2016 – the year that has finally seen Singapore-English pop acts headlining at venues that were previously beyond them. In June, Gentle Bones performed at two sold out nights at the Esplanade Concert Hall (capacity: 1,600). On 22nd July it is the turn of The Sam Willows to expand the boundaries of what a Singapore-English pop act can achieve by playing at The Coliseum, Resort World Sentosa – a venue that can hold 5,000 people, although record label Sony Music expects about 3,000 fans to attend that night.
It’s been three years since The Sam Willows released its debut EP. Since then, the quartet (Jon Chua, Ben Kheng, Sandra Riley Tang & Narelle Kheng) have gone from strength to strength, developing into arguably the top pop group in Singapore and signing for Sony Music Singapore.
I caught up with Jon, Ben, Sandra & Narelle recently at the official press event for the release of their first full-length album, Take Heart, and found them to be the same down-to-earth, earnest, fun-loving group that I met in 2012, except now with a major label backing their music.
Into their second single for Sony Music, it’s clear that The Sam Willows have honed their pop technique to a tight construct with “For Love” – the chorus comes with soaring banks of vocals even if the familiar melody does not move listeners that much.
The song recalls Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters & Men and even the quartet’s own “Glasshouse”. Not quite as incongruous as its predecessor “Take Heart”, this time the electro-pop elements complement the song rather well.
The message behind the video is strong and to the band’s credit maintains a personal emotional connection. It might be too close to the bone for many people but if pop music can be used to touch hearts, minds and souls in this manner then kudos to The Sam Willows for at least, taking their best shot at making a statement!
There were three emails from major labels that I received in this past week that indicates that Singapore English pop may just be turning a significant corner. Three releases from Singapore bands that have already made an impact on a pop fan base in Singapore. That is something that has not happened since… the 1960s and the 1990s?
Granted, there is not much rock ‘n’ roll evident from the new batch of popstars-in-waiting but perhaps that is a reflection of the audience’s taste more than anything else. In any case, what we have are three singles viz. “Sixty Five” by Gentle Bones, “Take Heart” from The Sam Willows and Trick’s “Some Girls” with their obligatory accompanying videos. So let’s take a look, shall we?
First off, Gentle Bones’ “Sixty Five” is a musical tie-in to the upcoming 1965 movie and is rather downbeat and dramatic amidst its lush orchestration. The video matches the somewhat sombre mood showcasing obtuse dancing and moody lighting, capturing the tone well. Look out for a cameo from producer Leonard Soosay (with cat).
Next, The Sam Willows’ “Take Heart” emphasises all the manifest strengths of this lively quartet with the video deftly highlighting energetic dancers as the song’s hybrid hipster folk/EDM hedges all bets well enough. With its bright rainbow colours, it’s seems to provide an interesting counterpoint to the Gentle Bones’ video. Coincidence or design? Mm??
Finally, “Some Girls” finds Trick hoping to emulate their American hip-hop cousins with some T&A and risque lyrics. Somewhat daring by staid Singapore standards, at least one cannot accuse Trick of not trying to provide a visual representation of the song itself. Considering how popular hip-hop is worldwide, it’s a commendable effort.
Taken in the context of mainstream pop, these singles can stand up to anything out there and hopefully with a certain amount of marketing muscle from the major labels involved, these pop star hopefuls will become household names in Singapore and beyond!
I am often asked about how the current Singapore indie music scene compares to what we had in the past. It’s a valid question, of course. Since the 90s revival and subsequent economic depression, the scene has been growing at a steady pace in the last decade or so.
To assess how far we’ve come, we need only look at two factors. First, the improvement of the technical abilities, musicianship and songwriting capabilities of our artists/bands and second, the expansion of the fan base – the increase of awareness, acceptance and approval amongst Singaporeans for local indie music.
As important as the first factor is – aided by the number of music schools that have proliferated across the island – the challenge has always to build up a fan base at home for homegrown music. Whilst still not ideal, there has been a marked improvement in that area.
Back in 2010, I recall kids rushing to the stage when Inch Chua opened at SingFest but then walking away when they realized that she was ‘local’. Contrast that to the generous reception of local bands at music festivals today, where bands like The Sam Willows (above), Gentle Bones and others have the acceptance of the audience. Not only that but many artists/bands have rapturous EP/album launches where pundits actually fork out cash to watch their local heroes.
And what about Inch? She has gone from strength to strength – chasing her dreams in the USA (see above) and elsewhere, and those kids in 2010 are probably cheering her on, whenever she does play back in her hometown.
There is much to be optimistic about but we must not rest on our laurels. We still do not have enough opportunities for indie bands/artists to play on a regular basis.
My wish list for 2015 and beyond?
(1) Venues to have residencies for our bands to develop their own music.
(2) More local bands opening for foreign bands.
(3) A regional touring circuit be established for our bands.
(4) Local bands breaking into overseas markets.
(5) Original music no longer a dirty word to Singaporeans.
There is so much work to be done but these are exciting times for the Singapore indie music scene.
Now, here’s something different for the S-ROCK scene. SPear stands for “Singapore Polytechnic Emerging Artist & Repertoire” and is an initiative utilizing a new teaching pedagogy developed by Singapore Polytechnic (SP) under its Diploma in Music and Audio Technology course.
Essentially, SPear operates as a record label and production house whereby student bands are given the opportunity to record and release EPs under the SPear banner. According to a SP rep, the songs and recordings are ‘co-owned’ by SPear and the various bands and each band will record and release a 3-track EP under this initiative.
SPear will be holding its launch at The Coliseum, Hard Rock Hotel, Sentosa on Friday, June 7th, where the first four student bands under this scheme viz. V’Bel, Victoria Street, Formalisms and Celestia will perform. The SP rep has informed us that major labels like Warner Music & Universal Music and renowned independent labels like EQ music and Snakeweed Records will be in attendance at this event.
There will be a guest appearance by The Sam Willows.
My regular readers will be aware of my love of hyperbole. After all, art and music should always be bigger than life and so I am always happy to oblige in that regard. So forgive me, if this post outstrips all previous in the hyperbole department.
No other way to describe the week that will forever be known as The Steve Lillywhite Production Week! As a huge Lillywhite fan (and SGMUSO EXCO member), it was going to be an amazing experience no matter what. However, even that did not prepare me for the surreal, seemingly out-of-body experience that it ultimately turned out to be! See what I mean about hyperbole?!?
I was fortunate enough to sit in the production sessions on the 1st and last day and was thrilled not only to see the legendary Steve Lillywhite in action but to witness the four bands (Atlas, MONSTER CAT, sub:shaman and The Sam Willows) have their collective confidence boosted sky high by a man who so obviously loves good music and music people.
Everyone in the studio was buzzing thanks to Lillywhite’s infectious enthusiasm. It was impossible not to be infected with the buzz! From the bands to the producers to the crew to bystanders (like yours truly), it truly felt like S-ROCK history was unfolding before our very eyes (and ears).
As much as we ourselves believe in S-ROCK, it is re-assuring and comforting to find someone of Lillywhite’s stature to be equally (it not more) excited about the potential and possibilities of the S-ROCK scene. It is validation of our efforts in the scene and our belief in the great S-ROCK bands that toil tirelessly in our sometimes thankless nation.
Best part of all was actually getting to know Lillywhite a bit better and chatting over his experiences producing some of the more important releases of the 80s and 90s. This was aided by Lillywhite’s own humble, down to earth manner – it was impossible not to think of him as a like-minded ally and these are some of the memories I will always treasure.