Narelle Kheng is worrying about her Diablo III character. When NME meets the Singaporean musician who rose to local pop prominence in the early 2010s as one-quarter of The Sam Willows, she’s nearly two weeks out from the release of her ‘Part 3’ EP – the final instalment of a musical trilogy that launched her solo career in 2019.
Instead of the typical flurry of promotional activity that would follow such a major label release, Kheng decided to turn an illness-induced period of socially responsible isolation into an extended break and pick up the beloved Blizzard RPG. “I was just very angry last night because I’ve been levelling up my character, and it’s just stuck,” she explains, quickly deadpanning, “This is my biggest issue at the present.”
That self-deprecation peppers the conversation, which moves quickly and fluidly between topics such as the weird “limbo” that is 2021, the friction between capitalism and creativity, mental illness, and the reason for our meeting, ‘Part 3’, which dropped on March 26. Though only two songs – the cheekily titled ‘Just Shut Up’ and the seemingly straightforward ‘Complicated Love Song’ – the project places a bow on the first arc of Kheng’s solo career, one that tells a turbulent story of learning to accept your emotional self in all its hues.
Kheng is ambivalent about closing this chapter. “I’m very relieved to finish it,” she concedes, given that ‘Part 3’ was supposed to drop in 2020, but, like so many other albums and tours, was delayed. “I don’t know if you find this year weird, but all my friends and I feel like this year is just the strangest,” she puts this to NME. “Last year, you were in panic mode, or everything was chaotic. But then this year, everybody’s just expected to just figure it out.
“I really wanted this last part to be the celebration to finish everything. But truthfully, I don’t know how much of a celebratory mood I’m in,” she admits.
She notes the sarcasm in the EP’s lyrics, though there’s more sunshine and warmth in the record’s noodly guitars and major chords than in its predecessors. ‘Part 2’ – whose cover depicts Kheng in a headpiece of bones, tears flowing down her face – is accordingly limpid and melancholic. ‘Part 1’ centres on ‘Outta My Head’, a dark, Banks-esque R&B track that synthesised Kheng’s obsession with a relationship that turned out to be toxic. That bubble properly bursts on ‘Complicated Love Song’ from ‘Part 3’, where Kheng sings, “We’d been over the rainbow / And found us nothing more / So I don’t know if I love you / Like I did before.”
Releasing three bite-sized projects, turning to a markedly different emotional and sonic palette each time, was the only way Kheng could tell that story: the journey from anger to sadness to something like closure. “I really took my time with it, because I wanted to focus on each part… I felt like I had to mentally prepare myself for each process,” she explains. “Everyone uses their creative expression differently, and each EP delved into one part of my personality. I do feel like I’m quite chaotic in that sense… I wanted to sit in each emotion and really delve, dig and understand it, and build the whole project around it.”
The “jarring” differences in sound and style from each project, she says, were also a reaction to her time in The Sam Willows. Not that the quartet of Narelle, her brother Benjamin, as well as Sandra Riley Tang and Jon Chua JX were ever one-trick ponies. From their self-titled debut EP in 2012 to their latest album, 2018’s ‘I Know, But Where’, they went from a folky cafe indie sound that aligned nicely with the cultural sway of Birdy and Mumford & Sons to slick R&B- and rap-inflected capital-p Pop songs for a poptimist era.
Embracing a genre-agnostic approach to her own solo music, Kheng says, was her way of “rebelling” against the pressure and strictures that she experienced in the pop machine as a Willow. “I’m a very sensitive person, and I was coming into the music industry as a young girl.” Between the critics ever-ready to turn up their noses at the music – especially after the band’s decision to go full-blown pop, a move they knew would catch them flak from “musician musicians” – and industry types telling Kheng to wear skirts and smiles, she sometimes entered a dissociative state while on Willows business.
The Sam Willows announced a hiatus in May 2019. When you google the band two years on, the phrase “The Sam Willows disband” still floats to the top of the autocomplete suggestions – though the four of them are still friends and keeping track of each other’s solo careers, even sharing demos and chiming in on songwriting. When she looks back on what The Sam Willows have accomplished, Kheng says, she doesn’t see their music as much as their friendship: “All the time that we spent together, everything that I experienced – and learning how to unpack that for my current life as well.”
“Everyone uses their creative expression differently, and each EP delved into one part of my personality. I do feel like I’m quite chaotic in that sense”
Kheng’s “entire life” now is predicated on the work she did in The Sam Willows – including her sizeable Instagram following, on which she’s capitalised to work as an influencer for brands like Coach and Dyson. She’s also used the platform in recent years to spread awareness on mental health and other social issues, sharing posts and resources like many a plugged-in millennial. Kheng says she came to the decision to use her platform this way after she released ‘Outta My Head’ and couldn’t understand why people didn’t seem to get the song and its animating anger.
“I realised I’ve never told anybody about these things I’ve been going through. I had been so silent,” she says of the deep depression she had been in at the time – a mental illness she also had to come to grips with herself. “I had never thought, ‘OK, I want to talk about depression!’ I didn’t understand it until 2019. I took so long because I was spending a lot of time understanding myself and doing the research.”
Kheng’s experience with depression came through clearly on ‘Part 2’, the release following ‘Outta My Head’. “When I wrote ‘Blue’, it was: ‘I’m sad, I just need to get this out’. Then I took the song and I was like, ‘Why did you write this?’” she recalls. “So then I started talking more about mental health.” She released the project in October 2019, in conjunction with World Mental Health Day.
Kheng’s research into and ruminations on mental illness continue, and still inform ‘Part 3’. The standout lyric on ‘Just Shut Up’ is the first line of its recalcitrant chorus: “It’s the mediocre life for me.” As an 18-year-old obsessed with being anything but average, Kheng scratched the word ‘mediocre’ into her headboard. In the writers’ room for ‘Just Shut Up’, she found herself insisting on this line that her collaborators thought weird and nonsensical, trying to playfully reclaim ‘mediocre’ in Singapore’s results-oriented, pressure-cooker society. As she asks, “Why do we put such a dirty connotation to this word?”
After Kheng’s readiness to talk about mental health in our interview, it’s not unsurprising when she reveals a long-term goal to get a master’s degree in counselling. But she’s also been exploring different areas of the creative process, learning production and visual software and even stepping back in a big way into filmmaking, which she studied in school – she’s turned her trilogy into a film that stars her, her brother and other musicians Estelle Fly and Jean Seizure.
And though Kheng, who professes a deep dislike of deadlines, doesn’t reveal any concrete plans to release more new music, she has written new songs. There’s material that continues the alt-pop sound of ‘Part 3’ as well as tracks that are completely instrumental, with little care for structured songwriting. The adventurousness of the latter is part of her wider goal to recapture a sense of freedom with her creativity. “I just want to play,” she declares, “and then to be able to share that.”
Narelle Kheng’s ‘Part 3’ is out now. She will perform a livestream on the app Bigo Live on April 22 at 9pm