In the past nine months, Narelle Kheng – songbird; paradigm of millennial, stayreal-and-true-to-yourself authenticity; and every local teenager’s poster girl for strawberry pink-dyed hair – hasn’t exactly seemed like herself. Or at least the self the world knew in the seven years she spent growing up in the public eye as onequarter of glossy Singapore pop darlings The Sam Willows.
There was the release of her subversive R&B single Outta My Head last May, accompanied by an equally sultry and haunting, neon purple light-soaked music video. Soon came the unexpected news of The Willows going on hiatus. Since then, she’s shirked from the limelight, cutting back on public appearances while pouring her heart out in paragraphs-spanning, stream of consciousness-style Instagram captions about her life, emotions and state of mind.
Along the way, she released an EP simply dubbed Part 2 with three melancholic ballads that sear with their brutally honest lyrics about her inner demons. Her image as a performer took on a similarly darker and experimental tone, with her sporting pared-back, all-white outfits with a dramatic crown of fishbones or – for a self-published zine created in conjunction with the record – blue glitter head to toe. Oh yeah, and she dyed her hair back to a very normal, natural black.
It would seem that the 26-year-old is going through some weird, Miley Cyrus-inreverse kind of transformation (from trendy and wholesome to arty and tormented). She promises that the tunes in “part three” of the solo musical journey she’s on – out in April – will be more upbeat and approachable, but it’s hard to deny that something’s brewing within the artiste formerly known as the perky princess in Singapore’s pop power troupe of the 2010s. So we sat her down for what could be her most personal interview yet.
Female: Let’s just put it out there first: what happened with The Willows?
Narelle Kheng (NK): “At this point, we have all gone solo. Creatively, we needed space to grow on our own. We could feel each other pulling in different directions, especially now that we’re adults who know what we want. Before we would have compromised on these personal interests, but it’s not so easy to do that anymore. So we’re on indefinite hiatus and taking our time to figure out how we want to grow. I for one feel like I’ve changed a lot and it’s very important for me to find out who I am outside of the band as I was feeling very trapped by the expectations of who I thought I had to be while in it.”
Female: What were some of these expectations?
NK: “Take for example me having depression (she was clinically diagnosed in 2017, she revealed). If I were anyone else, I would have probably talked about it more freely, but I was worried that whatever I said would somehow be held against me. That might not be the reality, but I had that fear nonetheless. I was also not entirely doing the music that I wanted to, or exploring my creativity the way I wanted to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t, but I just didn’t have the time. So I just needed some space for myself to just breathe.”
Female: Narelle now seems very different from the Narelle in The Sam Willows. is this the real you, just a side of you, or is this just a phase?
NK: “I think this is more the real me. Narelle Sam Willows was a Narelle I didn’t even know. There would be a part of me that would shut down whenever I entered Narelle Sam Willows zone… I would go for an event and smile and talk to people and then come back and have no memory of what happened, and I realised I was disassociating from that Narelle quite badly. I hate saying things like this and am not trying to victimise myself. It’s not as if whatever experiences I had in the Willows were hard, but that was what happened with me internally. Looking back, these feelings could have partly stemmed from me not having enough respect for myself as a female. We would go for these meetings and these men in suits would shake my hand, but look at the guys in the group and then step around me, and I thought it was my position to cower in the shadows.”
Female: But you’ve become a well-loved celebrity in your own right over time.
NK: “But situations like that were happening all the way till when we announced our break. And while people might have referred to me as a celebrity, I never knew what they meant. The strange thing is that in the past year, I don’t think people have regarded me as much of a celebrity as compared to when I was in the band. I no longer have fans going insane over me and I don’t get recognised as much, but I feel like I’m being recognised for being me. That or at least I recognise myself more. It’s why I find the feminist movement so important. For a long time, I was saying and doing things that I thought I was supposed to as a girl. I always knew I could do stuff, but never gave myself the opportunity. So it’s all the more important to bring this conversation to the younger generation so that they can start working on themselves sooner and not feel like they have to be a cute girl on Instagram to get some validation, which by the way is the easiest form of validation.”
Female: Was that you?
NK: “I definitely played into it.”
Female: Do you see yourself more of an influencer or a musician?
NK: “In the seven years that I was in The Willows, I didn’t dare to put out my own music; only covers. Most of the content I put out were influencer related, so I feel like I would be lying if I said I was recognised more for being a musician than an influencer, especially when I spent more time on the latter.”
Female: So what is the real Narelle like and what does she want to say?
NK: “I’m just starting a new journey and am not thinking about an endpoint, but instead about what steps I should take next for myself. In this industry, it’s very easy to play a puppet and serve others – what type of content do you want to see; what do you want me to do – and it’s natural for one to follow the route that would bring them the most response. I’ve had to learn how to strip away that part of me. It’s why I coloured my hair back. I don’t want to be defined my hair. I’ve been wearing a lot less makeup and taking fewer photos. I didn’t buy anything at all last year. I’m not saying that doing all of this would help me figure things out, but it’s what I felt like I had to do: strip things away.”
Female: The music you’ve put out in the past year has been pretty sombre.
NK: “Yeah, they’re very un-poppy even though I wrote them with pop music in mind. I’m inherently pop and love pop music.”
Female: the songs reveal a very vulnerable side to you. one of them, blue, even opens with the lyrics “I’ve been f**king up for a long time.”
NK: “As far back as 2017, I was feeling very lost. For months, I couldn’t hold a thought it my head – every thought would lead to a negative one and I would spiral, so after a while I would shut off because I thought I wasn’t being helpful. Each time that happened, I would lock in on these feelings and create a moodboard that would lead to each of the tracks. My emotions of disassociation for example became Tears , which talks about how even though I could be talking to someone, I would not actually present. The story behind Blue was that I was meeting the producers to record the song for the first time, but immediately started crying upon walking into the studio as I had been fighting with my then-boyfriend the entire night before. I asked for twenty minutes to myself, came back, heard the guitar loop and called it lame, but as it continued playing, I verbal vomitted all this guilt that I was feeling about the situation. The whole songwriting process was like a diary for me and that’s what I love these songs so much.
Female: tell us more about the new material we can expect from you in April.
NK: “It’s very, very different from what I’ve released. I wrote everything at the same time, but as humans, you don’t just feel one thing. Even though I’ve been talking about feeling sad in the past few months, I’m not sad. That’s just one of the emotions that I feel. I also feel happy and strong a lot of the times, and you’ll see that part of me next and it’s going to be orange.”
Female: what do you mean by that?
NK: “If you’ve been following the sequence of releases I’ve put out, you’ll realise that the imagery for the first track Outta My Head was purple, while that for Part 2 was all blue. I find purple representative of a very feminine kind of anger that I felt when I had just gotten out of a very toxic relationship, while blue was symbolic of me sitting amid the emotional rubble after and trying to catch my breath. It’s also my favourite colour. And orange to me is the sunrise – the time when you find the courage to stand up and start picking things up; that reset. The songs from the orange phase are fun, tongue-in-cheek yet sarcastic – basically me. I realised when I was writing them that I wasn’t actually that sad and that I had forgetten that there’s a happy and strong girl inside. I think that’s what happens to a lot of depressives – being absorbed by all these negative thoughts – and I want to remind them that they’re not just their thoughts and that it is possible to control them. I used to think that happy me was a liar, but a switch in perspective has led me to think that I could be a happy person and that the sadness is just a phase and something I can change.
Female: What do you think is the job of a musician?
NK: “I feel very uncomfortable answering for others, so I’m only going to speak for myself: to grow. If you grow and become a better musician, you can touch people’s hearts. Music is a form of communication. If you grow as a person, it makes your music and ideas more complex and make others think more. Your music becomes more than entertainment. As long as you continue to grow, you’ll get somewhere.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photography Vee Chin Styling Imran Jalan
Hair Sean Ang, using Kevin Murphy Makeup Angel Gwee