His stage name may be Gentle Bones, but Singaporean singer-songwriter Joel Tan’s rise to success has been anything but slow and soft. He has gone from first picking up a guitar as a 16-year-old to making Forbes’ prestigious 30 under 30 Asia list this year, aged 22. Not only does he have a huge following on YouTube, but he was also the first artist to be signed by Universal Music Singapore.
Growing up, Tan was a typical school student. However, after years of focusing on his academic studies, Tan was still unsure what he wanted to do.
“I was pushed to study, but was never really motivated or passionate about anything,” Tan tells Young Post. That changed at 16 when he received a guitar from his friend and started songwriting.
From the very beginning of his career, Tan has had a good idea of how to get his music heard, and which platforms are the best for interacting with fans and promoting himself.
Though he enjoys having a hand the commercial aspect of music, he is wary of being a celebrity. He says his top priority is encouraging people to listen to his music, rather than selling his personality or look.
“When you’ve written a song, you want people to sing along to it. For me, it’d be a dream come true just to have 10 people at show singing along the one song that I wrote,” says Tan.
It’s a modest goal for an artist who gained international fame for his cover songs on YouTube, and has since played at several music festivals.
His self-titled, folk pop-infused debut EP, Gentle Bones was released in 2014 and launched a number of hit tracks, including Until We Die. The catchy and motivational song about perseverance shot to the top of the iTunes chart, as did subsequent singles Save Me and Elusive.
For Tan, 65 is a special number. It’s not only the name of another of his hit singles, but also the year his country gained independence.
“I really wanted [to write] an anthem for the younger generation, because they are often against the idea of being nationalistic,” says Tan, adding, “I really wanted to bring that sense of patriotism back.”
He strikes a balance between making music that gives him creative satisfaction with keeping his fans happy by imagining himself as an 18-year-old.
“If I can make my own 18-year-old self love my music, I believe that other 18-year-olds will like my music as well,” he explains.
Luckily, he doesn’t need to worry whether his label wants him to look, act or sound a certain way, as they’re very supportive. The company allows him to make all his own decisions regarding his music style, artistic direction, and what he wants to represent.
“I’m a person of quite low expectations – I like to exceed those expectations first and then set new ones afterwards,” says Tan.
By being realistic about what his next goal is going to be, Tan is also able to stay grounded and be grateful for everything he has achieved so far. “When I started putting things on YouTube, I never expected to get this far – it’s been quite a crazy journey,” he says.
So what’s his next project going to be? Tan says he’ll be switching gears a bit by trying out an R&B sound on his new record, and will continue performing as many shows as possible.