Emerging artist Gene Phoa is an Adelaide-based musician who has searched far and wide to find his true calling, and he already has some significant achievements to his name. After leaving his job in marketing to go backpacking, he reconnected with music at an open mic night in India. There he realised that his heart’s desire was to create and perform. Since trading in office work for a career on stage he has performed at over 200 events across SA, garnered a songwriting award at the 2019 SCALA Festival of Original Music, and premiered his debut cabaret show 500 Nights of Winter with a sell out season at the 2021 Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Welcome Gene, I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience leaving your job to pursue an inner calling. As a former backpacker you’re likely missing international travel given the current affairs. What did you learn during your year off travelling through Asia?
Hey Jennifer, great to have a chat!
Yeah, it’s obviously a shame with everything that has happened, however I am grateful to have been back in Australia these last few years. As to what I learnt during my travels through Asia, well, a lot. I could probably write a whole book about it! But overall, I would say the key lesson was “letting go”.
When I started travelling, I had some ideas of what I would do after travelling. Believe it or not, I actually thought that I would stay in marketing as that’s all I had known for the last few years. However, as I started visiting new places, meeting new people and experiencing new things, I realised that my old plans didn’t align with what I really wanted. Plus, Southeast Asia and India are pretty chaotic places in general, which forces you to let go of your plans and ‘go with the flow’ a little bit just to stay sane!
Once I let go and started enjoying the ride, things really started to open up. I began doing things that I had never planned nor imagined. Things like motorcycling the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam, attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat in the north of India and performing at an open mic in the south.
I guess that up until then I had been more of a thinker than a feeler. And while that can be helpful in certain situations, letting go of what I knew and embracing the unknown really helped me to reconnect with my intuition, develop self-trust and explore new possibilities, which was the beginning of my path with music.
That’s quite a personal journey, I would read such a book, you should write it. Describe the process of adjusting from a day job to a freelance creative career. Did you have structures in place, or did you ‘go with the flow’ as they say?
My process is probably a little different to the norm. I had already left my day job to go travelling and freelancing [opportunities] fell into my lap while I was going with the flow.
I think I was backpacking through Thailand at the time when an old client reached out to me via email. They liked my previous work and asked me if I wanted to write articles for a business that they were just about to start. Of course, I said “yes” as all I needed was an internet connection, and the work would help me to extend my travels!
So yeah, I lived the digital nomad lifestyle for a little bit writing articles from hostels and random cafes. While that provided a unique level of freedom, it was challenging in that I had to be self-directed and build my own structures from scratch. The experience was definitely invaluable though as the skills have naturally transferred over to my current pursuits.
Speaking of other skills, tell me about your songwriting, for which you’ve already been recognised as a lyricist by SCALA, what types of stories do you like to tell?
Songwriting has always been an outlet for me. I had a lot of issues in expressing myself growing up, and songwriting became a beautiful tool for me to get in touch with, and release my repressed emotions. Consequently, the stories that I like to tell are those that are about my relationships, whether that be with myself, with others, or the world at large.
I think that the joy, the turmoil, and the personal growth that comes with how we manage our relationships is something that many people will be able to relate with, so that’s why I figured that I had to work towards sharing my songs as an artist and not just remain as a closet songwriter.
Your songwriting has been recognised further this year. Congratulations for your recent acceptance into the Interplay artist development program by Nexus Arts, what does this selection mean for you as an emerging artist, and what have you gained from the program so far?
Thank you! Getting into the Interplay program has meant multiple things for me.
First, validation. I love the arts in that you can be anyone and anyone can get involved. However, this also means that you don’t necessarily get awarded a specific job title as you do in a conventional job. Being accepted into Interplay felt like a promotion from being a musician to being an ‘artist’.
Second, support. Emily and Naomi from Nexus Arts have been really supportive in helping me understand the arts industry and gain clarity on my projects. Having people who can back you in your corner also just makes you feel less alone as an emerging artist!
Third, community. Being amongst other artists from culturally diverse backgrounds has been really eye-opening… or should I say ear-opening? Aside from learning from their diverse array of sounds and experiences, it has helped me gain clarity on who I am as an artist and what I have to offer.
Not only do you write and perform your songs, but you’ve also tried your hand at producing. Tell me what inspired your debut cabaret show 500 Nights of Winter, and are you pleased with the outcome?
My debut cabaret show, 500 Nights of Winter, was born from a semester of studying on a university exchange in Denmark. I met a German girl over there and she was the first girl that I really fell for. And when things didn’t play out how I dreamt them to, I was crushed. Although it happened many years ago, we kept in touch over the years and the chapter never fully closed – at least on my end.
She actually inspired me to write my first few songs, however, I could never finish them. I liked them as they were really catchy but it was like I was afraid to work on them in case I messed them up. Anyway, during lockdown last year, I dusted off those lyrics and sat down to finish them. And what began as a handful of songs turned into a collection of 12. While it felt very cathartic to write the songs, I still felt that I needed to get the story off my chest to fully close that chapter of my life, and so I wrote a script and that’s how the show was born.
As to my thoughts on the outcome of the debut season, sharing this story and going through the process of putting on a show for the first time was satisfying in itself. Selling out the three nights and getting it over the finishing line despite having one night cancelled and replaced 48 hours later was a relief. Presenting it alongside an incredibly talented emerging artist in Courteney Hooper and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback was just the cherry on top!
That’s quite an accomplishment for your first production, well done! You’ve hinted at a recording project to be launched later this year, is there anymore you can tell us about this?
As both a songwriter and song listener, I’ve always aligned with the idea that when you write a song it’s for you, but when you release a song it becomes something for the people. Writing my songs and sharing my story through 500 Nights of Winter allowed me to have my say and close that chapter of my life once and for all. But now I want to open up those songs to the public and give them the opportunity to adopt them and attach their own experiences to them. So that’s the first step of what this recording project will be about.
You’ve shared your experiences on a different type of stage as a speaker for Altitude Day, presented by yLead at the Adelaide Convention Centre. Do you envision exploring this type of work further and using your platform as a musician to encourage other people to do the same?
Yes, definitely. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication for me and I think that speaking is another great way to get your message across as well as to give back. My aim isn’t necessarily to encourage people to do what I’ve done or to pursue music in particular. I think that people possess their own unique set of talents, experiences and aspirations. What I want to do though is to share the underlying lessons that I have learnt to help people along their journey, whether that involves music or not.
What would you say to people in a typical job who may be considering pursuing their inner calling, unsure of where to start?
Well, I think that if they are considering it and it’s not going away, it’s there for a reason. So the first thing that I would say is listen to that calling and get it down on paper.
Second, start small. We don’t necessarily need to ‘shoot for the moon’ straight off the bat. Taking small and very achievable steps like reading up on [an idea] and running tests to try it out builds momentum and will help you find out if what you wrote down is actually what you want to commit to.
Third, it’s impossible to know how things can and will play out from the get-go. The only way to know is to find out for yourself. As you get going, you end up learning new things, meeting new people and discovering new opportunities that can’t be seen from the starting line. So the main thing is that you take that leap of faith and get started. Once you’re on the path, you can pivot along the way to suit your particular situation. If you’re not on the path at all, you could spend your whole life considering and wondering, “what if?”
Thank you Gene for taking the time to share your valuable insights with the studio clients and readers of The Serenade Files.
You can learn more about Gene Phoa’s creative work by visiting genephoa.com