It’s been a year since Joel Tan – better known by his stage name Gentle Bones – was included on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of entertainment personalities in Asia. The 23-year-old Singaporean singer-songwriter came to fame by sharing his music on his own YouTube channel while completing his secondary education.
His songs on YouTube and appearances at music festivals attracted admirers, and even a big-name recording label. In 2015, Tan became the first Singaporean artist to sign with Universal Music Singapore.
Tan was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago for Forbes magazine’s 100th anniversary party at the InterContinental Hotel. Young Post caught up with him there to ask why he started making music at school, how he persuaded his parents to let him halt his university studies, and what his future plans are.
“Back at my secondary school, me and another guy were in a class performance. The guy told me I sang quite well so I started to learn guitar to make myself cooler,” Tan says. “But Ed Sheeran was also one of the musicians who inspired me to play guitar.”
Tan didn’t hire a teacher to teach him guitar. Instead, he went to the internet to learn how to play basic chords. “As I really enjoy singing and playing guitar, it was natural for me to start my own YouTube channel in 2011,” he says. “To make myself easier to remember, I created my own stage name, Gentle Bones.”
While more people subscribed to his channel and began to pay attention to his music, Tan started to perform at major music festivals in Singapore, including the Noise Festival in 2011 and the Mosaic Festival in 2012.
Tan doesn’t only cover songs but also produces his own pieces. It could sometimes take him a year to find the one song he really wanted to release.
“I keep on writing songs until I find a really good one to put on tape,” he says.
Tan writes his songs in English and in all sorts of styles. “Good music is without genre,” he says.
In 2013, Tan released Until We Die, which was rated as the top song on iTunes Singapore one day after its release. Spotify Singapore also rated the song as Singapore’s favourite track of 2014.
“I spent a lot of time producing the music video for Until We Die when I should have been studying for exams. My parents got really angry,” Tan says.
Singapore’s emphasis on study is no less than Hong Kong’s, but Tan’s parents eventually started to understand what their son was trying to do.
“After they saw people listening to my music and accepting my songs, they started to be really supportive,” he says.
One year later, in 2014, Tan released his first EP, Gentle Bones. Itincluded two new songs, Save Me and Elusive. The two songs featured on the iTunes Singapore chart as well.
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He completed his secondary education while still making music, and was admitted to Nanyang Technological University’s Business School. But in 2015, he was approached by Universal Music Singapore. Tan had to make a bold decision.
“Universal is a big name, which made it easier for me to put aside my university studies,” he laughs.
But he didn’t quit university right after signing with Universal. Instead, he studied for one more year before putting all his heart into his music career.
During his “final year” at university, Tan appeared on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of young entertainment and sports personalities in Asia alongside names such as Olympic champion Yuna Kim, model Angelababy, and singer G.E.M.
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Tan then decided to become a full-time musician with Universal.
“I don’t call myself a star,” he says. “But after shifting from being an independent musician to a signed one, it has become easier for me to create the music that I want to create. Not just the songs but the whole package – music and image.”
The resources provided by the label open up more possibilities. “Without support from a company, even travelling to Hong Kong wouldn’t be easy,” he says.
In the future, Tan hopes to broaden his style and write more dance-rap songs. We look forward to hearing what the rising star does next.
Edited by Pete Spurrier