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Featured Writers: The Sam Willows
By: PP Wong
THE SAM WILLOWS is made up of siblings Ben and Narelle Kheng, and friends Sandra Riley Tang and Jon Chua.
Known for their beautiful lyrics and unique, harmonious, folksy sound, the band exploded onto the Singapore musical scene in May 2012. The good-looking quartet recently completed a tour of North America and were selected to record a song with five-time Grammy-winning English producer Steve Lillywhite. Lillywhite has worked with U2, Morrissey and The Rolling Stones.
THE SAM WILLOWS shares with BW about parents, creating poetic lyrics and whether there is any truth to the rumours that Sam Willows is actually a strange guy from Canada.
B is for… book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Ben: It’s a toss-up between Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the entire Roald Dahl collection, particularly The BFG. Those two made me who I am!
Narelle: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Jon: I really enjoyed reading the Agatha Christie novels
Sandra: Poison – Chris Wooding
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Ben: Definitely not something with a one-week lifespan. I’d say a blue whale or a sloth. Gotta find time to put the mind in down time, and that might just be the way to do so.
Jon: A panda, so I can just laze around
Sandra: A whale
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Ben: A pocket-sized teleportation device to get me back home, and $5 for a packet of nuts from the nearest 7-Eleven.
Narelle: Can I bring people? Probably a knife and a pot.
Jon: My guitar, and whiskey.
Sandra: A very big knife and my boyfriend.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Ben: I like eggs.
Narelle: Lazy, real, dreamer
Jon: Rock and Roll
Sandra: Lover, dreamer, fighter
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Ben: Either Rudyard Kipling, or Daniel Keyes (just for the masterpiece that is Flowers for Algernon).
Narelle: Probably JK Rowling
Jon: I really enjoy the writings of JJ Abrams
Sandra: Nora Roberts
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
Ben: BANANA is good.
Narelle: Milkshake please!
Jon: Banana Milkshake, if I have to pick one. Otherwise, all!
Sandra: A BANANA CAKE WITH A BANANA MILKSHAKE GANACHE FILLING TOPPED WITH A GLAZED BANANA
How did you start The Sam Willows?
Ben: We wanted to make music we liked - with people that we liked. Getting together and singing just felt like a natural progression. We were all strangely at a point of severe boredom or angst in our lives (I was midway through National Service) and the band was the cure. We were always coming up with interesting ideas for tunes or covers and it got annoying when they never had the privilege of seeing the light of day. I’m pretty glad we get that chance now.
Narelle: I’ve been singing with my brother (Ben) since we were kids. When I met Sandra she was like the older sister I never had. We clicked immediately. I loved singing and jamming with them, but back then it was just casual, never thought of doing music seriously. As I grew older I realised that it was something I really loved. But I didn’t dare start up something on my own. That’s when I met Jon. The four of us were jamming and messing around when something happened to click - we realized that it was special! We were just doing covers because we found it fun to give each song a twist. Then we put it up on YouTube so we could share it with our friends. When we started to get more traction, we started writing our own music because we wanted to create something of our own.
Sandra: Actually, when we got together for the first time, it was to do a set for a concert that Jon was organising in his school. After that, we started doing YouTube covers and lo and behold, our ‘Hey Soul Sister mash up’ went more viral than we expected and that got us toying with the idea of actually doing something more serious. We were very blessed to have met a lot of people in the industry that were very willing to help us and to believe in us despite us being very new to the scene. That was when we decided to go into production of our debut EP.
Jon: We decided to take a leap of faith and record an EP shortly after doing our first ‘originals’ gig. And we never looked back!
Is it true that you are the first Singaporean band to do a tour of America?
Ben: Contrary to popular belief, we’re not the first Singaporean band to tour the states! Many other amazing acts have planted the flag before us – Electrico, Great Spy Experiment, I Am David Sparkle, Inch Chua, to name few. We did travel extensively through the region though. I think the first thing we did that really helped us in this process was rid ourselves of self-doubt and “paiseh”-ness (slang word for fear / be terrified). You’ll never ever be ready in your mind, so it’s best to bite the bullet and send your stuff out to as many people as possible. We applied for SXSW (South by South West) in Austin, Texas just 4 months after forming the band. Our email to them consisted of our CV, band shots, a couple of rough demos (we were in the middle of recording our EP), and a link to our YouTube channel. That’s all we had then! But we decided to just send it out and it worked! After we got the invitation to SXSW, we pieced together the other tour legs. Canadian Music Festival’s invitation came later, and that was the cherry on top of the touring Sunday.
Narelle: Also, what made it easier to decide to embark on the journey to the USA was knowing that we could even meet up with fellow Singaporeans there. Sometimes you just gotta take the leap of faith which was what Jon did when he applied for SXSW without telling the rest of us. Just keep trying- it’s like anything else in life. Like an actor, keep auditioning even though you may get rejected.
Like John, Paul, George and Ringo, does The Sam Willows have differing roles in the bands?
Ben: Absolutely. We like to think of it as our own little business enterprise. On the boring end of the spectrum, each of us handles a different department. That way we’re all accountable to the progress of the band. On the creative and therefore more “fun” side of the spectrum, we’re all equal stakeholders. Everyone throws in musical ideas, and from there it’s more of sieving out what we feel works best for our sound.
Jon: We all have different roles in the band. But when it comes to writing music, we enjoy the process to be organic. Sometimes one person would come with a riff, or a simple melody, and then we expand on it and write a song. Every song we’ve wrote has a different story behind it, which makes it more meaningful for us. It also helps that all of us are different in terms of musical genre, Ben loves folk; Sandra Soul, Narelle Jazz, and myself Blues and Country music.
Narelle: What we learnt from a lot of the conferences we’ve been to, such as SXSW CMF (Canadian music fest/week) and even Music Matters in Singapore is that you can’t have everyone doing everything because it just becomes slow. Like a company or a clock each of us have different roles. In a nutshell, Ben handles social media, Sandra handles design, Jon handles operations and I do finance. Of course there’s a lot more than just these four so sometimes when things need to be done we then delegate one person to overseer, but essentially everyone still has to play a task. Like songwriting, you need everyone’s effort but not everyone can arrange together (which is what we actually usually do). It helps that Ben takes on the role of “leader” for song writing, in that sense. He helps ensure the whole process is moving smoothly. But our team is more than just the four of us. The main team includes our manager Audrey who handles all the liaising and gigs (in a nutshell) and we have a sound engineer Teddy Looi and a videographer, Ben Ong.
Sandra: I personally feel we compliment each other very well. We’re very different yet very similar at the same time. Jon is the highly organized one, doing lists and planning schedules, running the ‘operations’. Ben is the musical genius and the calmest of us all. Narelle is the super excited one and a natural at social media. Where as, I’m the slightly crazy one and I handle most of the design work together with the team. When it comes to writing songs, as Jon said, it’s pretty much rather organic. Sometimes, Ben comes in with an idea or with a backbone of a song, and the rest of us jump to put together the rest of the parts. Sometimes it’s Jon with a guitar riff; sometimes it’s Narelle or myself with a chorus or an idea for an interesting beat.
Sandra: And first it is good to get gigs locally, it is important for people to hear about you, to know who you are and that you actually exist. When we first started, social media (YouTube/Facebook) was one of the most important tools we used to extend our reach and to build our brand. Now, we still work our social media but we also do a lot of PR-ing with our manager at our shows and events that we attend.
Jon: Yes, social media and internet platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Soundcloud etc are important. We had to be actively working on it in order for our American audience could hear about us even before heading there to tour. And while we were there, we acted as a street team and gave out flyers with our tour details, inviting people to come. It led to busking and other fun stuff too.
Having a child as rock star is probably lower down on an Asian parent’s wish list. How did your parents react to your dreams of pursuing music?
Ben: I’m so fortunate to have parents who’re not only supportive of our artistic pursuits, but who are in fact the catalyst behind them. We (Narelle and I) grew up in a home filled with music -shelves upon shelves of records from classical to pop, music lessons of all kinds, weekend jams as a family. That kind of inclusion helped us fall in love with music completely. It was never an “escape” from the crutches of education or anything like that; it was such a big part of our lives.
Narelle: Thankfully our parents are supportive. They have a nice balance between traditional and open-minded. My dad’s dream is to be a singer, hah hah so he’s happy that is what we want to do too. Yet, he knows the struggle of maintaining a good life in Singapore. He constantly checks up on us and ensures that we always have a backup and are moving in the right direction. Honestly, doing music and entertainment in Asia can provide a good lifestyle. Like in any othersector you have to work just as hard to get there. Actually, when the band started picking up, my dad was fully behind it. His only criteria was that we give it our all or nothing – no point in throwing out a half-hearted effort. That’s the kind of man he is, and that’s why I respect him so much.
Jon: My parents are very supportive of my music career. They try to come and attend some of the performances and themselves, got more involved in the music scene. I think they can see the passion that we have, and I believe are very proud of us.
Sandra: I am also very blessed to have parents that trust and support me in whatever that I do. My parents, despite being Asian, have told me since young that I can pursue whatever I would like - as long as I give it my best. Growing up, we went through a lot of ups and downs financially, but we stuck together always encouraging each other. I believe if you have just a little bit of faith and keep your head high with a smile on your face, everything will work out in the end.
“Come to the floor with my coat of shame , let the mind of the mystery spell my name.”
The lyrics of your songs have a poetic ring to them. How do you come up with all these stories?
Ben: Most of our songs have an element of storytelling to it. We’re largely inspired by classic country songs with a strong narrative element, so you’ll hear a bit of that in our own songs. Not to a full extent, of course. For example, Night Light was written about my mum’s fight and struggle with cancer, and how her simple action of turning on a night light in my room before I went to bed became something so symbolic and powerful to me. You could say she became the light in the darkness for me; that even when my eyes were closed, or when she was gone, I knew she was still there, looking out for me, clearing away the darkness around me.
Narelle: Some songs have a story, some just have “morals” if you would call it that. I think inspiration comes from everywhere. For example Glasshouse essentially talks about breaking this “glasshouse” you create for yourself to shield yourself from the rest of the world. So your glasshouse can be your insecurities etc. Other songs like our new song Out of Town is about a love of a father that’s so strong that he tells his son to leave his home because it isn’t good for him. So that has more of a story to it.
Jon: The inspirations come from everywhere, and the process is organic. This makes it mysterious and exciting at the same time.
The music industry is full of higher highs and even lower lows, what is the best advice that anyone ever gave you?
Ben: The best advice I’ve ever received came from my favourite teacher Mr Roger Poulier, who in turn quoted it from Theodore Roosevelt: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground." It pretty much says it all.
Narelle: Just to not forget about the music. It’s very easy to get caught up with marketing and gigs etc. (there’s honestly a lot that you need to do as a musician). But the product, that is our music, is always the most important.
Sandra: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” Theodore Roosevelt
Jon: "Stop making excuses for yourself and do it already."
And finally, who the heck is Sam Willows?
Narelle: A guy in Canada…
Jon: Funny story, we actually met someone called Sam Willows while we were on tour in Toronto, Canada for the Canadian Music Festival. He knew all the lyrics to our songs and was singing and dancing to it. His mum is active on our Facebook page too. But no, we didn’t name the band after him J There’s no good answer for this question to me I guess, it just came naturally.
Sandra: The Sam Willows isn’t a person and can’t be defined by the meaning of ‘Sam’ or ‘Willows’. But we loved the visual that the name ‘The Sam Willows’ paints - an organic feel. ‘The Sam Willows’ is an alter ego to represent the four of us. We are very different in personality and even in our taste of music, but when we come together as ‘The Sam Willows’ we want to become a collective and become one sound.
Ben: Sam Willows is the culmination of our voices, much like that thing that happens when a bunch of power rangers link up in body parts. He speaks of love, lost, confusion and has a tendency to do weird and wonderful things in public, like dancing in the river, or having a glass of galaxy wine. He’s also Asian.BW