'Watching my ex have a great time as I pined for her was painful': How a singer turned heartbreak into inspiration

US-based singer and songwriter Allen Ling, who is all set to perform in Dubai on March 21, on how grief fuels creativity


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Mon 18 Mar 2024, 7:10 PM

Last updated: Tue 19 Mar 2024, 11:59 AM

When we find our place in the world through arts, we truly discover ourselves. Allen Ling’s life story is an example of this. As a physical therapist, Allen had what would be deemed a successful career, but it wasn’t until 2023 that he formally debuted as a musician. His three-track Heartbreak trilogy, inspired by a deeply personal sense of loss, has already topped the charts the world over. And come March 21, he is all set to perform at Oak at J.W. Marriott in Dubai. In a conversation with City Times, Ling talks at length about his music and how he finds it cathartic. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What took you so long to plunge into music, which had always been your first love?

Music actually was my second love as comic books and art were my first. I had responsibilities and obligations to please my parents; raise my children; go to graduate school to become a physical therapist, and so on. “Art takes,” so they say, and music gives joy but doesn’t pay the bills. I returned to music after I was diagnosed with cancer; I believe it was part of my healing process.

I began the serious evolution from singer-songwriter, only doing studio recordings to performance artist in May 2023, when I was encouraged to sign on talent and promotional agent Malvika Nanda. I practised and rehearsed two to three times a week and took voice lessons weekly.

You had already written 200 songs by the time you were 20. What were the themes and ideas you explored in those songs?

Mostly stemmed from frustration with love relationships; confusion regarding what were the right things to do in life; break-up songs; tragic love, etc. I also did my first disco song when I only played clarinet as my primary instrument, and I believe that took true talent. By the time I learned to play chords on a guitar, my songwriting took off. I learned music theory, and the Circle of Fifths was the foundation for much of the songwriting I’ve done.

As a physical therapist, you have worked with Pixar Animation Studios and Steve Jobs. Can you recount a memorable anecdote with both?

I actually interacted with Steve Jobs directly several times and he was all straightforward and pleasant. I was never intimidated by him, despite all the stories heard. He was always kind to me and even offered advice to me about managing members of staff… He did tell me to make my employees fear me but added “a little bit” as an afterthought.

Pixar Animations Studios was a magical place. Only Steve Jobs had the vision to create such a place that encouraged creativity. I worked inside the facility for almost three years as their in-house physical therapist while I ran my other clinic business. It made me a better person and employer as far as generosity is concerned and taught me the importance of having a beautiful well-maintained workplace.

The Heartbreak trilogy was born out of a personal need for catharsis. Can you delve into that a bit?

It had been a while since a romantic partner broke up with me and it was also the first time I had to deal with social media during a breakup. Watching my ex have a great time without me while I was pining away was the worst kind of pain possible. To free myself from this, music came out of me. It was the only thing that slowly brought me back from the brink of dark despair and depression.

Some lyrics from Straight into the Ocean: “They say time and distance, eases pain, but many of my questions still remain." When your heart is broken, friends try to console you, but the bottomline is if you do not get any closure, you’ll always be left wondering and your heart remains wounded. The confusion surrounding my breakup was immense. Then there is a line that goes, “I just wanna be your protector but now I’m just a spectre.” I felt very rejected, despite not doing anything to have caused her to leave me the way she did. It wasn’t a violent breakup at all but very abrupt and confusing. Yet, I still wanted to be around to protect and love her. But she turned me into a ghost.

You have also been a comic book publisher. Can you take us through what you have explored in the genre?

Comic book drawing and creation was actually my original creative outlet before music. I was drawing on walls and floors as well as the paper. My parents provided for me. I began drawing comic books when I was in school. They were mostly about monsters and science-fiction-based stories.

In your opinion, how important is grief to fuel creativity?

I don’t seek it out as a source but let’s face it, it will find you throughout your lifetime. But it’s the best fuel for me as evidenced in this last spurt of creativity in my comic book creations as well as song generation.

Unfortunately, the greater the suffering, the better the art. I do believe that is true because you need more beauty and comfort when you are suffering and, therefore, the art that you create reflects that.

What are the perks and perils of being a multi-hyphenate?

That’s a kind description of me and my lifestyle! The main perk is you are never bored, but whoever my life partner is must deal with my ever-changing, evolving priorities.

Other perks are working with amazing creative people who are like me, making people happy with my comic and music creations, and healing grateful people with my physical therapy practice. So you’re happy almost all the time. All the people who co-produce music and comics with me only enhance what I’ve already done.

To be more specific, the downside to being so diversified is that there is very little downtime and you’re constantly distracted with so many projects and personalities that your primary relationship suffers greatly at times. I’m so lucky to have someone in my life who understands my needs, and many of my true friends as well.

You will be visiting Dubai as part of your Asia tour. What is it that you are looking forward to the most?

It’s always about the people of the country and their reaction to the music I have created. My colleague Dave Lopez, the amazing guitarist of Flipsyde will be joining me to perform the acoustic versions of all our songs.

I am excited to explore Dubai and the amazing architecture and futuristic community that has been built. We are coming off an amazing India, Press and Performance tour, which was an experience of a lifetime as we were able to figure out by the audience responses what songs to release next.

I look forward to the audience's response to our listening performance at Oak Live, Marriott. It will be a pleasure to see the faces and share the healing power of music with the people of Dubai.


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