Singapore F1 Week: Q&A with performers The Sam Willows

We catch up with the local quartet before their much-anticipated performance at this week's Singapore GP. They tell us about their most-loved gadgets, why they like to geek out and how a full album is well on its way

We met The Sam Willows at Windowsill Pies, a whimsical cafe befitting their bohemian vibe. Comprising of Benjamin Kheng's dusky vocals, Sandra Tang's sultry soulfulness, Narelle Kheng's silky dulcet tones and Jon Chua's plucky guitar skills, the band's signature sound is a unique mix of layered harmonies atop seriously infectious beats.

With a 6-track EP to their name, they've gone from the glow of YouTube to sharing the spotlight with the likes of Rihanna and The Killers at the upcoming Singapore Grand Prix. If that and a pie named after them are not signs of a bright shiny future, we don't know what is.

So before they get too famous for an interview with the likes of us, we find out about their love for music, gadgets and geeking out. 

The band and their influences

Benjamin: We found one another in my house (laughs), that’s the truth. We were all friends before that. I’ve known her (Narelle) for a while because she’s my sister. We just started jamming for fun, and I think something clicked, something felt organic. And so, we thought let’s put up a video, and that’s how we began.

The band and their influences

Narelle: The more we jammed, the more we came up with songs that sounded similar. Our sound kind of finds a perfect balance in the four of us. We’re all really different in terms of the music we like and our influences as well so I guess that’s why we don’t sound like any particular genre. I think we can all say that we like a whole range of music. I like jazz a lot, but at the same time, I listen to pop and radio a lot, as with folk. Basically everything.

Jon: For me, I like a lot of blues and country music. I grew up listening to artistes like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and now, people from the current country movement like Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley.

Sandra: I like...radio (laughs). I also like R&B, folk, and the Coldplay sort of stuff.

Benjamin: Yeah, I like some industrial stuff of the 90s, indie-folk and a bit of metal too.

Jon: We all went through a metal phase.

Music-making gear

Sandra: I actually use my iPhone the most. A lot of times, I use it for recording an idea or how I sound like and practise with that.

Gretsch White Penguin w/ Bigsby

Jon: You need a preamp, processor, and a laptop with a digital audio workstation (DAW) programme. We use Apple computers so it’s easiest for us to use Logic. As for guitars, I have a variety of them. I use humbucker and single coil guitars for different kinds of songs. For the more mellow songs, I use a single coil guitar while for the 'fiercer' kind of songs, I use humbuckers. I also have a wide range of guitar pedals.

Benjamin: When I started out, I did experiment with all these different digital software, but because our sound is very acoustic by nature, even translated on stage, so I just started out on my guitar. I swap out with a keyboard once in awhile. Now I’ve got an assortment of acoustic guitars for different songs. So if I want a bluesy tone with a richer body, I use an archtop guitar. And if I want a bright ringing tone for faster folkier songs, I use something more traditional like a dreadnought.

Jon: For programmes to record our music, we mainly use Logic and then for simple home recordings, we use Saffire Pro FocusRite. As for our EP, we went to a proper studio to record so they got a whole range of preamps and stuff. For that one, we recorded using Pro Tools. They’ve got a whole variety of Blue mics and Neumann mics which are like top-end stuff.

Benjamin: For most of our documentation, we’ve been rolling with a simple Nikon D90. It’s one of those all-purpose Nikon cameras, with a 50mm f1.8 prime lens attached. Recently we’ve gotten onboard a couple of friends to help us so we’ve introduced different kinds of shots by using dollies as well as a lot more Brightcast lights, and different techniques like lens whacking. We’re trying to mix it up.

Gadget obsession

Benjamin: I play a lot of guitar and some guitars don’t have a built-in tuner. So what I use is a digital clip-on tuner - a BOSS tuner - it’s incredibly accurate and the battery runs for forever. It’s a great accessory to have.

13-inch MacBook Pro

Jon: It would be my computer, a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I spend most of my time on my computer - doing my work, watching TV shows, watching YouTube videos which can be a bit difficult on my phone so yeah, definitely my computer.

Sandra: My iPhone 4S.

Narelle: I use my phone a lot too. I’m one of those people you go to dinner with and I’m always on my phone, I’m really annoying that way. I use an iPhone 5 that I evidently just can’t get enough of.

More after the break...

Favourite app of the moment

Jon: My favourite app is this app called the GBA4iOS. It's basically a GameBoy Advance emulator, so that I can play Pokemon Emerald on my phone. It is amazing, you can laugh at me now, but it’s amazing.

Sandra: I am like the app queen. I have so many apps until my phone has no more space. A lot of games, a lot of photo-editing apps. But the one thing I use the most, I actually use the Voice Memo a lot. You don’t have to download it, it’s already inside the iPhone itself. I use it to record ideas, hear myself sing, and correct myself. I mean, that's how you practise, right?

Narelle: I sometimes use Voice Memo to record myself calling for my little dog and place my phone on the other side of the room. Then I call her name while playing the recording back and she gets so confused. I’ve recently been very addicted to Instagram as well. While looking at all these attractive people may sometimes make you feel bad about yourself, it is also really quite addictive. I can’t explain it.

Benjamin: There’s this awesome app called 8tracks Radio. What it does is that it gives you a whole slew of genres that you can mix up. Say for example, I want folk then I want metal, or hip-hop, I click those two, and the app will come up with a bunch of playlists that contain those two genres. So if I hit the gym and want something fast-paced like dubstep and dance, or dubstep and pop, I’ve got that straightaway. It has something to suit any experience or situation that you might need music for. It’s a fantastic app.

[Image: YouTube]

Geek factor

Sandra: I love tower defence games and Team Fortress 2, so probably a 7.5 out of 10.

Jon: When it comes to guitars and guitar-related stuff, I would say that I’m a 10 out of 10. I know what kind of wood is used for which guitar, which model came out in what year, and also which year it was discontinued, so I would definitely say I’m a 10. And I’m proud of it.

Narelle: I don’t think I’m very geeky. So if I were to rate myself, I’d probably be a 6. The only thing that I really love is science fiction and fantasy, anything otherworldly like Harry Potter or Hunger Games. I love living out of reality.

Benjamin: I’m actually not geeky at all. Except for three things - Star Wars, Star Wars, and Star Wars. I also get really into anything that’s literature-based or has a creative element. In that regard, I would say I'm a 7.

What’s next?

Jon: As a band, we wrote a lot of new songs which we just debuted at our launch. We have a new music video online now called Glasshouse. The response was very good and we are really happy with that. We’re planning to go into a pre-production of the full album soon - start recording some songs soon, checking them and preparing for the album as a whole. That’s probably one of the most exciting things that’s coming up for us as a band. 

Stalk The Sam Willows

For more of the band, you can hit up their website, and follow them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. To listen to more of their music, head on over to Soundcloud or Youtube

Support local

You can buy their tunes off cdbaby or iTunes, and contribute to their fundraising project at indiegogo.

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