I first came to know about Leon through a South China Morning Post article, where he opened up about battling anorexia. It’s uncommon to have a Singaporean be so vocal about eating disorders, and my interest was piqued.
I reached out to him and we met at a café for a chat.
He enters with a warm smile, and introduces himself, before exclaiming “I’ll say it first – I’m really awkward!”
Over the course of our conversation, however, I come to realize that he’s anything but so – instead he’s candid, kind, and extremely genuine.
Getting To Know Leon
At a young age of 21, Leon is a full time musician. Having worked previously for a sub-publisher under Universal Music Singapore, he is now an independent artiste who is transitioning into electronic music.
Leon did not want to be a musician initially. Instead, he had a great interest in swimming and wanted to be an athlete, but sustained injuries which left his dreams shattered. This coincided with the time when he was bullied and had to deal with family problems.
“My household is very traditional, so we learnt that boys were never allowed to cry or boys to express how they feel.”
“It was always “brush it off, move on – crying is a waste of time”. My pent up emotions were translated into poetry, and then into melodies.”
He says that his love for poetry was a result of his sister’s influence.
He used to admire her poems, but found that he did not have the same flair. He soon realized that writing melodies was more naturally for him, and transitioned into producing music.
As he was faring poorly in school, his mum decided to send him to a music school where he met his mentor. He laughs while saying how he ended up in a songwriting class althoughhis mother had signed him up for a keyboard class.
Beginning As A Lyricist
“My mentor said he saw something different so he forced me to write more and that’s how I started writing commercially as well for events and charity organization.”
When Leon first started as a lyricist, he was only 14 years old.
It was only last year was that he transitioned from having others sing his songs to performing his own songs.
“There have been instances where I am taking on these jobs and sometimes I include my own flair but I realized that commercially, people don’t get it. So I have a lot of these songs which I keep in my stash.”
When he moved on to polytechnic he had a group of friends who were also performers.
He played some of his songs and they had suggested he make his own record – to which he heeded. After realizing that it did fairly well on YouTube, he decided to start singing the songs that he’d been keeping for himself.
“But I’m still very much interested in writing songs for other people,” he says. Then his eyes light up.
“I really want to write songs for Disney shows or any John Green film!”
He then shared with me how at the only 15 years old, he conversed with John Green, sending the author various demos of his songs.
He had caught a whiff of the rumour that Green’s book, Looking For Alaska, would undergo a movie adaptation and wanted to write a song for the film. Although John Green appreciated his music, the plan ultimately fell through due to other circumstances.
Even so, Leon has been making a name for himself, having performed at Hong Kong’s Pink Dot event recently. He shares that a lot of his friends are a part of the LGBTQ community.
“At home I was taught to be very masculine so a lot of the things I learned about accepting myself I learnt it from my gay friends.”
This is also his defining characteristic as a singer – he’s vocal about what he stands for.
Grappling With Mental Health
Beneath the surface of his boyish good looks, Leon is actually battling anorexia and depression.
“I got diagnosed with anorexia a year ago and depression just recently – in certain ways it goes hand in hand. The reason why they couldn’t diagnose depression initially was because they were afraid that it wasn’t depression, but rather depressive symptoms because of anorexia.”
Leon attributes a part of this to his strict upbringing and his experiences of being bullied when he was younger. As his actions were considered to be more effeminate than his peers, he was a victim of bullying since he was in primary school.
He recalls being shoved against the trash bin in secondary school, and had no one he could confide in or approach for help.
This is also one of the things that Leon hopes to bring more attention to.
“When you say you get bullied, people usually say that you need to stand up for yourself, but they don’t understand that sometimes you’re really powerless against someone.”
He adds that people often don’t think that their words hold weight because they have yet to see how it physically destroys someone.
“While phrases such as “I’m just commenting why are you so sensitive?”, and “I’m just being honest, I don’t like to sugarcoat things” may be used often, there is a need to differentiate between criticisms and insults.”
“Just because you can take those insults, it doesn’t mean someone else can.”
It was only in polytechnic when Leon realized that his eating habits became very erratic. Although he knew he had an eating disorder, he found that he could not turn to anyone for help, pointing out the lack of support groups for people with eating disorders here.
He recalls breaking down while having his medical check up before National Service.
“Something in me snapped when they asked me “What’s wrong with you?” I took it personally – as though they were saying that there’s something wrong with me, so I started breaking down and talking about how I had anorexia.”
Since then, he is in therapy and has been vocal about it as he “does not want to be ashamed”. He hopes that by doing so, he will encourage more people to speak out about mental health and eating disorders.
“I think the hardest part is realizing that you need help and taking that step to go get help.”
It took Leon 3 years before he decided to seek help.
Even so, he admits that the resources available are insufficient.
“Most of the time they make sure that your weight is on track and your Body Mass Index (BMI) is okay. Apart from psychotherapy, you need a support group to share your experiences.”
He admits that forming such support groups may be tough as mental illness is a taboo topic here – those that suffer from it do not share their own experiences as they may find it shameful.
“When it reaches that stage you are more resistant to change because you are afraid that people will judge you – I think that’s the problem.”
He gives the example of treatment centers dedicated only to eating disorders in the US, saying that Singapore can work towards this.
Healing Through Music
Leon’s music is a reflection of the issues that he feels strongly for and stands for. His latest single, Alive, speaks about battling through tough times. Naturally, Leon hopes that his music will provide comfort and support for those that can relate to it.
One of his most memorable performances was held in a secondary school, because “the youths are very precious.” He recalls how he had a number of students who came up to him after his show, saying that they related to his songs and thanked him for helping them.
One girl in particular, revealed that she was also suffering from anorexia – Leon was the first person whom she told.
It’s clear from Leon’s expression that the girl left a deep impression on him.
“When you do music you don’t know how far it will go, it’s only when you perform it that you find out. To hear that because of my music people are also working to make themselves better, especially youths, it’s very heartwarming.”
Even so, Leon’s journey is not smooth sailing. He admits that one of the toughest things about being a full time musician is earning the dough. Having to prove himself as a musician is also another challenge.
“I am not the most good looking guy, neither am I the one that writes songs about love or charms girls.” He laughs shyly, “I cannot do that – I cannot charm girls cos I’m so awkward.”
Leon enjoys creating art, making music, visualizing concepts, and making music videos, so those outweigh all the negative aspects that he has to deal with. Surprisingly, Leon doesn’t like to perform on stage because of his self-proclaimed awkwardness.
“I’m super awkward on stage – I say it out loud so everyone knows.”
“I’ll go, “hey guys, I know I’m very awkward but I hope you guys like my music,” but when I start singing and having people come up to me to tell me my music has helped them then it changes.”
He describes how seeing the audience have a sense of liberation on their own drives him to look past the awkwardness and to “continue being awkward and playing shows”.
For Leon, performing his songs makes him feel as though they’re connected as a family – this sense of community is something he missed out on when he was younger.
“When I was young, I never had a chance to make friends or have a community that understands what I do, so having this keeps me going.”
Leon says that as much as he would love to be commercially successful, he hopes that everything he puts out would generate conversation about topics that are not discussed often enough.
His next record is going to be “very blunt, I would say – both visually and lyrically.” His songs will include topics such as freedom of speech, race, women rights and rape culture.
He shares how his mum raised him single handedly, and has overcome challenges – he has seen all these powerful women in his life but realized that things are different beyond the four walls of his home.
“On the surface both sexes are of equal standing, but then males often act in a way where it seems as though females are beneath them.”
He admits that as an individual it may be hard to make a change, but holds onto the hope that he can make waves.
“If I put something out that someone would talk about, then someone else might put something out. Eventually it becomes so normalized that people don’t feel that it’s awkward to talk about it.”
He adds that it’s not necessarily about having an instant change, but rather to make people more open to the subject.
To Leon, having a greater understanding of the topic is more important than accepting a different perspective – something that he hopes to achieve through his songs.
He hopes to create a safe haven for people – for his audience to be happy and let loose. This is the main theme for his shows, and the reason he claims to dress weirdly during his performances.
“It’s not because I like to dress weird but if I do so, someone may look at me and think, “I’m weird but I don’t think I can be weirder than him” so they’ll be more comfortable. It’s my own approach to things.”
Despite his own struggles, it’s clear to me that Leon actively tries to make a positive difference in the lives of other people.
At the end of our hour-long chat it feels like I’ve made a new friend – I find myself surprised, but also moved that he was willing to share his story with me even though it was the first time we’ve met.