Who hasn’t heard of John O? He’s the lead singer and songwriter of the successful Malaysian pop superband Paperplane Pursuit, self-taught musician and music producer, and proud wearer of that lightning blue hair. He carries a charm and charisma that exudes friendliness and did I mention he has an amazing voice? John loves music so much that he knew he wanted a career in music from a young age and despite all that stood in his way, he worked hard to make sure that happened.
He pursued accounting and taught the subject at just twenty-one years old. He was good at what he did and he earned a comfortable living, but that didn’t convince him to stay where he was. He took the risk and left his job to pursue music full time. It took a long time before his music was recognised and it wasn’t an easy road to get there, but John simply saw it as an important learning curve. This is our conversation with him.
You taught yourself how to play music, record songs and then make music videos. Of everything that you had to learn, how did you know where to start in terms of launching your career?
The honest answer is that I didn’t know where to start. Playing an instrument and singing are just part and parcel of being in a band. Whether or not you do it well is secondary, the whole point is to get up and try. The real turning point for me personally was when I quit my lecturing job of three years. I loved my job, but it became clear that I was never going to go anywhere with my music career as long as I was trying to do two things at once. I figured I had to take the initiative to start something otherwise I’m going to wake up a 35 year old and still be trying to make something out of a music career. After I quit my job, I strategised all the things I needed to do, and the first step was to not to rely on external studios to record and produce music because it would cost us money each time we needed to produce a song. It’s also not easy to find studios that are affordable and easily available. Due to time and financial restrictions, I decided that I needed to learn to do these things on my own. Using the money that I saved up from my job, I purchased a computer and invested in a small setup in my parents’ home. I spent the next two years 're-educating' myself - every day I would watch videos, and read books and articles on everything to do with the music business, including sound engineering, production, vocal techniques, marketing, management and contract law. Eventually, I was in a more comfortable position to take my career into my own hands.
In those two years as you were prepping for your debut, did you at any point feel that you weren’t making progress with your music?
I did feel that, but for much longer than two years (laughs). A lot of people look at the success of Paperplane Pursuit today as an overnight success but funnily enough, I feel like I’ve spent five percent of my career doing well and the other ninety-five percent doing really badly. I had spent two years working on our first album so it was a major blow when it didn't do well. After that, we embarked on a new strategy - we would write one single at a time, with the goal of creating radio hits. The major step up for me was learning to handle every aspect of the music production myself, from start to end. We also decided that every song had to be accompanied with a music video. The question was how would we do this with limited funds, no label, and no management? The best way forward I could think of was for us to make our own music videos, and so I learned how to produce, direct and edit music videos. The first single that was born out of this strategy was ‘Everybody Wants Somebody’, and we achieved moderate radio success with the song. It was a long and tiring process, and we went to release two more singles under this strategy before finally releasing our breakthrough single 'Beat Of Your Love', with Darren Ashley.
"I don’t believe in starving for your art; I believe you've gotta play it smart to make a living from your art."
A lot of people tend to think that in order for an artist to make it big, they must first go through this stage of poverty and desperation where you’re really struggling to just get by; what's your take on this?
I know it’s strange coming from someone like me who did quit his day job to pursue a career in music, but probably one of the best pieces of advice I can give young people out there is to not quit your job. Because the reality is that it’s probably going to take you a long while to earn good money from your art. Having a day job solves that problem for you, at least while you find your footing. If you don’t have some sort of financial security, you’re going to have to compromise your vision of what you want to do just because you’re desperate for money. My bandmates and I had jobs as doctors and accountants, and we were paid a significant amount of money for that. That allowed us to pursue a strategy that was very long term, even if it meant that for a good two to three years we’d be earning absolutely nothing. In short, I don’t believe in starving for your art; I believe you've gotta play it smart to make a living from your art.
That’s really good advice. You mentioned you’re a self-managed artist; what is the key to not getting overwhelmed?
It’s important to first specify that we don't think being self-managed is the best way of doing things, it's just another aspect we've learned to handle ourselves, rather than wait for the perfect manager to come along. One of the biggest ways that we’ve coped is to learn to specialise. Within the four of us, we each have our specialised roles. I handle the creative process which involves songwriting, production, and marketing, and I oversee the big picture and the band’s direction. The Chief (our bassist) is my right hand man in the studio, and my production decisions are executed by him along with other technical matters; Dru handles the day-to-day admin work that requires attention to detail and organisation; and Isaac is the band manager. Everyone understands the need to respect the leadership role that each person carries in their area of expertise. So far it’s been good, but eventually we will need to assemble a bigger team around the band, especially if we're to expand internationally.
After being in the industry for a while now, what is the one takeaway you’ve learned that you can also use to advice or encourage aspiring musicians?
Time and time again, my career has shown me that the limitations we face can one day turn into our greatest strengths. So much of Paperplane Pursuit's success as a band has stemmed not from the fact that we’re brilliant strategists, but because we have been at this a long time, and we just had to learn to deal with the many limitations we encountered along the way. Today, we're known for writing catchy songs and being one of the only local bands regularly played on radio. However, if radio stations played local artists all the time, it wouldn’t have been something that we needed to fight so hard for. A perfect of example of what I mean: When I was growing up, 'local la!’ was slang to say something sucked. That was the reality we faced, but instead of sitting around and complaining, we decided we wanted to create something that would make Malaysians proud of all things made in Malaysia. The limitations we face can make us better, if we choose to use them to our advantage.
You're someone who wants to help other aspiring musicians, whether it be answering questions or providing handy tips - can you tell us why that is?
Even when I was lecturer, I had a mentor who was very well known in her field. She willingly taught me everything she knew, and shared her wealth of experience with me, even though she knew this would effectively make me her 'competition'. Because of the money I managed to earn and save up as a lecturer, she indirectly helped give me the career I have today, and all with no benefit for herself whatsoever.
A lot of people hold back what they know out of fear that someone else will steal their job. There’s a sense of competition over this limited 'pie' and the fear is that if I help you, you’re going to steal my piece of the pie. I believe 'the pie' is infinite, there is always enough for everyone. I hope to one day see an explosion of talent coming out of Malaysia, our own worldwide M-Pop movement, if you will [laughs]. But that can’t happen with just Paperplane Pursuit being the biggest band in the world. What we need is everyone of us rising up together, and that can only happen if we help each other out.
"I want to make art that millions of people will hear because I think I have good stuff to say and I want it to resonate with others..."
It took a lot of courage, discipline and initiative to step out and get to where John O is today; but aren’t we glad he did! Through Paperplane Pursuit, his music made it to the US Billboard Chart and even topped Maroon 5, putting Malaysia on par with other gifted musicians with so much potential. More importantly, John has showed us that our limitations can be our greatest weapons. There is no such thing as a dead-end in his eyes and we could all learn a thing a two from that.
"...my career has shown me that the limitations we face can one day turn into our greatest strengths."