Pete Teo: Malaysian Troubadour Poet

It’s January 4, 2002, 11pm at No Black Tie. Pete Teo approaches the mic and plugs in his guitar. After introducing himself to the crowd, which had grown quieter, he plucks the opening chords of his first song, “Alive and Free”.

Looking somewhat sombre and aloof, with eyes closed, Pete’s mouth opens and a voice like Cat Stevens’s with Marianne Faithfull’s timbre steps down from the sound system. The room falls silent.

“Welcome to my living

Sit down, while I undo my trimmings

It’s cold out, I’m glad you came by

How did you recognise me?”

To anyone who was there, it was obvious that Pete Teo is not a musician who rides on a big sound to please his audience. Instead, like a modern-day troubadour poet, he tells stories, paints intimate mini-dramas and describes scenes that could’ve come from 1940s noir films.

When I tell Pete that his ‘folksy singer-songwriter’ approach is refreshingly different from the usual ‘pub-cover blues’, ‘slicked up jazz pop’ or ‘alternate-rock-metal’ fare one gets on the local live music circuit, he readily acknowledges it.

“With my songs, the lyrics are important. I don’t go out of my way to wow people with my guitar playing. I know many wonderful musicians who do that successfully, but that’s not my style. I am a storyteller and have absolutely no ambition to be a guitar hero.”

It’s a rare attitude to have in the local music scene where most musicians try to outdo one another with technical virtuosity, which more often than not seems revelatory only to the musicians themselves. It’s no surprise then to discover that Pete acquired this attitude to music while studying abroad.

“In England, I was exposed to a particularly European approach to creativity, which centres more on ideas. That was the artistic environment that shaped me, and that’s where I come from as a musician. I have always spent more time reading than listening to music or practising.”

Oddly enough, for all his creative endeavours, Pete’s sojourn in England almost plunged him into academia. One fateful night, while sharing a drink with his mentor, Pete (then finishing a masters while moonlighting as composer for Channel 4) sought advice on whether to pursue books or music. The reply: “Music.”

And that’s what Pete did. Contrary to his Gen X slacker looks, Pete has courted fame in unlikely places. As the writing half of the recording duo Mid-Century (the other half being vocalist Grace Au), Pete recorded two albums in the early 90s, one under BMG, and another with Hong Kong-based producer Leo Fung. It was a brief and strange foray into Cantopop, but no more, Pete adds.

So why has the 37-year-old only now decided to perform his own solo material?

“At first, Leo and I were talking about me partnering up again with Grace. But after hearing my latest compositions, Leo felt I should seriously think about going solo. I suppose I’ve always wanted to do a solo record but the opportunity never came up.”

Until now, that is. According to Pete, he’ll be taking time out in the next few months to record that first solo album. Leo Fung will helm recording engineer duties and release date is slated for June.

The as-yet-untitled album will include most of the songs that he performed at his recent NBT and Acoustic Jam gigs, such as “Alive and Free”, “Rhapsody in Blue”, “Budapest” and “Red House”.. Expect to hear the songs with a minimal amount of tweaking. According to Pete, it’ll be a quiet album – moody, dark and sparse.

“It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m not really out there to please everyone. Like most musicians, I get a huge buzz from receiving positive responses but that’s just a bonus. What I want to do is to make music that’s intense and evocative.”

Is Pete Teo the next big thing? Judging by current trends in pop music, it’s a long shot. But if his haunting live performances are anything to go by, it’s clear we can expect well-crafted music from Pete that is rich and engaging in imagery, poetry and pathos.


First Published: 28.01.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…