Interview with William Elvin
SBS: William – thanks so much for joining us and taking some time to talk to us all! We are about half a world away from each other location-wise with you being based in Hong Kong and us here in Canada; and as I was sitting here typing this out at around 3am in the morning – the distance/time between us got me thinking about your song-writing. Specifically…I was starting to wonder in the back of my mind if someone out there in the world, you were writing a new song right now while I was typing out these questions to ask you… Naturally it did eventually lead me to one question I wanted to ask you William; I find I’m creative and do my best writing at some really strange times-of-day (Usually between about 2am-10am lately!) – when do you find you most often create and write songs William? What time of day/night seems to bring out the creative best in you, where do you do your writing and how is the place where you write set up to get the best out of you, your music, writing & songs?
WE: Thank you for having me here on SBS, too! This interview proves that no corner of the world is out of reach and it’s the greatest time to be an independent musician, because there must be someone willing to listen to you anywhere on earth. Let’s start the interview! My usual process has me collecting bits and pieces of thoughts that come to me throughout my day. I would organize it into topics or themes. I then would sit with my guitar, a pen, and a notebook at night and write based on those thoughts. Usually the inspiration to write comes a bit after the sun sets, when I go home from my day job and start to relax and open up to the artistic call.
SBS: Alright…I better make sure we back it all up for a second before I go with any of the other random thoughts and questions that pop into my brain… For the people out there that aren’t yet familiar with you and your music William – what would you say are the defining-elements of the music you make are? And if we can get a little history on you William…what got you interested in music and where you started…all that good stuff – tell us about where it all began and what defines your music today.
WE: Based on what my listeners always tell me, I would say that my music is defined by its smart lyrical content weaved into pop melodies. I always make it a point that I stimulate my listeners’ minds and hearts at the same through the situations, characters, or images I write and sing about. All of my personal works are always home recordings, which gives the listeners a gritty and visceral experience when they listen to my songs. This started with my first music project in 2010 called ‘Happy Days Ahead’, formed with two of my best friends in Manila. All we had were ten songs, a laptop, two guitars, an almost dilapidated house we had for ourselves, and a microphone. That first recording got the attention of some theatre directors and producers, and that is how I started writing musicals in the Philippines. I put out some self-produced recordings since, and have gained a small, yet loyal and loving group of followers in the Philippines.
SBS: If I’ve got my information correct here…you’re just putting the finishing-touches onto your brand-new EP, Neon Lights In Black And White. Exciting times my friend! A new-release is always bound to put a little more bounce in our step as musicians…it’s just a great time to be ALIVE when it’s all happening isn’t it? Tell us about the new EP…I’ve noticed in some of the write-ups that I’ve read that you mention a combination of poetry & music – not gonna lie to you William, that gets my attention right away when I see things like that! So tell us more about that…what was the experience like in recording Neon Lights In Black And White and what kind of themes, genres and subjects did you end up exploring through your writing & music?
WE: It’s really elating to be writing and recording new material! My last personal music project in Manila was in 2013, and while writing new material for this new EP I realized a lot about where I am now artistically. I feel that my lyrics are more focused now, and I have more definite things to say. In 2013, I had some songs where I had to rely on clever wordplay and stringing up words that sound good together. This new EP has none of that. Everything is lyrically precise, definite stories are told. For example, the single ‘Miss Elizabeth’ tells the story of a teenage girl thrust into the world of show business at a very young age, and we witness her descent into sleaze and corruption in an insecure world where everyone is dispensable. Another song in the EP called ‘The Ballad of Rockstar Sam’ is a semi-autobigraphical account of my decision to move from Manila to Hong Kong. I feel that this EP is a great way to introduce myself – who I am, what I stand for – to a new audience, and the multi-cultural artistic atmosphere here in Hong Kong may lead to that. I am also very proud to have one of the photos of Xyza Cruz Bacani, a Filipina who worked as a domestic helper here and is included in BBC’s 100 Women of 2015 because of her art, as my cover image. She gave me the permission to use it for free, and I plan to help the charitable institution she’s working with as gratitude for it. Exciting times, indeed!
SBS: As a song-writer, musician and poet…obviously you have a lot to say and communicate to us all. And of course, it’s nearly equally impossible to say it all over the duration of one song, one EP, one album etc. – if you did somehow have a way to sum-up what you wanted to say through your music – what might that be? What’s the overall theme, mood or message in what you create & communicate?
WE: I think all of my songs deal with alienation. The overall theme of my body of work would be about trying to survive and thrive in a world where we really don’t belong to. I guess people who get drawn to my music are the ones who feel alienated, and are looking for someone or something to relate to when they feel that way.
SBS: I am also fairly certain…from what I’ve read…that you were born in the Philippines and are now based in Hong Kong. Was that a music-decision? Life-decision? What brought about that particular change in your life – and when it comes to the music, how do your current surroundings in Hong Kong play a role? Is there anything about the Philippines-culture that plays a role in your music today even though you don’t live there anymore?
WE: I have been a Hong Kong resident for a long time, and there always was the option to move here to find work and build a life. I chose to start a theater and music career in the Philippines, and after a decade of hard work I just felt like I have achieved enough for me to be artistically fulfilled. Last year, I decided to live a stable life here and just do music whenever I feel like it. The ‘do-music-whenever-I-feel-like-it’ time has come, and here I am more excited than ever to have people listen. Hong Kong inspires me a lot creatively. The city is noisy, busy, loud, and with blinding neon lights all over you. But when you feel like all the chaos is taking its toll, all you have to do is ride one bus or stop at a train station and you are transported to a quiet, peaceful village where you can be alone and just reflect. This is my kind of place, I would say. But even if I don’t live in the Philippines anymore, Philippine culture will always be a part of my system. The Philippine society is something I would always critique in my songs because I want my listeners who are there to start thinking better and to see things from a different perspective. ‘Miss Elizabeth’ is a critique on a celebrity-obsessed society, which is what the Filipino society has become. I mean, we made the international news recently because we turned a simple, upper middle-class girl into one of the top Twitter celebrities. We unite for things like that, but we still can’t figure ourselves out as a people. I don’t have the solution for that, but through my art I can ask questions. And I can ask more questions now that I observe from afar.
SBS: You’ve also done a lot of work in local-theatre as well from what I’ve read…or at least that the music itself is being played in productions near you locally. I actually really love this concept William…I think that’s an entire avenue available to many independent artists out there to have their music showcased and featured in local independent theatre…and I think it’s incredibly-unexplored. I would think that it’s an extreme-win for all involved; the theatre-group gets an excellent soundtrack that helps create emotion in their performance, the music itself gets exposure, the audience of course gets treated to music and not only acting…all kinds of benefits. It’s a move that definitely gets a massive thumbs-up for me…but you tell us about it William – how did that end up being something you became involved in and what have the rewards been like for you personally? And no – I’m not talking financially! I mean the REAL rewards in life – how does having your music involved with local-theatre benefit you?
WE: I studied Theatre Arts in the University of the Philippines, and before the first album I made with Happy Days Ahead in 2010 I was looked at by the professors and directors as a character actor. When they took notice of the music, I started writing musicals until last year. I think that it was a great opportunity for me to make my music be heard to a ready audience. I mean, I wasn’t signed to a major record label, but I was paid to do loads of recordings and live performances in front of hundreds of people who appreciated my stuff. I do not have commercially released albums but I have written stage musicals that are to be staged again and again. Doing all of those, it’s more fulfilling for me to do indie music stuff because here is where I can express the deepest, darkest aspects of myself and have people who are familiar to my musical theatre work to get exposed to my personal ventures.
SBS: How do you feel like your own art, music and song-writing have progressed, evolved and grown from where you started to what it is today? What changes or life-events along the way have shaped the way that you currently write…and is there another step in your evolution still to come? Have you found a style of music that you feel you’ll stick with for life…or will there always be a reason or want to try something new for you personally William?
WE: I think the musical theatre experience has exposed me to a lot of styles and tastes that I wouldn’t have discovered if I didn’t have to. I always did research on new elements to put into the musicals I did, so it also opened up a lot of experimentation on song-writing that I can apply to my personal work now. I think I will always open myself up to new things as I grow older and more mature. I don’t want to feel stagnant as an artist. After all, doing whatever we want is why we’re in the independent scene.
SBS: What do you listen to on your own time? Do you factor in at all what other writers, artists & bands are singing about in music – or is that an entirely separate thing? A lot of artists tend to start doing what they do in order to fill a void, or a need, or offer something entirely-new to the world that hasn’t been done yet; and others, we draw from the inspiration of influence and pursue the dream in the same way our heroes did. But I suppose it’s the ‘need’ part of it I’m fixated on. Are there certain types of songs that the world needs MORE of…or maybe LESS of…in terms of themes, writing-quality and message?
WE: I listen to a lot of old stuff. Bob Dylan is my biggest song-writing hero, and I always go back to his stuff to remind me of why I want to write songs. To me it always seemed like Dylan did not care. He just wrote the songs and delivered them without ever finding the need to package it in shiny boxes. I want to preserve my artistic dignity that way. What I need as an artist? I need to be able to know that I have inspired at least a few people to express themselves in a meaningful way through whatever medium of art they choose. In terms of themes, writing quality, and message, I believe there are a lot of artists who offer that. Sadly they are not in the Top 40 charts. I guess we have to encourage listeners to be more discerning, and more aware of the world around them. If that happens, they will be the ones who will voluntarily look for significant and meaningful songs. Hopefully, there will be more to surface as an effect of that.
SBS: What do you feel like you’ve learned throughout the current recording process of Neon Lights In Black And White that might help other musicians out there just getting started? What else did you learn through this session that might help YOU personally when you go to make your next record?
WE: Always have a vision, and a plan on what to say in your music and how you will present it. Before I started recording a note of this EP, I knew exactly how the EP would look, sound, and feel. I made necessary adjustments along the way, and will probably make more, but I knew where exactly I want to go. I got it all figured out on paper. When I was younger, I would just do things and discover as I go along, which I think was a good thing when I was starting out. But try to at least dream up what you’d want to do. What sounds do you want to put in? What’s the general tone of a song, or an EP, or an album? What do you really want to say in this record? Ask yourself questions. Write down notes. Then leave it there in case you need to remind yourself. And then have fun.
SBS: Speaking of new record – when is the official release date for Neon Lights In Black And White anyhow? Once it’s out – what’s the plan brother? Touring? More writing? Time off? How does the end of a project feel for you – some feel empty and need to immediately start something new, others satisfied and let the process run its natural-course & life-cycle, promoting the album & such. So once Neon Lights In Black And White is out there William – what comes next for you?
WE: I am releasing it next month, December of 2015, to my mailing list members. And then I will arrange some shows here in Hong Kong on February in 2016 to attract new members and new groups of listeners. And then I will start living a normal life again with my loved ones. During those days I will gather material to work on my first full length album here in Hong Kong.
SBS: Websites William! You’ve got’em – we want’em! Where should we be sending the people online to find out more about you, your music and the release of the upcoming Neon Lights In Black And White EP?
WE: There you will find all updates and news about my works. You can also check out all of the albums I recorded in the past, if you feel like backtracking. You can also sign up for my mailing list from the website so you can have Neon Lights In Black And White on December 2015.
SBS: Brother-man…thanks so much for your time and answers. We’ve got a tradition here that kind of acts like a form of journalistic-insurance…we call it the SBS ‘Open Floor.’ Take this next space to say anything else you’d like to at all…anyone you’d like to thank or shout-out, anything we missed along the way through the interview or that you’d like to have talked about…anything at all. The floor is yours my friend – thank you again William!
WE: Thank you, SBS, for letting me tell my story through this interview. I’d like to send my shout-out to my partner Tanya Sales, who has provided me with loads of strength and inspiration to just do things without worrying (as long as I come home to her at the end of the day). The most important people I should probably mention are Alden Acosta and Victor Villareal, who started this whole crazy ride with me in 2010’s Happy Days Ahead project. All my mentors in the University of the Philippines also deserve all the gratitude for making me think this way today. Of course, this whole thing wouldn’t be possible without the support of the people who appreciated my music through all these years. I can’t mention all of you, but I will make sure this message will be delivered to everyone of you. Thank you. May the Universe enlighten us all.
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