Acoustic guitar virtuoso and vocalist Shun Ng has done well for himself since he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts a few years ago. Born in Chicago, raised and educated in Singapore, Ng has received awards and nominations, worked with industry big names, and created a massive following. Many in the New England music scene discovered him for the first time when he was nominated for International Artist Of The Year by the Boston Music Awards in 2013, which he was nominated for three more times, winning in 2015. The press he got from the nominations got his name out there and flattered him but awards don’t soothe his soul.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I try not to put too much value in awards, just for myself. It’s funny. Awards, they mean something to everybody else other than you because you’re still the same person. You’re performing and you’re nominated and if you win, it’s very nice and flattering, but I don’t really focus so much on it. It’s a fun thing and I know the Boston Music Awards is for a good cause.”
Ng prefers to focus on the work of making music. He can adept his world class fingerstyle acoustic guitar virtuosity to numerous formats. One of his outfits, known as Shun Ng And The Shunettes, features the Asian youth performing with two female African-American gospel style singers. This format sort of came together by accident. He initially played with the Shunettes at a Christmas concert in Singapore. When Ng discovered that singer Deon Mose had arranged the music for that holiday concert, he became intrigued as to what she could do with his songs. He gave her “Get On With It” and she worked wonders with it. Eventually, they all returned to Singapore and Malaysia for more shows. Both Shunettes attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. Deon Mose is from North Carolina and second singer Angel Chisholm is from Detroit, Michigan. Ng performed with The Shunettes at last December’s Boston Music Awards, which was only the third time he played with them in the United States.
Local music fans will have another chance to see and hear their magic once again. Ng has got a gig with The Shunettes coming up on February 18 at the Onstage Series at Chevalier Theatre in Medford, Massachusetts.
“I’ll be performing new music that hasn’t been released that I’ve been working on with Shunettes that I plan to release in a full length record,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the writing phrase and we’re performing a lot of original material and bunch of new arrangements. It’s such an exciting show with these two girls because they’re incredible singers, and the energy that they have on stage is very electric. It’s so different from what I do solo with my duo. The interactions are so different with their vocals. The human voice is so versatile. We arrange it such that the voices can go from horns to strings to very percussive. It can create so many different elements. When there’s no band, and it’s just two singers and a guitarist everything becomes more volatile. It’s so minimalist. There’s so little elements that every element matters so much. That’s very exciting as a musician, because anything can happen.”
Deon Mose is on the same page as Ng. “I enjoy the bringing flavor to his already soulful sounds,” she said. “We have a unique style and blend. I love how we infer a drum beat when there aren’t any drums.”
If that combo isn’t enough, Ng also keeps himself busy in a duo he has formed with harmonica man Magic Dick who we all know from New England’s legendary J. Geil’s Band. Ng and Magic Nick have recorded a six track EP titled About Time and that full time project will find them playing numerous dates to support it. “We’re both very excited about our EP, and we are planning a bunch of headliner dates for this summer. We’re also planning a Boston party for About Time.”
Ng and Magic Dick are planning to make videos for each track. “I love working with Dick. That’s another thing in itself,” Ng said. “The guitar-harmonica format is just something that’s very exciting in the minimalist fashion too. I used to work as an arranger. A lot of this comes from my love for arranging, why we use different instruments.”
Ng himself is often surprised by his level of success in music. He struggled in the very demanding Singapore school system due to dyslexia, excelling only in gymnastics, which is also a very demanding field for youth in the country. Ng‘s life changed when another aspiring gymnast brought an acoustic guitar to the gym. He is not sure where he’d be if he hadn’t discovered the guitar.
“I always wanted to be a chef,” he said. “When I was younger I actually hated gymnastics. It was so competitive. My coaches, they were so strict. They were not like the American coaches. China’s gymnastic teams are known for pushing the gymnasts really hard at a very young age. I met some American coaches who were very, very nice to me. They were very understanding. I remember when I moved to the pre national squad when I was ten years old. I had all these coaches from China who were so different, so strict. They’re the kind where you dislocated your shoulder, they pop it back in.”
Blues music was the first genre that Ng focused on when he became a student of guitar. Like most modern day blues musicians, Ng would turn onto a blues artist after hearing about each by word of mouth. First, he was blown away by the sounds of Steve Vai. Then, he heard about some guy named Jimi Hendrix.
“We would talk about Jimi Hendrix like he was some god. I had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was. I said ‘Who’s this Jimi Hendrix guy? Why is everybody talking about it?’ I went to the CD store and got some of his stuff. I got intrigued right away and I was blown away. I could feel his expression and his songwriting. This is when YouTube was coming out. So, I watched interviews and he’d talk about Buddy Guy and I checked out Buddy Guy. That’s a whole new world in itself. Then, Muddy Waters, cause, you know, that connection, the Chess Records connection. Then, Howlin’ Wolf and then the Texas guys, Albert Collins, Albert King, and Stevie Ray, Thunderbirds, and I was just in that world.”
It was the minimalist expression of the blues that worked for him, many songs with an average of five notes and every blues artists sounded different in their manner of expression in the notes they chose and the stories that they wanted to say.
“That touched me so much,” he said. “It was like ‘Wow! This is such a raw form of communication, and I felt like I related to it. Words were so difficult, expressing myself. Music opened things up for me in terms of what it meant to feel things and express that to the world, emotionally, as a person. Before that, I was very shy, and it was very hard for me to talk to people. Because of music it also makes my vocal communication better. So, it changed my life and the blues had a big part to do with that, understanding that, feeling something and expressing it in a beautiful way. That was a life lesson I learned from the blues.”
But, while the world was opening up to Ng through the power of his new found love, challenges remained due to his dyslexia. He had to audition with his guitar to get into the Music And Audio Technology Department at Singapore Polytechnic as his grades were a bit weak.
“I auditioned and I had a great mentor. He was one of the finest classical composers in Singapore,” Ng said. “He taught me that he understood my struggles of reading music and taught me about life through music. He wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I auditioned, and they let me into the school, and I still struggled because of dyslexia. Academia was always a struggle for me, especially when you combine it with music because somebody who is insecure about academia, and remember, in Singapore, that’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal culturally. In society, it rates pretty high.”
Although music gave him hope, the academic struggle was terrifying, and he felt that even what saved his life couldn’t help him at that school. His school taught everything from studio engineering to live sound to composition and theory, which he also didn’t do very well in but learned as much as he could. His biggest challenge was he could not find friends who also liked blues, funk, gospel and funk, which lead him to learn to play all parts of a song on his acoustic guitar, hence his immersion into finger style guitar.
“I would learn everything from the bass line to the rhythm to the horn line to the chords and I’ll see where I can go from there,” he said. The guitar is merely his medium of expression as Ng is a musician in the larger sense of the word. “I love music. I’m not that into the guitar. I love music, everything from country to Hungarian dance music,” he said.
At that time in his life, Ng decided to stick with the acoustic guitar. A meeting with legendary guitar maker Jeffrey Yong was the turning point. “Before that, I never really knew there was this thing called ‘finger style guitar.’ I wanted to do something different. I wanted to have my own voice and play the music that I love. Whenever I played blues, I felt I was leaving out a big part. When I found the acoustic guitar, it was like I could play all of it. I could play bass lines and it would still sound big. It seemed like the instrument with the most possibilities.”
Ng might have gotten lucky in that he had discovered the acoustic guitar in a post-Dave Matthews Band era. The hugely popular Matthews was up there for the world to see, fronting his platinum selling band with an acoustic. Many were long unaware that a guitarist can accomplish a lot on an acoustic, as its electric counterpart seemed to be what inspired the imagination in young players.
“Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of acoustic guitar being played in incredible ways,” he said. Ng referenced acoustic guitarists going viral on YouTube because they were opening people’s eyes as to what could be done on it. “I think people are being more intrigued.”
After immersing himself in his acoustic guitar work, things started speeding up for Ng. He performed at festivals in Montreal, Osaka, and Singapore, which made him realize his name recognition was only going to keep growing. In 2012, still living overseas, he released his Funky Thumb Stuff album before he hit the ground running in Boston. He studied within an advanced training program at Berklee College of Music for two years, signed with Ralph Jaccodine Management, played with Livingston Taylor, and was briefly mentored by legendary producer Quincy Jones.
The next step in Ng’s career could take him anywhere. He sets goals but doesn’t see those goals as written in stone. “There’s things that you just can’t plan,” he said. “There’s a big part of learning to let go of control. Having full control of things going a certain way and if they don’t, and you try to be a master of this thing. Sometimes I think it’s better to just focus on doing great music and focus on writing great songs and giving something new to people, something exciting, and the rest comes into place itself.”