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.”