Since their debut in 2012, The Sam Willows have toured North America, Australia and Korea, played at international stages including Tokyo's Summer Sonic and opened for global acts like Little Mix. But the multi award-winning and multi million-streamed homegrown quartet still drops the occasional Singlish and Hokkien slang during their album launch and press conference for I Know, But Where last Thursday at private members' club 1880. The band — made up of Benjamin Kheng, 27, Narelle Kheng, 24, Sandra Riley Tang, 27, and Jonathan Chua, 28 — even broke out in National Day songs at one point.
But in a balance of energies, the six-year-old band quietened before performing 'Robot', a single from their 11-track album. They entered into a different mode as they steadied into the performance, dedicating the song to Avicii before they started.
"We played very safe in the last album. We stuck to the harmonies and the things we knew we could do. We are taking a lot more risks with this album which is fun," said singer and guitarist, Benjamin Kheng. Similar to their 2015 full-length debut, Take Heart, the band flew to Stockholm to work with Swedish talents. Sweden is reputed as the third-largest music exporter in the world, and The Sam Willows were privileged to work with Harry Sommerdahl, the producer behind artistes like The Wanted, and Fredrik Häggstam who works with The Chainsmokers.
In an eclectic mix of pop and R&B, the album is bridged with an undercurrent sound that brings an edge to the stories. I Know, But Where includes four singles, 'Keep Me Jealous', 'Papa Money', 'Save Myself' and 'Robot' that were released last year and have achieved gold status on their streams.
"I don't think this sound is going to be our final stop. It'll continue to evolve," said singer and bass player Narelle Kheng. "It's a journey and this is our sound at this point of time. What's important is that we like it now," added singer Tang.
A lovely synergy greeted me when I interviewed the pop-quartet afterwards. "The great thing about being in a band is that we can take turns answering questions when we are tired," guitarist and singer, Chua said. Indeed, one joked while the other pondered as the mood in the room relaxed. Perhaps it took six years in the making, but The Sam Willows have matured into a new assurance. I peered into their journey below.
What were your personal journeys behind the album and how did the band come together to create I Know, But Where?
Narelle: The way we work is to approach it head on, all together, at the same time. We draw on overall stereotypes of each emotional moment. For example, in 'Save Myself' and 'Robot', they are more personal and we have put a lot of ourselves into them but at the end of the day, a lot of these feelings are universal. Everybody feels the same in varying degrees and styles.
Jonathan: I don't think it's so much of a personal journey that led to the album. I think it was a collective journey as the four of us. It's our collective experiences in general.
Sandra: The Sam Willows is basically an alter ego of the four of us. And therefore, the experiences come from The Sam Willows instead of as individuals.
Narelle: Somehow there is a feeling, a style, a tone, a personality that comes when the four of us do it together. I think the album is more of a friendship growth. It's a growth of the relationship between us that also includes our lives.
How have The Sam Willows matured?
Narelle: We get a lot less angry now.
Jonathan: I think the anger in the past came from the lack of understanding of each other. There's this saying, 'you hate what you don't understand'. We now understand each other and we got to understand ourselves better. That's why it became easier to work with each other. You know that the person is going to come through for you.
Narelle: The past few years with them really taught me to grow up because there are a lot of times you get frustrated at something and be, 'fine, you do you, I do me, let's just go our separate ways'. But you can't do that in this group. You're forced to stick it through, fight it out, talk it out, forgive, apologise. And that really taught me how to let things go because I had a lot of trouble trying to do that. This album really made me rediscover a love for music and we just learnt how to balance things much better. We balanced our lives, our personal opinions, our work, our loves and everything. It feels like we are growing up.
Sandra: We're actually in a stage of maturing and blossoming in our own personal lives. I think it does reflect in the way we write, in the processes and the way that we function together as a band now. Even the way we are in our personal lives, the way we treat each other as friends, the way we communicate.
Benjamin: Even from a technical or creative standpoint, we felt a bit restless with how we were doing things in the past. And it's just nice to see that we've never been at the same place for too long. We know exactly when the time is right to move on and to try something new. Even for the longevity of this band, whether it's time to give the music thing a break and move on to something else, we will know. Obviously we will not have a date but I think what's the great thing about this band is that we are restless in a great way. We are restless that we never want to be mediocre. We just want to take it to the most extreme level, to push ourselves in difference circumstances or music wise. Our music is not overly complex, we're not Oscar Wilde, we're not Bohemian Rhapsody but I think the process in that experimentation from where we were at the start to now, and that we've never once rested on our morals — that's quite nice to see.
Were there any memorable blessings in disguise throughout your career?
Jonathan: The biggest blessing that we received as a band was in early 2013 when we were going to America for South by Southwest. At that point of time we had no money so we did a fundraiser show and as many things to raise money. But we were still a little bit short. We were going to fly out with this producer called Leonard Soosay. He was like a tour manager because he had been to the festival before. Before we left, he gave us an ang bao with $1,000 inside and that is something I was very grateful for. We wanted to give him back the money because we're more stable and he told me, 'I don't want the money. What you can do is to do the same for the next generation'. I won't say this was a blessing in disguise, but I think it was the biggest blessing we had as a band and why we're always looking to push boundaries but also help whoever we can help in whatever capacity we can.
Narelle: It's so hard to say what has kicked the career in what direction or what would have made it better, what would have made it worst. After a while, it's so hard to pinpoint and I think we just take whatever we have now on our plates, run with it and try to do the best that we can.
Benjamin: I think it's quite a regular occurrence when people feel like they can knock us down. Even personal connections — there are people who say that they are for us and then they say things behind our backs. It happens a lot, more than you think. Throughout you just learn to realise that people are just people and that you're an easy target but you just got to suck it up.
Was there something you used to believe in but no longer do?
Jonathan: Whatever values we had from the beginning, we still hold it up till today. Like prioritising the band, understanding each other, our values and visions have gotten stronger. Of course you have some things that we joked about at the start like, "Okay, five years we want to win a Grammy". It's been over six years and we're nowhere close. But it's the kind of things that regardless you know, that's always the dream and we are going to work towards it.
Sandra: On a more personal note, I used to believe that everything is black and white. Everything has to be clear cut, it is either this or this, there is no in-between. And then I've learnt that there is an in-between and it's a very, very grey area. It can be very fuzzy and very confusing. But there is that area and I think that's what living is really about. Trying to understand, straddle and live.
Narelle: For me it's the idea of perfection. I'm an absolute kind of person and also a perfectionist. But I never actually get there or let myself get there. And in the end, I get very disappointed at the fact that it's not perfect. What happens is that I end up not doing anything and not being happy about anything I've done. That was me in the middle and then now that I'm here, I'm just like, "Whatever lah, just do your best. Be happy, can already".
Jonathan: It's like growing up in school. In primary school you used to get 90 marks for tests and then as you grow older, in secondary school you'll get like 50 marks and go 'yes I passed!'.
Sandra: Everything is perception, isn't it? Everything is relative. I know. But where?
Benjamin: I don't think you can actually be anything that you want to be. I think that's a lie we always tell ourselves. Theoretically you could, but I also feel what you can be is the best version of yourself. When we were younger, we were trying to be this thing. We'll win a Grammy. I want to be like so and so. You realise that that's a moving target because you become that person, but then are you happy? And if it's a moving target, you'll never be satisfed. But why would you spend your whole life trying to tell someone else's story when you can just tell your own and be freaking good at it? It's almost like you don't believe in true love because true love means you don't have to work for it, it just happens for you. But you believe in working for the love and you believe in hard love.
Sandra: There's no Mr. Right, there's only Mr. Right Now.
Jonathan: You don't marry the one you love, you love the one you marry.
Narelle: Two roads diverge in a yellow wood.
Sandra: We're just having quotes now.
Jonathan: A tree fell in the forest, did the tree really fell?
Who were your first mentors when you started, and how has that changed now that you are role models for aspiring musicians?
Narelle: When we started, Wong Fu was one of our mentors. He was also a producer of our first EP and introduced us to a lot of people in the scene.
Jonathan: Leonard Soosay was a huge mentor for us as well.
Benjamin: There was a band called Sixx which consisted of The Lion City Boy and Aarika Lee. They were kinda like the benchmark of who we want to be.
Narelle: Charlie (Lim).
Benjamin: He is still a mentor.
Jonathan: We've had a lot of people who helped us along the way. Giving us advice, helping us get from one place to another and being very happy for us genuinely. I don't really consider myself as a role model because I feel that people shouldn't try to be the next Sam Willows. Like what Ben said, you should be the best version of yourself. If we inspire them in some way or another, then that's great but I think at the end of the day, they should try their best to be the best version of themselves.
How have your respected interests contributed to your creative process as musicians?
Jonathan: We get free yoga classes.
Narelle: Everything is interconnected, especially when you are dealing with art and culture. Because when you do music, it involves people listening so everything builds towards communication. Whether you are a filmmaker, a writer, a musician, it's about that process of conveying.
Sandra: Learning how to do your own business, you learn a lot of things. A lot of these things are very applicable in the band because the band is not just an art, but it's art and business mashed together. We take this knowledge and put it into the band and I think that's something that's been really helpful.
Jonathan: I think the best thing are all the perks. When Ben does his theatre shows, we get to watch for free.
Sandra: When he has a rehearsal, we get a holiday. And from Narelle, we get free alcohol.
Jonathan: Free alcohol, free yoga, free recording studio. Guys, let's be honest here, it's all about the perks.
Narelle: But we always try and find ways to help the band subtly. For example, Moonstone [a co-working space co-founded by Narelle] now turns into our shooting venue. We go to Zendyll [an aural-visual production house co-founded by Jon] to rehearse.
Jonathan: We try to go for yoga every time Sandra opens in a new location.
Benjamin: I think when we first started out in music, it was very quick-fire. Because it was on a YouTube platform, it was very easy to go 'oh, let's record stuff'. We put it out and it was instant gratification. We started doing other things that required a longer-term investment. Like business, running a bar, doing character analysis and coming up with scripts. You realise that the biggest thing an artiste needs is process. It's not about the last step, it's about the journey being completely important and that's why we took so long with this album. We wanted to get it right. Sometimes it's not about that Instagram photo you upload to get a certain number of likes. But it's about dedicating an amount of time and investment to build that process from start 'A' all the way to 'Z'. Because when it gets to 'Z', it's going to be a long time coming but it's going to be the finish point. I think the biggest thing, at least for me, was learning about process and taking time.
Listen to The Sam Willows's sophomore album, I Know, But Where, here.