I’m starting the first work day of 2018 with The Sam Willows. I don’t mean listening to one of the homegrown band’s breezy pop tunes on Spotify (where, FYI, they have one million fans across 61 countries) to psyche myself up for the new year. I mean literally, with a face-to-face interview, and psyche myself up is exactly what I’m trying to do.
If the local entertainment scene was high school, the quartet made up of Benjamin Kheng (guitarist/vocalist), his younger sister Narelle (bassist/vocalist), Jonathan Chua (lead guitarist), and Sandra Riley Tang (percussionist/keyboardist/vocalist) are the popular kids. Six years into their career and, going by their appearances and social media, they ooze the charisma and confidence of veterans. And, of course, they are millennially famous. Spotify cred aside, they have 56.3K followers on Instagram (more if you add the ones on their individual accounts, which includes 182K from the elder Kheng, the heart-throb of the group).
Let’s just say that I’ve never been a “popular kid” kind of person. Then, I hear them – even before I reach the makeup room where they’re getting groomed for this shoot: animated chatter with a side of booming laughter and the odd expletive – just a group of long-time friends mucking around, Nintendo Switch in tow, to pass time. And I meet them: unpretentious, dressed down in ripped jeans and tees, and both affable and humorous, despite still recovering from a mix of jet lag and a live New Year’s Eve performance on television.
The Real Deal
It’s unexpectedly real, down-to-earth behaviour for Singapore’s most high-profile band, and I have to admit: It’s a big part of their appeal. They – as Chua puts it – have always made music “for everybody”. Listen to any of their songs and it’s easy to understand their wide fan base. The tunes are largely anchored by likeable, big pop sounds reminiscent of say, Taylor Swift’s earlier works. They aren’t cerebral, but they’re easy to listen to, catchy and chock-full of feel-good vibes.
At the same time, The Willows – what they’re often referred to – are perfectly tuned into millennial culture (all turn 28 this year, except for Narelle, who will be 25). All are multi-hyphenates who toggle various projects and interests. Ben acts; Narelle is behind the edgy co-working space/dive bar/art gallery 21 Moonstone; Tang is a fitness fiend who co-owns yoga studio The Yoga Collective; while Chua is creative director of the audio-driven creative agency Zendyll Productions (PS: he co-founded it).
Needless to say, they’re a social media savvy bunch. Pretty, perfectly framed Instagram photos that give a peek into their lives? Plenty. Selfies and promos? But of course. Add captions that are usually playful, inclusive, and hint at how they don’t take this fame game too seriously. It’s no wonder that the “Likes” and followers keep coming.
True to the share economy, the telegenic four are also big on collaborating with fellow local entertainers. Last year, the boys joined forces with Nathan Hartono to write and sing on electronic musician Evanturetime’s single, Sober. Thespian Ben makes regular cameos in videos by Youtube comedy stars.
Such endeavours seem to be as much about camaraderie as they are about creative cross-pollination – I mean, they shout out about their peers’ releases and events on IG. Says Chua: “We see it as a generational thing – we go through the same struggles, we end up doing a lot of the same shows, we overcome them together. We’re all friends, basically.”
That they’ve gone from performing cover songs in their early days to scoring hits and playing alongside international acts prove that their talent’s genuine too. Their first album, Take Heart (2015), topped both the local and Asia-Pacific iTunes and Spotify charts. (In fact, it did so well on the latter that they became the first South-east Asian act to break into the streaming service’s Global Viral 50 chart.) Last month, they added Grammy-winning British electronic group Clean Bandit to the list of global names that they’ve opened for. In 2013, there was their much-feted South By Southwest performance in the US; last year, it was freaking Summer Sonic in Japan.
Bigger, Bolder, Better
Their trajectory has all the makings of another Shawn Mendes story (Vine cover star-turned-Billboard’s youngest artiste since the Biebs to debut at number one, and fashion’s new darling). For one, their image has evolved.
Yes, they still largely favour casual separates, but the look is now more off-duty young Hollywood, and less +65 undergraduate. They’ve become regular VIP guests at the biggest luxury fashion events in town, and they’ve also hired a full-time stylist. As with their music, they’re consciously making “bolder choices” on the style front, says Tang.
Then, of course, there’s that much-awaited sophomore album that’s slated to launch in the first half of the year. (The title’s a secret for now, but it includes six singles, lets on Chua). Like Tay-Tay, The Sam Willows are gunning for a different sound.
Take instant earworm material Keep Me Jealous, the first single from the album, for instance. The song starts off in somewhat familiar Willows territory – a modern, romantic pop ballad with lyrics to match (“You’ve got the whole world watching like you wanted to/high heels and lace like toxin/they are addicted to you”), but then throbs with an electronic undercurrent that only crescendoes towards the chorus, running like a mash up of K-Pop and The Chainsmokers.
The trendy vibes of the latter come up a lot, thanks to Swedish co-producer Fredrik Haggstam – he worked on The Chainsmokers’ hit Paris. The cover art and video for the tune are equally hyper-stylised, with the overall look one part the colour-soaked neo-noir of Drive, and the other Korean, hipster chic – a world apart from the earnest, clean-cut image of Take Heart.
Fans can expect more experimentation with different instruments and a general sense of playfulness. As Narelle explains: “(We) had a lot more fun with this album. I think we gave ourselves a lot more liberty to experiment with more styles.”
Already, Save Myself, the second single released, boasts a similarly slick groove and an acoustic Bahasa Indonesia version – a tie-up with popular Indonesian group Gamaliel Audrey Cantika, or GAC. (The Willows picked up the language just for it.) Later this month, two more singles – Robot and Papa Money – will drop.
Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to dispute that – like many from their generation – The Sam Willows possess much drive and daring, doggedly courting success on their own terms. In short, they’re Singapore’s ultimate millennial pop group – and they’re far from done. The younger Kheng couldn’t have ended our interview more appropriately: “I’m millennial – and proud of it.”
Photography Zaphs Zhang Photography Assistant Sherman See-Tho Art Direction Noelle Loh Styling Randolph Tan Hair Manisa tan/PaletteInc, using Keune Makeup Sha Shamsi, using Fenty Beauty
This story first appeared in Female’s February 2018 issue.