By Jocelle Koh
On the outside, Singaporean singer-songwriter Marcus Lee 李俊緯 seems to be the perfect poster boy for the local burgeoning Mandopop scene. Blessed with good looks and a sunny warm disposition, his comforting love songs and ballads have proved themselves great additions to our songbooks in recent years. Hence, there’s no doubt why he’s been labelled an artist to watch, even taking home the ‘Artist of the Year (non-English)’ award at 2021’s SCAPE Youth Music Awards.
Yet unlike previous generations of Mandopop stars who have chosen to adhere to the more conventional pop route, Marcus has chosen the path less trodden, choosing to release his debut album For You, I Can 為了你，我可以 independently and helming everything from the album’s conceptualisation to its promotion, and even playing two sold-out shows…all during an unprecedented pandemic.
Given Marcus’ unique position in pulling all this off, and his passionate and vocal stance on mental health, I felt he was the perfect artist to interview as we continue our Mental Health topic on the Level Up Podcast, providing an artist’s perspective on the nuanced issues and struggles that creatives face in this particular line of work.
As an advocate for mental health, Marcus shared that it’s taken him a while to get to this point in his journey where he’s able to articulate the issues he’s faced and feel comfortable speaking about it.
“I never ever expected myself going for therapy, to be honest, because even in pursuing this journey on doing music, I thought I was quite secure…Because I had very close friends around me. I had like, mentors around me who I often confined my feelings or my emotions with… but I think somehow talking to different friends…(and) reflecting about the past year I realised that I have some of these negative thoughts… that I wanted to deal with better. So I decided to try out therapy and I think seeking professional help was very helpful.”
In preparing for all the plans that he had made for his momentous debut album in 2021, Marcus chose to expand his support circle and seek professional help. In doing so, it not only taught him some important tools that helped him face the challenges ahead, but also helped him to face some longstanding insecurities from his past.
“When I decided to do music, it was after I graduated from university. I didn’t study music, and I was 25 when I did that. So I think from that the whole context in which I started created some insecurity or some expectations placed on myself. Firstly, I decided to pursue something that’s different from what I was studying, and second…compared to others that came before I was starting at a later time. I started to put a lot of these (expectations) on myself.”
Marcus also shared two of the most important things that he’s learned from therapy that have helped him grow as an artist and entrepreneur; namely the importance of practising gratitude and understanding what is and isn’t within ones’ control. He elaborated a little on both points below.
“On practising thankfulness, that really helps put a lot of the achievements into perspective…Like for myself, just releasing my album was a big thing. But maybe in the grand scheme of things. It’s just the beginning. But I think I need to spend a lot of time also to celebrate that. And I think right now I’m still in the process of that because I’m like, ‘oh man, I’m not doing enough’ But I still need to remind myself that it was a… good job, well done.”
Identifying What’s Within Your Control
The second point on like, just being able to differentiate what I can control versus what I cannot control, it’s also very interesting, because a lot of things, you know, it’s not in our hands… these things are not something you can control. You can control your actions, and maybe your response to other people’s actions. So I think when I go to differentiate this, then I also put less pressure on myself (to) try to change or try to do everything.”
Other than these two important tips, we also had an enlightening discussion about imposter syndrome and why it’s especially prevalent in the music industry and in artists.
When asked if he’s ever experienced it, Marcus simply replied, “oh all the time” before bursting into laughter. Due to the very public nature of the job, be it in terms of roadmaps or what other people are doing, imposter syndrome can creep up on your door faster than you can say “who’s there?”
While this is still something that Marcus feels frequently, we both agreed that thinking back to why you do this to begin with was particularly helpful for helping one tide over the discomfort of feeling like an imposter.
“If you minus out all the comparisons, then actually… there’s a reason why you did that…So going back to that would always like help to reset the mind. And not to (get too) affected or bogged down by it.”
As part of his journey with mental health, the talented singer-songwriter also penned a song to address his internal struggles with self-doubt and negative self talk called “I don’t wanna be this way”. Lee shared with us the intention behind this song.
“I wanted to depict the inner struggles of a person, because I realise a lot of times…we can have moments where we would encourage ourselves to be hyping ourselves up, but there are a lot of moments where we will also be quite self derogatory…I think at the end of the day, this song’s message was to say yes to positivity, say no, to the negativity, but not just to say no, but to acknowledge first, because I think that’s like the first step.”
One thing that we reiterated to each other many times across our chat was the importance of conversation; of sharing ones’ story with the right people. For it opens up so many opportunities; for healing, for friendship, for accessing your creative self in a more vulnerable and freeing way.
Stepping up to the plate as an ambassador for mental health in a more conservative culture where we don’t have discussions on this as often as we should, in Marcus’ honest and vulnerable sharings I felt like I got an even deeper insight into his artistry that was quietly inspiring. And I’m sure that this is something that’s come across to listeners in his music as well.
At the end of the day, taking care of your mental health as an artist is important because of the nature of the job, particularly because you need to be reminded that you are a person first and foremost, and then a public figure. Being secure in this is one of the most essential building blocks for any artist to have a sustainable career, and Lee shows that while this is just the beginning for him, he’s already starting things off on the right foot.