Sitting on a couch in the Soho offices of music production company People Mountain People Sea after a long day of media interviews, Eman Lam (26) and Ellen Joyce Loo (22) want to know why Time Out put them in the top 20. “Why are we selected in the list?”, asks Lam. “We were very shocked,” adds Loo.
The truth is that while they can fill large arenas with tens of thousands of adoring fans, have enjoyed strong showings in Hong Kong’s popular music charts – including a top ten entry for their recent single Over the Rainbow – and have bagged numerous awards, they’re not satisfied with the heights they have reached.
“We still think it’s not a very bright success,” says Lam, who happens to be the sister of Chet, who also made our top 20. “No matter how many claps, how many applause, how much screaming you get, you’re still not the main character.”
Lam is speaking with frustration about Hong Kong’s music industry, in which performers can be packaged by labels and sold as products.”It’s kind of discouraging to work in music sometimes,” she says, pointing out that too often the media and the industry care only about gimmicks: what will they be wearing? Who’s going to turn up at their show? Loo concurs: “The thing that sometimes depresses us is, no matter how hard you try, or how you try to work on… our music, people don’t really listen to the details or the production.”
But that’s what we like about at17. While the Cantopop industry is too often slave to commercially-friendly, vacuous pop songs that favour catchy melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics over substance, at17 exert a creative intelligence that sets them apart from their contemporaries. In Over the Rainbow, for instance, the references to Kermit the Frog (the opening bars are an exact match to the start of Rainbow Connection) and Judy Garland’s classic of the same name from The Wizard of Oz pass largely unnoticed. Perhaps even the song’s main message – believing in a magical world that can offer hope in hard times – is also lost on most.
But the girls are learning to deal with such disappointment. ”We slowly got to realise that even if ten out of 10,000 people understand what you’re doing, it’s worth it,” says Loo. More importantly, they’re staying true to their independent beginnings and retain much creative control over their music, performances, and production. Even the release of their new album, also called Over the Rainbow, is unusual: instead of releasing all the album’s songs in one hit, they’re releasing them in four EPs over a 12-month time period, with a different theme for each.
Asked where they see themselves in terms of the general landscape of the Hong Kong music industry, Loo says: “I always think that we’re standing on the verge of everything.” Lam is more emphatic: “We are so countryside.”
Clearly, the creative soil is more fertile out there.
Recommended listening: Over the Rainbow (2008-2009)
at17 play a special jazz and Latin show in December with 78-year-old Rebecca Pan – the “Queen of Indie,” as Eman Lam calls her – at the Academy Performing Arts.