2020 has undoubtably brought up much fear and anxiety in many of us as a result of the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In coping with the new normal, Gentle Bones a.k.a Joel Tan poured his personal reflection and struggles into his latest EP, “Better With You”.
Despite becoming a fully independent artist this year, the Singaporean singer-songwriter has slowed down a bit. In fact his collaborations with artists like Gareth Fernandez, Charlie Lim, Joie Tan and Tay Kewei have been well received by fans.
His latest music project sees him teaming up once more with long-time friend and collaborator Benjamin Kheng, of The Sam Willows. The focus track “Better With You” is described as a heartfelt conversation with a loved one during a time of uncertainty and about a thoughtful attempt to reach out and check in on a loved one – letting them know that there are people around them who value and appreciate them.
Meanwhile, the hip-hop tune “Put My Hands Up” is an indication of the light-hearted aspect of being infatuated with a person and is the written expression of the googly heart-eyes emoji. The title meant to be a small play when the DJ asks everyone to “put your hands up”.
In our interview with the duo, both Joel and Ben took a trip down memory lane with us about their first impressions of each other, what has been occupying their time throughout the pandemic, and how they’ve dealt with mental health over the years.
1. Out of curiosity, what were your first impressions of each other when y’all first met? Can you recall?
Gentle Bones (GB): I’ve always been a huge fan of Ben when he was in The Sam Willows even till now. Over the years when I see him do things in the industry and be so multi-talented. Going into acting, going into script writing, theatre performances and even writing big hits, having such big contributions and success to the Willows. It has been crazy for me. He has been such a positive light in my life. So he is really a role model for me. I was a bit shy talking to him at first but it worked out. We wrote a song together in the end.
Ben: I remember Joel being a quiet, reserved fella, and I felt like I was too loud and obnoxious for him to consider me a friend. But he had such an amazing sound, and a depth to his soul and writing that was unmatched.
2. In the midst of this pandemic, what has 2020 taught you personally? Were you surprised to discover anything new about yourself and your surroundings?
GB: Well I guessed it allowed me to fall back in love in writing music again. Naturally there are a lot of negative sides whereby I can’t play music live anymore, I can’t present the music that I worked so hard on to people who will be willing to come to listen to it live. I was a bit surprised at how much I fell back in love with writing music again. Usually I was distracted with keeping up with the business side of things, performing, brand related stuff. It really gives the time to just be at home, think about what I really want to channel out there, through my music.
Ben: 2020 has taught me that I actually enjoy doing silly TikToks. It’s also taught me who my closest friends are, and how much I enjoy doing nothing everyday. Which makes me sad cause I no longer get to do nothing.
3. Joel, this EP is described as one of your most personal yet. What were some of the conversations you had with Ben when getting him on this project? Ben, what drew you to this project?
GB: So getting on with Ben was a cool one. We actually collaborated on one of the spoken word tracks so he asked me to sit down with him and penned this chorus for this spoken word video called ‘FATHER, FATHER’. That’s when we first worked together. It has been 5 years coming. I’ve been wanting to work with him, the way that felt natural to the both of us.
I think we were coming out during the same time, and broke into the mainstream via doing YouTube covers, I am doing it alone and him with The Sam Willows. It’s always a thing for me to write something that I feel will be suited for both of us to put out. So one day, I just wrote this song and mostly inspired by Ben for being such a positive figure in my life. Being a new kid on the block 5 years ago in this industry, I’ve just watched him do his thing, watching him grow as a person is really very inspirational, so I wrote a song with a couple of melodies, past lyrics of strength through adversity, and I sent it to him. He actually said yes when I asked whether he is able to sing this song together with me. It’s a beautiful thing for me to see this song put together and really proud of it.
Ben: What kind of idiot would turn down the chance to work with Gentle Bones? I got to witness his quiet brilliance up close. This guy keeps his own pace, and makes his own bed. I would work with him anytime.
4. As entertainers and public figures, have y’all personally dealt with depression and anxiety disorder? How do you recognise the symptoms and what is the best way to tackle it?
GB: Yeah definitely. Something that we all battled with, not just entertainers. So I think it is just coming to terms with depression and anxiety. It’s how you approach it and how you give love to yourself. Understanding why you are nervous which causes anxiety. Why you feel sad which causes depression. There is a reason for all of these. And if you can just love yourself through the process and understand why you are uncomfortable with certain things. Put yourself first so that you may give the world the best self and make this world better with you around. It’s a thing that we are still learning, I am still learning. It’s a lifelong process.
Ben: It’s pretty rampant all around the industry – we’ve just gotten very good at making it look like something else – busyness, social status etc. I fell into a little hole in 2017 with mood disorder. I took some time off, started taking care of my body and pursuing other things. I also spoke to friends, a lot.
5. What do you think is the biggest misconception about mental health?
GB: People too easily label things that is foreign to them, something related to it, I do feel that mental health is something everybody should be familiar with, because we all face specific kinds of depression or anxiety, of different magnitude and it’s important that we acknowledge why others have it. Not just pin them as somebody who is going through it. We all are human and we go through specific emotions and we all can understand that the world will be a better place.
Ben: That you can’t cure it with medication or seeing a doctor / therapist. For some of us, it’s clinical, so beat it like you would the common flu. Don’t give it more respect and time than it deserves.
6. How do you deal with self-doubt and fear these days?
GB: I really try to just sit with it. Try to understand why I am doubtful of myself. Why I am afraid of certain things. Clearly understand how you approach life. With the love for yourself, understanding why you are doubtful or fearful, you just try to be better. You know, just not to be better for tomorrow. Giving yourself a break, really helps.
Ben: I embarrass myself on TikTok. I no longer have shame. It also takes telling myself I no longer have time for self-doubt, I just need to survive this crippling economy. But honestly, flexing and “gassing” yourself up, even to an audience of one, is self love. And it helps.
7. Due to Covid-19, artists can’t perform live and earn their salary through that. What other forms of expression of music are you exploring during this time?
GB: This pandemic has not allowed me to perform live. So for me, it’s really falling in love with music, like my answer to question 2. Trying to express myself in different ways, different lyrics, different genres, different sounds. Improve on what I feel is the Gentle Bones’ sound.
Ben: After releasing my EP this year, I took a step back from creating music and just started consuming it, which was very therapeutic. I’m glad to be back, and I’m fortunate that I had other ventures in that time to keep me afloat.
8. Since Christmas is just a few weeks away, how will you be spending the holidays?
GB: I will spend my time with my family and my friends. Trying to do some Christmas shopping, spend time at home. I think this will be an interesting Christmas this year for shows.
Ben: I’m going to spend it with family, as always, and figure out how to do adult things like moving house.
9. What is the best present you’ve received and given?
GB: The best present that I have received is from my friend Kenneth. Basically it got really bright once the sun came up, I couldn’t get a curtain installed in my room. So my friend actually got me an eye mask. It’s really comfy.
Best present given – I wouldn’t know actually, cos I’m not really the right person to ask right? It could be anything, I might need to interview other friends to figure out which one is the best.
Ben: I can’t say too much but I’m pretty decent at planning surprises. The best present I’ve received was from a special someone who transformed an entire hotel room into a “Star Wars” experience and I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since.
10. Lastly, (finish the sentence) the world needs…
GB: The world is fine as it is.
Ben: The world needs more Gentle Bones music.
We couldn’t agree more. Listen to his songs below: