Joanna Dong felt freedom to pursue her passion in music after mum said 'don't worry about me'

Joanna Dong, 41, has been in the music industry for almost 17 years. The veteran shares why she has never regretted that choice, and how she’s learnt to adapt as the industry changes.

Mothership | August 20, 2022, 01:05 PM

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Perspective: Joanna Dong wears many hats – she is a vocalist, TV host, theatre actress, and performer.

The 41-year-old shares how exposure to the arts from a young age shaped her musical career — a path she has never regretted. She also credits her family, especially her mum, who always supported her journey in the arts.

Dressed in a casual outfit from her favourite secondhand store, Dong sits down with us at The Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise, at its abode along Gilstead Road, far-removed from the usual ensembles she’s seen in.

The Foundation is an arts charity founded in 2013, that aims to develop the local arts scene, and which has facilitated patrons’ contributions to Joanna’s work.

Having been in the music industry for almost 17 years, she also shares how she has had to adapt as the industry changes.

By Joanna Dong, as told to Lean Jinghui

How did you become an artiste?

My father was a big lover of classical music. So he always played Pavarotti and music from all those big opera stars.

At a very young age, I started to copy and mimic. My parents noticed that I had talent and a good ear, and my mum then sent me to classical voice lessons, and enrolled me in children's karaoke competitions.

Joanna started participating in children’s karaoke competitions when she was six.

However, I didn't know I was going to be a professional singer, until I joined NUS Jazz Band.

We played at bars and at wedding gigs, and that was when I realised I could maybe make a living out of this.

Joanna with the NUS Jazz Band in 2003.

What is challenging about being an artiste in Singapore? How has your background shaped your journey?

I think the most obvious would be the financial instability of it.

It’s rough to know I’m not making bank, as I see friends around me buying cars, condos, and starting to have children. But I know that the stressors experienced by those in other professions is also intense and different.

I think my mum did see it coming.

After JC, she said: “Go to NUS, get an honours degree in anything you want, and then you can do what you want to do.”

When I started performing, she came to every gig she could. I think that kind of familial support is very valuable.

For me, there were many things that lined up to have the kind of foundations I did, like managing to join the varsity jazz band, which allowed me a space where I could practice my craft.

It was also a privilege that my mum came from a background where she already appreciates the arts. So while music is not her thing, she recognised enough in me to invest in nurturing me.

I am very grateful with my choice to become an artiste, and I have never regretted it.

What do you think you gave up to become a singer?

After Sing! China, the biggest thing was my privacy.

It does feel like I’m constantly under scrutiny, and it is a form of stress, to me and my family.

Joanna was one of the finalists in Sing! China in 2017. She was handpicked by Jay Chou, who was a judge, and was also the second Singaporean to make her name in the competition after Nathan Hartono. Screenshot via Krozz Singapore's video.

Financial security – especially in the past few years – has also been tough.

I saved up after coming back from China, but most of my savings were eroded during the pandemic. I had to tide through with a handful of gigs, and that was very scary.

It is a real trade off, because it’s like – I’m turning 41, and I should have more savings, but I don’t.

Why do you then continue to choose being an artiste till today?

To me, performing has always been the path of least resistance.

The idea of showing up to a job with deadlines I cannot control – that requires a different type of gumption I’m not sure I have.

However, the fact is, my family didn't require me to bring home the bacon.

And at the end of the day, knowing that I have a security blanket, in the form of my mum, helped.

Joanna with her mum at a 2018 concert.

She told me: “You don't have to worry about me, as long as you don't ask me for money, you can do what you want.” That’s part of why I can make my choice.

The pandemic also really enforced my belief that it is my calling to perform, and that I want to continue doing this for as long as I can.

When I’m releasing my music as an artiste, the output feels beneficial directly to my soul. It speaks to who I am, so it is very fulfilling.

I also get to meet so many interesting people. In fact, I met my husband doing theatre.

What does "work-life balance" look like for a full-time artiste?

I think for the gig industry, where “no come, all no come, one come, three [or] four come” – it’s often either dry spells or intense periods with multiple engagements at the same time.

You want to take all the gigs you can, because you never know when it might all be taken away from you.

However, over the years, I’ve really learnt to be mindful of not overworking my body and voice.

I try not to overpack my schedule, by making sure I’m not doing gigs or theatre work months on end. I also make sure to schedule in rest periods.

I always warm up and warm down my voice after use.

Speaking of boundary setting, how do you draw clear ones with producers, patrons, or even netizens, when it comes to preserving your artistic voice?

When I was younger, the artistic control came at the point where you say yes or no to a job.

For example, if somebody hires you to sing at a wedding, and you don't want to sing “Fly Me To The Moon” for the millionth time, you either have to turn down the gig, or find some way to enjoy it.

It’s why early in my career, performances at the Esplanade were precious to me.

They usually gave us a lot of creative freedom, to do whatever we found fulfilment from as an artiste.

Joanna at the "So Here I Am" concert at the Esplanade, in 2018. Photo by Alvin Ho, courtesy of Esplanade.

Joanna continues to perform jazzy renditions at the Esplanade, close to her roots. Photo by Alvin Ho, courtesy of Esplanade.

While the gigs paid less, I willingly took these shows because they gave me a rare platform to perform my originals, like jazzy Hokkien covers.

Being a “jie jie” (“older sister” in Mandarin) in the industry now, I still do gigs serving the audience or client, but I also have the freedom to choose the songs I want, or sing them in a certain way.

I think of it as wearing different hats – sometimes I’m just an entertainer, other times, I try to involve my artistic POV.

Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to be an artiste in Singapore now, compared to before?

I think the challenge now is very different from my time; the Internet is a big game changer.

Previously, people either saw you live, or they never saw you, but now anybody can record content and reach a wider audience via platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Spotify.

The Internet is also a great levelling tool. Back in the day, there were some things I could only learn if I paid for expensive voice classes, but now this information is freely available online.

So, becoming an artiste is much more accessible today.

The problem is, now that everyone can become an artiste, you're against much, much, bigger competition everywhere.

With less gatekeeping, it's arguably harder for your audience to find you, or for you to find an audience in a sea of content.

What’s the best way we can support our local artistes in Singapore then?

Things like GoFundMe, that offer a more direct way to commit or donate to an artiste, are the best way to be a patron of the arts.

Streaming platforms are good only if many people contribute to streaming your work – for example, if you are Gentle Bones and have millions of streams.

For someone who's just starting out, or whose music is of a more niche genre, it can be difficult to get the numbers required to make a track on Spotify profitable.

You need to know how to market your track, and have the funds to play the social media game, and place ads.

So while the Internet has levelled the playing field, it has gotten to a point where the industry is so saturated, you now need to be privileged again in order to be seen and heard.

I guess privilege has evolved, in a sense.

Could you elaborate on that? Is being an artiste a privilege today?

I think being an artiste does require some privilege, and it is a privilege, as the profession involves a sense of creative freedom and autonomy.

However, it doesn't entitle me, as an artiste, to privilege. There’s no obligation for people to treat my work respectfully, even if I’ve “made it”.

Also, not all artists come from privileged backgrounds. For some, they have just become very used to working hard to get what they want, so financial difficulty becomes just another thing to overcome.

I think working hard is an absolute requirement to being an artiste and thriving as one. Because it’s not an easy job.

You mentioned the role of the patron in supporting local artistes. What does that look like in Singapore’s art scene?

I think being a patron is different from being a consumer.

When we think of art as a commodity, we are consumers, because we need to get something in exchange for the money we put in.

However, being a patron is: “I give you the money. You don't put out anything also never mind. I give you the money to invest in your future as an artist.”

There’s an implicit trust that at some point, the artiste will produce something of note, and then as a longtime patron, you can say that you have supported them from the start.

It’s a completely different mindset, very long term.

In Singapore, I think the role of the patron is to provide access to space, platforms, and resources, to help the artist subsist without having to spend time doing things that take them away from their art.

A lot of my musician friends do not make a living solely from making music, many hold other side hustles or jobs.

The reality is it takes literal time to practice or to think, and work on the art you’re trying to create.

So, it’s important we get support from patrons, because it’s essential we get the time to concentrate on the art we want to make.

For many Singapore artistes, rent is also generally a big issue.

We can’t jam in our own homes, so the question of where young musicians can go to practice becomes so important. Renting a jam studio to rehearse can be very expensive.

If you have the ability, and believe in developing the art and culture in Singapore, I encourage more people to get into the habit of becoming a patron. The infrastructure to support patronage is important, and comes from organisations like the Foundation too.

Joanna with local singer-songwriter Charlie Lim, at the headquarters of the Foundation for the Arts & Social Enterprise, holding up posters to commemorate “Utopia Reimagined”. They were commissioned to write songs by the organisation, based on the idea of “utopia”.

In 2022, Joanna also held her “You Must Believe In Spring” concert. The botanical installation by This Humid House was made possible by Joanna’s patron Joel Shen, who donated via the Foundation to defray the costs required. Via Jovian Lim

What are some misconceptions you have encountered as an artiste in Singapore?

I think for one, not all artistes are emo people, or have mental health issues.

We need not have suffered or gone through some trauma in order to create good art.

It’s a misconception that I think a lot of artistes themselves also believe. But suffering is endemic to being human, and I don’t think suffering is unique to artists alone.

It’s also good to channel the joyful bits into art, and just to experience life fully.

In addition, I think an artist can be many things.

Being an urban planner, or making memes, at their highest levels, could also be artistic endeavours. There is a level of abstraction involved, and one needs to understand complex social psyches before distilling that into the work.

To me, being an artist is to take something ordinary or familiar, and transform it in such a way that it resonates with the human soul.

All images via Joanna Dong unless stated otherwise.