There are very few people out there that have the honour of being called a triple threat. Annette Lee is one of them. Singer-songwriter, actor and director. These are all credentials that this spitfire from Singapore carries. If that’s not enough, her short films have been featured in various film festivals including Singapore Short Film Awards, Cana Film Festival and many more – and she’s only 27 years old! Lee gained fame after joining the Singaporean based humour platform SGAG, where she writes scripts, directs, as well as acts in videos. Now she’s jumping right into the music scene with her new single Song for the Underdog. She is also releasing a three part web series called “You Only Debut Once”, so basically, there is nothing this woman can’t do.
Annette herself is no stranger to being the underdog. Being a woman of colour in an industry that is heavily dominated by straight white males, she’s had her fair share of struggles to get to where she is now. From facing rejections to even getting ‘fired’ from gigs – she’s gone through it all and emerged on top. We had the pleasure to sit down and talk to her about her latest single, struggles, musical inspirations and more.
What inspired you to make “Song for the Underdog”? What is the message behind it?
The song is an anthem for everyone one out there who have been broken and beaten down, laughed at or belittled. Those who have been told they will never make it in life (myself included), to encourage them there is a hope to win that they just cannot see just yet.
Was this song inspired by personal experiences?
Yes, both that and from the stories of others’ as well. Growing up, I always felt like the odds were stacked against me. I was never the cool kid, definitely not a rich kid, my family was dysfunctional and I was constantly falling ill – the list goes on. Yet I’ve seen times in my life where I found victory after pressing on, despite the odds being stacked against me. I believe that the same can happen for anyone out there having a hard time too.
You write, direct and act all in one go, how do you manage to juggle between all of that AND find time to make music? How did you manage to find a balance among it all?
I get this question a lot, and the honest answer is – I just don’t have a lot of fun… HAHA. But I guess for me, work is my fun. I’m so passionate about creating art that I love spending time writing new music and stories. I know this sounds like I live in a cave but on the contrary, I love being around people too. Being on set is actually my favourite part of the filmmaking process because I love seeing people come together to recreate a reality. I also take time to meet friends every now and then.
But I guess how I seem to find time for all my work is because I consciously take deliberate breaks in between projects to travel, consume more art, or engage in meaningful conversations. It’s often my downtimes that actually grant me more inspiration (eg. my next single ‘Gold’ is a song inspired after travelling to gold mines), and that accelerates my creative fuel when I dive back to work after a break.
What made you want to pursue this line of work?
I’ve always been a creative, and I find my meaning in creating songs and stories. I’ve heard it said that the worst thing you could do to a creative is stop them from ever creating, and it’s definitely a true statement. I simply cannot imagine a life otherwise!
Song for the Underdog reflects your own music journey in a way, can you reflect on that a little bit?
When I mentioned the odds stacked against me, they definitely included a lot of obstacles while pursuing music. I got ‘fired’ from a bar gig once, after my first night of performing because the bar owner didn’t like my singing. I also applied for many local music competitions and mentorship programmes. In Singapore’s small music scene, that was one of the only ways to get to know local music producers and get music made, but I constantly got rejected. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise however, because those failures led me to try my luck send my songs in to Nashville producers Ed and Scott Cash. They loved my songs and produced my very first EP. That was definitely an underdog win for me haha.
Growing up, was it hard for you to practice music?
Yes! It really hard for me to practice singing in general, because I grew up in a really tiny apartment with really thin walls. I could only practice at night, when I came back from school/work, but my family would always tell me to keep quiet because it’s late. So I often ended up practicing in the lift. My apartment had 25 stories and I’d ride the elevator up and down from the 3rd to the 25th story for about 20 minutes every day, just to practice. (I wouldn’t take the lift to the 1st floor because then people would come in and I won’t have privacy. Just a disclaimer – there were multiple lifts in the lobby so I wasn’t hogging it!)
Your short films Keep Mum and Graduation have featured in various film festivals across Asia, what has that experience been like?
Keep Mum and Graduation screened at multiple local film festivals and got nominated for and/or won awards which was really cool and humbling for me as I was still a student when I made them. But it was probably getting news that I’ll be sponsored a trip to Hong Kong for an International film festival that ‘Graduation’ got into – that really took the cake! It was definitely a dream come true to have your short film recognised outside of your home country, and it was so eye-opening meeting filmmakers from so many other countries.
Who are your life and musical inspirations?
One of my greatest musical role models has got to be Brooke Fraser. She’s someone I admire and respect for her lyrical poetry and the charismatic authority she carries even in her life, even beyond her music.
In my life, I’m very inspired by my dad as well, who taught me resilience and perseverance. He grew up with polio, but he defied the odds to become such a great man, husband, and dad, with constantly such a positive outlook on life. He’s also actually the one who first introduced music into my life, when he constantly had The Beatles, Michael Learns To Rock, Queen etc. on repeat on cassette ever since I was a baby!
What can the fans expect from your new EP?
In general, I love writing about being human and the honest questions that come along with that. For this record in particular, I was pretty inspired by a lot of comedy films that I’d been consuming, and thinking about how they have the best underdog stories. Because they’re not about cool warriors or superheroes, they’re often about someone full of flaws, fighting the tremendous odds stacked against them. In the end, they often win in the most fun and honest ways. That fight is always so much more fun to watch than the fight of a character that’s close to perfect. So I’d say this EP is both a fun and honest way of tackling themes of finding our footing in the world, and searching for victory despite our flaws.
Can you tell us a little more about your web series ‘You Only Debut Once’? Why is that story so important to tell?
‘You Only Debut Once’ is a show about a Singaporean girl trying to be a Kpop star. It’s actually inspired by a real-life event in Singapore in 2017 – a group of Asian girls formed a Kpop band, posted a ‘debut video’ online and were slammed by internet cyberbullies. My heart went out to the girls because their stories resonated with me so much: they were girls with a dream being told they’ll never make it – a lot like who I was growing up. So I wondered, what would happen to them 10 years down the road? Would they still be chasing their dreams? That was what inspired the premise of the web series.
I felt that it was a story important to tell because I’m sure that many people would relate to being told by someone that they won’t succeed. Yet the shows I’ve grown up watching about chasing dreams are always about a protagonist is often perfectly talented whom you know will make it in the end. I wanted to do something different, and tell an honest underdog story about a singer who just isn’t the most talented person, and whom you aren’t sure if she’ll make it in the end. A story about someone a lot more like most of us.
Featured image courtesy of WMA.