Anything but Cookie Cutters

Published on 8 December 2014

Music acts that break the mould


So what if it’s not mainstream enough for the Gaga-loving masses? Local indie music is making waves and more importantly, so are local indie musicians. For a dot of a country, Singapore’s local music scene is positively diverse, with niche bands playing country, Vedic metal and even Chinese goth rock. While it’s true that most musicians without a label backing and recording contract will likely sacrifice life in the spotlight for a dreary desk job, that, thankfully, is not always the case. In the next few pages, we pass the mic to some of Singapore’s successful indie heroes who share their views on image, fame and marrying commercial headway with staying true to who they are and their boutique brand of music.


Commercial Hipsters

Benjamin Kheng, sister Narelle, Sandra Riley Tang and Jon Chua started out with DIY made-for-YouTube tunes. And now, the four toothsome twentysomethings have become bona fide recording artists who have notched up numerous accolades, including the m:idea Youth Choice Awards 2013. To date, The Sam Willows (TSW), have played on three continents and at respected events like the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Some band members have even expanded their talents onto stage and screen.

“In the indie circuit, we’re the most commercial thing, some might even consider us ‘sell-outs’,” shares affable 24 year-old frontman Kheng. “Between the artist and the audience, there’s always that conflict of who reaches out to whom. “Most indie artists like to be quite esoteric, focusing on expressing themselves, rather than making things appetising and relatable. TSW have always tried to blend both.

“And while we play to our personal inclinations — folk, country, soul — we always want to create a sound that’s inclusive, that makes all of our fans feel like they’re part of a massive hipster foot-stomping crowd.”

Being what Kheng labels an “artist-entrepreneur” takes real work. Besides making music, TSW members have band-building duties that include media relations, design and, of course, maintaining a band image. “Our look is, er… commercial hipster?” Kheng laughs. “When reaching out to people, some are more visual, so our image is important to reflect who we are.”

POLE POSITION: The Sam Willows’ philosophy of always making audiences feel included has helped them climb above the competition.

photography JOEL LOW assisted by alfie
art direction tony law
makeup shaun lee hair alicia tey


Eclectic Youth

Indie princess/pioneer Inch Chua stands out for her take-me-or-leave-me attitude. She’s released several internationally-acclaimed albums, was the first Singaporean artist to play at American music festival SXSW, and is now the author of a brand-new book about her music journey, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. She’s often dressed down in tees and tanks, and regularly seen with minimal to zero makeup on televised interviews and even in her own music videos.

“I’m lucky to be a musician in the digital age, where the Internet can help you find your niche. Be whoever you want to be and there will be someone out there who is cool with it,” says the petite powerhouse who writes her own eclectic blend of acoustic folk, alternative rock, electronic music, jazz and pop. “People can still package themselves for the general masses, and I won’t slag them off because it’s great if you’re gorgeous enough to fit that package. But I want to be boutique, and trust that whoever is interested will find their way to my music.”


Pushing the Boundaries

Like Inch Chua, singer-songwriter Charlie Lim places zero emphasis on image. Unassuming and bespectacled, his standard gig uniform comprises plain polos and jeans. “The question to ask is, if you strip away the aesthetic, would your fans think any less of your work?” he muses. “Are you the product or is your music the product? Both are possible and flashy outfits are great if they can be an extension of the performance, but my band and I want the audience to focus on the music and any visuals we put onscreen.”

Thankfully, the singer-songwriter’s original tunes have all the colour that may be absent from his clothes. His is a lush, difficult-to-define repertoire with touches of jazz, soul and other genres, often mixed live by Lim onstage while he sings and plays.

“For me, the whole point of being a musician is to stay curious and take risks now and then by pushing musical boundaries and trying different combinations of things, rather than stick to what’s formulaic or whatever’s trending at the time.”


Adding a Mandarin Spin

Pushing musical boundaries doesn’t have to mean composing original tunes. “When you sing jazz like I do, people expect to hear the standards by Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. The fun comes in adding your own interpretation and arrangements to old favourites,” says sassy songbird/recording artist Joanna Dong.

Effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin, she delivers jazz and Brazilian bossa nova with a difference. She gives famous tunes brand-new and poetic Mandarin lyrics, soaring renditions of which have scored her international acclaim and gigs in various countries.

“I suppose that seems like a good career move, but actually, rather than borrowing jazz to introduce myself to different audiences, I was hoping to introduce audiences to jazz standards, which is something I’ve always been in love with. Lots of Mandarin audiences are not familiar with these classics,” says Dong.

“While there are different views as to whether musicians should ‘package’ themselves, I’ve always felt that performers need to give the audience a sense of who they are from what they wear. Power to the lean, pretty young things who can carry off unforgiving outfits, but that’s not me. I like structured lines, local brands and in any case, I won’t change what I look like. Even if I sing a different genre. I’m still me.”


Plugging Into the Past

Local band The Pinholes have also dazzled local and overseas audiences from Asia to America with their unique style: They dress and make music as if they were living in 1960s Singapore, complete with unmistakably local accents. Band leader Famie Suliman says, “It started after a gig by one of my favourite bands, The Stoned Revivals, who mentioned that one of their influences was ’60s music. Curious, I started finding out about Singapore during that era and I realised there was so much creativity going on then. Film, fashion and music, all with a distinctly Singaporean vibe. Local ’60s band The Quests even beat The Beatles in the Singapore charts in 1964!

“So much of that history is gone, but The Pinholes want to be your live link to yesteryear. In Singapore, we’re good at copying from other cultures and countries because maybe, it’s easier than getting stuff from our own history and culture. But The Pinholes don’t want that. Sounding and looking how we do makes us special.”

photo  © The Indie band The Pinholes & National Library Board, Singapore 2014
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