“Country music ain’t nothin’ but three chords and the truth.” - Howard Harlan, songwriter

Prelude: “Springtime”

A single ray cascades from the rafters. The spotlight lands on Linying—yellow blouse, hair streaked in silver, billowing, grey, wide-legged pants—as she basks in the warmth of a captivated audience. The wail of an erhu drifts through the hushed silence. She begins to sing, tone soft and ethereal, as the bodies in the crowd sway, as in a trance: 

You just miss the springtime
Where the petals get pearly from your screen light
You got your phone out early to catch the bloom in her hair
While you’re losing your air to the shine

Yeah, you just need the springtime
Because the tides are turning now and you find
I get your insides churning
It’s not that I’m unfazed, yeah, I just know my place, oh

Not a single seat in the Esplanade Concert Hall is empty. Not bad for someone who was once told her music was too sleepy to fill it. She bops and she grooves and she plays the piano. She sings songs she’s written, both released and unreleased, and songs she’s loved. Like songs by ABBA and My Chemical Romance. Voices swell in unison to the music. “I’ve found my people,” she says. It is vindication. It is a moment of triumph. 

Chord 1: “Self-Control”

The most enduring impression I have of Linying is from a cover on YouTube, shot during her 2019 US tour. Starting on a dark stage, the video cut to her performing in different venues: bars, small clubs, a café. The song of choice was Frank Ocean’s aching ballad “Self Control”, which had gripped me the first time I heard it: stunning in its anguished rendering of male vulnerability at a time when hip hop was dominated by a masculine bravado. And here was a Singaporean singer, refashioning its longing and its desire to suit the contours of her voice—airy melisma, tasteful precision. 

It may well have been a Vice article covering 2019’s South by Southwest that brought the cover to my attention. Strangely titled “The 10 Most Bizarre Things We Saw at SXSW”, Dan Gentile gushed about it as “the best version I’ve heard” of the song. “She even did the auto-tune vocal solo, fluttering between registers without any effects and earning literal gasps from the crowd.” 

Perhaps, I felt a kind of pride that a local singer had been given such a measure of adoration. This was maybe indicative of the kind of psyche that many Singaporeans shared: the notion that local artists, especially musicians from the indie and alternative scenes, hardly received the broader recognition that they deserved. Linying represented the first of many younger musicians who would build a more international following, drawn by the intimacy of her performances, the tenderness of her vocals, and the lyricism of her writing. 

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