The Sam Willows aren’t your average pop group. In 2011, siblings Narelle and Benjamin Kheng teamed up with their friends Sandra Riley Tang and Jonathan Chua to upload covers on YouTube, but quickly became one of Singapore’s hottest bands. Rather than sit back and let big names write their songs for them, the Singaporean quartet takes a hands-on, detail-driven approach to all aspects of their music and image. Now, they’re about to drop their second studio album. Young Post caught up with the band during a flying visit to Hong Kong last month.
Welcome to Hong Kong! What have you been up to?
Narelle: We’ve been getting a feel for the city. There’s a lot of skyscrapers, it’s very gritty.
Sandra: It’s a lot more raw. Singapore is so clean! This is nice, there’s a lot of character.
Jonathan: The lights are beautiful here, you don’t really get that kind of vibe in Singapore. We’re really inspired by the visual aesthetics of Wong Kar-wai.
What was the inspiration behind Keep Me Jealous?
J: It was the first song we wrote on our songwriting trip to Sweden. We wanted to toy with the idea of jealousy in a relationship and how that can be an enticing thing. It can keep a relationship together, but you have to play it right. It’s like a toxin.
N: Like a moth-to-a-flame kind of vibe.
J: Exactly! We wanted to put that tension into a song and describe a dysfunctional relationship.
The video looked like it was so much fun to film!
S: It was hell! [Everyone laughs] It’s the biggest music video we’ve ever done and a lot of sweat, blood and tears went into it.
J: We did 15-hour shoots three days in a row.
Benjamin: Sandra directed the video and Narelle handled the art direction. [Jonathan and I] were very good cheerleaders!
S: It look a long time to decide what we wanted. It’s our first single from our second album so we wanted to come up with a good idea.
J: We were toying with the idea of addiction.
How do you usually spend your time on the road?
B: We bring our PS4 and some games. We’re always on it. We play a lot of straight-up guy games, like Fifa—
S: That’s so sexist!
B: C’mon! Stop being so PC! The fact is, guys play those games tonnes more than girls.
N: Guys play these games, then they get trashed by a female gamer.
S: I like Overcooked. It’s a really fun party game. You have to work as a team to get food out of the kitchen. But one player can’t do everything, so you have to scream at each other to get stuff done.
You covered a Phil Lam song the other day. Why did you pick him?
J: Phil’s story is similar to ours, even though we’re a band. We read about his background and his struggles. We don’t speak Cantonese, but we got his lyrics translated into Mandarin, then English. It’s a very touching song! It’s about allowing someone else to live their life happily while trying to keep living yours.
N: We’re real romantic suckers.
J: We pay a lot of attention to our lyrics, especially when they’ve about love. We unanimously decided to cover that song, despite our inability to speak Cantonese. We had a lot of help! Our first attempt was so bad. We did about eight takes.
B: Those first takes will never be seen. Our pronunciation was so bad.
Can you tell us anything about your new album?
J: It’ll be out this year. There’ll be about a dozen songs on it. We wrote the album with the idea that each song could stand on its own, rather than a concept album. We’re toying with the themes. Take Heart was focused on love in all its different forms, whereas we’re growing up – as musicians and homosapiens! – and we want to sing about other things, like having fun and life in general.We went to Sweden last December and also flew our Swedish producers to Singapore in January. We recorded mainly in Sweden. It’s about 70 per cent done. We worked with a guy called Fredrik Haggstam, who’s worked with Girls Generation and The Chainsmokers.
B: A lot of songs on the previous albums were songs written years before. Whereas, on this album, we threw all our previous songwriting formulas out the window. We deal with a lot more complex emotions and growing up. We all had equal songwriting input on the same level, which sounds like a mess but it came out okay.
Does performing come naturally to you all?
S: We’ve all grown up on a stage doing different things.
J: It was actually harder for us to adjust to the camera. On camera, we’re always chasing perfection, whereas on stage we’re having fun. As a band, we really enjoy playing on stage and feeling the audience’s energy.
N: I only feel comfortable onstage when I have these guys around me. Safety in numbers! There’s a lot of psyching ourselves up before. If we’re in quiet moods before a show and then we go onstage, we’re usually a bit awkward. But when we’re screaming, laughing and having fun backstage, it just explodes when we go onstage.
B: We started out by playing to nobody at first. We played at overseas festivals to five or 10 people. Then we moved on to private gigs or company dinners where everyone’s passively eating their food and they don’t care about you. And then, because of YouTube and everything, kids as young as eight or nine know our music. We played in the Philippines and they had choreographed dance moves and made signs.
S: It’s easier to play to a big crowd – because of the lights you can’t see them! When we opened for The Script, there were a lot of people, but we couldn’t see any of them so it wasn’t too scary.
N: We played for two people at our friend’s wedding proposal. I didn’t know where to look!
S: That was really hard! Ten thousand people is a lot easier to play than two. They started crying and I started crying! The friends were dancers for our song Stay. They met because of us, so we played Stay at their proposal. Now they’re getting married.
What other genres do you guys like?
S: When we were in Canada, we went to watch [rap group] Wu Tang Clan.
N: It was so weird! There was like a posse of 40 people on stage, with just one guy in the middle. They don’t even play songs – they play into the song, they rap, then they cut the song halfway. Then they just chill out.
J: We were probably the only Asians in the entire place.
S: It was a great experience! But I got stopped outside [the venue]. Being Asian, I had lots of stuff in my bag, like [medicine] pills, Strepsils … and they thought I was dealing drugs! They took out everything, I had bags of sweets and they just threw them all away. I had to try to explain a bottle of Chinese herbal medicine. I held up the line … so embarrassing!
N: She’s the girl that carries everything and has so much food and nonsense in her bag. She went to the toilet and was pulling out all her Ziploc bags of hairpins and everything…
S: And this girl thought I was selling drugs! She came up to me and was like, “can I get some from you?” And I was like, “Huh?!” while holding all these hairpins. I was so confused! It took a while for me to realise what she was talking about.
What’s been the highlight of your career as musicians so far?
J: Meeting The Script. I’m the biggest fan. We opened for them in Singapore and the lead singer Danny walked across the whole arena to our room to come and say hi. I shook his hand. I haven’t washed my hand since!
N: It was our big concert in Singapore last year. It was the first time we got the chance to put together a full show. I love playing [live] because although we can see fans online, they don’t feel real until we can see them in front of you and you’re sharing that moment and they’re singing along.
B: The first time we heard our song on the radio in Singapore. It was so surreal but I’d been dreaming of that moment since I was a kid.
S: Probably the concert as well. We’ve played a lot of shows over the years, but that concert was the first time people paid money to come and see just us. That was kind of mind-blowing. We played to about 3,000 people and I thought I was going to start crying onstage. It was so emotional! I never in my life thought we’d play to so many people.
N: Going to Sweden to do the album was such an experience. For the first time, we got to write with other people and see the process. We were really tight with the people we were working with. It felt like everything in life had happened to get us to that point.
J: Life is a constant adventure. Being in Hong Kong is an adventure. These guys haven’t been here before. It’s crazy that we’re here right now.