The Sam Willows' Narelle Kheng goes solo after a period of grief

The Sam Willows' Narelle Kheng goes solo after a period of grief

Wilted flower

Text: Aravin Sandran

Firstly, congrats on the single as well as the placement on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. It's a momentous time for you. How do you feel?
I'm really happy. Ever since I started this music project, a lot of people have come onboard to help me, particularly people who I respect. It makes me realise that I've done something right in my life and if I can't do it for myself, I have to do it for them. 

Which of your achievements do you believe earned you a spot on Forbes' 30 under 30 list?
I don't think it's a specific thing. Many people don't know, but The Sam Willows has been working super hard for a long time. In some sense, you don't want to be validated by something else but it's also nice to be recognised for the work that you've put in. One thing the Willows has done is that we've created an infrastructure for the scene. When we started out, there was nothing. We had to make every connection ourselves, even connections with fashion brands and other businesses. We went out, sat through all these PR meetings, trying to make all these deals. That's what business is and that's what Forbes is. It's an entrepreneur-focussed publication. 

Let's talk about your growth musically. How has your identity and ability as a singer grown over the years?
Sometimes, I still feel like I can't sing. At the same, I've realised that singing is just a muscle. Ben and Sandra were the ones who taught me how to sing. At first, I learnt how to do harmonies with them. When we started the band, it was a process of learning how to sing while performing at the same time. Now, pursuing my own music, I feel like my singing has broken into a new arena but it continues to be a work-in-progress. 

Why did you decide to drop a solo track now?
Because I wrote the song. I am still nervous about releasing this track because it's my track. It's no longer part of The Sam Willows. It's me for the first time. I like it so whatever. I knew that I had to get something out because I needed to move on.

Move on from what exactly?
Move on from all the emotions, feelings and stuff. I wanted to put it behind me. Writing music is the best way to know how you feel because you can only write something that's true to you.

Where did the inspiration from this particular song come from?
Between 2016 and 2018, I was going through a lot of stuff. This song is about me glorifying the hurt that I was feeling, and wanting to dig the knife deeper into my wounds, but also the strength that came out of it. 

Have you healed over and what was that lesson you learnt?
Definitely, I learnt that only I am in charge of my own life. We're too old to let our childhood traumas be our adult problems. In the end, how I deal with it is on me. I can't blame anyone else anymore. 

Thematically, how would you describe the body of work you'll be releasing this year?
All the emotions I was feeling could fit into three parts. The first part is anger and it is visualised through purple imagery. It's dark and twisted. Part two is when I took away the anger and what was left was sadness, which is portrayed through the colour blue. Part three is orange, and that's when I move on but there's a sarcastic spin to it.

It sounds like three stages of grief.
Exactly, thank you! That was my three stages of grief. When I wrote all of this, I realised that I've grown and I'm passed it. I can't wait to get all these songs out and start on new stuff.  

I'm guessing all this grief was caused by a guy.
Yes, but not all. It was a combination of things including my perception of myself. I've never been a confident person. I really thought I was the most useless, f**ked up trash-ass person. It took over everything. 

Did you seek therapy?
I did, but only after. Self-therapy was also a fun journey, but I don't want to go back. 

What helped you during this period?
There was a lot of positive verbal affirmation. There was a lot of meditation, reading and journaling as well.

On the other hand, I'm sure there are people who have judged you solely based on your appearance. Do you think your physical appearance has played a part in your success, and how would you characterise that?
Yes, it's shiok and I use it. 

Do you think life is easier for someone who's better-looking?
Everybody has their own set of problems. I'm also a girl so I get to use all these things. At the same time, people put you in a box. They think you're not as talented because of your looks. It was something I had to get over. For a long time, I let it affect me, but not anymore. I know that I work hard and my hard work has paid off. I'm not the kind of person who cares about looks. To me, it has always been about character. 

Do you have any insecurities that you have developed over the years?
A lot of it was thinking that I wasn't cut out for this because I'm not a performer. Getting thrust into this business forced me to be a lot of these things. I did pretty well because I think I'm quite good at faking it. It's been a journey but I'm still trying to figure it out.


Can you ever be truly vulnerable on social media?
I'm trying and learning. Sometimes in order to be truly vulnerable, you have to put all your cards on the table.

Sounds like there was a lot of emotions at play here.
Yes, I'm a pretty emotional person but at the same time, I'm hard on the outside.

Have your popularity and endorsements got in the way of your friendships and personal life and how did you manage that?
Yes, in my personal life. I think it takes active thought. It's the same as the "pretty" thing. People judge you and put you in a box. It just gets tiring. Nowadays, I love to have my alone time. It takes a lot for me to get into a good state. The minute I do an event or one sponsored thing, I'm out and then I have to trudge my way back into it. If I do a lot of that, I feel like I'm suffocating a little bit. 

How do you mediate conversations about what you do on social media with your friends and family?
I actually don't talk about it very much, but I'm trying to learn how to and get better at it. It's up to me. It's my attitude towards them that will give them the impression. If I show them that I can love it and I can do it well, it will take away all the stigma. That being said, there are a lot of good people on there and I want to find them somehow.

On a lighter note, what has been the creepiest DM you've ever received?
I've received only one d**k pic in my life. There was once a time when this guy would message me a few times a week on Facebook, talking as though we were close. It was annoying because it was consistent and he looked like a 40-year-old. I just ignored it. 

Do you have any dream collabs?
I would really like to do a TV series with Christopher Nolan. 

So do you have ambitions to become a proper actress?
I don't know. I love movies and TV. I can't decide if I want to be in front of the camera or behind it. I do enjoy acting. Now that my hair is dark, I can do a bit more. 

How much of your identity was defined by your pink hair during that period?
Quite a lot. At that point, I really felt it was me. Six years ago, we all looked the same. Now, everyone is so clearly themselves because we have taken wild steps to redefine who we are, whether it's getting a tattoo or dress outrageously. It's all just attempts at figuring it out. 

What has been your proudest achievement to date?
There are times when people message me on Instagram. I don't get a lot of "Oh my God you're so beautiful", instead, a lot of them tell me that they're feeling sad and they don't know what to do and I help them. Those are the things that make me feel like I have value in the world and have made a difference. 

To those on the outside looking at you, your 140 000 followers and Forbes list placement, what misconceptions would you like to break down and what are the harsh truths that you would like to bring to light?
My life is great, but not because of all these things. It's because of the friends and conversations that I have and the things I read that make me who I am in the world.

Narelle Kheng will be releasing her solo body of work in three parts this year. Listen to "Outta My Head" on Apple Music.

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