Nathan Hartono in a nutshell: witty, creative, pest, prick. That’s how the crooner’s nearest and dearest describe Nathan when, at this writer’s behest, he asks his friends over WhatsApp to describe him in one word. “They started out good, but someone threw [the word] penis in there, and then it became bad,” he laughs as he scrolls through the group chat with his best buds from school, just one of the 260 unread WhatsApp chats on his phone. Two. Hundred. And. Sixty. There are end credits of films shorter than that.
Mind you, this was already a week after Singapore’s latest national hero caused the entire country to go dizzy with excitement after making the top two in Sing! China.
Not that we needed his astounding WhatsApp backlog to remind you just what an epic rollercoaster ride it’s been for Nathan — one of Battlestar Galactica proportions, even — who’s overcome his fear of failure and the odds of the brutal singing competition to emerge triumphant (he’s a champ in our eyes, okay?)
Since the blind auditions aired in July, the lanky lad has spent most of the past three months in China juggling gruelling competition demands, newfound mobs of fans, and even vicious Internet vitriol in China. Meanwhile an entire nation surging with patriotism once again (Hello, Joseph!) closely tracked his progress in the competition. #NoPressureAtAll. But most of all, it was just adjusting to life alone in a foreign land where “the Internet is not as we know it”, forcing himself to put his C5-grade Chinese to good use. “The first few weeks were tough. There’s only so much I could communicate before nuances, humour, and personality get lost in translation,” he recalls. “I was always half a person there. I felt like Hannah Montana, leading two very different lives.”
How apt is it that the boyish singer has likened himself to the Miley Cyrus character that launched her career the same year Nathan dove headlong into the entertainment scene: 2006. It was the year he released his jazzy debut album, appropriately-titled Let Me Sing!, one year after the ACS Barker Road student, who was “transitioning from fat to sort of skinny”, got his showbiz start in a magazine singing contest.
But how many of us realise that it’s actually been 10 whole years that Nathan’s been quietly toiling at his craft (army and a short stint at the prestigious Berklee College of Music notwithstanding)? He’s done three NDPs, released three albums, held several solo concerts (the most recent in July at the Esplanade), scored a lead role in the Tracie Pang-directed Spring Awakening, and has snagged a smattering of TV roles including HBO’s upcoming fantasy-thriller Halfworlds. Let’s face it: Nathan may be a familiar face to local audiences, but hardly ever the first one to come to mind if you’re guessing ‘Singaporean singers’ at a pub quiz night. You may or may not have been one of the handful of people who’d stop him in his tracks if you spotted him on Orchard Road before the competition, but you definitely would be part of the throng these days. Superstardom has eluded Nathan like a woman who wouldn’t even swipe right for him on Tinder. Until now.
When fame abruptly hits rising stars like a golden snitch at a Quidditch match, most of them are too overwhelmed to make the most out of it, and/or come away with an inflated sense of self. Nathan, interestingly, vascillates in this spectrum. He handles this sudden adulation with a self-deprecating humour known to his 83.2K Insta-followers, and with the media savviness of a seasoned performer who’s been quietly biding his time and who saw this all coming. Sort of.
When we first meet Nathan, we’re struck by how he seems to be the same teenager who’d sing walking home from school alone just because he was too shy to let anyone know that he had stellar pipes. No one knew, not even his resort consultant dad or his mum, who’s the senior VP of the Tung Lok Group. Yes, even to this day, when he walks, he still hums, almost inaudibly under his breath, the same way tone-deaf plebs would think out loud what to have for dinner. He’s dressed like he doesn’t want to be noticed — shabby-chic long-sleeved raglan tee, jeans, a backpack and shades, buried nose-deep in his iPhone. Though he appears to be oblivious to it, he’s acutely aware of passers-by stealing furtive glances at him while he irons out scheduling deets with his minder. He takes it all in his stride. He’s not even daunted when the 8 DAYS team has their hands all over him at today’s shoot. Think seasoned entertainment journalists reduced to groping groupies who, ahem, conveniently happened to be in the studio to lend their hands for a manic fan mob shot. Meanwhile, the unfazed Nathan smoulders, prances, and even mimics the King of Pop’s gravity-defying lean like a smooth criminal. The camera loves him. Wham, bam, thank you man, for nailing shot after shot quicker than Jay Chou can say “Wanna see thum-thing cool?” What did we say? This homeboy made good has been primed for this big moment all along.
8 DAYS: Got any tips from Jay Chou about how to handle this newfound attention?
NATHAN HARTONO: Oh, he’s got a security team of five people who are always around him, and they’ve been with him for years. You don’t even realise that they’re there — they’re very good at being completely hidden until someone steps too close, then suddenly there’s a big hand that appears to grab them.
How do you stay grounded in all this?
I don’t know where I stand on the ‘grounded to humility to pride’ spectrum, but the ego and the stuff that comes with being a public figure has set from ages ago. I’ve been doing it for long enough that it’s done lah. I guess the cookie has been baked. (Laughs)
But this is on a whole new level now.
Exactly. I’m approaching it in the similar way. I’ve never been too crazy about myself anyway — self-esteem issues from being a fat kid. Nothing much is gonna change on my part. I’m aware there’s more attention but if anything, it just means there’s gonna be a lot more care and precision in the stuff that I put out.
Are you worried about getting fat again?
Oh yeah, every day. When I gain weight, it goes straight to my face. It’s very obvious. So I constantly work out as much as I’m eating. In China, it wasn’t that difficult ’cos I wasn’t eating that much. I didn’t really like the food there ’cos it was mostly boxed lunches. I wasn’t eating or exercising as much, and got rather small and shapeless. I intend to go back to a proper workout routine.
How much more time do you need these days to get ready to go out?
Still the same, about 15 or 20 minutes. The last few years, at least, I’ve always cared about how I look when I leave the house ’cos, well, I’m an adult. (Chuckles) In secondary school and JC, I didn’t care and would leave the house in pajama pants, a singlet and flip flops. Maybe a small part of me thought it was funny.
You probably wished you were smiling when people snuck photos of you repacking your luggage at the airport in China.
When my luggage was overweight, I had to repack it. I was on the floor and I heard people around me go, “Hey, that’s the guy from Sing! China”. I knew it was happening, but I didn’t think they’d tag me in the post. I thought it was really funny. It’s not that I’ve gotten so used to people recognising me on the streets and snapping a picture of me, but it’s not a new thing. It’s just that now, it happens overseas. It’s become a habit now that whenever I leave Singapore, I’m anonymous again. No one cares and I can wear shorts and flip flops and even pajama pants in public again. In fact, I wore pajama pants in public in China during the competition. But that day at the airport was the first time I noticed people were taking photos of me, not with me, sadly. I don’t quite know how to feel about that. But I did feel a bit grumpy ’cos I wanted to be left alone. I really wanted to punch someone in the face that day (guffaws). But I guess it’s just one more thing I have to look out for nowadays. At that point, I wished I had enough money for a private jet. I’m starting to understand why bigger celebrities do the things they do, like wear sunglasses and a face mask. It’s not because people won’t recognise them — if anything, it makes them stick out more. But it’s less likely that people will catch a photograph of you making a dumb face from 20 metres away.
When are you following suit?
I wore the mask in China only ’cos it got a bit overwhelming, especially in Beijing. I haven’t had to wear a mask in Singapore. I don’t mind taking photos — it’s barely any time in my day and I appreciate every second of it — but I’m just a bit bothered when they take photos of you like an animal in the zoo, especially when you’re in public trying to get s*** done.
Have you encountered this fear of failure in other aspects of life before?
Of course. Often when you come to a fork in the road, it’s often tempting to take the easier choice ’cos it’s just safer. But every once in a while, it’s good to do the things that scare you ’cos you learn and grow a lot more. I got the lead role in my first stage performance, Spring Awakening, in 2012. We rehearsed for two months and the show ran for one month. All the time, I thought I was in some weird fever dream. I didn’t know what was going on or what I was on stage. Plus, I had some weird scenes. (Laughs) But doing that show made me grow so much as a performer. It was only after the show that I realised I’d grown up a lot. If I never tried that, I don’t know if I’d be anywhere close to where I am today.
What else scares you?
Heights, but my fear of heights is inversed. If I’m on a cliff and I look down, I’m fine. But if I’m on the ground and look up, my heart beats a lot faster and my breath gets lighter. I can’t fly a kite ’cos I get really scared when I look up at the kite. It’s attached to you, and looking up, you get a sense of how far it’s been flying. For some reason, that really scares me. I need to sit down when I fly a kite ’cos I’m scared it’ll take me away.
Everyone and their mother has been trying to establish some sort of six-degree connection to you. Like, “Nathan’s my primary school best friend’s cousin’s neighbour”. How does that feel?
It hasn’t bothered me. I saw it coming. But I don’t think too much about that. It’s stupid to be bitter about it. But if anything, it [made it clearer who are] the people who’ve always been there and made me appreciate that a lot more. For example, Jade Seah called me the weekend after the finals and asked if I was free for an interview. I agreed immediately. Years ago, she’d spread the word about my music on her blog shows. I didn’t even have to ask.
Worried about any rumours or ex-es coming out the woodwork with stories?
Not at all. I’ve led a fairly guilt-free life. I haven’t had a lot of relationships. Actually, none in Singapore so I’m not scared. (Laughs) I didn’t get into any relationship until I was 20 in college in Boston.
What kind of student were you, growing up?
I hesitate to do any speaking engagements at schools now ’cos I was a terrible student. I was basically a nightmare since Sec 2. It got to a point that if my mum received a call during school hours, she’d immediately know that it’s me calling from the teachers’ staff room. I was in detention every other week for not doing homework, running around in class, starting fires…
Hang on. You set fire to your school?
I just played with fire. You’re in an all-boys school, and people have deodorant spray cans and lighters, so you have fun. Like, “Let’s spray fire into the air, it’s gonna make me look cool!” (Laughs) Once, they were moving in a new organ into the chapel in school, so there were a lot of empty gigantic boxes outside. My friend and I decided to be idiots and we stole two, climbed inside, and ran towards each other from opposite sides of the hill. This was a time when camera phones were starting to become a thing, so we’d take these random videos and share them. We called this one ‘Boxing’.
Has there been a point in your career where you felt like giving up?
Definitely. Many times I’d be stuck in a routine — I’d be performing but wouldn’t be motivated enough to put out new material. So I’d just be doing the circuit — private events and gigs, the occasional high profile thing — and it got very cyclical. Those are the times I get very troubled, and would ask myself if I was wasting time, talent or opportunities by not creating new stuff. Do I have the fire and passion to do this? It’s a very unforgiving industry — the moment you lose that passion, it shows in your material. It’s like having a job performance review, except that everybody has the opportunity to review you. Fortunately, I managed to pull myself out of those lows.
Did it ever occur to you that maybe you should have a Plan B?
I actually was accepted into the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore. I was gonna go for it and do the traditional route. But I decided to take a risk and see what music brings. I’ve always been arts-inclined anyway. If I wasn’t performing, I’d be composing or doing video production. All the videos I put up on YouTube is just me and a camera guy and I’m directing him, and afterwards, I edit everything.
We hear you’re into cooking too.
I’d only cook if I have friends coming over. I made a steak sandwich few days ago, and Daphne Khoo and [YouTuber] Hirzi came over. I rarely cook just for myself. I like to set aside a whole day to prep and cook, then have people come over to eat and talk. For me, it’s like going on a mini holiday. When the Sing! China crew came over to film me cooking at home, I hated that so much. Cooking is like the airport for me — I just wanna be left alone to do it. So when there were seven people with lights and cameras in the kitchen going, “Don’t do that yet. Wait for the light or the camera”, I was so grumpy! In the end, they didn’t use most of the shots ’cos I looked miserable.
Your brother’s working in the family restaurant business. Have your parents at any point suggested you should do the same and work in Tung Lok?
My parents know music is not the most lucrative career choice and that it’s very risky. But they’re realistic enough to know that I’m not talentless and I’m not chasing a hopeless dream. With my abilities, I can earn a certain amount of money by default just by performing or doing the bar circuit for the rest of my life. If they were supporting me, and I sucked, that would break my heart. But if I sucked, they wouldn’t blindly tell me, ‘Chase your dreams even though you’re terrible.’ They know I have a certain ability and proficiency and were the ones who encouraged me to see how far I could go [in music, rather than go to NUS]. My dad was like, ‘Why not hone [your music skills]? If you wanna do the traditional thing of getting a degree, you can do it afterwards.’
And he’s the one who egged you on to join that competition that kickstarted your whole career.
Yeah, exactly. At that point, my parents had only just found out for about one-and-a-half months that I could sing. They’d arranged for a karaoke session with their friends, and they dragged me along ’cos they were too lazy to send me back home first. When it was my turn to sing, they were pleasantly surprised. I think they might have suspected before that I could sing — I’d sing in my room but once they open the door, I’d stop immediately. I didn’t like people knowing that I could sing. I didn’t know if I was good. I just knew that I liked it.
This story first appeared in Issue #1359 (Oct 31, 2016).