When Benjamin Kheng came onto the scene in 2012 as part of The Sam Willows, he and his bandmates altered the course of the local music industry. The far-reaching appeal of their brand of catchy indie-pop proved that Singapore could stand with the very best of them, and their mainstream commercial success opened the gates for the emergence of a new wave of musical acts that have pushed the local industry forward.
But one EP and two full-length albums later, the members of the band announced in 2019 that they would be focusing on their solo careers. For Kheng, that has meant a handful of TV roles, a YouTube comedy channel—The BenZi Project, with Hirzi Zulkiflie—and of course, much-awaited solo music. We got a clearer glimpse of what his own vision would be with the release of his EP, A Sea That Never Stops, in June last year.
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With Covid-19 raging on, work plans have had to take a back seat, but Kheng found the pandemic-induced pause illuminating in terms of personal growth. “I was quite happy to slow down a bit this past year,” he says. “Before that, it was definitely non-stop. Especially as a Singaporean, you’re used to such a ridiculous pace of life that sometimes, you don’t realise what you’re doing things for in the first place. I thought 2020 was a nice mirror to all our lives—why we do what we do.”
Admittedly, the period wasn’t without its pains—the reasons why Kheng loves what he does were also the first things taken away in our new normal. “For me, the best part about being a musician is doing live shows— feeling the energy of the crowd, sharing the music and the space with people. So to not do that and just put out music into a digital pace was very, very strange and almost painful,” he admits. “It got to the point where I just needed to give music a break—to learn how to fall in love with music again.”
It got to the point where I just needed to give music a break—to learn how to fall in love with music again
A year in, what is evident is that disruptive as the pandemic is, creativity prevails and darkness makes room for bright spots to shine though. Kheng definitely sees this happening in music. “I think music in 2020 really changed,” he says. “At one point, there was a lot of hip-hop, urban music, a lot of dance music. And then suddenly, people started being more genuine again with the things they put out. It was nice to be a fan of that and start writing more from a place of how you’re feeling, rather than with an ‘Oh man, I need to get this party going’ mindset/ Very often, music can easily become just a business, but I think 2020 made it way more personal again.”
Kheng speaks from first-hand experience. Having got engaged last year (to DJ Naomi Yeo), he is writing love songs based on his own stories for the first time in his career. “I hadn’t written a proper love song about someone until last year. Before, I was always writing from other people’s stores,” he shares. “I had this hilarious conversation with another musician friend who’s also happily in love and she said, ‘Do you think my music sucks now because I’m no longer heartbroken?’ It was so funny, but I realise now that I’m happy in life and quite content… it’s not that I struggle to write, but it really comes from a different place.”
But what if fans don’t want “different”? Was he scared putting those innermost truths out there like that? “Not anymore,” he says. “I’m 30—I couldn’t care anymore! All that young adult or teenage angst is gone. Now, if people like it or don’t like it, it’s really up to them.” It took some time for Kheng to get here—“I think at one point, I was obsessed with people not liking me for a reason that I felt was not fair,” he explains. The turning point came at 30. “I think when you’re young and impressionable and you get a bit of success, you try to really protect your space,” he muses. “But after a couple of bumps and enough time doing this, you realise that a) you definitely can’t get everyone to like you all the time and b) if everyone likes you, you’re doing something wrong—you’re not putting out true work.” Spoken like a true artist entering his Next Great Period.