Soft sand cushioned Narelle Kheng’s (CS’16) feet in the vast landscapes of Death Valley National Park. Clad in a red dress, she picked up its hem and walked towards her film crew as the strong winds tousled her hair.
Aside from Death Valley National Park, a sneak peek at behind-the-scenes footage of a forthcoming music video also revealed that Kheng was at an on-location shoot set in a Malibu beach in California. Kheng was there for two weeks spanning from mid-September to early October. The music video, which is set to be released by the end of this year, is for one of her new songs, titled “Blue”, from her first solo EP, “Part 2”.
Comprising three original songs, “Tears”, “Let Me Be” and “Blue”, “Part 2” was released last month. The EP is Kheng’s first solo work since her band, The Sam Willows, announced their hiatus earlier this year. The well-known quartet shot Kheng into the limelight while she was still an undergraduate at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
Barely a month after the release of Kheng’s new songs, they have already been played more than 150,000 times on music streaming platform Spotify. Her lyric video for the EP’s first song, “Tears”, was released on Nov. 6, kickstarting a series of music videos on YouTube.
“Everybody put in a 110% for this project and that’s really all I can ask for,” said Kheng, in an exclusive interview with the WKWSCI Alumni Magazine.
She also shared that she had a diverse team of friends coming together to help her with the music videos, such as New York-based Malaysian director Isabella Tan and actor Remy Hii, known for his roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home”.
“I felt like everyone who was there had a little bit of what they wanted to say as well, and they were trying to figure out how they can put it into this project,” said Kheng.
"There were a lot of obstacles that were between me and what I wanted to do, whether it’s disapproval or a lack of support from those around me."
NARELLE KHENG (CS’16), SINGER-SONGWRITER
Her first act
In 2015, The Sam Willows became the first Southeast Asian band to clinch a place on Spotify’s global chart. Released in the same year, the title track for the quartet’s first full-length album, “Take Heart”, has garnered over 6 million streams on Spotify to date. Coupled with more than 1.8 million views on the song’s music video, the band earned their spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list this year.
Earlier in May this year, the quartet split ways to better explore their own passion projects. Following the announcement, the band left a message on their Instagram page for their 61,000 followers. Signing off, the band said: “This isn’t goodbye. we’re taking a break, which has come as abruptly for us. But right now we need to take a little step back to reflect, to grow, to come back fuller.”
Intentionally released on World Mental Health Day, Kheng shared during the interview that “Part 2” is a confessional EP written after facing a “hazy” depressive period.
In earlier media reports, she had opened up about a previous toxic relationship and losing her mother, who passed on when she was eight.
For Kheng, rising stronger from the past begins with “Part 2”. The singer-songwriter mentioned during the interview with WKWSCI Alumni Magazine that her songs are based on a journal she wrote amidst her depression.
“Tears” is the first song in this EP that she wrote.
“There will be times where I’m happy and then there will be times where I don’t feel happy again. But the thing is that through life we get so used to just functioning,” said the singer, adding that she naturally hushed her emotions.
“Tears” began from analysing these instances. During her self-reflection, she asks: “What is wrong here? What causes me to be in this state?”
Although music has always been a big part of her life, the accomplished singer occasionally harbours doubts about her passion for music.
“My journey with music has been a long, love-hate relationship of sorts,” she said. “There were a lot of obstacles that were between me and what I wanted to do, whether it’s disapproval or a lack of support from those around me,” she said.
In many ways, she had to grow up quickly. Kheng likened entering the music industry at 19 to being thrown into shark waters. Meeting “big guys” in the music industry and upholding a constructed image was overwhelming for her.
“Before I knew it, there’s this person that is out there singing but I have no idea who the hell she is and who the hell I am on the inside,” she said.
Juggling band tours and commitments, school work was a handful.
“I was still learning how to handle that at that point,” she said, adding that it was difficult to be excused from class when she had to travel overseas to perform, which often happened during the school term.
In Love with Film
“Before I knew it, there’s this person that is out there singing but I have no idea who the hell she is and who the hell I am on the inside.”
NARELLE KHENG (CS’16), SINGER-SONGWRITER
Despite facing the challenge of balancing school life and her music career, Kheng fell in love with film-making in her time at WKWSCI.
“Film is so layered. It’s about telling stories in a very tangible, visual way,” she said. Applying the skills she learned through in various broadcast modules at WKWSCI to her music career, Kheng produces music videos that she calls “full products”.
In May this year, Kheng produced her own music video for “Outta My Head”, a solo release before her current EP. In an interview with Nylon Singapore, Kheng shared that the solo release was written about a toxic relationship she experienced. To date, the music video has more than 18,000 views on YouTube.
“I never really saw music and film as two separate things,” Kheng said, adding that the two come together to create a singular emotion. “The visual aspect of it is just another way to tell the same story that you are conveying through music.”
In a sit-down interview on an episode of Zula’s Pillow Talk, Kheng shared that “Part 2” comes as a section of a three-part musical series Kheng plans to release. Preceding it is “Outta My Head”, which conveys anger. She added that listeners are taken through the stages of grief with her songs, mirroring her experience with depression.
As listeners get immersed in Part 2 of her story, Kheng looks forward to crafting her next act.
For those who are still figuring out their interests, Kheng shared, “be true to who you are, be a good person and work hard. Honestly I do not see how you will go wrong if you have these three things.”