Breaking Ground

Interview by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of Shawna Chia & Laneway Festival Singapore

As we speak, Sam is on the move. She’s just had ice cream with her friends, she says, and is on her way to her next appointment. It’s a busy time for Sam: in a few weeks, she will perform at The Meadow at Gardens by the Bay as part of the lineup for Laneway Singapore, and there is a candid moment (of many) where she reveals just how nervous she is about it. Later on in the year, she will also release her debut EP, a project that’s been a year in the making.

Throughout our conversation, Sam refers occasionally to what she does as this “music thing”. On paper, this might come across as dismissive, but her tone says otherwise—her excitement is quite palpable over the line. Still, one gets the sense that she is someone who understands the ephemerality of a career in the music industry, and is more than ready to accept it. As Sam gears up for a possibly transformative year ahead, she takes some time to tell us about her music and the soft spot she has for the recording studio.

Hi Sam, can you tell us how you got into singing and songwriting?

Music was always a big part of my life. My first big break was at church choir when I was three years old (laughs). For as long as I remember, music has always been there. I had piano lessons when I was in primary school, and then I picked up the guitar on my own.

Songwriting only started much later down the road. I was sixteen and had just gone through a breakup. It became difficult to deal with my emotions through just listening to music—it didn’t do as much for me as it used to, and I thought, I have to write my own thing. So the day after the breakup, I sat down and wrote my first ever song on SoundCloud. I just dropped it there and that was how the whole thing started. My friends always joke that I’m capitalising on the heartbreak industry (laughs).

Do you think songwriting changes your perception of an experience, or the way you relate to it?

To me, songwriting condenses a very significant event and translates events that are really overwhelming and quite abstract into a concise, 3-minute song with very specific words that helps you process that event. It envelopes this very overwhelming thing into a package that allows me to deal with it in a very casual way.

Your earlier music was actually centred around folk, but now it’s very much R&B. What triggered that change?

I’d wanted to do an EP since my first song, so it’s been four years now. When I finally got down to it and was looking for a producer, I found Fauxe, who produces for me under the name Grosse. He does his own music too, which I’ve been a fan of for ages, but I didn’t know he produced. When I went to his studio, he said, “I know what kind of music you do, so you’re working with me now, and you can give me the stuff that you’ve already written, and we can rework it, I can fuse it for you. Or you can try something entirely new, and co-write with me.”

I thought it would be really stupid not to take advantage of the fact that he’s also an artist, and not just a sound engineer or a producer. So we started writing a whole new body of material, and we didn’t really have any idea of what we wanted it to sound like, but that’s how it ended up sounding very R&B, and that’s how the sound was born.

When I do live sessions, I take it back to those roots once in a while, because I can’t really play jazz guitar. I still listen to a lot of Bon Iver and Daughter, that kind of thing, and when the situation calls for it and there’s a chance to do a cover live, I will do so, but I don’t write like that anymore.

Read more in The U Press N˚14 (Singapore edition).