There was absolutely no way we could tell former Singapore Idol contestant Daphne Khoo had gone through some of the most harrowing times of her life. Strumming in a corner of the Carrie K. Atelier on a rainy Saturday evening to a crowd that had occupied the entire area, one could not have deduced the chemotherapy Daphne had to go through to get to where she was right now, delivering an acoustic rendition of her new single, Carry On. This was a different Daphne though: cropped auburn hair, raspy voice — clearly not the 16-year-old Idol contestant that was once dubbed the Avril Lavigne of the show.

Daphne Khoo

Daphne Khoo at the Carrie K. Musical Chairs event. (Photo: Carrie K.)

A run-in with abnormal growths on vocal chords and ovarian cancer in 2011 and 2012 respectively may have crumbled a person’s spirit but clearly Daphne has risen stronger than before. After going for a full body check-up due to an allergic reaction that doctors could not diagnose, her swollen pelvis was linked to early-stage ovarian cancer. “My mum had breast cancer 11 years ago, so I was always a bit paranoid and had thoughts about going for a mammogram. I was not aware that ovarian cancer can happen so young. The ultrasound happened a week and a half before my operation and it grew three centimeters during that time. If I had waited any longer, it would not have been good.”

Daphne chose to reveal this to Popspoken because she wanted to send out a clear message. “Girls should not be conservative about getting a pap smear done. Whether you are sexually active or not, you never know what is happening to your body. Cancer is one of those things that you cannot tell on the outside, so by the time you find out, it’s too late. I called my sister straightaway after I found out about my cancer and I said “Go get checked!””

Daphne Khoo

(Photo: Shawn Tok)

She is due to graduate from her Berklee music degree in May and has her sights set on furthering her name in the music industry abroad. She plans to head to either New York or Los Angeles post-degree, but is not ruling out a career based in Singapore. She credits changing times to the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media, greater coverage of Singapore musicians in the media and more Singapore songs on radio. Her single has joined Trick’s single ‘BPM’ to be on the daily 987FM Top 9 At 9 list.

There is not much difference with the Boston and Singapore music scenes, according to Daphne. “I’m in a music school though, so you see music wherever you turn. That’s what people’s lives are about and that’s what they know they want to do since they have pumped so much money to be there. Here, it’s like we wish people had more time to listen to our music — “Can you jam?” “I have my other job.” I don’t blame them. I was in four bands here growing up. It’s really hard — you have to commit yourself to it and you have to be broke for a while. That aspect is not different from the States. When you come out of music school, everyone is struggling because you have huge debts to pay for school and you have to find a job that pays because you have to pay rent,” Daphne explained.

Daphne Khoo

Single cover from Carry On. (Photo: Shady Republic; Jewellery: Carrie K.)

From her time in the States, Daphne met current manager Jerry Barnes and producer for her single, Matthew Steeper. Daphne is grateful to her producer for being able “to work (my) voice into a song”. After removing her nodules, it took her six months to a year to re-learn singing properly. Carry On was the anthem for her survival from cancer and a single that was carefully positioned to be radio-friendly but not about partying. “Life is tough and people need more motivational songs. I didn’t want to come up with a song that was “we party in the club” — I like those songs, don’t get me wrong, One Direction is my jam! I wanted to create a song that broke the mould of being too poppy but the track is still hot. I didn’t want to do something melodramatic. I can’t pretend to be 16 anymore,” Daphne said

Does she still feel comfortable getting referred to as an Idol alum? Daphne echoed a resounding yes. “I fought so hard to be in Idol! Of course, I don’t go around in Berklee to publicise that fact. I don’t want people to know me because of a merit that I claimed for myself; I want them to see my work and then want to work with me from there. My parents are still super proud of me being in Idol. What’s good is having the exposure and learning to sing to a big audience. I am super awkward, so when I watch Idol back, I go “Did I really do that?” I think that’s a good thing: to be able to know what it feels like being in the public eye. 10 years down the road, if someone calls me an Idol contestant, I will be flattered!” she said.

With MediaCorp’s Channel 5 bringing back the singing reality competition this year with The Final 1, we asked Daphne if she had advice for budding contestants. She said, “Never second-guess if you should do something that doesn’t feel natural to you. If the producers ask you to wear a bikini and you don’t feel like it, don’t wear a bikini. If you lie about something, you lie about the lie and it becomes so big. If you don’t stay true to yourself, you will find yourself hovered over a shade of what people think you are. To get out of it is really hard because there is so much evidence that shows you seem to be something else. It’s very easy to lose yourself.” She did add on that being larger-in-life was necessary for television.

Daphne Khoo

Still off the ‘Carry On’ music video. (Photo: Daphne Khoo)

She greatly contends being signed to a major label or going independent. Although Daphne pointed out how other artistes get left behind by labels who have A-listers on their hands, she thinks the right contract will get her far. “But with social media these days, you can make a living without being signed to a major record label. If you want to get your voice heard, a major label is the way to go. At this point, I don’t exactly know what I want yet but it will be a dream come true for someone like me growing up in Singapore to be signed to such a label,” Daphne said.

Whatever her approach is, she is definitely focused in making her big comeback this year. She is taking cues from Rihanna’s marketing strategy of constantly releasing new material but is worried about not being able to fund her next moves. “The problem is getting funding for it because people don’t want to pay for music. I can’t pay for the next song or music video if people don’t pay. I don’t have a major label behind me. My manager invested in me for this song, so the next one will depend on the funding we get from this song. I hope it goes to a new EP. Even if it doesn’t get me signed to a major label, I just want to be able to come up with good music and be able to live off it,” Daphne explained.

Daphne Khoo’s single Carry On is available on iTunes now. Her music video for the single is slated for an end-January release. Applications for The Final 1 closes February 12; submissions can be made at meradio.sg/thefinalone.