Bare. Festival: Singaporean indie band Sobs on their debut album Telltale Signs and writing deeply personal lyrics
Singing the blues
Don't let the name of this Singaporean indie trio mislead you. Sobs' disarming frontwoman Celine Autumn's deeply intimate and resonant lyrics might reflect the increasing sentiments of melancholia, mild depression, and forlorn love among youth today, but it's Raphael Ong and Jared Lim's bright guitar productions that lift the band's sound with hopeful summertime feels.
The band first jumped on the indie scene with their successful EP Catflap in 2017. In 2018, they released their debut full-length album Telltale Signs, which garnered rave reviews from local music critics and twenty-something audiophiles alike.
It's no surprise then that their easy-on-the-ear music has travelled beyond our shores: a Southeast Asia tour with stops in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila in 2018 was followed up with a Japan tour in early 2019.
In advance of their headlining gig at Scape Invasion and SGMUSO's music festival bare., I caught up with Celine, Jared, and Raphael to discuss their meteoric rise as well as the possiblity of new music in 2020.
Did all of you come from musically inclined families?
Celine: My mum sings too, actually. She is a former vocal coach, but I've only ever let her teach me once when I was young because she'd just laugh at me when my voice cracked. She used to do sold-out Teresa Teng tribute shows annually at Esplanade, which was honestly pretty cool. I grew up following her to band practice every weekend. There was a lot of Mando-pop music playing around the house, but I wasn't drawn to music at that point. I never felt like I could sing as well. My love for music first came through when I received an iPod for my birthday when I was nine. I had songs by the likes of Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Lily Allen, which I would listen to all day.
Jared: Growing up, my dad would play the guitar and sing us songs he liked now and then. There was always a guitar around at home and I gradually picked it up by learning how to play songs by Weezer and Paramore. I don't think any of us have any formal music training.
Raphael: Aside from the seven different CDs that somehow found their way into my dad's car — some of which were Air Supply albums, and compilations of kids singing worship songs — my family wasn't particularly musically inclined. I still think that my musical sensibilities were somehow very much shaped by my childhood. I played many computer games and the music were often my favorite part of it. I still remember trying to play one of the background tracks from Runescape by ear on an electric organ that our neighbour gave to us!
How did the band come together in the beginning?
Celine: I first met Jared on an online music forum. I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to make yet at that point. It was my first proper experience writing and collaborating with another musician. That inevitably prepared me to start writing songs with Sobs as I never saw myself as a songwriter before that. It all happened really gradually and songwriting became very natural for me. I don't think our sound as a band was ever intentional as we were just having fun and figuring out what works, often surprising ourselves whenever we finish a song.
You've released a EP Catflap and your debut album Telltale Signs last year. How have you grown as musicians individually and as a band over the last few years? Are there any key milestones or experiences that have had a significant impact?
Celine: I remember going on our first-ever Southeast Asian tour over a year ago. Our first city was Jakarta. When people started singing along immediately, I almost started crying. It's crazy how far out our music has travelled, reaching people in the US and Europe. It means so much to me that people resonate with our songs. I was 19 turning 20 when the band first started, so what I write and sing about these days has drastically changed since the EP.
Jared: Three years ago, I could've never imagined even traveling outside of Punggol to play music that we wrote! I'm so grateful for every show we get to play. We're always discovering new things and learning to work together and coexist in close proximity when we're overseas. Every show gets me emotional thinking about how I want to do this for the rest of my life even if it doesn't seem realistic.
Raphael: Having the opportunity to play so many live shows over the past few years of being with the band — across different countries, stages, and situations — has definitely taught me how to better manage the intricacies of bringing our sound out of our bedrooms and into the world. One of the biggest lessons that I learnt and grew from was how important it was to consider the interplay between different elements and instruments as well as each members' needs in a live setting, especially when backline and stage sound can often be less than desirable.
You write, produce, and mix everything on your own. Has that been challenging? Collaboration and guest features on tracks have become pretty commonplace in pop music. Is there any intention to collaborate with any other musician or producer in the future?
Celine: I find writing to be an anxiety-inducing process these days, but I'm working really hard on going back to when we used to write just because we loved music and found it fun. We currently have no collaborators in mind to work with but we're definitely open to the idea.
Melancholia, mild depression and dysmorphia — the themes in your music are quite heavy, but also deeply present among youth today. Are these themes rooted in personal experience? What would you say to some of your fans who are going through a rough patch at the moment?
Celine: These lyrics are definitely personal to my own experiences. It was never my intention to touch on these topics, but it was my way of acknowledging the deep-seated issues within myself. I treat the songs like they're my journal entries.
To our fans who are currently experiencing similar issues, I want you to know that I hear you and that your feelings are very valid! Growing up is hard and the people around you might not understand you. Sometimes, you find meaning through the experiences of another, so keep reaching out to people, experience more of what the world has to offer, and don't stop figuring things out!
You've acquired a huge fanbase around the world. I've noticed a lot of expat kids at your gigs. How did that come about and why do you think your music resonates so well with them, unlike other local bands?
Raphael: Hmm, I'm not too sure about the expat kids part. If anything, I suppose it's a heartwarming sign that we've reached out to people across nationalities and demographics.
I've always thought that the distinction between a band being a "local band" vs "international band" was a pointless one. Every band can be an "international band". In this age of Bandcamp, streaming, and social media, the bar is significantly lower for a band to break their geographical boundaries. The mindset that people have when they go "oh, this is not bad for a local band," is one that unhealthily places Singaporean music as inferior to music from overseas. If we really want Singaporean music to have its place internationally, we owe it to ourselves to put our music on a level playing field as any other band in the world. We must hold our own music to the standards of how you would any other band from New York, or London, or anywhere else in the world.
Travelling seems to be one of the ways you get inspired and film your MVs. What has been the most memorable experience overseas so far and what city are you looking to travel to next?
Celine: There are too many! Having the audience sing along to your songs always makes the shows so much fun and of course, playing on the same lineup with bands that we love. Well, we've been getting a lot of messages to play shows in the US, so it's definitely on our list!
Jared: The most memorable experience by far was playing shows in Japan and hearing the audience sing our songs and guitar lines back to us!
I've heard that you're working on new music for 2020. What can you tell us about this new body of work?
Celine: The new songs we have right now definitely sound a lot more mature than our previous releases. We're still in the process of writing, but these songs are easily by far my favourite already. I'm so proud of them. I'm nervous for the release, but I do hope that people will enjoy it!
Sobs will be peforming at bare. on 14 December alongside Indonesia's Bedchamber, pop trio HE1ST, singer-songwriter Nigel Cheah, and pop band Royal Estate. Tickets are on a pay-what-you-want basis, but $5 is recommended.
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