We've all heard of "It" girls before, but what if there was an "It" boy in our midst? The Sam Willows' Benjamin Kheng is certainly making his mark in the local entertainment industry, one indie-folk song at a time. In addition to his music, the FLY Entertainment artiste is also an actor and former national swimmer — now that's one hell of a triple threat. I sat down with Kheng over a coffee to discuss his performance at the Opening Ceremony of the SEA Games, dream collaborations and being a hipster. Or not.
When did you first discover your love of music?
My parents were both singers and musicians, so music was always a second language in our home. I was enrolled into violin and piano classes at the age of 6, but only fell in love with music after my mom wouldn't stop playing Yanni's instrumentals on the stereo.
Is it easier working in such a notoriously tough industry with your sister Narelle?
It definitely makes it easier, having family close by. But it also makes you feel a lot more. I celebrate all her successes and feel equally heavy every time she hits a roadblock or feels down. It's a wonderful thing to make music alongside her.
Why did you decide to form the quartet The Sam Willows? What's the story behind that?
It came about very naturally — we were all friends before then, jammed a bunch at my place, and decided to put up a little something for an alumni concert. It went down pretty well, and then figured that YouTube would be a good next step. We were all fans of vocal groups and the folk/country genres, and thought it'd be fun to put a unique sound and lineup together.
You just performed at the SEA Games opening ceremony in front of around 55,000 people at Singapore National Stadium — and that's not counting the TV viewers live across the region. How were you feeling during that moment?
Tried my best to clear my mind! Theatre trains you well — you live in the "created universe" of the story, whether you're playing to 10 people or 55,000. You try to stay on an even keel. That being said, I was a crazy ball of nerves and energy before hitting the stage. Esen (who danced opposite me) made everything much easier, and we just focused on telling a good story in Act 3.
You're a singer and actor among many other things, but would you say being a musician is your priority?
I love them all! Right now, music is at the forefront, but I love the fact that I get to do a bunch of different things. I think I'd go crazy just doing one of them.
Tell us about your swimming career.
Six hours in the pool each day, seven days a week, lots of muscle cramps and lactic acid and crying into goggles. But the euphoria you get when you break your personal best is unlike any other. I started competitive swimming when I was six, made into the pioneering batch of the Sports School, was on the national youth team for about seven years. But I was never terrific, always losing out to someone bigger and more disciplined. But I did learn a lot from my time in the pool, and took many lessons along with me in my current adventures.
Five-time Grammy Award winner Steve Lillywhite produced your single Glasshouse. Is there anyone who The Sam Willows are just dying to work with?
Max Martin, Jon Hopkins, Ryan Tedder, Rick Rubin, anyone who would really tear us apart creatively and force us to work our butts off in a new way.
You seem to exude an effortless, cool vibe. I've often seen your name associated with 'hipster'. Do you take that term as a compliment?
True hipsters would roast me (organically) over a spit. I don't set out to exude any vibe in one way or another; you just gotta be yourself!
What will you be doing in five years?
Probably in some Nordic/Scandinavian/exotic country, backpacking my way around the world!