Joanna Dong has come a long way. That's the premise behind her latest release 'Long Way Round'. It was inspired by the 36-year-old's journey from local jazz crooner to superstar after finishing third place in Sing! China. Her popularity on home ground is evident from how she was recently voted into the Top 40 Most Popular Artistes list for this year's Star Awards. In fact, the songbird is such a household name now that she has to use a pseudonym for her Grab account.
8 DAYS: You recently released your Mandarin single ‘Long Way Round’ which was inspired by your Sing! China journey. We understand the song is a reminder that good things come to those who wait.
JOANNA DONG: We had begun conceptualising this song during the competition. At that time, I was pretty overwhelmed with the whole emotional rollercoaster of making it past one round after another. And I was receiving a lot of support back home, especially on Facebook, where I was seeing a lot of people sharing my competition videos. I was just overwhelmed with gratitude. So I wanted this song to be about that feeling of how I waited so long for success, but I didn’t feel any bitterness or regrets that I took this step forward at such a late point in my career [Ed: She was 35 when she joined Sing! China last year]. Instead, I just felt really thankful. Also, at about the same time in my life, the people around me had found love again late in life. It was quite miraculous ’cos these are people who had given up on love only to find someone after decades of waiting. It was a very good analogy for how I felt [after my Sing! China success] — where your wait pays off in a beautiful way.
In the music video for ‘Long Way Round’, you documented the wedding of a real-life couple.
This happened quite serendipitously. I was talking to a friend when he said, “My mother-in-law is getting married.” I was like, “Wait, isn’t your mother-in-law married to your father-in-law? What do you mean she’s getting married?” (Laughs) Then he said that his mother-in-law had been single for many years. And one day, she came back and told the family that she had been dating someone for a while and that they were getting married. Everyone got a shock! They’re both in their 50s or 60s. When I heard that story, I was like, “This is perfect!” It’s exactly what my song ‘Long Way Round’ is talking about.
How would you describe life these days?
Very busy, but very fruitful. I’ve been doing a lot of things that I previously might not have had the opportunity to, like larger engagements and more high-profile events. I’m singing at Singapore Day in London this year. These are all wonderful platforms that I may not have been invited to before ’cos not enough people knew me. In terms of my private life, not that much has changed. Except that once in a while, people recognise me on the streets and they ask for photos. Sometimes, my Uber or Grab driver — I take Grab more now — will recognise me and go, “Eh, how come you put your name as Mrs Ho?” [Ed: Ho is Joanna’s husband’s surname.] (Laughs) I usually put my Grab name as “Mrs Ho” to maintain some anonymity. (Manager interrupts: I think cannot publish leh. Later all the Grab drivers know.) It’s okay lah.
That’s a huge change from what you said in a previous interview with us — that you don’t often get recognised ’cos you’re good at going incognito.
I still am. (Laughs) I mean, right now, I’m wearing a cap and sitting in a café in Orchard Road and nobody seems to realise it’s me. (Laughs) I usually can ninja my way through, especially when I don’t have make-up on. So I don’t think [getting recognised] is going to be a problem. (Laughs) I just took the MRT the other day.
You were in Shanghai to perform at a countdown show over the New Year. How are the fans over there?
Some of them made the trip from whichever city they were in to Shanghai and stood out in the cold on NYE just to watch me. Some flew in and others took the train. I think that shows how very dedicated and committed [they are]. I’m just really thankful that they would do that. Those are like the fairly extreme cases, but I won’t say that’s crazy. They were just very, very enthusiastic. (Laughs)
Looks like a career in China beckons.
We are in talks to do a performance in Shanghai that will feature swing dancing, which was how I came to fall in love with jazz in the first place. So I’m quite excited about that. But of course, there are always challenges whenever you go to a foreign place to do a show. We have to find out how to obtain simple things like licenses and permits, and getting them is not that straightforward as there’s a lot of red tape involved. Even though the Sing! China competition has opened up a lot of doors for me in China, it’s still a very difficult market to penetrate. We’re constantly on the lookout for people who can give us support ’cos it’s really still an uphill battle for us.
Your fellow Sing! China alum Nathan Hartono has his own team in China. Do you have plans to do so too?
Yes. My record label’s music director is already making her transition to be based in Beijing. So on the business side, she’s taking care of my development in China. I’m also now looking seriously at spending some months in a year in China. But of course, it matters a lot to me that I spend time with my family here, so we’re trying to find a good balance between the two.
Earlier this year, you caught up with your Sing! China mentor Jay Chou when he invited you and Olinda Cho to perform at his concert here.
We had a very brief chat. He wanted to know how we were doing. We both said we were doing pretty well and he seemed quite pleased with that. (Laughs) Whenever I release a single, I send it to him through his music director to update him on what I’m doing.
Nathan said that he and Jay Chou are like “hi-bye friends”. How would you describe your relationship with Jay?
I think ’cos I’m female, it’s even less like a bro relationship than it is with Nathan and Jay. (Laughs) He’s usually quite gentlemanly, especially around the ladies. Whenever he interacts with Olinda and I, he will crack a joke or two. I wouldn’t say we have any insights into each other’s lives lah. We are not that kind of friends. (Laughs) But he’s curious about our lives. Like, he asked if my husband was attending his concert. I think he’s just very aware of the gender difference. Maybe he doesn’t want to invite any rumours or speculations. (Laughs)
‘Long Way Round’ is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and all digital platforms.