Annette Lee on life after Sue-Ann & why she used to practise singing in her HDB lift

The multi-hyphenate also shares how rejection during her early gigging days built her confidence.

Joshua Lee | January 04, 2022, 11:22 AM

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Local content creator Annette Lee strikes me as a rather sweet interviewee — the type who hosts you at her beautifully furnished home (also the setting of many of her TikTok videos) and reminds you to please eat the snacks that she prepared.

The multi-hyphenate (she is a singer-songwriter, filmmaker, actress, and host) also has the endearing habit of apologising for rehashing anecdotes that had been told before in previous interviews.

Like this one about the time she was singled out for rejection during her gigging days.

It was during her university days when Lee did substitute gigs as part of a duo, Marcus and Annette (she sang, he played the guitar). One day, the owner of a bar came to them with the prospect of becoming a regular band.

The duo jumped at the opportunity; they sang and played their hearts out.

At the end of the night, the owner approached the guitarist and said, "I like you guys, you all are good. So we'll make you the regular band but can you change the singer?"

It wasn't the worst rejection that Lee has ever faced, but a setback nonetheless for the aspiring singer who learned the piano and taught herself the guitar in her youth.

At her core, Lee sees herself as a storyteller (she used to write and illustrate her own stories, some of which she still keeps to this day) and there's something instinctive and attractive about — in her words — "translating stories into something that sounds pleasant".

"Music has its own language — which is not spoken — and it's kind of just speaking in the other language, which I love."

Lee performing at a festival at NTU. Credit: Annette Lee.

The harsh reality of singing live

Lee soon realised that professional singing is vastly different from plucking indie tunes and singing to herself in her bedroom.

She gives me another story (never told before, she quips), this time about her first live gig which "flopped so hard":

"I remember I was in the middle of this song. It was a rooftop bar. Someone was smoking and I'm very sensitive. So I was singing halfway and then I just like choked up because there was smoke and I just couldn't continue — it was just silence! I turned to Marcus and said, 'OMG can you continue?' and he was like he can't because it was not even in his key!"

Poor Marcus was left strumming Coldplay on his own.

Lee performing at Esplanade Baybeats in 2019. Credit: Annette Lee.

Lee also struggled with the stamina needed to sustain an entire musical set. It's one thing to be able to croon a single song, and it's a totally different ball game when it's ten songs with filler talk in between.

"That was when it hit me that I just wasn't that good." the lift

Lee decided to pour herself into practising vocal exercises and scales to improve her ability to sing live and for long periods.

But there were constraints. Living with her family in a HDB flat with thin walls, it just wasn't feasible for her to practise at home, especially late at night.

So Lee turned to the only available (and unlikely) space she had access to: the lift at her HDB block.

"I chose the lift because there, nobody would ask me to be quiet, and there's like a space where I could be alone because there's literally nowhere else I could go.

I would take the lift from like my house on the 25th floor to the 3rd floor back to the 25th floor and back to the 3rd floor to sing for like 20 minutes every single day."

She employed a strategy too when it came to using the lift as a private rehearsing space:

"I realised that the 3rd floor was a nice number. If I take to the 1st floor, then people might come in. But if I take to the 2nd floor, then sometimes if there's someone waiting for the lift at the 1st floor, it will go down."

2 albums, but music still an 'unreachable goal'

Today, Lee is a much more proficient singer with two electro-pop EPs under her belt, and she is much more circumspect about past failures and rejections.

"Failure actually improves your confidence because with every failure right, you learn how to take it in your stride and that makes you more confident," she says.

Was she satisfied with the public's reception of her music?

"If I'm being honest, I feel that the first album wasn't like whoa, viral. But it was okay. I did have like, a base of supporters and that was really nice," she muses.

It wasn't enough, however, for her to ditch her job to become a full-time musician, which felt like an "unreachable goal" not least because of the lack of success stories to emulate.

"You know what I mean, in Singapore, who do you have to look up to, other than like, Chinese Mandopop singers — your JJ Lins and Stef Suns? As an English-speaking singer, it just felt impossible because no one has ever paved the way."

And so Lee threw herself into the grind of video production, another outlet for her to exercise her creativity.

For over four and a half years, she graced the camera as funny girl Sue-Ann and worked behind the scenes as a scriptwriter, producer, director, and video editor at SGAG.

Lee as her character Sue-Ann on SGAG. Credit: SGAG YouTube.

As anyone who works in the creative industry can attest to, the work is incredibly exhausting. Remember the opening lines from Rihanna's "Work"? Yeah, something like that.

Projects overrun into other projects, scenes have to be reshot, deadlines shift (and we haven't even started talking about sponsored content). Over time, the grind gets to you.

Lee recalls the time an intern recommended "some movie or whatever it is" and when she remarked that she would check it out when she had time, he shot back with a: "You mean when you retire?"

Circuit Breaker was a "trial period"

Against this backdrop, Lee is thankful for the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, the Circuit Breaker in 2020, for shaking her out of the grind and giving her a glimpse of an alternative flexible working life

It was a trial period of sorts, allowing her the space and time to channel her energies into various other personal passion projects and self care (like catching up on TV shows, a luxury she could not afford when working full-time).

And she loved it. So much so that she was convinced to leave the company and pursue her own journey as an independent content creator.

It was not an easy decision to arrive at and Lee articulates that acute dilemma in her song "Crossroads":

"Everybody has got the best plans

We build castles in the air

But then stop there

Is it worth the risk to take a step?

Or do I dream less?"

There are, of course, sacrifices and drawbacks to being a free agent.

Lee's content at SGAG used to chalk up hundreds of thousands of views and when she started flying solo, her views wouldn't even reach 10,000.

A lot of time was spent experimenting to find out what works with her followers — and that meant more opportunities to fail — but her efforts paid off. Today, it's not uncommon for her videos on TikTok to reach 200,000 views.

But there's something else that Lee treasures more: the autonomy to focus on work that she enjoys doing.

Of course Lee still takes on sponsored work. These pay the bills and fund her personal projects after all. However, she is highly selective when it comes to taking on clients.

"I've made a lifetime worth of sponsored content while I was there [at SGAG], just let me just create my passion projects."

For now, Lee's content — mostly comedy skits — seems to be resonating with viewers.

Her rendition of the Typical Asian Mum who diagnoses every ailment as being too heaty and judges all your non-med school friends is scarily on point and, for some, might bring back a touch of PTSD.

@annetteandafish she’s hot and she’s cold, she’s yes and she’s no…. and i’m just perpetually confused😳💔 #fyp #foryou #asianmother #logic #contradiction ♬ original sound - Annette Lee

More recently, her ode to cai png (economy rice) — produced in collaboration with fellow musician Benjamin Kheng — was a hit among viewers. The reason for that, I think, is that it happens to straddle that sweet spot between high quality music and video production, and comedic content that's just so relatable.

Coming up in January 2022, Lee has a new five-episode mockumentary titled "Asian Billionaires" which is centred on the Swees, a billionaire family in Singapore, and their comedic antics. It boasts many big names — Gurmit Singh, Amy Cheng, Kheng, Ng Ming Wei, and Fakkah Fuzz.

Credit: Annette Lee.

Aside from wanting to create something about the one per cent in Singapore with a very strong Singapore flavour (quite unlike Crazy Rich Asians and Singapore Social), Lee says she wants to highlight the issues that people in Singapore face, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.

"There's actually so much in common and I feel like I can use this work of art to bridge that gap in the class divide."

Guess there's much we can look forward to from Lee in time to come.

The first season of "Asian Billionaires" premieres on all of Lee's platforms in January 2022.

Top images via Annette Lee/Instagram