2000.
While she managed to take in performances by music’s elite there, watching the likes of Wallflowers and even Lisa Loeb, it’s her success in the Unsigned Only competition that continues to reverberate. And as far-fetched as this might seem, HeyMun describes it as an overnight incident. Her world may have been somewhat confined to sitting at home, strumming the guitar and writing songs, but the buzz has reached fever pitch, which she describes as an “explosion.”
Lucky for her, she’s had home support all the way through.
“I put a lot of thought and consideration into my music, so to get Malaysian support was simply overwhelming. I feel the love,” she said, barely able to wipe the smile off her face. Apart from answering e-mail from fellow hopefuls and sharing her experience, she had Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng tweeting to congratulate her on her achievement.
The Petaling Jaya, Selangor-born singer has been based in Sydney, Australia, since she headed Down Under in 2006 to further her education, eventually graduating with a Masters in Film and Digital Image from the University of Sydney. And on that fateful day when she opened her e-mail to learn of her victory while back in Malaysia, she just had to go out to celebrate.
Did the champagne flow? Not quite.
HeyMun did it urban Malaysian style. “I had a Milo dinosaur and rojak at a nearby mamak,” she said.
Not everyone’s made for competitions though, because having a creative piece of work analysed and critiqued by a bunch of people can be a harrowing experience, but few things faze HeyMun in the artistic domain.
“Songwriting is an organic process for me. I just try to be brave, let it all out and express myself. I’ve never placed boundaries around myself.”
And that’s probably why grabbing the bull by its horns has served her well.
And to think she was a burrito away from missing out on her prize is a scary thought. The story goes that after mixing concluded on her debut EP from last year (produced in Australia), she contemplated heading down the recording studio’s stairs to devour the Mexican favourite, but opted to sit behind the piano to try out another song. And so, By Sea was born.
The bubbly 28-year-old remains grounded with her creative process though and communicating with fellow contestants has only allowed her to grow and spread her wings.
“Ultimately though, we are all born unique and this experience is like a snapshot of where I’m at right now.”
And the roots of the person she’s become go all the way back to the time she was a child hanging around her grandmother’s record store on Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, or “chee cheong kai”, she highlights the locale’s colloquial name.
“I listened to old Chinese songs that my mum’s mum used to play, and the best part was, she played anything she wanted,” said HeyMun, conceding that she got a leg up right from the start, acknowledging that music was always going to be a central theme in her life. Popular music made its way through her consciousness by way of her father’s interest in The Beatles and almost incongruously, German rock band Scorpions.
While music was always around her, it wasn’t until three years ago that she pursued creating some of her own. The thrifty purchase of a A$99 Yamaha acoustic guitar set the wheels in motion for her musical exploration. So, how much does she credit the guitar for her new-found musical talents?
“A lot. I still have it. I played my first ‘G’ chord on it and wrote my first song on that guitar, too. I love it so much,” she said, barely able to contain her appreciation for her trusty instrument.
It’s easy to understand why she gravitated to the acoustic guitar. Not only is it the most commonly used writing tool in popular music, but her hero also uses it.
“I watched Bob Dylan perform in Sydney and it was just fantastic to watch him stay true to his craft after all these years, and still constantly evolving. When he performs, he is simply navigating through his emotions,” she revealed, name checking Neil Young as an influence as well.
She has equal respect for home-grown talents like Az Samad, Reza Salleh and Paulo Delfinio.
HeyMun writes about what’s in her heart and what she sees around her. She’s quick to acknowledge that we’re all products of our environment.
“I put a microphone to my heart and also just follow my internal compass. For someone like me, it’s an advantage that we live in a multicultural setting, which invariably equips us to handle the assimilation process better when we take our music to a foreign land.”
She might just be making her mark, but HeyMun is able to recognise the big picture: “Ideally, I’d like to leave something behind that can be appreciated, and be inspiring. Ultimately, I want people to know that this is possible for anyone.” Her second, twin single, Sailor, is already making the rounds and gaining airplay in Australia. And even before the dust has settled, she’s unleashed her newest single, Youth, based on footage from her CBGB Festival jaunt and her visit to Nashville to meet the founders of Unsigned Only. And hot off the press now is her new self-titled EP.
It looks like it’s only going to be a matter of time before HeyMun starts blazing trails, if she isn’t already doing so.