Interview: Khalil Fong

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With his own studio and a new label, Hong Kong’s Mandopop star Khalil Fong is ready to begin a new era – and, as he tells Mark Tjhung, he’s got global domination on his mind

When Khalil Fong first hit the scene as a bright-eyed and baby-faced 22-year-old, armed with smooth, soulful Mandopop sounds influenced by a swathe of American throwback legends including Stevie Wonder, BB King and Michael Jackson, the nickname ‘Soul Boy’ seemed instantly appropriate. It was, after all, the title of his 2005 debut album and a moniker that seemed to sum up what the Hawaii-born, Shanghai/Guangzhou/Hong Kong-reared Fong was all about. 

Almost a decade on, however, and the tag – which has now become Fong’s alter ego – doesn’t seem so apposite. At the relatively youthful age of 30, he may retain his boyish looks, charms and demeanour, but today, his former nickname doesn’t quite do justice to the rockier, bluesier and funkier sounds Fong has explored over his five studio albums, or his maturing into one of Hong Kong’s (and Mandopop’s) most popular artists. 

Indeed, now, it feels the multi-award-winning singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist is venturing even further from those Soul Boy roots, embarking on a new era. He launched his own studio (Light Room Studio) and production company (PRC, which stands for People Recording in China) last year, and signed with Gold Typhoon in August this year, parting company with his first label, Warner Music. Now Fong is working on a new album, due out in March or April next year, which he hopes will launch him to a new level.

Before then, Fong launches a new single, Lights Up, an English-language track written for his upcoming concerts in late November and early December. It’s perhaps the most funked-up, direct and beat-driven we’ve ever heard Fong. After he plays us a special sneak peek of the single, Time Out’s candid chat with Khalil begins… 

So, we’ve just had a listen to your new track. It’s a lot more upbeat than I was expecting. Why did you go down that route?
I had this idea for a song and I wanted to write it for the show. But I didn’t want to write it for usual-me [pretends to play the piano], because when I’m writing for myself at the keyboard, I feel a little restricted sometimes. I wanted to jam it out, so that it’s more lively, because you write differently when you’re in that scenario. The inspirations when I started writing was some MJ [Michael Jackson], some Earth, Wind & Fire, some early soul and funk.

You haven’t done an English track in a while. Why did you decide to do it in Lights Up?
It’s just a track. The hook that I thought of was ‘lights up’ – y’know, ‘lights up, camera, action’, that whole deal – so I just felt, because it’s for the concert, not for the album, let’s just do it in English, because it’s more natural; it sounds more natural. 

There’s also definitely a different tweak in the sound – for lack of a better word, more ‘international’.
Yeah, for the new album, I just want to spend more time on it. I decided with my own production partner that we were just going to focus on the production side. I don’t want to mix in Hong Kong – not that the mixing is bad in Hong Kong, but the style of mixing is not suitable. And for us, we’re still finding our way to what we like, as far as mixing and the people we like to listen to. So, now, we’re sending tracks overseas, and this album is starting to sound really good. We’re able to try and perfect our tracks, get it sounding as good as we can before the mixing stage, and then they’ll just bring it to the next level. In the past, I would feel that we had to… we were arranging but we had to start mixing it soon, so we wouldn’t have the full potential of production time. So now we’re getting rid of that problem.  

How far along with the album are you?
I can’t tell you too much, because the album’s not going to be out for a while yet. [But we’re] quite far along, about 70 percent. I’d say in this album I’m experimenting a bit. I feel like I’ve also brought my inspirations or my influences to a point where it feels like it’s gelling together in a nice way. In past albums, sometimes it would feel more obvious [that I’m referencing something else], but I think in this album, I’ve placed it together in a way that it’s really interesting fusion. It’s more hip-hop infused and the beats are a bit heavier. It’s old school but there’s that heavy beat. I’d say the album is generally a bit harder-hitting.

You’ve never really gone down that line before. 
Yeah. I’ve always hinted that I liked hip-hop, but then never [been able to do it]. 

So why now?
Because it’s about time. It’s like, let’s just do it! [Laughs] And for me, I think I’ve had too many chillout albums. I think after a while, when you’re doing live shows, every track is kind of grooving. [Laughs] I don’t have something that’s kind of upbeat [clicks fingers and pretends to dance] and as a performer, it’s
like, ‘Ah, I wish I had something a bit more aggressive’.

It’s interesting that you’re still talking about the influences you’ve always had – Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire and the like – but it does sound different. Do you feel like it’s a bit more Khalil now?
I just feel like, in the past, on some occasions, [I would hear a sound and] I would think, ‘that’s a cool sound, I want to do that sound’. For this album, I found that I was writing really organically. So, the influences were there but not with the intention of, ‘I like that sound, let’s go for that’. It was more spontaneous. 

Would you say this is the most genuine expression of Khalil Fong’s music so far?
I would say I feel the most creative. I look forward to people hearing it because I wonder what the reaction will be. I think some people will be like… [shakes his head, suggesting that they don’t like it].

Given that Lights Up is in English, will there be some English tracks on the album, too?
A couple. Perhaps two or three. 

With your new management company and working with Gold Typhoon, would you say this a new era for you?
Yeah. I think there’s definitely always going to have to be a change. With the old company, we have a really good relationship, but I think after a while, it’s time to have a fresh environment. So I think with the new record label we’re working with, they’re very interested in doing lots of creative stuff and they want to back it up. And I feel like I can come up with a lot of ideas and I think I’ll be supported. To some extent, it is a budget issue and I think they’re up for it.  

What do you think is going to be the biggest change?
I think it’s the production, it’s the visual side. I have a lot of ideas for MVs that, hopefully, will be backed up. I think that music videos are [very important]. If you’ve got very simple, folky music, chilled MVs are totally cool. But sometimes there are MVs that are not even entertaining, but just a nice piece. Hopefully we can do stuff like that. Like, with K-pop, not all of it might be my taste, but I really do admire some of the stuff coming out of there, just with production values and quality. There are definitely limitations currently, so I want to try and push that envelope.

And that K-pop kind of level is what you want to aspire to?
Yeah. How do I say it without sounding cocky? I want to do something that is really, like you say, international. That anyone, whether they like the music or not, would identify it as something that sounded international. Because that’s what I grew up listening to. Even with my old albums, it wouldn’t quite hit the mark for me. Some stuff, I would be like, ‘I did an okay job’. But some stuff was like, ‘nah, not good enough yet’. So hopefully we can reach that point.

You mentioned wanting to spend time on your album. When you first came out, you were very prolific but recently you’ve slowed down a little bit. Does this arrangement allow you a bit more space to, say, produce an album every two or three years?
The ideal situation would be to release an album every two to three years. How realistic that is depends on the lifespan of that album. That’s why I think, the better the album is, the longer you can just let it ride and do its thing, you can tour or whatever. Justin [Timberlake] waited seven years before releasing his album [laughs] and it was really good, but it took that long. We’re not going to go that far. But we want to be able to get our production up to a level where it feels already like it could be released soon, and then after that, get the mixing and mastering. So it’s spending enough time on perfecting the arrangement and making it the best. 

You were with Warner Music for eight years – since the start of your career, essentially. When you decided to move on, did that give you a chance to reflect on where you’ve come from and where you want to go?
Yeah, I guess so. I think that [that period] was a lot of learning, getting the hang of things and understanding how things worked. After the eight years, I think I came to know what I wanted to focus on, and I think it means I want to focus on more production. 

How much do you feel you’ve moved on and evolved since the start of your career?
I don’t know. I’ve never actually thought about that. 

Well, put it this way, did doing Back to Wonderland last year help you compare and contrast how you would have done things differently on Wonderland, which was released five years before?
Probably not, actually. Back to Wonderland was sort of going over that nice, groovy vibe. I would say there are some certain related elements between the two albums, but I don’t really compare them in that sense. This new album will be more flowing and maybe more, in certain aspects, cohesive. I think Back to Wonderland was in a way sort of snippets of my previous career and albums.

Would you say that if Back to Wonderland and 15 were both throwback albums, this new album reflects you, currently, a bit more? 
Yeah, this one would be that. I think the sound is definitely fresh for me. It’s not stuff that’s foreign to me – it might be foreign to some people who listen to my music – but I think it’s also more personal, because some of the topics are not heavier but more current, emotions that I feel when I see what’s going on sometimes.

Can you give us an example of some of those topics?
[Reluctant grin] Ah, I don’t think I can give away too much. I would say that sometimes there’s more of
a commentary. 

So is this like, Khalil Fong, political commentator?
No, not political. But, for me, it’s more that I like music that’s out nowadays. But there’s that repetitive theme in all music these days. It’s like, ‘is that all we’re going to talk about?’ Even though I like it – the music, the hooks, it’s all cool and you can really get into it – I think it only reflects a really small part of the world. So I wanted to do stuff that was cool, fun and felt good but was able to address things that I thought were important.

Do you think that’s a reflection of your maturing and getting older, as well?
I’ve always believed in doing that but I think, with this album and the musical ideas I came up with, they supported going into that area. I think some musical ideas before may have been more chilled, so it’s a different way of expressing. So, for this one, there’s more of a landscape to make the ideas mature. 

Often, when you talk about the artists you’ve been influenced by, you often talk about the old school favourites. But what about contemporary artists – is there anyone at the moment you’re listening to who’s influencing you?
Hmm… I like all the guys now who were inspired by all the guys I liked to listen to. I’ve always liked Pharrell, I like Mayer Hawthorne, Robin Thicke, Justin [Timberlake]. I like how they’re all kind of bringing that element of real music, live music, back. Of course they’ve all still got that hip-hop beat and some electronic stuff, but it’s blending them together, so it’s not solely programmed, electronic stuff. I think that’s really cool. 

It’s still very American-centric, though, isn’t it? Is there anyone in Asia that you’re impressed by? I guess there’s a bit of a neo-soul thing happening in Korea…
For me, in K-pop, I like songs, but not from any particular artists, because to a certain extent, it’s very produced, very made-to-go. For me, I’m not totally a fan of that. So someone might do something, and I’ll be like, that’s cool and I’ll buy that track. They’re hiring lots of really cool arrangers from the States – like Teddy Riley is in Korea a lot. In the Mainland, the market is still not developed to any extent where you have any sort of authentic R&B sound. But I see a lot of new talent coming up, who aren’t even mainstream, coming up through competitions, and some of them are really good singers and have got a good vibe. And I think that will keep on developing, and the tastes of the audiences will have more variety. 

We’ve seen a few K-pop acts trying to crack the American market. Is this something you’d like to do in the future?
I would say that I just want to do music that will ultimately appeal to whoever. Of course there are people who won’t like it because not everyone’s going to like your kind of music, but for me it’s not really about going to America. It’s more like, people in Peru listen to K-pop, too. So it’s not about going anywhere. It’s about doing something that is nice.  

Khalil Fong plays Hong Kong Coliseum from Nov 29-Dec 2. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

Lights Up will be released exclusively digitally in early November.

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