Jeremy Monteiro: Writing jingles killed my creativity

Local music magic-maker Jeremy Monteiro opens up about his journey from jingles to jazz on a world stage

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To his younger fans, Jeremy Monteiro is the master of feel-good jazz tunes that warm the heart and soul.

Still, the older crowd may recall a time in the 1980s when Jeremy was known as “the Jingle Man”. With catchy singsong commercials for big brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Cadbury, his portfolio sings to the tune of some 500 jingles.

But despite his impressive accomplishments, Jeremy decided to give up writing commercial tunes in 1991 to focus on a jazz career.

It was the right move, as many would say. Jeremy, who shot to international fame with his 1988 performance at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, had a talent too large to ignore. Besides being a jazz maestro, he also had a hand in writing national songs “We Are Singapore” (1987) and “One People, One Nation, One Singapore” (1990).

On Oct 16, Jeremy will be taking to the stage with Hong Kong jazz guitarist Eugene Pao, a longtime friend and musical collaborator, at Victoria Concert Hall for a tribute concert, “To Paris with Love”, to the legendary French composer Michel Legrand.

Ahead of the performance, Weekender speaks to Jeremy about his shift from jingles to jazz and life beyond music-making.

Other than “To Paris With Love”, what have you been busy with recently?

I was busy rehearsing with the Southbank Sinfonia Orchestra in London for our performance in Hong Kong [held on Sep 22]. I’ve also been practicing with Italian organist Alberto Marsico and the Jazz-Blues Brothers for our performance at the EFG London Jazz Festival on Nov 18.

How have you been personally inspired by Michel Legrand?

I grew up with the music of Michel Legrand as my Dad had his albums… Legrand’s style and sound is part of my musical psyche and this has been so for many years.

How will you be bringing your musical style to “To Paris With Love”?

Eugene and I will play a piece which was first inspired by a train journey I took with Eugene and some other musicians from Paris to the small French town of Segré. The sound and rhythm of the train’s wheels on the tracks reminded me of the Brazilian Choro beat.

I had written a section of it but I was stuck. I shared the half I wrote with Eugene and he took it to a whole new higher level with a great “B” section and the “Ta-Da!” ending of the tune.

The song is written in a mix of styles inspired by the sound of France’s Gypsy music… [It’s] reminiscent of the great French Gypsy musician Django Reinhardt, whose style Michel Legrand admired and infused in some of his work.

Jeremy Monteiro

Jeremy has enraptured audiences around the world with his feel-good jazz tunes

In three words, describe how you feel when you’re performing.

Only music exists.

Would you ever go back to jingle-making?

I stopped doing jingles in 1991… doing that kind of work was killing my creative spirit… I did one or two in the couple of years after that for friends who virtually begged me. After that, I told myself I was done. I have no intention of going back and haven’t in the past 23 years.

Writing more National Songs and movie scores are not included. If I get offers to do those, I would.

What’s playing in your playlist now?

Tommy Flanagan – The Jazz Poet. Various tracks from Cannonball Adderley (and his brother Nat). Random stuff shile surfing Spotify. I have quite random listening habits, but I listen to all genres.

I’ve also been listening to a lot more orchestral classical pieces lately to try and learn orchestration techniques.

Which is your favourite city to play in and why?

I’m Gemini, I have no real favourite anything. So I think Gemini’s are bluffing if they say they have favourites.

But I have come to love performing in Bangkok, Germany and London because the audiences are very responsive and appreciative of me in those places.

I also really love performing at home because the home audience now shows nothing but love and appreciation for my work.

What Singapore food do you like to indulge in?

After a long trip, I head to my neighbourhood hawker centre and wallop a plate of char kway teow (fried noodles).

Other than that, my two favourite restaurants in Singapore are Samy’s Curry and Rendezvous Nasi Padang. For Western food, it’s a hard fight between Sky on 57 and Iggy’s. See? Still no favourite!

What is the most challenging part about your job?

The non-musical parts of it. The marketing, organisation and production details. I hope to do less of that in the next year and will hire a more high-powered manager to allow me to concentrate on creating music, whether composing or performing or dreaming up show concepts.

This means I may be able to become more productive in creating music.

Jeremy and Eugene

Jeremy (left) will play in “To Paris With Love” on Oct 16 with fellow jazz musician Eugene Pao (right)

How do you personally feel about Singapore’s changing music scene?

There are more musicians and the quality of music has actually increased many-fold, but because music is now a commodity and has been devalued because of its accessibility, it may not feel so special both artiste and listener.

We are all so spoilt for choice [with many] channels to consume music, often for little or nothing. I try not to think about that and just walk on the routes and pathways I have created for myself.

Has SG50 been very busy for you, and how have you been spending your spare time?

My work in the first nine months of this year is equivalent in intensity and quantity  to everything I have done in 2013 and 2014, combined. So much for slowing down!

I snatch two to three day breaks when I am in Europe. Just before starting my work in London last week, I went for a quiet weekend trip to Oxford.

I usually will visit an old European city like Heidelberg during my work trips to Europe and chill there for three or four days.

When I’m in Singapore, I try to have days where I just vegetate. I have to grab my rest and recreation where I can… I listen to my body and don’t allow myself to be burnt out, but I also love my work so it doesn’t really feel like work, unless I get physically tired… I usually try to watch the “orange warning lights” in my mind and back off when I can.

What advice would you give to locals in Singapore who are considering moving into the music industry?

It’s really hard if you are starting out. I would say, “Don’t do it!”. Hahahaha! But if you insist on still doing it and if you are talented, I would do what I can to encourage you and use whatever small influence I have to get people to support you.

What upcoming projects can fans see you in?

Besides “To Paris With Love” on Oct 16, the next big one is my 11th Jazzy Christmas Concert at the Esplanade on Nov 18, “Frankly, It’s Christmas”. It will commemorate late jazz singer’s Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday.

By Pamela Chow

Jeremy Monteiro will be performing at Victoria Concert Hall on Oct 16 in “To Paris With Love”. Get your tickets here.

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