Still rocking on
Forty years in the music industry and there is no stopping Mel Ferdinands and his passion in music.
BY: Joanne Tok
One of Singapore’s best-loved musical talents, Mel Ferdinands (with the other half being his younger brother Joe) has been in the music business for 40 years and he hopes to keep on going doing charity gigs and concerts. Though much has changed in the music industry from his early time, Mel has grown up but his music remains the same.
The 53-year-old shares his journey with Agelessonline:
It has been 40 years since you started. That is a long time to be in the music business. If you could say one thing about those 40 years, what would it be? What is your motivation to sticking it out this long?
It has been very rewarding musically, and I would say it is an incredible journey! My motivation comes from my passion of wanting to share my music with anyone who wants to listen and enjoy it. I just love being able to do that and it has kept me going for the past 40 years.
Can you share how you and your brother, Joe, got started in singing? I understand you were very young. Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
We started jamming together when Joe was about six and I was nine. Then we started performing at school concerts, during assembly and eventually took part in Talentime in 1971. We were aged nine and 12 back then. Thankfully, our parents were very supportive, and so were all our four other older siblings.
I heard you did ballet. What was with that?
Yes, both Joe and I studied with Sylvia McCully and took the children’s examinations with the Royal Academy of Dance. It was a great experience studying under the tutelage of McCully, and I totally loved it! However, it was tough trying to concentrate on both music and dance whilst getting on with school and for me, I guess I wasn’t a natural dancer. So when it came down to choosing one path for me to focus on, I had to go with music.
How was it winning Talentime in 1971?
It was surreal, and quite beyond the comprehension of two young lads at that time.
You and your brother took some time off after. Can you share why?
We actually continued performing quite a bit for TV and radio, and then of course we had to do our National Service (NS). It was after NS that we joined up with two of our elder brothers, Dixie and Don, together with another friend Bianco, in the band Gypsy.
Gypsy was sort of a family band that just happened. Our brother, Dixie and his friend, Bianco, were already performing full-time. So when I finished NS, I joined at the same time as my older brother, Don, did. Joe then joined two years later, after his NS. I guess a lot of people always refer to Gypsy as a family band, but we never set out to form one deliberately.
What would you consider as the most difficult time in your musical career and how did you overcome it?
Can’t really think of any.
Can you share also three memorable experiences during your career?
That would probably be performing at the Police Academy for the ‘1st Police and Friends Concert’ in 1985, the ‘Light Up December Concert’ at the Padang in 1986 and the ‘Singapore All Stars for the Police and Friends Concert’ featuring international artistes in 1987. We enjoyed crowds of about 50,000 people or more for these concerts.
However, in more recent times, what was really most memorable was performing at D’Marquee in 2010 for our 40th Anniversary Concert. It was a sold-out crowd of 1,500 back then and also, another one at the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2012, with an audience of 1,200. What really touched us was having the whole crowd singing along with us throughout.
You also wrote music, do you still do that? How many original songs have you and your brother written?
We both still write music, quite actively and are both members of COMPASS (the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore). We’ve written quite a lot that we can’t really remember the exact figure.
What is your favourite song that you enjoy singing and why?
I don’t really have a favourite song as we enjoy everything we do.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that there are few opportunities for bands to get heard. Could you share how the scene has changed to what it is today? What are your thoughts of the music scene here?
There isn’t the same amount of opportunities for TV appearances or huge concerts that we were blessed to have experienced back then. There used to be a lot more opportunities available, with local TV and radio featuring a lot of our homegrown talent. There were regular TV programmes every week, and dedicated radio programmes for Singapore singers and bands, hence we managed to gain much exposure from there.
I think it is a lot harder for bands now to get the same kind of exposure we had back then. I have always maintained that there is an abundance of talent in Singapore and I sincerely wish that things could change for the better including more airplay (on the radio) for local artistes, more TV exposure and more platforms to perform.
What advice would you give budding local artists who wish to pursue music as a career?
Don’t be afraid to live your dreams, but be prepared to keep working very hard at it.
What’s a typical day for you?
There isn’t a typical day that I can remember. I try to make each and every day special. Besides working in a film production company full-time, I play social football once a week, and try to play the guitar as often as I can, whether with my brother Joe, or my daughter Gabrielle, who is 25 years old.
How do you maintain your active lifestyle?
It’s always about finding the right balance, making sure that I spend quality time with my wife and daughter, having a good circle of friends, and being able to share my music whenever possible. It isn’t always easy, but it is certainly worth it. We do perform as and when we can, but we don’t have anything on a regular basis. Most of the time, these gigs are just Joe and myself, with just guitar and bass. Sometimes, we also perform with a band whenever we want to have a bigger sound for different types of occasions.
You recently played a gig with your daughter at the Social Mission Conference. Do you do that often? How was it “working” with your own blood? Is your daughter involved full-time in the music business?
Gabrielle and I have performed at many charity and volunteer events. We performed at the St Joseph’s Home and Hospice and the fundraising dinner with The Mission to Seafarers last year, as well.
Working with my own daughter has been very easy, and it has always been about mutual respect. Gabrielle is a full-time student (in pre-school education) but she sings part-time. Her involvement in the music scene isn’t of my doing, as most would have thought. She has always done everything by herself, and of course, I would always be there to encourage, guide, advise and sometimes protect her – just like what any parent would do.
You also have penned a coffee table book called “I Play & Sing” in 2011 – how was that like putting it together?
The hardest part about the book was getting started, but then it sort of wrote itself after that as the experiences just kept coming in. It was heartwarming to have so many friends contribute with their own little anecdotes about Joe and myself, and it was also refreshing for the both of us to find out many things that we were unaware of. Well, one such instance was when a couple told us about how one particular song we used to do played a great part in their courtship and eventually got married. There are many of such other examples, which are listed in the book.
We actually finished the first draft in less than 12 months. It took a few re-writes, change of photos, and then the actual sourcing of a publisher, distributor, etc, which took a lot more time than expected.
Why a book? Will you do another one?
Well, when we first talked about celebrating 40 years together, we joked about what we should do to celebrate, and besides talking about a concert (which was three hours long and was held in 2010), we also said we’ll write a book. Then after that, it was a case of the book writing itself!
We both certainly hope to continue with another one!
Any lessons learned from the 40 years?
Life is an ongoing lesson, and it is important to keep an open mind always, continue to learn new things, and constantly be happy. Music has been an important part of my life, and I believe that it always will be. I also hope to be able to continue sharing, and touching people with my music for as long as I can.
What are your secrets to working with your brother?
Love and mutual respect.
If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
Playing the guitar or piano, or learning another new musical instrument.
What if it has nothing to do with music?
It’s very hard to imagine doing anything else that wasn’t remotely connected to music. But if I had to, I guess it would probably still have something to do with the arts.
I’m proud to say that I have no regrets whatsoever.
What’s on your bucket list?
There’s too many to list on my bucket list, but a Mel & Joe concert at the Esplanade, and a couple more invites to overseas music festivals would be nice.