Photos Stefan Khoo | Styling Chia Wei Choong | Assisted by Asri Jasman | Hair Vin Phua / Air Salon | Grooming Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
He is 30 minutes late. As I squish the last ant that snuck up my ankle, I start to see a lean figure run towards me. In his white Beatles T-shirt and cuffed black pants, he waves. Having stood in this afternoon heat and waited on an empty stomach, I’m a bit pissed. But what the hell, we all have a job to do. And hey, there’s famous Nathan Hartono here on his busy schedule to meet unfamous me.
“I’m so sorry. I ran into a combination of roadworks and an accident on Farrer Road,” he apologises. I say it’s ok and before this interview can begin, there’s the old security guard stopping us in our tracks.
“We’re old students,” I say.
“Uh huh. Here for what purpose?”
“We are here to, uh, visit our music teacher,” I lie, real badly.
“Call her. It’s the March holidays and I can’t just let anyone in.”
“We are here for the choir practice,” says Nathan to the rescue, pointing to a building on the left. “They are practicing there.”
“You’re sure? Don’t get me in trouble,” the old guard relents and proceeds to sign us in.
Back To School
We are here at Anglo-Chinese Junior College and I haven’t been back in 10 years. I wouldn’t have still, if not for Nathan Hartono who studied here right after I graduated. It was 2008, I believe. We climb five stories up a wing and arrive at a breezy corner overlooking the track and field. “You know I barely made it in?” he shares. “I never used to know the concept of studying until junior college. It kind of woke me up. So this is where most of my time was spent. If you were lucky, you could get a spot before anyone else after school. It’s quiet, outdoors and free from distraction.”
He was also president of the prize-winning school choir, where the teachers were known for their bad temper and high expectations. The only thing he wasn’t good at was sports. “I have no hand-eye coordination,” he admits. “I used to play basketball, which I sucked at. I played rugby too, which I did ok because you don’t necessarily need the ball to do well. Just whack others and you’re fine. But sometimes when I did catch the ball, I’d freak out.”
Studious, good looking and semi-celebrity at 17, he tells me he was very aware of the friends that were real and those that were’t. He never dated until college, at least. He hated the unnecessary drama and sometimes, it scared him. He was intimidated by the prospect: do people want to know him for himself or for the public figure that he is? Just then, we get mobbed by a few students pleading for a photo. I let him have his moment.
Already A Winner
I was hoping he could make pasta today (his mother can vouch for that) but instead we lunch at a restaurant three minutes away from the school. It is a nice Italian bar and bistro kitted out for bored expat wives who like to eat their spaghetti in reclusion. I offer him a beer but he turns it down, saying how terrible a drinker he is, that he has the alcohol tolerance of an eight-year-old.
“If I order the beer, this interview will end very abruptly,” he reckons, not entirely convincingly. Scanning the menu, he concludes that the mushroom tagliolini sounds heavy. “You might be miserable after that.”
I order the risotto instead.
In a short span of time, Nathan has gone from humdrum normality to semi-celebrity to someone everyone wants to have a piece of. He was 14 when he saw the last of a “normal childhood”, shooting TV shows and earning $2,000 a performance. It all began when he won that year’s Teenage Icon singing contest, which led him to releasing his debut Let Me Sing! Life, Love and All That Jazz. In 2011, he sang in Pangdemonium’s rock musical, Spring Awakening, released his first acoustic pop-folk EP in 2012 and is currently the appointed ambassador for a committee to promote the Chinese language. Soon, he will be doing a movie in August that’s about romance and car racing, something like that.
However, it wasn’t until last year when he competed on Sing! China that his popularity soared into mainstream, earning himself the kind of attention he had never known before. He was the first Singaporean to sing all the way to the finals to face Jiang Dunhao, a 21-year-old from Xinjiang, China, but he didn’t win. Out of the 81 judges, 45 votes were cast for him, and 47 for Jiang.
It was obvious the contest was rigged.
“Did you think you were going to win?”
“I didn’t give a sh*t. Maybe because I kind of knew I wasn’t going to. They have never let a foreigner win and they barely let a foreigner get that far. So when I got to the top two, I was done. I would be lying if for a split second I didn’t think maybe… but I knew it was going to be my last song, and it was going to be good.”
His spirit does not flinch from the disappointment and the scheming by the producers. He only wishes they had left the musical decisions to him. “They rejected most of what I suggested and none of the songs I performed represented me. But because I have a background in theatre, it felt like an opportunity to portray different people. On hindsight, I should have been a musician, and if anything, this was the one thing I regretted. I did, however, have a little victory of my own. In the semi-finals when the writers couldn’t control the score, I was judged by a panel of 40 industry professionals. On that day, I got first place overall. To me, that was all that I needed. It made me feel secure, like I had an actual future in the Chinese market.”
In fact, after the semi-finals, Jay Chou, who mentored him through the competition, whispered in his ear, “You already won. Just go to the finals and have fun.”
Winning the Genetic Lottery
He did, to be fair, have an auspicious start. A middle child and raised in a wealthy estate by Chinese Indonesian parents – his father is the managing director of PT Anadini Vimala, a developing company for resorts and villas, while his mother is the senior vice president of TungLok Group, the well-known restaurant business founded by his grandfather. He wasn’t raised to be separate from reality, but neither was he discouraged from pursuing passion. Nathan wanted to sing and study music, and his parents supported him to pursue a degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston, which has produced Grammy Award-winning musicians like John Mayer and Diana Krall.
“Berklee made me realise how incredibly small I was,” he admits. “Everyone there is amazing. They can probably sing circles around you and they can write a song that can change the world. But who are you?” He knew he could either go big or go home. He’s gone big. Rather big.
Unfortunately, he is sometimes written off as the industry’s silver-spoon son. So to him, the goal is to be so good that no one can deny you. “It’s a jealous world that we live in,” he shrugs. “It’s a world of have-its and have-nots, and I’m not crazy about that attitude, because I grew up knowing that when you see someone doing better than you, that’s something to aspire to.”
The attitude has paid off and everything has seemed to fall into place. Currently on sabbatical from school, he knows he can’t milk the Sing! China experience forever. With the help of several investors, he’s set up a small recording label company in Beijing. China is exploding and it made sense. He wants to be his own boss and to provide the resources to local artists who want it badly.
The Other Side
It’s hard to read Nathan. Half the time I’m comfortable with him and the other half, I question the perfectly manicured answers he’s been doling out to me. Is it honesty or is it just good PR? As he swallows the last bit of his lunch, I ask about the need to develop a persona for the public. “I like to think that in front of media or the camera, it’s more or less me. If not, 100 per cent me,” he says firmly.
“I don’t feel like I’m putting on a character. During interviews, I always try to be as genuine as possible. I answer any question and I never ask for the questions beforehand because it’s not as honest. You don’t get that immediate kind of response. I appreciate vulnerability, but of course there’s a place in the world for the Brad Pitts and the Jay Chous who live in this shroud of mystery. Secretly, I might want that, but that’s really out of curiosity.”
Maybe he’s right, but I much prefer the unfiltered version of him on Good Hang, a comedy podcast started with his friend, Jon Cancio, as a passion project.
“We are the number one comedy podcast in Singapore… by default,” he laughs. “We are the only active one. We talk about current events, pop culture, everything. Listen to the one with Tan Kheng Hua. That, I’m most proud of. It was a really good conversation with her with less pig jokes.”
Then I ask him. “Speaking of jokes, there are rumours about you and Benjamin Kheng. And in 2011, there was a tweet that said ‘It’s true, I’m gay. But y’all already knew that.’”
“That tweet was a joke. I was in the army and the moment your phone is left alone, it’s open season for anyone. But as for the rumour, I don’t know where it started. I just think it’s funny. With these questions, I always find it a lot more fun to not give people a straight answer. It’s so frustrating for them. At the end of a conversation, they are like, is he? Is he not? I’m never outright about yes or no, but if you’re an intelligent enough person, you can more or less infer.”
At the end of the interview, as we leave the restaurant to walk back to our separate lives, I couldn’t help but wonder. Is he or is he not? That’s the one question he didn’t exactly answer and I’m just glad it’s not killing me.