The Sam Willows On Local Music, J-Law, and Pretty Instagrams

Photos by Sheryl Teo

Fans of local folk-pop band The Sam Willows would recognise our interview location immediately. A regular feature on Sandra’s Instagram page, and also the set for their cover of “Blank Space“, our short chat with The Sam Willows was held in the cozy living room of The Yoga Co. at Kim Yam Road.


Following the success of their self-titled debut EP back in 2012, the band will release “Take Heart“, the lead single from their still-unnamed debut album on Wednesday, the 20th of May.

Within our (strictly-timed) 10 minutes with the quartet, we covered questions ranging from their upcoming single and album (naturally), their thoughts on a “renaissance” in Singapore’s music scene, and even a secret or two about how their Instagram game is so strong!

This little hamster named Yoko Ono listened in during our interview!

Tagged by their initials (B: Benjamin Kheng, N: Narelle Kheng, S: Sandra Riley Tang, J: Jon Chua), find out the Willows’ responses on…


On how they feel about being famous:

J: We’re not famous…

N: Yeah I mean, I don’t know, we don’t really feel like it’s fame. I think people like to put this idea on celebrities but the truth is that it’s more or less the same life. You live the same things, you worry about the same stuff-

J: /raises croissant in hand/ You eat the same food…

N: Yeah! You eat the same food, you think about what you’re gonna eat, what time you’re gonna sleep, which TV shows you’d like to watch… But it definitely is heartening; it’s a very nice thing to know that you can reach out to more people and it’s especially heartening when they reply you, or when people email us or they text us and they say like “Oh I really love the song,” or “I relate to it a lot,” or “You inspire me to do something that I really want to do,” and I think that, to us, is probably the best thing that we get out of all this. I mean, you do want to make a mark in this world and if we can affect one life, or ten lives, that would be the best.

J: I think to add on to what Narelle said, we don’t do it for the numbers. So we don’t do it for the subscribers, we don’t do it for the views, but we actually do it for the subscribers, in a sense. If someone is touched by our music, if someone is inspired by our music, then to us that’s success. It’s not about getting ten new followers, it’s about inspiring ten people.

N: People think that it’s nice or it’s cool like if we’re on the streets and people want to take a photo with us, but when you see the person it’s really just, “Oh hi! I’m meeting you, how can I help you with your day?”.

J: Half the time when people stop us we think they’re asking for directions. /laughs/

S: It’s just the idea of the word, like when you say “famous”, it comes from the word “fame”, and “fame” is like very… bling, glam-

B: Negative connotations…

S: Yeah! It’s all very surface, and in that sense I think we’re all “uhhh… we don’t want to be called famous”. Honestly, I personally don’t like being called famous. I don’t like the idea of, you know, celebrity. But one thing that comes with being known is, I guess, leverage and reach, to reach out to other people/

B: A platform, yeah.

S: You have a platform to do, to say something good. And we use that platform as a band to spread out music, to share our music-

J: Like the Avengers!

S: It’s like an opportunity. It’s a privilege, definitely a privilege.

N: And sometimes people send you free things and it’s very nice. /laughs/


On how local music has suddenly become “cool” and what sparked this interest:

B: It’s just such an honour to be part of this movement. Conversations with a lot of people, a lot of local musicians, even musicians of Singaporean heyday, everyone says it’s sort of (been) like a renaissance in the past five years. I think-

N: Social media.

B: Yeah, social media is a big part of it. In the 70’s it was really cool for local music as well, like (The) Quests and Vernon Cornelius, you know, the fan culture was strong. And also, in a sense the scene is much healthier than what it was about a decade ago, ‘cos what we hear was that it was quite vicious in terms of like… it was very territorial. People were like “this is my thing, my turf”, they felt really entitled to things. But today the average Singapore musician is hardworking, works smart, very entrepreneurial, and is-

N: Very humble.

B: Very humble, too. Also very giving, because they know they’re part of an ecosystem. So it’s not just The Sam Willows, it’s not just Gentle Bones, it’s not just ShiGGa Shay, or whatever it is. The scene is pushing forward together and if one act does well, it leads over into the ecosystem.

J: Yeah.

B: So it’s just a very healthy sort of environment. It’s an honour to be a part of it.

J: I think (to answer) the question on it being “cool” for young Singaporeans to listen to local music now, I think it’s just the beginning. Because these thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds, if they listen to local music, they’re gonna continue to listen to local music. You dream of the day, one day, where kinda like Malaysia and Indonesia, we’ll be self-sufficient within our own system. The US Billboards have the US Billboard, and one day we’ll have a Singapore Billboard that’ll be filled with Singapore music. Once you have that, people get inspired to do it, you get more people to join the cause, and you build a proper industry from there. It’s really awesome to see how it’s going on.

B: Even platforms like yourselves, like Popspoken! How you guys are increasingly putting up and chatting about local music, I think that’s really important. (this was the part we started blushing)

J: (Popspoken’s Executive Consultant) Skii is awesome! (she really is)


On the EDM-tinged sound of “Take Heart” and whether it’ll be explored further in the album:

N: …You will find out. /grins/

B: Yeah it’s definitely something interesting.

N: I think it was just a logical progression for us and also because our music is very influenced by the things that we hear. I think when you get a new gadget it’s like getting a new instrument, like when you get a MIDI controller and you find all these sounds, you definitely want to explore it and you want it in your music.

S: It’s like when you buy new shoes, and you change your whole wardrobe to match your shoes-

N: YA. /laughs/

J: I think to me, The Sam Willows’ sound is still The Sam Willows’ sound, like in the way that we write our music and the way that we perform it is still the same. I think now the difference is that we’ve evolved as a band, in the sense that we are more open to sounds and we’re going with the times. Everyone else is progressing and we want to progress too! It doesn’t mean that just because I have an EDM hook that means I’m an EDM band.


On describing their upcoming album in just one word:

S: Huh…

B: Uh…

S: I think for me it’s “Refreshing“.

N: I’d say “Heart“. There’s a lot of heart in the work we put in, in the songs that were written, what it’s about.

B: I’ll say like… “Kimchi-Chocolate“. You know how like, you’re used to something yet there’s this kick? /laughs/

J: Ah… wow um. I’ll say “Progress“.


On being able to listen to only one artist for the rest of their lives:

S: Ooh… cannot do that. /laughs/ One artist to listen to for the REST of your life?

J: John Mayer.

B: Flight of the Conchords. They’re like the funniest people ever.

S: Like if you ask me now I’ll just reply with the album that I have on replay right now. At this very point in time, Chet Faker.

N: I’m just gonna go ahead and say something really awkward like classical music, ‘cos eventually I think I’ll get bored of something?

S: I’ll get so annoyed like “stahhhp“. /laughs/

B: Yanni! Yanni was what we thought was so cool-

N: Yes Yanni!


On the one actor/actress they would pick to play them in a biopic about TSW:


B: Yeah, Brad Pitt would play Sandra-

J: I think Jennifer Lawrence would play me.

S: I LOVE BRAD PITT. I can’t help it. Anything Brad Pitt-

N: No, Jennifer Lawrence is gonna play Sandra.

B: Yeah, they’re pretty much the same person.

S: Eh I want Brad Pitt-

N: No I don’t care. /grins/


S: You don’t get Jennifer Lawrence, you’re not cool enough.

B: Actually, J-Law has the exact same birthday as me so J-Law is mine. BOOM! Okay actually J-Law will play all of us. /laughs/

J: What’s the guy from Harold & Kumar? I think Kumar (Kal Penn) should play me.


On the photo editing apps they use:

S: Wah…

B: No! It’s a secret! /laughs/

N: Recently we were introduced to VSCO Cam

S: Afterlight, VSCO Cam…

N: I know I’m late to the game (with VSCO), but it’s amazing!

B: Wah you suck, man.

N: Wait, no you have to understand this thing about VSCO Cam. In Singapore, VSCO Cam sucks. The lighting sucks, everything sucks, the colours are crap-

B: That’s because you don’t know how to use it-

N: No, your photos suck. /laughs/ But when you go overseas, all the filters will make perfect sense and VSCO Cam is the way to go.

B: Close your eyes and take photo, and it’s nice already.

S: Even Instagram’s (built-in camera feature) focus overseas is nice also.

J: Singapore right, you’re trying to find what filter doesn’t suck. There right, all the filters look nice so you’re like, what do I do with this?

B: But VSCO is all about the filters lah, like what you buy… /whispers/ Hypebeast(that’s HB1/HB2)

S: Snapseed. Oh my god, Snapseed is the bomb! Snapseed is like the Photoshop of the iPhone-

B: It’s like the J-Law of everything!

S: Once you learn how to use Snapseed, you’ll never go back! NEVER!

We snooped around after the interview ended. Hehe.


Follow The Sam Willows’ on their official social media here: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Tweet-talk to The Sam Willows on their individual Twitter accounts here: Benjamin | Narelle | Sandra | Jon

Gawk at their uh-MAY-zang visuals on their individual Instagram pages here: Benjamin | Narelle | Sandra | Jon


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