Behind the music

Behind the music

To write great pop songs takes a flair for language, a unique style and determination even in the face of rejection

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Lei Chon has written some of the most popular Canto-pop songs
Lei Chon has written some of the most popular Canto-pop songs
Photo: Paul Yeung/SCMP

They may not enjoy the fame of our biggest pop stars, but the lyricists behind many of Hong Kong's most moving love songs have the power to heal a broken heart with their words.

Macau-born lyricist Joe Lei Chon - better known as Lee Chung-yat - is the brains behind many household Canto-pop tunes. He wrote the lyrics for Andy Hui Chi-on's Dirt and Stephy Tang's Light Bulb among many others.

But success was far from instant. Lei was writing in his spare time while teaching at a local secondary school.

"I wanted to quit because I couldn't come up with any [popular songs] at the time," says Lei.

And so he did. He gave up. But two months later, a friend, fellow songwriter Keith Chan Fai-young, encouraged him to give it another go. Not long after, Dirt suddenly became a massive hit for Hui, sweeping most of the end-of-year awards in 2001.

Since then, he says, "it has been a much smoother ride."

To share his experience, Lei recently swung by the fifth SHKP Young Writers' Debut Competition to talk about the importance of creativity. Lei will be mentoring one of the shortlisted candidates. "I am looking forward to that," he says, perhaps seeing the opportunity to "pay forward" what Chan did for him.

Lei says the first rule of a good lyricist is to be observant and take inspiration from the world around you. Indeed, he even likes to eavesdrop on the conversations of random people. It was doing this that led him to write Light Bulb.

Lei was at a fast food chain when the idea struck him. He was watching three youngsters - two girls and one boy - sitting nearby.

"The boy was trying to strike up a conversation with the better-looking girl," says Lei. "But that left the other girl feeling awkward. She wanted to be involved as well.

"Immediately I came up with the hook: 'Can I be excused for a while? I don't want to play the light bulb'. And then, I expanded it from there."

In the original Cantonese, "light bulb" also loosely translates as "third wheel", or a person who feels like they are getting in the way.

Such wordplay is important if you want to be a lyricist, and it's only possible if you have a strong foundation in language, says Lei. The best way to improve your language skills, he adds, is to read.

He also urges young writers to develop their own personal style. Lei's own style is to always try to present both sides of the coin, while also focusing on the lesser-known side of a subject.

For example, in Light Bulb, he writes about how even the nicest girl in the world would feel happy to see her crush break up with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile in Scum, sung by Ronald Cheng Chung-kei, Lei wrote about how even the worst person may still be able to perform a good deed.

Lei acknowledges that "these days, it's easier for people to get started because people can post their work on YouTube and online forums," but says building a network is still important.

And most importantly, Lei urges students interested in working in the industry to stay open-minded.

"Try to diversify your skills. If you can produce, compose and write lyrics, you will get more opportunities."

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Behind the music

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