#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Alan Chan (Certificate in Higher Education Introductory Studies 2015)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

AS : Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the World.

In this Podcast series you’ll hear from our Alumni, students, staff and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story.

To find out more about the Our Birkbeck Initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk


In this episode of the Our Birkbeck Podcast Kara McMahon speaks to Birkbeck Alumnus and musician Alan Chan.


KM: Here with me today is Alan Chan. Birkbeck Alumnus, talented singer and songwriter who has so graciously decided to share his fascinating story with us. From his discovery of his love of music, to his rediscovery of his love of learning and along the way we will even  have a chance to listen to Alan’s songs.

Welcome Welcome Alan. Thank you for joining me today.  It is so lovely to see you

AC : Thank you for having me Kara. How are you today?

KM : Yeah. Very well thank you!

AC : Are you safe and well?

KM : Yes I am thankfully! And I’d love to talk to you about your discovery of music..but before we get to that, I think a lot of the Birkbeck Community will be so fascinated that you were on ‘The Voice’ last year! And can you tell us more a little bit about that and what your experience was like…

AC : Yes

KM : And you got to meet a lot of really cool people..

AC: Yep. OK. I’ll begin by saying that one of my Music Theory tutors was at the Academy of Contemporary Music dared me to go upstairs for the audition and..um..I decided that I didn’t want to do it because I thought all these programmes were rubbish anyway!


AC : ..And they are all manufactured bands and I didn’t agree with that and after half an hour of bugging me in the classroom, I decided to promise I would  go and do an audition upstairs in the Demo Theatre if he would stop telling me to go upstairs in front of the class! So, yeah, he stopped because I promised him that I would go upstairs… I went upstairs and told the Audition Lady, because she was one of the producers of the show, “Look, I know I am not suppose to be up here because I haven’t sent you an email three weeks ago to apply for an audition. Unfortunately, my tutor keeps telling me to come upstairs to do this. If you don’t let me do this, then he will continue to tell me to do it and its really really annoying. Cos its interrupting our class!”


AC : She laughed a lot and said “I’ll tell you what you do then, if anyone doesn’t turn up for the audition, then you can take their place, but you have to turn up at the end of the day”. So I did exactly that.

After turning up and doing my 10-minute audition, she and the camera person, I think camera producer, they were very impressed and then told me they would let me know.

Two weeks later, there was another audition, a month after that there was another audition in Manchester in Media City and that’s where they sat down 100 contestants. In the warehouse. We had no idea who we were and whatever, we just sat there. And they made an announcement saying that we were the last 100 contestants they had chosen to

KM : So, ah..

AC: For the whole of the United Kingdom, for Scotland and Wales and some parts of the other world and we were very happy, and I was like “This can’t be right?!”. And from there, they filmed everyone and then they picked 60 people to show on the TV. Y’know. So yeah…

..Alot of travelling. I still can’t believe that I got through to the last 100, let alone the last 24 in the quarter finals. But it was an honour. I met some really great people especially Sir Tom Jones..

KM : Ah..

AC : ..One of my idols. Living Legend. Er, Olly Murs, my coach, er Meghan Trainor and Will. I. Am. It was very nice. They were all very nice to me –  Until I got knocked out…respectfully. by the Champion..


AC : Which is amazing, hands down, she is incredible. Everyone was incredible.

KM : That is just so cool!

AC : So yeah, lots of travelling, erm, lots of rehearsing with the best musicians in the World who are the Band. I met Band members, I knew a couple of them before – when I saw them I went ‘Oh My God’ because I do know who they are and who they have played with so that was the real honour, obviously to meet the celebrities. {05:15)

KM : Er-ha..

AC : But the people playing the music, they all have a certain status and a career in music, and those who do know of the people standing in the back – the band – er these guys are royalty basically. So to meet them are incredible

KM: Wow…

AC :..and I learned a lot from them. I asked them lots of questions, which I love doing because. Er…because I am not that smart! [LAUGHS]


AC : So I ask lots of question! To gain information and with the information pick up..I..show others

KM : Yeah..

AC : I believe.. I mean that, it really does encourage everyone else, and that is what I do for work at my University that I graduated from

KM : That is just amazing. It sounds like you are just a lifelong learner as well as such a hard worker

AC : I would say I’ve delayed my education just under two decades

KM : Mmm

AC : Y’know, cos I really really frightened of studying because of secondary school years and that really,..really.. discouraged me to study. And, I just through that “I’m not an academic person’ so I just took it as it is. All I’m hearing from the Tutors in those days – and we are talking the 90’s – when there was no Wellbeing, no Student Support. It was like you were either slow or you was fast. You are either clever, or you are not. You are the back of the line, and that was it. That is what I grew up with in.

However, erm..getting bullied encouraged me to love music and to sing

KM : Right…

AC : In order to stop getting bullied

KM : Mmm

AC : So..then I entered the competition, won it, and from there the bullying stopped and some of my friends – who were also getting bullied – that stopped, and by the time we finished school, everyone was friends anyway, so…

KM : Right..

AC : It was a happy ending. It was a happy ending

KM : I also want to talk a little bit more about that what music meant to you during that time. So, you mention that you had a hard time in Secondary School, there was bullying, you didn’t feel totally supported by your community…How did you come onto music and what kind of escape did that provide to you.. or what did that mean in your personal development?

AC : As a young child, in the 80’s, there was no Wi-Fi, there was no PlayStation [INAUDIBLE CHUCKLE] There was a Commodore 64 and an old Nintendo..and we are talking old Nintendo..and erm..yeah..and there was a programme that used to be on (the television)  called “Top Of The Pops” and I would watch that religiously every Saturday and if I missed it, I would tape it with a VHS tape recorder – which I am sure that your parents are aware of (!!) erm..you plug it in and press record…and no remote controls either! ..you you had to press ‘record’ on the actual machine, then press ‘stop’ to the artists that I thought were amazing, then play this tape throughout the week to learn the song – because that was the only way to learn songs. You didn’t have Spotify, you didn’t have Download applications, you didn’t have this..so..you either had this cassette or VHS recording of the show, or you had old vinyl (LP Records). My two older brothers had a very wide genre range collection of vinyls

KM : Oh great…

AC : So I always played those vinyl’s. I damaged a few. Erm. Got in trouble, but yeah.


AC : .I always kept music around me. My neighbours as well. As I grew up..the council flat where I grew up..there was lots of different cultures and different traditions and different  people who listened to different music and different genres an when I asked them “What is this? This is great? I don’t understand…” As a child you didn’t know, yeah, and (they’d say) “Oh, this is from back home, where we’re from but it keeps us closer to home by listening to this music. And it shows our children, our family who were born here that identity. Music is always identity

And I really erm..I really appreciated what they said and erm..I just accepted multi-genres of music – even if I didn’t understand the language. I generally love and appreciate the authenticity of different cultures, er the emotions of different cultures are incredible..Erm.. and that helped me along the way with music it really did…as a vocalist..it really did

KM : Yeah

AC : It still comes to me today

KM : So how did that turn into..y’know..what you are doing now? Did you do formal music training, did you play other instruments as well…?

AC : Well, I kinda learned the instruments by playing around with them..

KM : Yeah

AC : ..I was never really taught..erm..but I..people have given me information that I use that information and I.. through repetition..got the confidence to play instruments

KM : Mmm

AC : Especially as a vocalist and then I decided to get back into education, after working for company – I won’t name them! – but erm..I just realised that they are never going to promote me anytime soon , so why don’t I just do something that I love, which is music. And erm..with no academic background in music.

I decided to get my further education at Birkbeck College, pick up a Higher Certificate, just in case my GCSE’s was no good enough through, because I dropped out of City & Lit College in my final year and my BTEC Performance which would have carried me to University..

KM : Mmm

AC : But, because I’d not enough credits to go to University, I decided to go to Birkbeck – part-time, while I had 3 jobs and looking after my two older kids, Yeah, so that was with Learning Difficulties, I soldiered through that, and with a lot of help from Birkbeck College and Tutors.

And from there, I realised that education wasn’t that bad! Anyone can learn, and with that knowledge, I decided to give it a few more year work and get promoted – I promised an Uncle of mine that sadly passed away, that I’d get back into music, and education of music that was 4 years ago and then 2017, I joined the Academy of Contemporary Music. They happily accepted me, even though my background in music – in terms of academic background was minimal – but I had the grades and the points enough with a passion of music from Birkbeck..you know..the credits.. enough credit..to get me into the building..so that was great. That was great. So I owe a lot to Birkbeck College and the tutor who taught me and gave me the patience. I mean they were very very patient. I mean, I had never ever had that. I’ve never had that. So my first solid block and foundation of learning was Birbeck College who were so patient and willing to give me..

KM : Mmm

AC : I mean, they wouldn’t leave me until I got it right. I mean you get some tutor, not all tutors are the same, they leave on time. They’ll be like, “It’s 5 O’Clock, I’ll leave on time. I’ve gotta go”, but there was tutors who would stay behind because they knew I was falling back..on that note..I was very lucky to have 2 tutors at Birkbeck that would spend the time- if they didn’t have the time , they would communicate through email to make sure I got it right. They’d give me the extra help, and if someone offered me help, I would take it, because I always need help [LAUGH] So I was very thankful for that.

From there, went to Contemporary Music and had the same treatment as I got from Birkbeck.

KM : Great..

AC : Every tutor..there are from about 90% of all the tutors at that University even though only 20% teach my degree in the 3 years basis, with tutorials and workshops and jumping into different lessons [LAUGHS] , cheekily


AC : I learned a lot of things and..

KM : Right..

AC : ..Luckily, most of the tutors..in fact…always made time to speak to me. Cos they knew I really cared about what I was doing

KM : Yeah. It sounds really similar to ..y’know..this journey that you have had in terms of always wanting to do more, but also  seeking out support when you needed it

AC : Ywah..

KM :.. And in turn, having that desire to learn

AC : That’s right..

KM : …and I think that’s absolutely amazing,  and it is very characteristic of our Birkbeck Students who are lifelong learners and come from a different kind of background, y’know were about to use the tools that they had in order to transform their lives through part-time education, and moving on from education, I’d love to hear about what you are doing now in the music industry, what does your day-to-day look like and we’ll play one of your songs and get into a little more specifics and our audience can hear from you

AC : OK, so, with the encouragement of Birkbeck as my foundation, I mean I must add, if erm..had they not encouraged me to ask questions

KM : Mmm

AC : And, told me to not be shy I may not be where I am today, y’know. And I may not know as much as I know today. Had my tutors at Birkbeck had not told me to ask questions. If you don’t understand, don’t hold back. You need to understand before you do this. That was how it was. And I get the same at ACM and if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

KM : Great…

AC : Currently I am signed to Universal Music after ‘The Voice’. I am trying to put out a single a week, however because of Lockdown it has delayed by a month, or maybe two, erm..I’ve just realised “Monsters Versus Men” two weeks ago. The video should be out, this Friday,

KM : OK, yes, please do

AC : The single was ‘Better Man’ which I’ve shown you, its already out, that was done right before Xmas, cos I wanted to finish the year on a high cos I graduated last year, er, delayed Graduation because of COVID , erm, yeah, it was just a celebration to get rid of the year

KM : Yeah

AC : And a single a week, that’s amazing..

AC : A month! Sorry, a month! A month!

KM: [LAUGHS} Either way!

AC : It was doable, because me and my music partners, we are songwriters so..we can write a song, I know how to sing it! Cos I’m a storyteller, singers are storytellers and lyrics are written by songwriters, sometimes by the singer, and they write a story, they pick a storyteller – which is the singer – then they pick the background music, and whoever is playing the emotion, and…that is a song, y’know. That is a song, And you pick what genre you want it, to express the story with. Could be Country, could be Bashment, could be Classical, could be Jazz, and Indie, Rockpop, You can tell a story in different ways which is the genre of music

KM : Yeah…

AC : Have I answered your question? [LAUGHS] Sorry!

KM : Yes! Absolutely! I’d love to play “Better Man”? Does that sound OK to you?

AC : That sounds great! Do it!

KM : And I’ll say as well that we will link to your video, your Spotify page, so that any listeners can listen along, but this is just a snippet


KM : Great. That is just amazing. Yeah. Could you tell us a little more about that song writing process? What that song means to you, if any of our listeners want to watch the music video, they will see some masks in your music video. I am assuming that this is a COVID related

AC : Oh yes..

KM : ..experience and song..

AC : Yes. So, this song was written when I recently had a little argument, as couples do, before I went to the studio to write the song with my music partner, writing partner Adam,  and he’s worked with many artists himself, he’s a prestigious writer and from there – I’d had an argument with my missus, y’know – typical, isn’t it, y’kow typical. He says “So what we going to write?” “Well, I’m feeling this way now, and COVID is upsetting everyone and one of my best friends is going through a terrible divorce at the time, and I’ve just spoke to him the night before and he mentioned that hew as trying so hard just to look after his family, but she’s not happy, things like that and Lockdown doesn’t help, y’know so all these emotions plus an argument then the studio, and this was right after the first Lockdown was over, was lifted, so it’s like a breath of fresh air

KM : Mmm

AC : I’ve over-eaten, everyone’s stressed, everyone’s slow, I’ve just kinda Graduated, got my grade which I was fantastically happy about, and I just through “Right, I can breathe now!” and then, lifting the Lockdown, went to the studio and then wrote the song in about an hour, recorded it with a guitar and we thought “This is a really good song?! OK! Lets get in the Studio!”. Two days later, we found one of Sam Smith’s producers, who is a friend of ours, and, er Marek his name is, went to Sam Smith’s studio in Hammersmith, Pierce Entertainment studio, we used the exact same studio as he recorded the first album and the second album, and I think the third as well, but definitely the first two.

So to me, that was like a very great moment,

KM : Yeah

AC : because like a Grammy Award winning album was recorded in the same studio, on the same equipment, y’know, so there’s loads of other artists, but I don’t want to waste time, but Sam Smith Grammy Award winning album was recorded in this studio with this producer..and I am not worthy y’know kinda think..


AC : He made the most of it. And if you hear the whole song, Marek and Adam made sure that I, I didn’t want too much technical enhancements to my vocals. Everything you hear in that song is ME. There is, there is, (maybe) hardly any corrections. Some singers you have to correct things – I won’t bore you with the technical terms, but if we were out of tune, you can put it in tune.

KM : Mmm

AC : Nowadays. You can make someone who sings terribly and make them sound amazing

KM : Ha

AC: With a few hours of touch-ups, y’know. Mixing. Its called. So I didn’t need any of that. I just went “I don’t want it touched, I just want sing my heart out. I am in a really great studio. I’m feeling emotional. I wanna let it out after three months of lockdown and studying lockdown. At the end of the outro, you’d hear me really just singing, cos I am fed up with being locked up! [LAUGHS]

KM : [LAUGHS] You’re singing for all of us!

AC : So fed up with the, y’know..

KM : Yeah

AC : Exactly! It was a fight just to be OK! Not to win, just to be OK, y’know..So, I feel I’ve expressed that in my emotional singing of the song. Plus the separation that my friend was having. Plus, the argument I’d had with my missus and other people going through bad relationship issues as well. And all around me, cos Lockdown, people hadn’t been together for so long

KM: Uh-uh

AC : They go to work, , they got the space and the time, and they get back and “Oh, OK, how are you, dear?” 4 or 5 hours in front of the TV and then it’s bedtime, isn’t it. They’ve never stuck in the same house, a lot of people have never, everyday, all day, and they just wanna [LAUGH] kill each other [LAUGHS]


AC: That was the case. Especially with kids, my God. So. Um. This song is for everyone that went through that, its for you, it’s for Birkbeck, its for everyone. Everyone. This song.

KM: It’s amazing that you could channel all of that energy and say..

AC : Yeah, yeah yeah. Emotion is what I see and hear. And how I feel. And this is how most music is created. I mean, I am inspired by the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. And 80’s. And the 90’s as well, of course. Cos that was my youth, growing up. Listening to music, but, music was created when people were struggling. Y’know. And I always like, kept that in my mind, y’know. When people are unfortunately struggling, which we don’t want, we come out with a certain emotion that expresses how others feel. And being a vocalist, it allows me to to do that

KM : Yeah…

AC : I mean, if I get rich, which I will!, fantastic!


AC : Great. Great. Y’know. But right now. I’m working for my University, who gave me a job, I’m their ambassador of the brand, I make sure that everyone, I’m a COVID Marshall, to everyone safe before they come in and out the building. I’m First Aid trained so I know how to deal with someone when they are unwell. Er, and my experience through life. And as a student through my degree, through lockdown and I am pretty much twice the age of any of the students who were there, y’know, who look up to me! I am thankful for, because I look up to them. So they have put me in a position where I can help students going through such a difficult time. So I am doing what I love, I am supporting people I love and respect

KM: uh uh

AC : And I am in the Facility that I love, which is my Uni, that I studied in. The tutors are now my friends, as well as my ex tutor, and current mentor. And the people who manage the site, are now either my managers of my team leaders, which is fantastic. So I am in a very good place right now. Unfortunately, we are locked down, but I am working online, like yourself, but erm, right at this very moment, , I am very grateful, my elder son is at University in his first year. My daughter is in college doing Art, erm, a 2 and a half year old who you just met earlier, unfortunately has not started nursery yet, which is a pain but safety first. And everyone in my immediate family is healthy. I have lost quite a few people actually from last year and this year and that’s including friends, elderly, COVID-19 . So yes, it’s been a bit crazy..

KM : Yep

AC : But I am very grateful

KM : Uh-uh

AC : And we are very grateful to you for spending this time to speak with us and I’d just like to comment, and I am sure our listeners would take up on this, with this full-circle aspect from your whole story of having trouble in school, finding music..

AC : Yeah..

KM : ..and pushing through so many challenges and how supporting students to fulfil their dreams and..

AC : Absolutely

KM :..and on that note I would actually like to ask you, erm, you might be aware that we have long term students at Birkbeck, who are Creative Practitioners like yourself

AC : Uh-uh

KM: Do you have any top tips for them if they are studying with us right now, especially in this really difficult time, if you have any advice for them..?

AC : Uh, Creative yeah?

KM: Yes

AC : OK, One thing that helped me was, OK, everyone has their favourite artists or favourite creators, learn a bit about…look into what they like, and what inspires them. For example, Stevie Wonder, one of my favourite guys, What inspires him? Duke Ellington. Then read about Duke Ellington, and what inspired Duke Ellington. Yeah. Elvis. One of my favourite artists, who I will never get to see, but I listen to him, who inspired him? Muddy Walters, Little Richard, all the Gospel Churches around his poor area that he grew up in. Yeah. He was sticking his head in and just listening. Y’know, then he picked up on the emotions of the Gospel Singers, and then he’ll go down the road and listen to Country Singers and that is how he became Elvis.

KM :Uh-Uh

AC : And he loved it. And that is inspiring.

KM : Yeah

AC : Going back to what Elvis was listening to, I met Tom Jones, right, and asked him what his inspirations are and he told me it was the miners in Wales. His parents, uncles, singing [SINGS A FEW NOTES IN A WELSH STYLE] and he picked it up. Cos the miners could really sing with the baritone voice, and he picked that up, from there…he just developed and learned from everyone he met.

KM : it’s that simple..

AC : Y’know, if you have a favourite writer, what inspired them to write that, y’know. Just go back in time. Find that, find where the root is. Find the roots of your genre, your subject, that you love and respect so much. That’s my tip.

KM : Yeah. That is such good advice. Thanks, so much Alan. It’s been an absolute delight speaking with you today and, I am so excited for our listeners to hear this. Stay up on your career and please keep us updated

AC : Yes! Of course


Narrator : And that’s the end for today’s episode. We hope you enjoyed listening to Kara and Alan. Remember if you are interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the World. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time

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