Gentle Bones collaborates with Benjamin Kheng on new song ‘Better With You’

The Singaporean artists tell NME about how they’ve inspired each other, the power of collaboration, and why people shouldn’t “be afraid to suck”

Gentle Bones returns today (December 18) with his fourth studio EP, ‘Better With You’, led by its title track – a collaboration with Benjamin Kheng.

The release caps off an exciting year for the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Joel Tan. Besides releasing solo tracks ‘Why Do We’ and ‘dear me,’, 2020 saw him become a fully independent artist and throw himself into a slew of collaborations with fellow Singaporean artists: Gareth Fernandez, Charlie Lim, Joie Tan and, most notably, Tay Kewei, alongside whom he made his Mandopop debut on ‘你還不知道?’ (‘Don’t You Know Yet?’).

Now, ‘Better With You’ – his latest project since the three-track EP ‘Michelle’ in 2018 – has arrived. Its two songs are the hip-hop-inspired ‘Put My Hands Up’, and title track that taps long-time friend and collaborator Benjamin Kheng.

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Kheng, who will headline Singapore’s largest post-lockdown concert tonight, previously worked with Gentle Bones on the song ‘FATHER, FATHER’ in 2014 and shared a stage with him at the 2015 YouTube FanFest. It’s on this latest partnership, however, that the duo really pay tribute to the impact they’ve had on each other.

NME caught up with the duo to chat about ‘Better With You’, their different approaches to the studio, being emotionally honest and more. Listen to the new EP and check out the interview below.

You’ve worked together before many years ago; how did you decide to collaborate again?

Benjamin Kheng: Joel and I were catching up throughout this year and toying with the idea of putting a song together. And Joel’s been in a season where he’s been really creative and working with a lot of people. I was like, “I would love to sit down and pick his brain”. We sat down after this wedding dinner that went on a bit too long and we were like, “Yeah, what can we do and when can we start?” The plans were semi-concrete, then one day he sent me a voice demo and I immediately heard it was like, “Let’s do it, it’s too good”. It was very easy and it was great being in a studio with him.

What are both your vibes in the studio?

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Gentle Bones: Ben does this thing that I try to incorporate into my writing now where he impersonates somebody’s voice, like a Passenger voice or a Charlie Lim voice. It helps the writing a lot because then you channel a bit of that Passenger or Charlie.

Kheng: I think Charlie’s sick and tired of getting mentions on Instagram that Ben is impersonating him. I’m going to keep doing it, haha. No, but for me, I’ve been in writing sessions that have a deadline or KPI and it’s super tense, and that’s never a vibe you want. But it wasn’t tense at all in our session and I do like to muck about quite a bit and do stupid shit, and Joel has just a great way of going, “This is stupid shit but it’s actually a really good idea”. Then he makes it into something awesome.

How did you write the lyrics of ‘Better With You’?

Gentle Bones: Oh man, this is going to be cheesy – it’s really about how much, while going through this journey with music, I’ve always looked up to Ben. Whenever I think about all these struggles I have, it’s like, “Oh, Ben must have it a hundred times worse” and then I feel like, “OK, I need to stop being a baby”. This song is about how it’s important to be strong, and when I see someone like Ben do it so well, it kind of just came to me naturally to write something like that.

Kheng: This song is really about each other. For me, looking at how much I’ve seen Joel grow through the years was a great starting point as well. And more than that, lyrically, it’s just a good old feel-good song for people. It’s just balm for the season.

It’s nice to know that this is a song about both of you being emotionally honest about your friendship. That isn’t really encouraged among…

Kheng: Men.

Gentle Bones: Yeah. I agree with that very strongly. I feel being emotionally vulnerable is something us men should work on.

Joel, this collaboration is one of many you’ve put out in 2020. Did you plan to go in on a collaborative year?

Gentle Bones: Really, a lot of things fell into place. It started off with me speaking with Charlie and trying to come up with a song together, because with both of us being labelmates, we’d been talking about it for a while. After I started working with Charlie, I was like, “Oh man, there’s just so many things that I miss out on”. Just seeing the way he works and the genius that he is really taught me a lot. I felt like I’ve been very reclusive and in my own world a little bit, so to be able to work with people that I respect so much is a crazy thing.

Earlier this year you made your Mandopop debut with ‘你還不知道?’ (‘Don’t You Know Yet?’) with Tay Kewei. How did you end up recording a Mandarin song?

Gentle bones: I’ve always been a huge fan of Mandarin music and a day-one fan of JJ Lin as well. We’ve always had karaoke DVDs at home and we’d just sing along to his songs, so that’s actually the foundation of a lot of my writing. Even in my first EP, though it sounds like a folk-pop album, the melody is actually very Mandopop.

I always wanted to write Chinese music, but my Chinese wasn’t good; then it got to a point where, I think, the minds of Chinese listeners were slowly starting to open up and they weren’t as hard-up on having flamboyant words all the time anymore, and hip-hop artists were rising. So I thought it was a perfect time to start. I wrote something and sent it to Kewei and she came on board, and I felt like she made the song like a whole lot better. That’s the crazy part of collaboration – it extends past yourself and when you start making music as something bigger than yourself, it’s quite beautiful.

At the end of 2019 you gave a TEDx talk where you discussed your introversion and how you came to a music career – and also said you were second-guessing your decision to give the talk. What pushed you to do it?

Gentle Bones: They actually approached me to speak. I usually try to avoid these things but there was something I really wanted to talk about, which was the idea of insecurity versus vulnerability. I didn’t have the ability to go in with a lot of theory, so I decided to use my story as a way to explain it. One thing that really bothered me at the time was people being afraid to suck. Which is a huge issue to me because if you’re afraid to suck then you don’t allow yourself to improve and you’ve just got to work with that cap.

I feel like it’s really the focus on education that causes a lot of people to be naturally cynical about the arts and music and all that, because they are taught to fear these things. If they don’t make the education thing work – it’s do or die. People are always taught to just be doctors or lawyers or ace their exams first before they figure out their life. Ace your PSLE first, ace your O Levels, make sure you don’t slip or be unimpressive.

All these things layering on top of each other makes so many things fall to the wayside, when there’re so many factors of the economy that you need in order for culture to continue to grow. I’m still figuring it out every day, but I do feel it can eventually end up a bit unhealthy. I was really only glossing the surface with that talk. That was all I was confident talking about.

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