The longstanding, six-person acapella group Key Elements has nothing but their voices to make sweet, sweet music. With vocal harmonies and a bit of pizzazz, they’ve been known to cover jazz, swing and pop staples.
But now, they’re stepping into uncharted territory, releasing an entire album of original songs, titled ‘Uncovered’.
In conjunction with the album launch, the group will be holding a concert as part of the Esplanade Late Night series. We caught up with the group’s co-founder Jason Ong and group member Vaughan Tan before their one-night-only performance this weekend.
So how did the group come together?
Tan: It started back in 1987 when Jason and two other friends wanted to just do Christmas carolling, acapella style. Back then, it was quite unheard of in Singapore at least. We were really inspired by The King’s Singers.
So it was us three guys from different junior college choirs recording a demo tape, dubbing our voices repeatedly. There was no such thing as computers, so it was tape recorders. The voices were dubbed to make it sound like it was 10 voices.
Ong: We sent the tape out to various people, and Tangs (department store) picked it up. The sales guy from Tangs said, “Hey, you guys sound interesting. Can you come down for an audition?” There were only three of us... so that was when we started recruiting people, going, “Can you sing? You’re in!” That was good fun.
Tan: It was called In-a-Chord then, until the year 2001, when Jason decided that he had grown tired of singing with just guys. So he roped in some girls and then formed another group. So that was how Key Elements was formed.
Ong: By that time we all had full-time jobs. When you hit middle management, you either travel or you have kids. You have different priorities, you know? But we still wanted to sing!
What was the inspiration behind the group’s name?
Tan: By then, there were many acapella groups that came and went. The members were all from former acapella groups. We would like to think that we were the key elements of our respective groups, hence, the name.
There seems to be a bit of science in the name as well…?
Ong: Instinctively, Kim Leng and I both being chemical engineers (I was a chemical engineer for nine years, climbing rigs, poking at actuators and installing solenoid valves), and we wanted to play on the word "elements".
A good way to market ourselves would be to have each one of us have an alias on stage, so each one of us took on a new element name. Therefore I’m Jasonium, and Vaughn is Vaughanese. Each one of us took on an element with distinct "properties". I’m highly reactive, whereas Vaughn is the strong silent type. He’s our bass, he anchors everybody.
You do all the music arrangements, songwriting and music direction. How did you get into that role?
Ong: It was organic. All the things that we do, a lot of it came about because of necessity. I started arranging because back in 1987, there weren’t any scores for male-only voice. We couldn’t Google even if we wanted it. If you want to sing it, you DIY.
Your repertoire seems quite diverse. With the new album, what’s new and what’s different about your repertoire?
Ong: There’ll be a little bit of everything. I just kept an open mind when I was writing for the group. I wrote about two dozen songs, and from there we culled. The one thing that I decided not to write about was love songs. Simply because there are so many other things to write about, I didn’t want to limit myself.
So what did you end up writing instead?
Ong: I wrote a song about a cat. I wrote about someone who may need your help, and you don’t know who that somebody is. I wrote about what happens in the future. Picture this scenario: If I can concoct a pill, where you can take and just fall in love, would you do it? I wrote a song based on a book called ‘Winner Stands Alone’. It’s a book about murder and obsession, by Paolo Coelho.
That’s quite dark subject matter. Is your music equally dark?
Ong: It can be. I wrote a song about depression. But I also wrote a song about being happy and being affirmative. Just as every night will be followed by day, so too will your bad times be followed by good times. I write about different things, whatever strikes my fancy. Sometimes it’s things that I go through.
Do you write with the help of a musical instrument?
Ong: (Points to throat) The greatest instrument there is.
Are any of you classically trained?
Tan: I play the piano and I did music as an elective until my A Levels. Back then, there was no higher institution (for music in Singapore). I had to do my degree in estate management at the National University of Singapore. I was a property manager for nine years before I decided to do music full time.
What’s the process like when you pick a song you want to perform?
Ong: It’s a complicated process. It also depends on the voice range and whether it fits the person. There are great songs sung by a girl, but if I arrange it for a girl, it might not work for all parts. If the voicing doesn’t work out that well, then I’ll say we have to scratch that. But if I get a guy to sing it, is the content appropriate for a guy to sing? So does it bear rewriting? Does it bear tweaking? It’s a complicated process.
At the show, what can the audience expect?
Ong: What we like to give to our audience is one, quality music, that is the choice of songs. Two, the quality of the presentation. As my good friend puts it, you can’t be a "potted plant" and just stand there and sing. We’re not like that.
If a song warrants some kind of choreography, we will come up with it or engage someone to help us. We try to make it a different experience for our audience. It’s a good time, it’s entertaining, and its fun!