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JJ Lin Is Saying More With Less

By Patrick Chew

JJ Lin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt and jacket.
Charles Guo
JJ Lin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt and jacket.

In the early ’90s, a young JJ Lin would sit at home, listening to cassette tapes. “Compilations of number one hits of pop artists at the time,” Lin says. He remembers New Kids On The Block, Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson. “Especially Michael Jackson,” Lin continues. “Listening to ‘Bad’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Dangerous’ was how I got in touch with pop music.”

It was an “Eh?” moment, and that was it — Lin knew it was more than an inclination toward rhythm and melody; it was a means to express himself. “That’s when I started to write songs.” At the time, Lin’s brother was already playing in a rock band with his schoolmates, and, naturally, Lin became the band’s newest member. That was JJ Lin’s first steps into the world of writing and performing music — an act that would set in motion a series of events that has since catapulted him into the upper echelons of the Chinese pop industry with record deals, countless awards, and hordes of adoring fans. 

But Lin couldn’t have known it back then. A full-time career doing music? Not even in his wildest dreams. Instead, he had opted for a conventional educational route — he was enrolled in Saint Andrew’s Junior College as an arts student, and was preparing for the GCE A-Level examinations that would determine his entry into university.

“A friend signed me up for a singing course organised by independent music company Ocean Butterflies Music.” That was a turning point. Lin, who had previously thought it impossible to pursue music on a full-time basis, started to dream. 

Charles GuoLin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt, tuxedo suit and bow tie.
Lin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt, tuxedo suit and bow tie.

“It was a period of time where I was pretty lost about what to do after junior college,” Lin says. “I started to think, ‘This could be a really good opportunity to work with a record company professionally’.” In 2002, Lin signed on with Ocean Butterflies Music. “I still had to convince my parents though,” he says. The life they wanted for him did not entail dropping out of school to become a singer-songwriter. “It’s just one of those things people didn’t think about or thought anyone should do. My father felt that, at the very least, I should finish school. So after a long time, we came to an agreement: If I did not make it in a year or two, I’d give up and go back to school.” 

Now, sitting in a photo studio in Shanghai, some 17 years after that do-or-die deal he made with his father, Lin is a completely different person. In that span of time, Lin had moved to Taiwan, released 13 albums, received three Golden Melody Awards, starred in three films and two television shows, and become a judge on the Chinese music programme, “Sound of My Dream”. He is, what many consider, Singapore’s most successful male music export. 

“It’s all about being empathetic when it comes to being a songwriter. You have to really be self-aware of what’s inside you, and how to bring out that self.”

Currently on his Sanctuary World Tour — something that will keep him busy till 2020 — Lin knows that it was his relentless ambition and hard work that brought him to where he is today. “I did not know how to make sure I would succeed,” he says. “When I moved to Taiwan, I started almost handicapped because of my inability to communicate fluently. I just worked harder than anyone I knew.” 

That hard work certainly paid off. After producing six studio albums in the first six years of his career, Lin won every single award he was nominated for: seven Singapore Hit Awards, six Compass Awards, and one Golden Melody Award. 

Understanding the core of Lin’s artistic becoming brings up conversations revolving around his need to prove doubters wrong. “There was so much in me I wanted to prove,” he says. 

It’s evident in his lyrics for numerous songs such as 2006’s “Cao Cao”, which Lin wrote and sang about an ancient Chinese hero’s bravery, loneliness, and determination in conquering the land of Jing Zhou — “If you’re a hero, how could you not understand loneliness / Walking into the Battle of Changban alone in the moonlight / Cao Cao had no complaints. All he wanted was to conquer Jingzhou / With his plots, schemes, and the darkest conspiracies”. 

Lin, of course, has a nicer way of putting it. “It’s all about being empathetic when it comes to being a songwriter. You have to really be self-aware of what’s inside you, and how to bring out that self.” 

Charles GuoLin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt and trousers.
Lin in Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirt and trousers.

Early on, Lin experimented with different genres such as R&B, hip hop, rap, and soul. This somewhat profusion was what Lin — whose music served as a platform to show himself and his sound to the world — had wanted. “It was weird. I did acoustic recordings, electronic — experimented with different mic techniques,” he says. “It was all very technical.” 

Lin’s 10th year in music, however, saw a change in mindset and attitude. “It became less about choosing what kinds of sounds and more about the message and story I wanted to tell,” he says. With the world more than convinced of his musical prowess, the need to prove anything to anyone was gone, and Lin looked inward for inspiration.

It’s not just about sticking to what you’re good at; the idea of being an all- rounded artist, or rather individual, is what I strive towards.”

The question of why lends itself to an obvious conclusion — stories untold, which, incidentally, is the title of his 10th album. In his album’s promotional press conference in 2013, Lin revealed that he was dedicating a song — “Practice Love” — to a friend who died in the 1994 SilkAir MI185 crash.
Maybe it was the shock of seeing recovered photographs of him in the debris that his friend had always carried with her. Perhaps it was regret and shame that he never reciprocated feelings. He had locked away whatever emotions he felt back then and kept this painful secret for years. These are personal matters. And perhaps it is none of our business. But it proved to be a shift in Lin’s artistic and musical direction.

“With Practice Love, I remember infusing what I had been doing with more organic instruments and recordings.”

Just as Practice Love’s 11-minute sci-fi animated music video in which a computer programmer, grief-stricken over the death of his botanist girlfriend, develops a programme to convert memories into images, Lin’s new mantra was to make statements through emotion. This theme of reflecting his inner dialogue and state of mind has since echoed throughout all of his songs.

Charles GuoLin in Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, jacket, trousers and Ralph Lauren Purple Label boots.
Lin in Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, jacket, trousers and Ralph Lauren Purple Label boots.

“Nowadays, it’s about the emotion that I want to portray, or a colour that I want to people to see when they hear my song,” he says. “Not a very literal interpretation of arrangement and lyrics; it’s about saying more with less.” 

Showcasing his raw, vulnerable side gave Lin the confidence to extend beyond music and explore other aspects of himself. “Being a good artist means you have to just expose yourself to different kinds of genres of work,” he says. “It’s not just about sticking to what you’re good at; the idea of being an all-rounded artist, or rather individual, is what I strive toward.” 

“My experience acting in films and dramas brought out another side [of] me,” Lin says. “Working with a team of directors, and actors opened up all kinds of opportunities for me that I’d otherwise not have if I had remained in music.” 

“I did not know how to make sure I would succeed. I just worked harder than anyone I knew.”

To Lin, the art of making music and writing songs is a lonely process, one that keeps him alone with his thoughts for long periods of time. Given his pensive tendencies, Lin needed the volatile nature of showbiz to bring him out of his shell. “It’s a crucial part of the process of growing up.” 

For Lin to be talking about growing up is a firm reminder of his ambition and how far it has brought him, and, more importantly, how much further it’s going to take him. “Upcoming projects!” he sits up. “We always have upcoming projects.” 

Lin announced more developments in his e-sports team, Team SMG. “E-sports has been something that I’ve been putting my mind and heart and focus on,” he says. “It’s in sync with what I’ve been doing. I’ve been a gamer myself for many years. Dabbling into the e-sports sector is something that has been on my mind for some years.” 

Most recently, Lin has been asking himself how music can evolve in a tech-heavy and dependent society. “I’ve been thinking about bringing music-sharing to another level in terms of exploring possibilities through tech engagements,” he says. “I’ve been watching and observing, and I’ve formed a tech division, JFT Tech to tackle that.” 

It’s taken heartbreak and grief, a leap of faith to a new country, and a boatload of doubters for Lin to find, not just his true sound, but his true self. And it is, just as the namesake of a recent single, the right time. 

Photographs by Charles Guo
Creative direction by Jumius Wong
Styled by Tok Wei Lun 
Makeup by Kao Hsiu Wen
Model: JJ Lin
Photographer’s assistants: Hou Hou, Yu Chao
Stylist’s assistant: Sharon Phui