Heart work pays off

Heart work pays off
TOP OF THE POPS: The Sam Willows (from left), Narelle Kheng, Sandra Riley Tang, Jonathan Chua and Benjamin Kheng are going places.

Halfway through our 15-minute interview last Thursday with local quartet The Sam Willows, Sandra Riley Tang let out a sudden squeal of excitement.

"Oh my God, that is so cool! So cool!" said the vocalist and ultra-spunky fitness fanatic, leaning over to read something off fellow bandmate and guitarist-vocalist Jonathan Chua's mobile phone.

The cause for joy?

US band Matchbox Twenty's lead guitarist Kyle Cook had replied to their tweet on Twitter, offering congratulations on their new single Take Heart and asking them to "get over here to the States ASAP".

It was just a day after Take Heart ­- from their upcoming debut full-length album of the same name - was released to overwhelmingly positive response.

Their first No. 1, the song stayed at the top of the local iTunes singles chart for three days straight, beating international pop heavyweights Taylor Swift and Jessie J.

The group, who are all in their early to mid-20s, also include siblings Narelle (bass guitar, vocals) and Benjamin Kheng (guitar, vocals).

The Sam Willows previously released a self-titled EP in 2012 and chalked up YouTube views with singles like Glasshouse, for which they were handpicked to re-record with Grammy-winning English producer Steve Lillywhite.

Not bad at all for an act who started making inroads in the local music scene just three years ago.

Recently signed with major label Sony Music, they are preparing to launch a regional tour and will be busy throughout the year with major performances at the SEA Games and National Day Parade celebrations.

M met the ambitious foursome at Tang's yoga studio The Yoga Co. to talk about their career-best song, writing and recording in Sweden and meeting David Beckham. Take Heart hit No. 1 on the local iTunes singles chart. That must have been exciting.

BENJAMIN: I think we were in the middle of the shoot for Take Heart's music video when it happened.

NARELLE: I was annoyed because I was keeping track the whole time, I wanted to be the one to tell everyone else.

JONATHAN: Narelle was updating us when it went from No. 6 to 5 to 4 and 2... but she missed 1.

NARELLE: It's so sweet that people are supporting us and buying the song. Everyone has been so positive and that is heartening to know.

It even leapt ahead of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar's Bad Blood and Jessie J's Flashlight, off the soundtrack of hit movie musical Pitch Perfect 2.

JONATHAN: Suck it, Tay-tay!

NARELLE: It just goes to show how Singaporeans are really supportive of each other. So many local acts have had their songs hit No. 1.So that just goes to show how much support local music is getting here. That is the best part.

In the promo trailer for the song, you mentioned that it's a love song. Did you draw on your own experiences?

NARELLE: If you've ever been in love, you will realise that loving someone can be painful sometimes.

BENJAMIN: It is about a couple from a fictitious village who are ostracised by a community. Condemned by bigotry and judgment, they run away together.
It's like your modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, but placed in today's society.
It could be about people in inter-racial marriages or those with alternative lifestyles.
It's nice to blow it up into a grander picture in a pop song.

What was it like writing and recording your upcoming album Take Heart in Sweden?

NARELLE: A lot of people don't know that Sweden is the place where a lot of Billboard chart-topping pop hits are produced.
It's great to see how people function there. They are very easygoing.

Ben, you met David Beckham when you attended a dinner he hosted in London in March to promote his whisky label Haig Club. Does he know about The Sam Willows?

BENJAMIN: I did mention to him in passing and he said he'll check us out.


BENJAMIN: I was panicking because, what do I say to this guy? My dad is a big Manchester United fan so I was trying to think of all their names, trying to keep calm.
The moment I met him, I said, "I like your facial hair."
He said, "Thanks, mate, I worked really hard at it, yeah", while twirling his moustache.
I hope he checks out our song.

So much has changed for the band in the last three years. What are your thoughts?

SANDRA: Nothing has changed, but everything has, you know?

JONATHAN: If anything has changed, the four of us are much better friends now.

BENJAMIN: We had to learn and mature really quickly. We also have to be wary because the industry can be quite cut-throat. I'm a bit more cynical now, but at the end of the day, making music with these guys, recording and getting a reaction makes it all worth it.

Where will you be in 10 years' time? First Grammy?

NARELLE: Hopefully! But even if we're doing exactly what we're doing now, I'd be so happy.


This article was first published on May 27, 2015.
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