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Tiger Balme Enter A New Era Of Fierceness

The experimental pop quartet have been earning their stripes one gentle ballad at a time.

by Michael Rancic

Photo by Felice Trinidad

The music of Toronto experimental pop outfit Tiger Balme thrives on the power of contrast. Their self-titled debut LP is the sound of disparate influences, musical backgrounds, and skills all aligning— an approach perfectly represented in the dichotomy of their name. 

“Fierceness juxtaposed with a sense of healing and calm,” explains vocalist and harpist Anda Zeng. “In a way, that’s like the story of our group. We’ve found a lot of healing, comfort, and safety with each other; it’s given us a lot of personal freedom and joy. But also we’ve been able to help strengthen each other to become more fierce or assertive when necessary.”

Individually, Tiger Balme’s members have their own musical practices— Zeng’s solo work takes the form of cinematic piano and harp driven pop; as Estyr, Esther Phua explores contemporary pop and R&B contexts; while percussionists Danielle Sum and Yang Chen are classically trained, with the former making ornate folk, and the latter shifting across everything from hyperpop to abstract soundscapes. “There is this implicit understanding that our stories need time and encouragement to be cultivated into these songs,” adds vocalist and guitarist Phua. “Our commonality is that we’re not used to stepping into a room and being super assertive and taking up a lot of space, because the way that we assert ourselves just looks different. We’re more inclined to listen and ask questions and be more gentle in our sharing.”

Within the band, who have been writing and performing together for more than five years, the sound of their forthcoming self-titled album is a dynamic amalgam of those influences, oscillating between them in the service of the songs. Phua, Sum, and Zeng share songwriting duties and collaborate in the process to uplift each other’s work. 

Phua and Zeng say a song like “Welcome Back” is representative of how their sound began to crystalize, opening with the joining of their guitar and harp, and eventually blooming into a full band affair, with vibraphone, bass, drums, and their characteristic chorus of gilded voices. “Believe it or not, we have two vibraphone players in our band, which is absolute chaos and totally unnecessary, but I think explains a lot about us,” Phua laughs. 

Elsewhere, the winding and labyrinthine “Short Fuse” doesn’t seem like it should fit within their sound, but has become an integral part of what makes Tiger Balme so interesting. “At first it’s like you never would’ve thought that there would be this math rock song in our little repertoire, but suddenly we can’t imagine our repertoire without it,” Zeng explains. “One of the beauties of the group and the dynamic that we have is we are very open to absorbing more and more facets of each other into it.”

She says once that freedom dawned on her, she felt more comfortable to experiment with songs like “All Eyes Open,” which has this playful, meditative pace anchored by percussion that sounds akin to a slowly ticking clock or a match being struck. “[That] was the first song I wrote that was more like, ‘I’m just going to kind of let myself be myself more and see how that voice kind of comes out.’”

The group enlisted the help of producer Paul Chin, primarily known for his solo output and work with hip-hop artists like Shad. Tiger Balme credit him with helping embellish the consistency in their sound, which helped free them to follow more creative whims. “One way that Paul produced the songs was just by helping us pull out some of the elements [in them] like the disco element for ‘Saving Face,”’ Phua says. “That’s something that he added. Also he really integrated drums into all of our arrangements. It helped to have that outside perspective to make things feel more coherent.”

“He really always had the big picture in mind for our band,” Zeng adds.

Having discovered something new about themselves as songwriters in the process of collaboration, the members of Tiger Balme are emboldened by the recording process. “It’s such a different experience to arrange something collaboratively with people who really know and love their instruments because I don’t identify as an instrumentalist,” Phua observes. “So it’s been like a real treat to work with this small live orchestra to figure out the ceiling of a song and where it wants to go.”