Sherin Zhen Siew has been playing the piano since an early age. As she grew older, she expanded her musical horizons by taking up singing, the guitar and song writing.
Despite her interest in music, she never really believed it would lead her to fame. Sometimes, however, tragic events lead people to walk paths they never planned to take. For Siew, the loss of a friend did exactly that. Today, she’s part of a Hong Kong-based independent band called 9 Maps that’s starting to make a name for itself in the region.
Still, despite the positive reviews the band has received from various publications such as The South China Morning Post and Time Out Magazine Hong Kong, and the exposure the band is gaining around South East Asia, Sherin Siew is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.
“As an indie band in Hong Kong,” she says, “I don’t think anyone has any delusions about them really hitting world-wide fame.”
When it all started
Born in Malaysia on January 31st 1989, Siew started playing the piano when she was only three and a half years old. Every morning before going to work, Siew’s mother would drop her off at a nanny’s house. This nanny lived next to a piano teacher for whom she also worked, and whenever Siew had the chance, she would sneak off to the teacher’s classroom and watch the unfolding lessons. After a while, her family decided they should enrol her in piano lessons herself.
‘My mom put me on classical music piano lessons,” she recalls. “Partly because Asians tend to think that that cultivates the minds of their children, and partly because there was no other way to shut me up.’
On Mother’s Day in 1995, when she was just 6 years old, Siew’s Sunday school church choir leader gave her a solo part in Celine Dion’s Because You Love Me. The parents present were so impressed by her performance that the next day, they called Siew telling her how much they had enjoyed her solo, which boosted her confidence to pursue singing.
When she was 13 years old, the family relocated from their hometown of Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, where her father was sent to start a branch of the telecommunications company he was working for. Two years later, Siew took up the guitar and started writing songs.
When asked about the first song she ever wrote, she laughed nervously and answered with some hesitation: “It’s about improving and…the lyrics are so lame. It’s about making mistakes and improving and what people say. ‘People say do not live in the past to keep moving on but you know sometimes you need to get back to where you belong and’…yeah, it’s ridiculous.”
When it was time for her family to move back to Malaysia, she decided she wanted to stay, feeling that Hong Kong had more opportunities to give her than home would. She went on to attend the University of Hong Kong, where she studied international business with minors in music and sociology.
It was in April 2009, during an exchange to the Unites States in her second year of university, that tragedy hit. Siew received word that a friend from her high school had taken her own life. Back in Hong Kong, Ciosa Houlihan, one of Siew’s high school classmates who would later also become Siew’s band mate, was mourning the friend’s death through song writing. Both Siew and Houlihan wrote songs independently for their friend, and exchanged them with each other for comfort.
A few months after the incident, as Siew was back in Hong Kong and going through her iTunes playlist, she came across Houlihan’s music again and decided she wanted to collaborate with her. They had a few jamming session together until October 2009, when the duo entered the Tom Lee Soundbase band competition. They placed second, and received guitars and enough money to encourage them to form 9 Maps.
9 Maps’ growing success
The band’s name is derived from two different experiences. Nine was the band’s contestant number during the Tom Lee Soundbase band competition. MAPS is an acronym Houlihan and Siew’s friend used when she was still with them: because it is so personal, the girls refuse to reveal what it stands for.
Since the success at the competition, the band’s fame has risen at an unexpected rate. Last summer, they opened for two internationally recognized artists who came to Hong Kong: Elbow and LENKA. Two of the original songs that they had performed at the competition are to be released in their upcoming album, due to be revealed in late November. Tours to Singapore and Indonesia have been scheduled December of this year.
“9 Maps has been a serendipitous thing almost. Things just started falling into place one after another,” Siew said. “It’s not like we pursued it with an end goal in mind and we went after that. It was really like step after step: ‘Oh there’s opportunity, lets go for that.’”
She says the feeling of performing is exhilarating. “When I’m performing and I hear the sound…reverberate through the room and it comes back to me and it interacts with this other sound from this other person, it really fills me, and like, I really just enjoy the experience of it. It sounds almost narcissistic…(but) maybe to some extent you feel in control, you have a bit of power, cause you’re actively creating something.”
However, Siew tries to stay realistic. She explains: “In music you have one performance and then it’s done. It doesn’t need to lead to anything else. I think a lot of bands experience that, they do one big thing and then there’s nothing after that.”
Dreaming with her feet firmly on the ground
There is one person who is still dreaming big on behalf of 9 Maps and pushing them to move forward, and that is their manager, Justin Sweeting. He is the one who is laying out plans that are bigger than the last.
“He’s had almost unconditional faith in us,” Siew says. “He’s given us opportunities even before we’ve proven ourselves, so it really forces us to step up”.
At the moment, even with the growing exposure of her band, Siew is looking for jobs and attending job interviews. 9 Maps seems to have become more of a side project to her almost normal life. However, beyond her realistic views, there’s a side of her that still gets excited about performances and recordings.
When asked to choose any place in the world to perform, Sherin Zhen Siew turned to a friend and forwarded the question to him. After much debate, she decided on New York or somewhere in the United Kingdom, or huge festivals like “SXSW “- South By South West – held in Austin, Texas.
As she contemplates it, a sudden surge of excitement overwhelms her at the prospect of hitting the big time: “Oh!” she cries. “I want to play in SXSW!”