Dru Chen dropped his much anticipated debut album Mirror Work on the 8th of March 2019 worldwide. Spanning five years and three continents in the making, the music on the album has been coined as indie-funk, with the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist digging deep into the process of writing and recording with various mediums, inspirations and experiences informing the final product. The album, released by Warner Music Singapore is surely not one produced in haste with the objectivity of instant hits, but is more of an exploration of themes of personal reflection and renewal. Revision Music’s Nez Senja chats with the man behind the music.
Hi Dru. Thanks for taking a time out to answer this questions and providing the Spotify playlist, let’s have some fun!
Awesome! Thanks for having me, Nez.
First off, your debut album just came out on Warner Music on the 8th of March, how does it feel, being a musician and artiste, that your first full length body of work makes its way to many ears, hearts and minds on this planet?
It feels like a relief and release. I’ve poured five years of hard work and 10 years of writing – one of the tunes dates back to 2009. That’s a lot of growing for a 29-year-old. I was a 19 when Feelin’ Blue was first sketched out. I’m glad I didn’t give up, and I’m glad the album didn’t get lost in the ether of time.
The album came out on Warner Music Singapore via my management The Black East which gives Mirror Work the legs it deserves. I think it will reach the right ears. It’s a soundtrack for lovers, introverts, chill dinner parties, music geeks, and retro fetishists. I’m hoping it will be received that way. That would make me very happy.
Let’s talk about the creation of this album. It is said that it has taken five years to be made and spread over three continents. Tell us, why did it take that amount of time and the reason behind the album’s creation taking place across three continents? Basically, what did you have to go through in the past five years?
Let’s see. I started recording the album in earnest back in 2014. I had Distant Memory which was written from my break-up earlier that year. Most of that drunken-3am-demo-recording actually ended up on the final album. That was when I was still living in Melbourne, but I was considering a move to Singapore. I wrote Vacation Song in my $70/week closet-of-a-bedroom thinking of my weekend escapades in country Victoria.
I made several trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and New York that year to research the roots of the music I was really into. Funk and Soul of an African-American origin. KCRW Radio were very supportive of my 2013 single Turnaround and I went to them to seek advice and inspiration as well. I met up with Chris Dowd, the founding member of Fishbone, and the multi-talented DJ/musician Novena Carmel whose famous father Sly Stone we all adore, Amp Fiddler too. They all played on Distant Memory.
Still Good happened then as well, thinking about a woman I was seeing, and thinking about what it takes to commit to a long term thing. I was 24. I ran out of money and moved in with my parents in Singapore for a while. I tried my hand at writing for a few, mostly sleepless months. I didn’t manage to complete tunes fully, but I did write Slumber, on just about the only topic I felt compelled to sing about.
I met my fiancé in 2015 and within a week, I wrote Good Thing. I lost my voice later that year, which shocked me. It just cut out in the middle of rehearsal one day. I didn’t talk very much for three months. Finally, I sought help and learnt how to sing properly from a guy named David Sowden. The first thing I recorded when I got my voice back was Still Good. That was when I discovered The Analogue Factory – a recording studio in Woodlands. My engineer, Justin Seah and I locked ourselves in there, utilizing old Motown and Beatles recording techniques, utilizing their old Neve console and cutting everything live on the floor. Teo Jia Rong (Drums) and Ben Poh (Bass) blessed the groove on the majority of the tracks.
By 2017, the album was mostly locked and loaded. My Melbourne childhood friend Paul McMurray wrote a song on top of an old song I had abandoned called Precious Cargo. He turned it into The Space Between Us which has turned out to be an early favourite among my audience. We recorded that using the grand piano and SSL console at The Greenroom suite in Boat Quay, Singapore. My partner summed up the self-reflective and introspective album with the phrase ‘doing Mirror Work’. Working on revealing one’s inner-self, and accepting it for better and for worse. Any great title needs a strong title track, and so I wrote..
Ever look in the mirror, babe
Wonderin’ who she’s turned into
All the smoke-screens that fill your mind
Can’t do nothin’ to harm you
We mixed and mastered Mirror Work on Analogue Tape via Nashville-based studio Welcome To 1979’s Chris Mara and Cameron Henry, and my managers suggested we shop the album to several labels. I played Slumber for Simon Nasser, the head of Warner Music Singapore, and he offered me a management deal. It was incredible, and I owe a lot to him. It took the better part of 2018 planning the album release and the Music Videos for the first two singles Distant Memory and When I Look Into Your Eyes. That brings us to today!
That is a journey! This album has been coined as an indie-funk fusion. Quickfire, what characteristics in the Indie Rock/Pop music gets you going and go ‘Wow!’? Ten words or less!
I like any form of music that has a link to tradition or music history. Like a nod to the past. I hear it in Arcade Fire, and I hear it in Bon Iver. Equally, in a ‘soul’ context, I hear it in Janelle Monae’s early stuff, and the music of Lewis Taylor. Anything I don’t deem overtly mainstream, I tend to put an ‘indie’ banner on, especially if it speaks more from a place of art and passion as oppose to strictly finance and commercialism.
Not ten words, but I guess I was wrong to classify music into ‘Indie’. What characteristics in in Funk music gets you going and go ‘wow!’? Ten words or less!
Stank. Pain. Serotonin. Kick and Snare. Bottom. Gang Vocals. Life Story.
Was not expecting those a combination ten words at all!Correct me if I am wrong, you once played guitar for a 12-piece casino band in Brisbane Australia which led to you leading the band as a musical director. Did this gig somehow make you explore as many strains and styles of music as a musician? Is it true you were 17 when this opportunity chanced upon you? Or was it even before that, that you were already playing and learning to play many different styles of music?
I started first and foremost as a classical pianist and violinist. Piano from the age of 4 to 14, violin from the age of 7 to 17. Mirror Work still contains excerpts of my piano playing (The Space Between Us) and violin work (Vacation Song, Still Good, Good Thing) which I use mostly as an arranging tool to get some classic flavour. Hard Rock and Heavy Metal was my thing between the ages of 12 and 16. I still occasionally put on Megadeth or Metallica when I workout. I’m self-taught on the guitar, which is my main instrument today. My uncle shared with me his record collection when I was 14, and I suppose that was my turning point towards checking out Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Blue by Joni Mitchell and Grace by Jeff Buckley. I guess I’ve always been a musical sponge, and it’s always felt so good trying to figure out a musical fascination. It’s like learning to turn a new trick.
Let’s dive into your some of the bits in the playlist. Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, this one is kind of an anthem among my friends and I throughout 2018. Timeless isn’t it, a tune like this. I feel very uninhibited and empowered every time I hear it come on. Do you get that feeling too with this? I get the same feeling with another tune in the playlist, Spanish Joint by D’Angelo. I get goose bumps when I hear the horn section and I just want to get up and dance!
Oh yeah. Parliament-Funkadelic gives me that feeling as well sometimes. George Clinton is a genius with his trance-like, tribal funk grooves. Have you seen this?! We want to do something like this at our launch show on April 12th!
My favourite cuts on your album have to be Vacation Song and Feelin’ Blue, maybe due to my inclination or biassed towards African American music throughout the eras from the seventies straight through to today. Do you feel like music has come full circle? I mean, The Beatles were inspired by blues then they created rock and roll in the sixties and then there was all the other sub genres of rock, while at the same time in the late eighties and early nineties, New York music producers on samplers started sampling funk again and of course electronic dance music samples it widely too, and then now you have Country style singing on ‘Trap’ beats (in a way is a current form of hip hop). Is this it you think? Nothing really new can be birthed? Just mergers of styles upon styles?
Thanks for diggin’ Vacation Song and Feelin’ Blue. I appreciate it, man! Vacay.. is my little nod to a Spanish vibe, with a Hip Hop influence. Remember those jams Pharrell used to do with Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake back in the early 2000’s?! Feelin’ Blue is a straight up interlude in between Side A and Side B. A Pet Sounds kind of thing. I love Brian Wilson so much.
Country singing on top of Trap beats?! You’ll have to hip me to some records, Nez. Yeah, everything under the sun is a remix, and why the heck not?! As long as you speak from your soul as an artist, it’s all good. If you want to do a revival thing, go ahead and do it from your heart. As long as it’s true to you, people will respond. I want do something new, next, for sure. I can’t be stuck in one genre for too long.
I don’t know any titles for ‘Country Trap’, but I have definitely heard one example of that ‘potent’ combination on a random radio in a taxi or something, and you go ‘is this for real?!’, hahaha!
On a serious note, you have an album launch show at Aliwal Arts Centre on April 12, what can we expect from this show? What is your backing band like for this show, any prominent session musicians in there?
Oh, boy! Where do I even begin? The show was just announced on March 13th on The Straits Times. It’s billed as Spaces Between Us, which is a lyric from one of my album tracks. Without spoiling too much, I want to break down the walls that separate us in a digital age; to create some old-school magic in these trying times. It’s a top-down dive through all of my musical personas, from gritty hard-funk testifying, to the ‘loverman’ or ‘soulman’ thing. Aynsley Green is my musical director, and we’ve got Cuban maestro Pablo Calzado on drums, Ben Poh on bass, Andy Chong on lead guitar, as well as special guests Tim De Cotta, Lisa Haryono and Nicholas Lee. We’re playing the album in a new arrangement, in it’s entirety, and it will be filmed and recorded for a forthcoming live album. This is a bucket-list moment for me. Come be a part of it!
One last one to wrap it up. What are your future plans as Dru Chen? Any collaborations, interesting projects or singles? Maybe delving into a style or genre of music you have not done before?
Let’s wait and you will find out. Definitely, a live album is on the cards, as well as a ‘future’-type thing. That is all I can say, for now!
Thanks for your time Dru! It has been a pleasure. I love talking about music all day, and I am glad this happened.
Thanks, Nez. This has been fun. Let’s spin some records next time. Peace!
Check out Dru Chen’s Spotify playlist for Revision Music below:
You can purchase Dru Chen’s Mirror Work digitally on Itunes now.