Sometime towards the end of 1994 I was living life in a daze. My older brother died suddenly aged 23, two weeks after my 17th birthday. I was destroyed. I’m still destroyed to this day - but that’s another story.
My all-consuming school work suddenly lost its meaning and I coasted through classes as worried teachers looked on, unable to help me. In that instant, my focus shifted - I lived life recklessly, and with urgency. I don’t think I’ve ever lived so honestly since.
By this point, I was a minor celebrity in my hometown of Hong Kong, packing out clubs in Lan Kwai Fong - the epicentre of 90s nightlife and live music. Underage drinking and singing the blues became my lifeline. The only thing that kept my head ever so slightly above water was opening my mouth and blowing people away with pipes I hadn’t quite learned to control yet. I had volume and soul, and overnight it was infused with deep sorrow that people couldn’t quite fathom from a 17 year-old.
After a gig, as I was on both a massive post-show high and quite possibly drunk on red wine as usual, a man approached me and said ‘hi, I’m Todd’ (I think it was Todd..?).. And to my surprise, he had made me a mixtape (it was the 90s, people!) after having been to several of my gigs. I was pretty overwhelmed that someone would do something so thoughtful for me and be compelled to do so after hearing me sing.
The next morning, with a cloudy head, I put the tape on. I can’t really remember much else about it other than the moment the pure, unaffected voice of Aimee Mann pierced the stale, sad air in my room with the words:
Today's the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think what a waste of gunpowder and sky
Those LYRICS. Good god. How did she write like that? How did she express so much, with so much simplicity? In that second, I learned that to be a great artist, you don’t need the biggest voice, you just need to be honest. In that moment, I decided I wanted to become a great songwriter. To learn how to observe life around me and to craft words that twist around a melody without it ever sounding laboured. To write a song that could touch people without me singing it as loud as humanly possible.
22 years later, I am a little less drunk, and a little less reckless. But I am still learning from Aimee Mann. I go faithfully to her gigs in London and her gigs in tiny venues in the middle of nowhere. I am in fact, a total fanboy, going to hear her sing 4th of July over and over again in the hope that one day, a little bit of her genius will rub off on me.
To Todd - wherever you are. Sorry I never called you to thank you for the tape. Sorry if your name isn’t even Todd. It took me the longest time to claw my way out of my despair, but throughout that despair, music was always by my side. And the music you shared with me changed my life - for that, I am so very grateful.