Local songbird Inch Chua draws inspiration from kampong life

Local singer-songwriter Inch Chua packs her bags for Pulau Ubin. The 27-year-old shoots the breeze about living the kampong life for two months, not replying to Whatsapp messages and fetching water from a well. 

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8 DAYS: To pen material for your upcoming new album, Letters to Ubin, you lived on Pulau Ubin for two months. Why not do it at home in aircon comfort?

INCH: I live in a terrace house with my mum, who owns a tin canning business. My brother is 25 and is starting university soon, while my older sister is a dancer in New York. It’s a very comfortable life compared to Ubin, but I’m generally an easy-going person and I love the outdoors. Ubin to me is refreshing. Other musician friends were complaining that they couldn’t find inspiration in Singapore, so they go overseas to places like Iceland to tour. I refused to believe there was no place in Singapore where you can find that. That’s when I thought about Pulau Ubin. I met a couple of guys who were already doing an artist residency programme on Ubin. So I was living in a kampung house next to a Chinese cemetery that they provided for me.

What’s life in Ubin like?
I had no electricity or running water. There’s solar power, but it doesn’t power anything above 12 volts, so I couldn’t really use my laptop or iPad. It took an hour to charge four per cent of battery on my phone. It’s a bit tragic, but I don’t mind. I’d pay a little extra to the auntie at the coffeeshop at the jetty to let me charge my phone and extra batteries while I have breakfast. It’s way faster. I had to get water from a well every day. You can physically pull it if you want to, but I had a diesel generator that pumped water out of the well. I tried not to turn on the generator ’cos it’s smelly and really loud. So I’d turn it on for half an hour in the morning to get water. The one thing I couldn’t live without in Ubin is my portable recording device. I’d initially wanted to record [the album] on the island but after I found out about the power situation, I knew that it wasn’t gonna happen.

How disconnected were you from the world?
I did feel a little cut off from what’s happening in Singapore. I’d already warned everyone beforehand, telling them I needed this detachment and solitude. I refrained from using technology when I was there. I barely used my phone and my managers got quite frustrated with me. (Laughs) They knew that if they wanted to get hold of me, they had to do so in the one hour I was at the coffeeshop having breakfast. I checked my mail every other day in the morning, though I wasn’t the most responsive on Whatsapp or Facebook.

How long did it take for you to find out that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had passed away?
That was hard to escape. Everyone on the island knew. My mother Whatsapp-ed me. I went back home on the day of the state funeral ’cos my family was doing a potluck thing and watching the funeral together. I’d come back home about once a week, but I tried not to go back if I didn’t have to.

What’s the biggest lesson you learnt from your Ubin stint?
Living there forces you to be a planner and to have a routine, and everyone knows that musicians are the worst at routines. I wake up at 6am ’cos the roosters are crowing, and go for a walk from 6am to 10am ’cos it’s really nice and dewy. During this time, I’m picking out natural sounds from the environment that I hope to use for my album and I’m just exploring the island. After that, I’ll go to the jetty and chat with the uncles and aunties at the coffeeshop, have breakfast, then come back home and start working on my material or do the chores. It gets really hot in the afternoon so I take a nap ’cos it’s impossible to function otherwise. Then I wake up, do more errands, cycle around or write some more. The most important thing is to shower before nightfall – I only have one oil lamp in the shower and showering in darkness isn’t the best idea.

How is writing songs on mainland Singapore different from writing on Ubin?
A total immersion in any location allows you to learn about the new place. The new material I’m working on now is very much influenced by life on Ubin, lyrically and content-wise. Musically, I’m trying to capture sonically the textures and sounds of Ubin. If you were to have no imagery and just listen to the songs, you can automatically imagine what life on the island is like. That’s my aim.

What’s one thing you learnt on the job that they didn’t teach you in school?
I don’t think the importance of knowing what you want was ever instilled in me in school. It’s difficult ’cos everyone knows what they don’t want, but no one really knows what they want. I was from Balestier Hill Secondary and I was the kid who had, like, seven extra-curricular activities — drama club, Chinese opera, cheerleading, debate and prefects — but I really sucked at school.

Catch Inch Chua on Jun 27 at The O.P.E.N. at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), at Barber Shop by Timbre, 9.30pm. For tix and info, go to www.sifa.sg.

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