Letters to Ubin: A musical tapestry inspired by a 'spirit animal'

Inch Chua performs her first single, MouseDeer in her album Letters to Ubin.

Inch Chua may have performed in various venues across the world and mingled with stars in the music industry, but it was a rare sighting of an endangered animal on an island in Singapore that provided the singer-songwriter the inspiration for her new single and album.

Her moment of epiphany happened during a “magic hour” one morning earlier this year on the idyllic island of Ubin.

Recounting the experience of her creative retreat on the island from March to June, Chua told Yahoo Singapore that a certain “magic hour” usually happens on Ubin around three to four o’clock in the morning, when the crickets stop chirping and silence permeates the air.

“You could almost hear the trees breathing and the leaves moving, and feel that spirit of the island walking with you.”

It was during one fleeting moment of the magical morning, while she was cycling in the woods when she spotted the mysterious mousedeer.

Upon seeing her “spirit animal”, she immediately went back to the kampung house that she was staying on Ubin to pen a song.

“I was trying to figure out why I wanted to be a mousedeer, and why I was so enamored by it, and the song kind of answered that question,” she said.

Not surprisingly then, MouseDeer was the title of Chua’s new single taken off Letters to Ubin, the upcoming fourth album of her musical career.

Chua said the mousedeer made her reflect on the “endangered” Singaporean spirit in an urban society.

An inspirational island with a history

The 27-year-old’s association with Ubin goes back many years, and the island has always been a special place for Chua and her family.

One of her aunts, who is a professor in architecture at NUS, has often brought her students to Ubin to restore old houses there, while several of her family members are nature enthusiasts who have been doing work on the island for years.

“I feel Ubin is like our cabin in the woods, our place to get away,” she said.

“You feel different the moment you step on the island, it doesn’t feel like Singapore or Malaysia. It is an island with its own spirit.”

Going analogue in a digital age

Beyond providing the musical template for “Letters to Ubin”, her time on Ubin influenced her decision to release the album on the “rustic” cassette format in addition to the digital format. Only 50 tape copies will be available for purchase at her album launch and performance.

The analogue format has been a source of fascination for Chua since her tape-mixing days although she compiles and stores songs in thumbdrives nowadays.

“Even as a kid, I was never really good at writing letters so I would create mix tapes for people close to me to convey what I wanted to say. In a way, this album is like a mixtape to Ubin,” she said.

Story-telling through albums

To promote her latest album, Chua says she has plans to tour around Southeast Asia next year.

But Ubin is still close to her heart even after she left her musical sanctuary. She is even entertaining the idea of holding a music festival on the island down the road.

“Logistics is going to be insane, but it’ll be so awesome,” she said.

During her stay in Ubin, Chua composed more than 20 songs but picked six for the album in keeping with its theme.

As an artiste who has written songs blending genres ranging from folk, jazz, pop to alternative rock, Chua remains true to her album-making craft.

“I still believe in albums having a well-curated theme to them as each album should tell a story,”

Inch Chua will perform at the Aliwal Arts Centre on 26 November at the release launch of 'Letters to Ubin.' Tickets for the performance are priced at $20 each on Peatix, or $25 at the door. The cassette albums will be on sale at the launch. The album is also available for streaming on Spotify from 17 November.