“We might as well go all out”: Sezairi, Charlie Lim and Benjamin Kheng on Singapore’s return to live music

Ahead of the country’s biggest concerts since the coronavirus lockdown, the three pop artists tell NME what to expect

For the past nine months, Sezairi has felt jobless. The Singaporean singer-songwriter has completed a record while in quarantine, and kept fans fed with the odd cover video and livestream show. But he hasn’t been able to do what he does best.

Like hundreds of other entertainers in the country, the singer-songwriter hasn’t performed to a live audience ever since the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of venues and a moratorium on mass events.

“I’ve been performing since I was 17 years old,” he tells NME. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had. So this year has been kinda weird.”

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Tomorrow, some of that weirdness will ebb away when Sezairi takes the stage of the Marina Bay Sands Theatre to play to 500 people in the country’s biggest concert since the lockdown (or Circuit Breaker, as it’s known in Singapore). Alongside Benjamin Kheng, he’ll headline the first night of Back To Live, a two-night series of concerts put together by AEG Presents, Collective Minds and Marina Bay Sands.

Live entertainment has been returning to the city-state, slowly but surely, over the past few months. In September, pilot performances with audiences capped at 50 were trialled at select venues. In November, that capacity doubled. And the same month, long-running local music festival Baybeats experimented with inviting fans to watch artists record performances while listening through headphones.

“I hope this is the first domino of good news for the industry, and not just concerts, but everywhere that live music can live” – Benjamin Kheng

It was something, but it wasn’t quite the same. Substitutes for live, amplified gigs – from straightforward Instagram Lives to manicured ‘live’streams to pared-down backstage experiences – pale in comparison. As Sezairi puts it, “It’s the way big speakers vibrate your bones – it’s something you can’t explain to someone who’s never been to a concert.”

Sezairi, Kheng and Charlie Lim – the latter will headline the second night of Back To Live – can’t wait to get back onstage. All three might play new music that they released during or just prior to lockdown: Sezairi, the ‘Undertones’ EP; Kheng, ‘A Sea That Never Stops’, his debut solo EP after years rising through Singapore’s pop ranks as part of The Sam Willows; Lim, a string of singles that includes collaborations with fellow Singaporeans Linying and Gentle Bones, as well as Japanese singer Miho Fukuhara.

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Kheng can’t wait to showcase his new material to his fans. His EP, he says, is “like an overgrown kid that still hasn’t left their parents’ house. I want them out”. Lim is channelling his enthusiasm into three different sets: solo acoustic, a “stripped-down combo/jazz band setup” with three of his closest collaborators, and a full setup with his longtime backing band the Mothership.

“I was first offered to do this show as a solo act, but I thought why not celebrate this milestone with everyone who’s been playing with me over the years?” he explains. “It’s been a rough 2020 for all of us and we’re long due for a reunion.

“It is pretty ambitious trying to do all three variations in one night, but hey – if this is going to be either the start of things going back to normal or the last gig before the end of the world, then we might as well go all out!”

In the case of Back To Live, going all out isn’t just about wowing the audience – it’s also about showing the wider public that live music is ready to return.

Back To Live is one of a few events in Singapore this month that have been allowed bigger audiences as part of a pilot. These shows, which will require negative COVID-19 test results for entry, and their outcomes may guide the Singapore government’s decision-making on the roadmap for live entertainment’s full comeback.

“I hope this is the first domino of good news for the industry, and not just concerts, but everywhere that live music can live – bars, clubs, weddings,” Kheng says. “Once we iron out the COVID-friendly guidelines, I’d like to see more barriers being lifted. Mad grateful for this opportunity, but we’re thinking about what the same opportunity would mean for everyone.”

“It’s the way big speakers vibrate your bones – it’s something you can’t explain to someone who’s never been to a concert” – Sezairi

Sezairi similarly has his mind on what these concerts will mean for others – especially within the ecosystem of a live production. “These are the people I think about when I think about a show: the tech crew, the sound engineers, the lighting crew,” he says. “Everyone’s livelihood depends on this.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Sezairi threw his weight behind Pasar Glamour Art Aid, an emergency relief fund for freelancers working in the performing arts. Arts workers who labour behind the scenes and on the sidelines of dazzling productions and stunning concerts are deeply unappreciated in Singapore, he argues.

“These are people who are willing to give up the ‘Singaporean life’ to live on a project basis, to pay their mortgage off things they love to do. This is not something to be taken lightly,” he says. “I feel these people should be appreciated for taking these risks. If we don’t support them, who will?”

Back To Live takes place at Marina Bay Sands Theatre from December 18 to 19. Benjamin Kheng and Sezairi headline night one, supported by THELIONCITYBOY, Linying and Narelle Kheng. Charlie Lim headlines night two, supported by Aisyah Aziz and KEYANA. Tickets are available here

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