Laid up by an accident, the Singaporean D&B producer joined forces with poet Deborah Emmanuel. Together, they've created one of 2019's most distinctive albums
Here’s a life hack you might be wise to consider: never overstack cups. It doesn't sound like much of a game-changer, admittedly – but it just might save you from an extended period of isolation and acute, depressing spells of deep self-criticism. Just ask Jonathan Kiat: he never got this life hack memo and paid the price three years ago.
“In a split second the cup fell down, hit the top of the sink and I instinctively jumped backwards,” explains the Singapore-based multi-disciplinarian, a DJ, producer, visual artist and designer known best for probing the outer edges of drum & bass with releases on the likes of Metalheadz, Function and Defrostatica. “The handle popped out, flew across the kitchen and a little ceramic shard sliced clean through my tendon, like a samurai sword. I felt no pain, just the warmth of the blood.”
This triggered a brief dark chapter for Kiat. It led to him becoming immobile, house-ridden, frustrated and looking like “a really lame version of Wolverine.”
“I had this metal hook in the end of my toe,” he explains. “I couldn’t wear shoes. I couldn’t walk. I was angry, depressed, I couldn’t do anything. I had to cancel tours, shows, no sport. I had to figure out how to work at home without the use of my foot.”
The accident saw Kiat out of action the best part of a year, but something happened a few months into his sudden spate of solitude. His wife Cherry gave him a book – Rebel Rites, by fellow Singapore artist Deborah Emmanuel. It draws on her experiences as a teenager who was caught up in drugs and spent time in the Singapore prison system.
“The book was about resisting the system. I’m pleased it gave him some hope,” says Deborah, who was already more than aware of Kiat’s work: as one of the city’s longest standing DJs he’d soundtracked many of her formative nights getting into electronic music and drum & bass. “But it was when we met the magic happened. We clicked on a variety of wavelengths and it seemed natural to pursue a project.”
“I realised either I could be pissed off with myself and just consistently regret the whole incident, or I could find a positive situation from it,” considers Kiat. “We had a very good connection so I said, ‘Let’s write some music and see what comes out of it.’ Off the bat we clicked musically – I found her words added new layers to my music. I wanted to do something positive with it, but you can only do so much with electronic music. The ideas in her text made it easier for a lot more people to access what we were trying to communicate.”
And so Polymorphism was born: a beguiling blend of ambient textures, trip-hop elements, beats and Deborah’s distinctive spoken word. It began with a few experiments using found sounds and some of Deborah’s existing poems, but escalated quickly when they were invited to perform at local Aliwal Urban Arts Festival, then the Singapore Writers' Conference, which led to a booking at Barcelona International Poetry Festival.
Since last month, Polymorphism is now also a record. Released on Kiat’s own Syndicate label, it’s a hazy hug of an album that deals with some of the most vital factors of life on the cusp of the 2020s: our environment, our respect for each other and the fact we're all infinitesimally small specs of dust in the great scheme of things. “Those shows really gave us the drive to create most of the album. It went from just trying things out and having fun in the studio to something a lot more serious,” explains Kiat.
For both Kiat and Deborah the theme is one of positivity, even though many of the lyrics and themes deal with provocative and heavy concepts. On Fermi, for example, Deborah considers the idea that the world will be better when the human race finally kills itself. In Woman, she lays down brutal truths abou inequality and objectification. But rather than dwelling on the problems, Deborah’s poetry attempts to seek solutions. And the album conclusion throws a different light onto the discussion, as both Deborah and Kiat ask us listeners who we want to be. A very clear notion that we don’t have to act like the examples being set by world leaders and corporate companies.
“If we all believe everything is going to pieces, it is going to pieces,” says Deborah. “I’m not saying live in ignorance, but I do trust if we help to wake each other up and do our part and not just think because no one else is doing it then we won’t do it either, then we can change things.”
“We can focus on things like relationships, things we are all in control of,” adds Kiat. “Things we can change and affect with one conversation or gig or piece of writing. It would be egotistical or idealistic to say we’re going to change the world – unless you’re Elon Musk – but one positive vibration can create millions of positive vibrations.”
If the tale of Kiat’s falling cup is anything to go by, then even a negative vibration can have a positive outcome. The tendon-shredding incident created a firm creative pact between the producer and poet, which has now led to them working on a series of house tracks together, taking cues from the legacy set by acts such as Ursula Rucker and Gil Scott-Heron. Not only that, but for Kiat it’s led to a whole new creative mindset and viewpoint.
“It helped me to explore a whole range of ideas that I’d been too busy or distracted to explore,” says Kiat who still has a stash of unreleased music he wrote during the time when he broke through his frustrated fug.
“I also realised I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I’m over-critical with everything I make. Doing this album and having the time to listen over things has given me the confidence to approach things. It’s not what I think about it, it’s how I feel about it. It’s important to put your brain aside and let your heart make your decision for you. That was the biggest revelation I had. I would also advise you not to rush in the kitchen, don’t stack your cups too high and maybe wear some shoes…”
Words: Dave Jenkins Deborah Emmanuel pic: Maria Baranova
Polymorphism is out now on Syndicate – buy it here.