Narelle Kheng On What Makes Her Jealous, Solo Music and More

The no-filter interview.

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If you’re a Singaporean under 30, you would know who Narelle Kheng is. The 24-year-old is ¼ of local pop darlings The Sam Willows, a fashion It Girl, an actress, and co-founder of hip co-working space 21 Moonstone. She’s also the younger sister of Singapore’s Internet Boyfriend Benjamin Kheng. We all know who she is. The real question is: how well do we know her? Sophie Hong sits down with Narelle to find out.

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It’s 6pm on February 14th. I seldom question celebs on their love lives, but it only seemed natural to ask in this instance. It’s Valentine’s Day, after all.

“So, who are you spending it with?” I ask with trepidation, fully expecting to get shut down, or an answer like “my dogs” or “my family”.

Instead, without skipping a beat, Narelle replies: “Today, no one. My boyfriend’s not here. He’s not from Singapore. I’m going to see him really soon, and I’m really excited about that.”

I can hear the giddiness in her voice.

They met back in 2016, when The Sam Willows were working on their sophomore album in Sweden. He’s one of the producers on their upcoming new album.

“He’s a really beautiful soul, and is really talented. He co-wrote most of the songs on our album with us, and that’s how we kind of got to know each other. I’m very fortunate.”

You seem quite smitten, I tell her.

“A little bit, yeah. I’m very attracted to talent,” she replies, as a shy smile creeps across her face…

You turn 25 this year. Do you feel any different, compared to your early twenties?
To me, the last three years flew by way too quickly. Everyone says your twenties are about finding yourself and your thirties are when you really settle in, but I think I’m past that hurdle. Right now, I’m definitely more sure of who I should be, who I want to be, and who I need to be to the people around me.

And who is that person?
Right now, I really just want to be a blessing. I’m not the kind of friend who might be there for all of the little things, but I’m always there when it counts. Like, my friends love to call me in the middle of the night, and I’m always there for them. I’m the kind of person you’d call in an emergency (laughs). I just want to be a source of good energy for the people around me.

What lessons have you learnt since The Sam Willows became famous?
A lot, man. The first part of it was learning to be professional and managing friendships. Working with friends and family can be very tough sometimes. We fought so much, but we’ve become better people because of it. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is balance. I used to be an all-or-nothing kind of person, and if things were not going my way, I’d get very upset. But now, I’m learning to compromise.

Do you think you butt heads often because all four of you are creatives?
I mean, it sucks when you throw out an idea and someone shoots it down, right? But you have to recognise that sometimes, not all your ideas are the best. My bandmates have taught me so much because they’ve always stuck by me no matter how much of a little b*tch I was being. I can be a little bit bratty, a little bit princess-y, and when I’m grumpy, I’m just like, “ugh I wanna go home” or “why aren’t things being done?” But they love me unconditionally, and that has taught me to love people unconditionally as well.

Speaking of love, has anything changed since your bandmate Jon got engaged to Amanda?
Yeah, actually. Jon has become funnier! Amanda is a really good friend of mine now. She’s a really amazing girl. She’s funny; she’s chill. Even though she didn’t have to, she included Sandra and me in her bridal party and we had only known her for like, what, six or eight months at the time? And she always tells us, “It’s not because you’re Jon’s friends. I see you guys as my family, and we’re going to build our life together and you guys are involved, no matter what.”

What are your goals for this year? We hear you’re currently working on some solo material.
To me, this year is all about getting things done. I’ve been sitting on stuff for a while now because I’ve been going through some personal things and I wasn’t ready to work. And I also don’t think I’m that skilled or talented – like, I didn’t go to an arts or music school, you know? I only found the creative world a lot later and as an artist, I’m not even a baby; I’m a seed.

So, are you going back to Sweden to produce that album?
Maybe. My boyfriend’s surrounded by a really great bunch of creatives and I really love them, but I don’t know yet.

Is Narelle the solo artist different from The Sam Willows’ Narelle?
Very, very different. The Sam Willows is not any one of us, but us when we’re together. The Sam Willows is very positive and happy, but I’m not so much. So the solo stuff I’m planning to do is not going to be so much anthemic pop, but more of a darker pop. It’s still pop music, though, because I like pop (smiles).

You started a co-working space called 21 Moonstone last year. How did that come about?
Honestly, it just happened because my best friend Yang and I saw a space, and we really liked it. We were looking for an office because we realised we were always sitting at each other’s houses or, like, Starbucks. And then we saw this beautiful space – it has white windows, a rooftop, there’s wind blowing, and we fell in love with it.

But beyond wanting a space to work in, we also want to grow a community. The best thing about 21 Moonstone is you can just turn around and go, “Hey, what do you think about this idea I’m working on?”

Sometimes, people come in to shoot stuff, or they’re building props and you get to help them. It’s a pot that you have to contribute things to for everyone to flourish and grow. And also so you don’t go crazy on your own.

When was the last time you felt jealous?
I get jealous when I see Jon and Amanda, or Sandra and her boyfriend. We’ll be hanging out and everybody’s partners are there. And then they’ll all go home and I’m like… (scrunches up face). It’s not so bad, but it happens. I actually do feel jealous, because I made a commitment to something that I knew wouldn’t allow me these luxuries. I also get really jealous of Halsey, because she’s so talented and I really want her talent. I get jealous because Sandra is so f*cking fit (laughs). That kind of stuff.

What’s something you’ve accomplished in the past year that you’re really proud of?
The album! When you put out something that you’re proud of, you feel really good. And the music videos too. I play
a big part in creating our music videos. I’m a very visual person, I’m really into movies and storytelling. And it really sucks when you put out something that you really like, and people don’t seem to respond as well to it.

I was blown away by the video for “Keep Me Jealous”.
(Beams) And it’s all kids – well, not kids – it’s all just us and our friends doing this together.

Yeah, you can tell from the art direction.
It’s very millennial-y, right? Proud to be a millennial (laughs).

But you were saying, you got some negative feedback for your videos?
Not negative, lah. It’s just that it wasn’t shared as much [as I had hoped]. For example, “Save Myself” was not shared as much as say, “Keep Me Jealous”, because I think the latter has a brighter look, you know? And I’m like, “Save Myself is a good music video too!!!” (laughs) It’s like having kids – you just want all of them to do well.

Photography: Joel Lim /Calibre Pictures
Fashion Direction: Janice Pidduck
Styling: Sifra Vania Yulius
Hair: Ash Loi/Atelier Hair & Beauty using Keune Hair Cosmetics
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee using Dior
Location: Level Up

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