Singer-Songwriter Tanya Chua on How Quarantine Inspired Her New Album
Just one guitar. That’s all it takes to fly us away from wherever we’re stuck in the world into Mother Nature’s wide open spaces, where we can soar with the birds, sing with the hills, and be wherever we want to be, whether it’s Paris, Tokyo or Singapore. That’s what Tanya Chua is hoping for with Depart, her 12th Mandarin album which is set to be released this month.
Every album is special, but by the sound of it, Depart will be the Singaporean singer-songwriter’s most extraordinary one yet. The 46-year-old tells us over a Zoom interview from her Taipei home in June that this album, which she finished recording in March, had a life, purpose and spiritual journey of its own, and was no longer about “Tanya Chua trapped in her own small little world”.
“There’s something about this album that is so different from my previous ones,” the award-winning songstress, who has been in showbiz for over 20 years, says. “It was born during quarantine, when I was stuck at home. It was just me and my guitar. I felt so empty. It’s like for us songwriters, we need to go through some tumultuous life, you know, to be creative. Then I started watching nature documentaries and listening to classical music. And at some point, it hit me so profoundly that maybe this whole pandemic is a message from Mother Earth.”
And when the inspiration came, it was explosive. Chua sat in her room with her guitar and wrote over 30 songs. They were about departing from her currently curtailed universe and going out into the wild, about the yearning to be free, and being at one with nature. When she unleashes these songs, everyone will get a passport to depart on this fantastic trip with her. “I want this music for myself and my fans because we’re all stuck,” Chua tells us. “But if we close our eyes and use our imaginations, we can go wherever we want. I can go back to Paris to stroll along the Seine River. I can fly with the birds. And music can teleport me back in time as well—there’s a song inspired by my childhood on the album too.”
Of course, the perils of making a pandemic album are real. Even though Taiwan was largely spared the brunt of the virus, especially in the beginning, Chua says fear of transmission meant no one wanted to risk unnecessary contact. What’s a genius singer-songwriter with 30 songs ready to rock and roll to do? Arrange all the songs, play almost all the instruments and produce and record it all by herself in her home studio, that’s what.
While she had always delegated song arrangements and the playing of instruments to the professionals, Chua was spurred on—serendipitously it seems, on hindsight—by circumstances to pick up her guitar and record all the songs on her upcoming album herself. “I never played on my own albums,” she says. “But with this one, I did everything. I played all the guitars. I was a one-woman band. You can say I’ve come full circle from when I just started out as a rookie singer-songwriter, with just my acoustic guitar. This album has really gone through an amazing journey.”
The album was born during quarantine, when I was stuck at home. It was just me and my guitar. I felt so empty. It’s like for us songwriters, we need to go through some tumultuous life, you know, to be creative.— Tanya Chua
As for whether her own journey will see one of our prodigal daughters return to Singapore, where her family still lives, Chua says, “I’ve been away for so long that my family has gotten used to it. They know I’m just permanently here already, for the last 15 years or so.” But interestingly enough, the pandemic has brought her closer to her family. “Knowing that we can’t travel so easily, we started to communicate more frequently. So I’d listen to my mum telling me a story over and over again and just enjoy that connection.”
Not that there aren’t things she misses about her homeland, besides her family. Unsurprisingly, the foodie says she heads for hawker food when she’s back in Singapore and counts seafood hor fun and chilli crab among her favourites. Oh, and Milo Dinosaur.
But while she waits for travel—and that sweet local beverage—to be within reach again, Chua is busy connecting to nature, even if she has to do it in the confines of her Taipei apartment. Like many others during the pandemic, she has blossomed into a proud plant parent. “I used to kill plants, but now I am a plant life-giver, and it’s brought me so much happiness and self-appreciation.” The three-time winner of Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Melody Awards for Best Mandarin Female Singer has also become more intuitive to things, like her two cats, for example. Because, as she explains, “You’re just stuck with yourself. Your eyes and ears just open.”
I never played on my own albums. But with this one, I did everything. I played all the guitars. I was a one-woman band.— Tanya Chua
If Mandopop aficionados get to reap the musical rewards from this new, improved and more worldly Chua, or as she says, “Version 2.0 or maybe version 4.0 because I’m in my forties”, they’ll grab at it with both hands, and all ears. After all, this is the artiste for whom 8,500 fans turned up at the Taipei Arena earlier this year, in the middle of a pandemic, to sway and sing along to her love songs. Also in attendance was fellow Taiwan-based Singaporean singer-songwriter JJ Lin, who surprised her with a birthday cake on stage.
“It definitely took some balls for us to go ahead with this,” laughs Chua, who assures that stringent measures were taken at the concert, which was sold out and had been postponed multiple times. “There was a lot of pressure, but on that night, everyone felt this enormous energy—there was something magical there. To this day, everyone still talks about that concert.”
If the rest of this year is about healing, resetting, and getting things back on track, Chua’s latest album could not have dropped at a more opportune time. “There is a sense of us being all in this together. The world is going through something and we have to heal together.”
Which is why Depart is largely devoid of her usual love ballads. She says, “I thought, I can’t just write another love song, because right now, the world doesn’t need love songs. I probably have just one song of the kind people are used to me singing, and it’s not even a very sad song, but it’s a love song. Other than that, everything is about loving yourself and going out there to understand what is going on in the world.”
- Art DirectionMatilda Au
- PhotographyKuo Huan Kao
- StylingSaem Xu
- HairSydni Liu at Zoom Hairstyling
- Make-UpVenny Chen
- Photographer's AssistantOliver Chen and Zeke Lin