“Electric toothbrushes,” smiles lewloh, when I ask him what things he’s loving right now. “They're so much better for you, like, they’re just way more effective. If you're not on an electric toothbrush right now: try it, and I promise your teeth will be very happy. So yes, electric toothbrushes.” This is lewloh’s genuine, yet grounded positivity.
Born Lewis Loh and brought up in Hong Kong, lewloh later moved to Singapore and did his national service in the police before studying to become a yoga teacher. He credits this experience with allowing him to find himself and centre his identity, after which he was able to pursue his musical passions, going to Berklee College of Music in the USA before settling into being a musician full time.
“My dad and mum definitely wanted me to do medicine,” he recalls over Zoom. “And then if it wasn't medicine, then it was law. Right? And if it wasn't law, then it was business. So I told my dad that I would study music business at Berklee College of Music, and then I just applied for songwriting instead. Then two years in, I was like, Dad, you know that I'm not studying music business, right? By then he was like, well, you're already two years in. So just finish your degree.”
Chatting with lewloh involves uncovering amazing experience after amazing experience in the 25-year-old’s life. His songs beautifully touch on the queer experience, with lyrics that speak to his time in North America, East Asia and South-East Asia. For example, on the 2021 song ‘summer boy’ from his newest album michigan/missing him, he sings:
Summer boy, I should've gave in
When you took my hand to play outside with you
I never got to shine for you
Summer boy, I wish I could scrеam and
Say what I mean just like you asked mе to
I never got to shine for you
I never make time for you
Something unmissable about lewloh’s music is the way he is so clearly influenced by a multitude of cultures and points of view, all of which pull together to create the sense that he is constantly yearning to find the truth in himself and the world around him. He credits finding freedom in the way he expresses himself to his time in the US. “In the West, it's all about being loud and taking up space and protests, and it works there.”
Yet for all the positives that Western exposure has given him, lewloh is very aware of the complicated relationship between media consumption in the East and West, as gatekeeping in Western markets against Asian musicians encouraged him to go back to Singapore. However, East and South-East Asian artists and audiences have been influenced by Western media output for a long time, and this has impacted lewloh’s understanding of his place in the Singaporean music scene. He tells me locals are sometimes surprised when they find out he is from Singapore after listening to his music, because of an assumption that high-quality and well-produced music is likely imported from overseas.
Despite his time in the USA, lewloh mentions how the lessons he has learned from his upbringing in Asia inform how he presents himself and the messages he wants to convey, especially when it comes to advocating for queer representation.
“[It’s] understanding… that there is a more effective and efficient way to change the minds of the people around you, you know? To shift those perspectives. Because we are all … there are a million different cultures, right?
…like I once brought my ex-boyfriend during Chinese New Year. I just brought him to a family gathering with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and I just said, 'Oh, this is my boyfriend.' I gave no time for anyone to react to it because I was like, 'This is my boyfriend. Anyway, what are we having for dinner? Wait, we are having this for dinner?'”
Because if you react to it too much, if you make it a big deal, you're almost encouraging them to make it a big deal. But it's just like, 'No, this is the person that I'm with.' Like I just show up with painted nails. This is the way I'm going to be.
I'm not going to tell you about how my nails are going to change your mind. I'm just going to wear them. I think that almost … silent protest or silent activism is really, really effective in Singapore, because of our culture.”
Throughout our conversation lewloh repeats his strong hope that queer representation and POC representation will continue to improve. In Singapore, he credits this to Western media influences and online content which have encouraged queer characters that are not merely a stereotype, but real human beings that deserve respect. Outside of Singapore, lewloh references today’s highly connected society and how he constantly sees younger audiences unafraid to speak openly.
“They are super exposed to things like racism and gender inequality and queer issues. That it's almost like: if you don't know about racism, like, are you living under a rock? The way they are so ready to pick up their pitchforks and cancel people, I'm like, I'm almost proud that they are so woke.
…but for us, I think we are that generation where we grew up in a very conservative society, but we are young enough to be malleable to change our mindset to realise: 'I used to do a lot of racist things, or I used to do a lot of homophobic things.' To be able to identify that and be like, 'Okay, I'm acknowledging that I'm changing, that I want to do better.'”
These days, it is inescapable that artists have to reconcile expressing their art with having to become a product to maintain a sustainable living. For some, that means millions of followers and being on the cover of gossip magazines, for others, it's the realisation that they can use their position to endorse brands and products that reflect their own values. For lewloh, one part of this is streaming culture and his place within it.
“I recently read this post breaking down the reasons why we shouldn't be blaming companies like Spotify and Apple Music for not paying us,” he explains to me. “I think one of the viewpoints was about how, actually, the issue is that it's an oversaturation of music. Right? Because I think the metric is something like 60,000… I forgot how many but X amount of songs come out every day. That's the reason why we get paid so little: because imagine this pie of money that the companies get. How are they going to divide it between all of the musicians that are you know, uploading music every day?
It was about accessibility as well like, honestly, if you wanted to upload a song today, right now, you can. Spotify, Apple Music… and that accessibility actually ends up hurting quality music. But then we have to consider like, privilege and things like this where it's actually amazing that it is super accessible, because then anyone can make music and upload it!
I think the other issue that my other musician friends and I have struggled with is the whole metrics game. I find that the numbers on Spotify, for example: how many monthly listeners you have, how many number of streams you have on your song… they're like parasites to the creative mind, you know? It just eats away at you. It's so easy to place your own self-worth on how successful your work is doing.
At the end of the day, I am the product. I am the thing that's on the shelf, so when my music’s not doing well, it's very easy to slip into this mindset that maybe I'm not good enough, maybe what I stand for, what my message is, is not strong enough to sell. You could be making the best album of all time but because of circumstance and because of the way the music industry works, no one's gonna listen to it. I heard something interesting, which is, in order for the music industry to function, there needs to be celebrity culture. Like you need paparazzi, you need these things in order for people to want to pay for that experience.”
Lewloh tells me – with much joy – about all the listeners around the world who have found his music. People from Europe, Taiwan, North America, the Philippines and many other places besides have reached out to him and these interactions feel personal even though he might never meet them in real life. He tells me how he looks at his fans’ profiles to see all the cool things they do, and it’s with genuine surprise that he mentions how his fans find him cool for ‘just making music’ when he finds them equally, if not more, admirable for all the things they pursue. Being on a pedestal suits some artists and celebrities, but for lewloh he finds joy in feeling like he is walking a similar path in life as the people who love his music, not a more gilded one.
To that end, he recently started streaming on Twitch, in part because he loves gaming, but also because he sees it as a genuine way to connect to his listeners worldwide. As expected, he answers questions and chats to fans, but he also gives them songwriting tips and on Mondays writes songs with people in the chat. For an artist who so frequently reflects on how to make sure his most authentic self comes across, the use of such a platform makes perfect sense. In contrast to the heavily curated output to be seen on Instagram or the soundbite content on Twitter, he sees it as a place he can express himself freely without overindulging in the cult of celebrity.
“With Twitch, I found that I could be really, really personal and interactive on this platform, versus something which I feel is colder, like Instagram or Facebook. I feel like on Instagram and Facebook, the engagements are very fleeting. But on Twitch, it's real time engagement. It's you fulfilling a request to make someone's day a little better. It’s been a really, really great experience.”
lewloh is so open, so confident, about who he is and what he stands for that it makes me wonder if he has been lucky enough to be supported by an accepting family. Music is rarely encouraged as a career path in Asian families, and as lewloh points out to me, out of all the Asian countries, only Taiwan has legalised gay marriage.
“When I first moved to Singapore, some of my distant family members told me: “When you come here, you need to go back in the closet.” But when I was in the police, I was like, bro, I've been in the closet for 17 years, like, I'm done with that. I'm tired. So I just came out.
I think it was like… somebody made a gay joke. And then I think what I said was like, “Yeah, but I enjoy doing that.” Then they were like, “Huh.” In my squad, we had 36 of us: all of us coming into the room and just talking about sexuality, identity and all this stuff. And I literally told them, I was like, “You know, the metric is one in six. So there are five of you in this room.” And lo and behold, by the time we were done with our training, which was about three months, five other people came out to me.
It's been almost seven, eight years since I came out to my mom and dad. Because my dad was very well travelled for his business, it wasn't so hard for him to just accept that his son was different, because he's travelled to Europe and the US a lot. So it wasn't a foreign concept for him. It was harder for my mom, for sure.
…she used to write letters to me every year: she’d always add the yearly letter with ‘hope you find a girlfriend or a wife’ or whatever. I think like, two years ago, she started writing ‘hope you find a good person who will make you happy’. It’s those little changes. I'm like, you know what, she's not going to parade with me. She's not going to shout it from the rooftops. But I can see that she's trying to love me and accept me for the way I am.
After my [second] heartbreak, instead of trying to invalidate the love that I had for this person, she just comforted me through the heartbreak as if it was heartbreak, because it was. She would say things like, ‘You're gonna find someone who is a better fit.’ She didn't make it about her. She made it about me. I think that was very important for me to experience in order to realise, like, wait, my mom actually really, really loves me, no matter what I do.”
lewloh’s music has the ability to lift you out of yourself: to make you feel comfortable enough to indulge in all your feelings, however beautiful or ugly. ENFJ is a dark and grounded EP that cosies you up between blankets of guitar and piano, Lullacry is his ambitious, youthful and bold debut record, while the Red Flags EP transports you to another dimension entirely. Lewloh compares listening to his music to eating a full meal, one where listeners can come back again and again to appreciate the intricacies of the instrumentals and his lyrics.
“[Some fans] will come to my shows with their partners and hold hands. I think there was one very, very vivid memory, during the first album launch, for Lullacry back in 2017. I’m looking out into the audience, and seeing a lot of queer and gay couples, showing affection to each other in the space. I'm like, 'Yeah, this is exactly what I want to create. This space, where people can just be themselves.' I think for a lot of people, they feel that comfort when they come to my shows: that I can bring my boyfriend or my girlfriend, or my partner and not feel like everyone's watching me, because I'm surrounded by people who just get it.”
“Representation is very important,” he says near the end of our conversation. “That's a big part of why I do what I do… and the way I do things is trying to serve that purpose.”