They came, they sang, they conquered.
Over the weekend, talented Singaporean quartet The Sam Willows (sibling Narelle and Benjamin Kheng, Sandra Riley Tang, and Jonathan Chua) were in town for an intimate gig at The Bee, Publika. The special show, organised by The Livescape Group, saw 1,000 attendees jamming along to the band’s most popular songs.
Before The Sam Willows took the stage and wowed their Malaysian fans with their talents, we got to speak to them real quick at the Sony Music Malaysia HQ in Kuala Lumpur.
Here’s what went down:
How was it like working with the Swedish composer Harry Sommerdahl?
Narelle: It was a really interesting experience because the people that you work with in different countries represent who they are. In Singapore when we work, it’s always really rushed, you know? Everything is always very on time and everything is always very planned out. When we were there, we only had a limited amount of hours per day. So we go in and we expect to like get down to the grind, right? He’s like, “Oh hey, come have some coffee!” and they won’t stress at all. They take their time. But somehow they always end by 6pm, which is the time that you’re supposed to stop working in Sweden. And you’re done! We managed to finish all the tracks and everything went really smoothly so it was a really enjoyable experience.
Jon: But Harry is a really good producer. One thing about the Swedes is that their methods of recording are very different as compared to say how we do it back home or in Malaysia. You know, you record vocals and you record instruments..it’s just very different. You feel like you don’t have a good take but they produce it in such a way that you will definitely have a good take somewhere.
Narelle: They’re also very decisive, you know. So sometimes for us even, when we think of a few different melodies and we’re like, “Oh, should we do this?” or “Should we do that?” but for them it’s like, “This one, let’s go with this” and that’s it. We just go straight into it.
Do you guys have nicknames for each other since you spend so much time with each other?
Sandra: Actually we don’t. That’s very strange.
Jon: This is the first time that we’ve ever been asked this question!
Sandra: Jon Jon? Ben Ben? I don’t know.
What are some of the quirks that you each have and do before going on stage?
Sandra: Jon talks to his guitar.
Jon: It’s very important! So, like, when we first started, there were a lot of shows where my guitar string would just snap. And then one day I decided to talk to my guitar and I said, “Hey, we’re going to do a show, I’ve only got one guitar so don’t fail me” and then it didn’t snap. Because it happened during a very important show, I remember it was Music Matters in Singapore 2 years ago when my string snapped at like the 2nd song. I played the entire set with 5 strings.
Narelle: And now you’re married (to the guitar).
Jon: (laughs) Yeah it’s very progressive.
Ben: I take power naps before the show.
Narelle: Yeah, Ben can sleep anywhere.
Ben: Because in Singapore you have to serve at the army, it’s mandatory for 2 years. But once you do the 2 years you can just about sleep anywhere.
Jon: You can sleep standing up.
So where do you plan to nap before this show?
Sandra: Yeah we’ll be going down the stairs and then be like, “Oh, oh! Sorry Ben!”
Narelle: Sandra and I will usually just start screaming at each other.
Sandra: We just need to let it all out.
Narelle: You know, like energise yourself.
Being musicians and social influencers at the same time, is there any point in time where your followers praise your music just to please you?
Sandra: You mean like when they say things that they don’t mean? Yup sure! They’ll be like, “Oh I love your music!” but they haven’t heard our album.
Ben: My dad is so hard on us in terms of music. I think the more you spend your years in this industry, the more you become attuned to who’s real and who’s not. And you can’t be angry..you’d be thankful for the people who are real to you. We do like constructive criticism. It’s good when people tell you how you’re doing. We appreciate honesty.
Have you guys already had a crazy fan experience that you can share?
Sandra: We had a fan who gave all of us guitar picks with Narelle’s face on it.
Jon: You would expect to get to, you know, maybe your own face on it but..
Sandra: Nope! They’re all Narelle’s face!
Jon: In general, Singaporean fans are quite reserved. They don’t lose their minds as much as you see in videos of other countries. They’re all very respectful people.
Narelle: Plus we don’t really like our fans to be like, “Oh my God!”, you know? So we’d be like, “What are you doing? Can you just talk to me?” and after awhile they’ll really come up to you and start talking to you like friends and it’s nicer that way.
Jon: I gotta say though that there were times in the past 2 days, we bumped into a lot of Malaysian fans and they were really, really very nice and respectful. We were at dinner and they came, and they were waiting at another table. So they waited for us, until when we were about to leave, to come and talk to us.
Ben: Yeah, they waited for us to finish dinner and then they came over.
As a musician, who do you look up to?
Narelle: There are a lot of musicians that are also writers that we really admire. People like Ryan Tedder from One Republic. I love Coldplay. Sandra loves..
Sandra: A lot of people. Oh, Justin Timberlake!
Ben: Do you guys know Bon Iver? Bon Iver is amazing.
Jon: I really look up to G-Dragon.
Ben: He has a G-Dragon tattoo on his thigh.
Narelle: I think people don’t notice how much work it really needs to be a good musician. They think that their lives are easy but the more we learnt about the industry, the more we realised how hard it really is on them and then you really start to look up and admire them more.
What do you think are some of the greatest and craziest misconceptions that you’ve ever heard about you?
Jon: Someone once thought that we were a band of 3 girls and 1 guy.
Sandra: We’ve decided that I’m the guy.
Jon: Oh, oh! Someone said that we were a Singapore government conspiracy. That The Sam Willows was created by the government.
Ben: I think it’s because we did one or two government shows. It’s really taboo to talk about it..I don’t know how these guys do it but I get some sort of a social anxiety. Mostly in Singapore because we’re a bit more synonymous there, a bit more well-known. But I do get a bit of a panic attack whenever I’m in a public space.
So at which point did you realise that your lives aren’t very normal anymore?
Jon: We still try to do normal people things. We still go out and eat wherever we used to eat. That hasn’t changed.
Narelle: We still have normal problems.
Ben: But you just watch yourself.
Jon: I guess we just gotta be a little bit more well behaved.
Narelle: But it’s true, you do start to feel a bit uncomfortable in public when you start getting recognised more. Then you feel like you need to watch yourself all the time.
Ben: There was once I was so tired so I was like, “Okay I’m going to take this bus and sleep” and then I went to the top of the bus at the back and then I knocked out amazingly. And then I woke up and there was a Twitter picture of me.
What has been the hardest parts to make it this far?
Sandra: Staying together as a band.
Narelle: It’s very easy to give up.
How about musically, the direction and all..
Jon: From the very beginning until now, we’ve been very open with our musical ideas and our musical direction. We’ve never ever said that, “Okay this is our music style”. We like listening to the latest trends and latest music, and we try to create what we feel represents us at that point in time.
Narelle: I think that’s the biggest blessing.
Jon: So our music always changes from 2 years ago to like, last week. We’re actually open to..you know..we practise Malay songs and Korean songs, and Chinese songs. We’re actually open to any kind of music or any genre for that matter.
If you could perform anywhere in the world, what would be your ultimate performance venue?
Ben: Ooh, good question!
Narelle: O2 arena.
Sandra: Coachella. Disneyland!
Jon: The Frozen parade!
Sandra: Oh my God we’re on a parade! That’d be cool.
Narelle: Grammys stage.
On your rise to fame, what have been the best moments or the highlights?
Sandra: I think, personally for me is having that platform for people to hear you. Like you post songs or post original stuff or sometimes you can share a shitty day that you’re having or telling people, “Hey, you know, it’s okay” and stuff like that, and having all these other people see it and have it affect them or touch their lives as well. And feel like, “Hey I can actually make a change” and people say, “Your music has helped me through tough times” or “Your post has made my day” and that’s just..yeah..
Jon: Mine is more superficial. Last year, we got to open for The Script in Singapore and Danny, he came by our dressing room just before we went up to play and he took photos with us and had a chat with us. And that was like, “Holy..”
Narelle: He’s actually very respectful and you never have that. I mean, like, you can open for acts but usually they don’t come back and talk to you. But he actually walked out of his room to do that.
Jon: Our dressing room was all the way on the other end of the arena. And I’ve been the biggest The Script fan since the first album so..
Your favourite song off “Take Heart” and why?
Ben: Ooh, good question!
Narelle: For me it’s “All Time High”.
Sandra: Because it’s awesome.
Narelle: I think..personally it has a great story behind it. I love listening to it, I never get sick of it. I even have it in my playlist.
Sandra: I guess it’s a very visual song.
Jon: We do listen to our own songs. Let’s just get that out of the way, you know?
Ben: I like “Riverdance”. It’s a..fun like sort of um, it was written because the idea of “Riverdance” was just really enticing to write a song about.
Jon: I like “Taking All His Time”.
Narelle and Ben: Because?
Jon: Because the beat is like, really really dope.
How do you do more challenging things to set the bar higher despite being feeling so comfortable with where you are now?
Jon: For us, we try to keep each other in check and try not to be complacent in any aspect of wherever we are in our journey right now. We’re always telling each other ways that we can improve. That’s the good thing about our band – we’ve come so far that we can be absolutely honest with each other and say things in each other’s faces. In a nice way, not in a mean way. That really helps..to help us know that we shouldn’t be comfortable.
Ben: In this day of social media, it’s so easy to get quick fame. But when that becomes the central focus of your career..it’s exciting but it’s highly unstable. I mean, I know people who are like that, I’m not trying to knock them or throw shade at them, but for us..we don’t take this platform for granted. We don’t take this job for granted. We’re incredibly thankful that we have this platform and this voice, and we’re going to keep pushing ourselves. It’s just a great opportunity and you have to keep yourself in check, and constantly improve. Once you get complacent, your career is over.
Do you guys argue over petty, ridiculous stuff?
Sandra: Yes, all the time.
Jon: No we don’t!
Narelle: All the time!
Jon: What to eat, where to go..
Narelle: Which road to take, where to park..
Sandra: When to leave, where to go, when to meet..
Jon: What kind of make up to use..
Who’s usually the first one to explode?
Jon, Sandra, and Ben: Narelle.
Jon: She used to deny it in interviews but now she’s like, yah..
Narelle: Okay that’s because Jon used to be very angsty and suddenly he had this like..zen found.
Sandra: Because he found a girlfriend.
Narelle: Suddenly he’s like so nice and cheerful.
Jon: And Sandra found yoga. Narelle, you need to find something too.
Narelle: To be fair, I’m only cranky when I’m tired.
Jon: Which is a lot!
Narelle: If they allow me to have enough sleep, I’m an angel. You know, just sayin’.
Last question, how do you guys deal with long haul flights?
Jon: To be fair, I don’t know about them but personally, I really enjoy long flights. When I have no Internet connection and it’s just me. Depending on how long the flight is, you kind of have that time to really sit down and..
Narelle: That sounds like meditation.
Jon: Yeah. You kinda meditate.
Ben: You just hear a *hummmmm*
Narelle: Yeah the sound doesn’t actually come from the plane, it comes from Jon.
Ben: I will say that whenever I have the chance to come to Malaysia, I always try to take the bus. I just took a 10-hour bus ride to Penang and then back again just because I can sleep and watch shows.
Narelle: Movies are better on the plane, music is also better on the plane.
Jon: And nobody can disturb you!
Sandra: I love plane food. That’s one of my favourite parts. But it’s just sad that I’m so uncomfortable in plane seats. Yoga is about being more comfortable in small spaces but Narelle just cuddles in a ball and she’s just like..
Narelle: I can sleep anywhere! One trick is to put the blanket over your head and tuck it under your butt, then you’re in this cocoon..
Sandra: I tried that, it doesn’t work. Narelle can sleep like that forever.
Jon: We flew to the US and she was just there and we thought that she was dead. We poked her then she got angry at us!
Thanks for the chat, guys :) And special thanks to our friends from Sony Music Malaysia for making this interview happen!
We’ll leave you now with The Sam Willows’ Kuala Lumpur tour diary. Enjoy: