Jacquard wool sweater, cotton cargo trousers and calf leather sneakers, Louis Vuitton. B01 Labyrinth ring (worn as pendant), Serpenti Viper white and pink gold earrings, and B.zero1 yellow gold bracelet, Bvlgari.
Wool knit dress, Louis Vuitton. Velvet sandals, Hermes. Serpenti white gold earrings and ring, Serpenti Viper white gold ring, and white gold with motherof-pearl rings, Bvlgari.
Poplin shirt, wool and silk tie, gaberdine trousers, and twill jacket, Celine. Serpenti Viper white and pink gold earrings, Bvlgari.
Wool pleated dress, and Chaine Triomphe calfskin belt, Celine. Serpenti Tubogas pink gold earrings, Serpenti white gold ring and B01 Design Legend pink and white gold rings, Bvlgari.
They are Singapore’s most popular sibling musicians.
Their names pop up immediately at the mention of indie-pop quartet The Sam Willows, which Narelle Kheng and Benjamin Kheng started in 2012 with friends Sandra Riley Tang and Jonathan Chua.
This year, siblings Narelle and Benjamin are in the news again, making it to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list. While The Sam Willows has gone on hiatus in May, the duo have been keeping busy with their solo projects.
Narelle, the band’s bass guitarist and vocalist, released her first single Some They Lie in 2016, which marked the beginning of her solo music career. (The track has since amassed over 800,000 streams on Spotify.) Now, she’s just put out her highly anticipated EP Part 2 in October.
On her music, Narelle, 25, tells Her World: “I was struggling with anxiety and stress. All the industry expectations and rules I had to follow suffocated me. Then, I found out that I was able to articulate my feelings through my songs. It helped me cope with my emotions.”
The younger of the siblings explains that her latest music project depicts her self-discovery journey, allowing her to express her anger, sadness, and catharsis upon getting back up on her feet.
Guitarist-vocalist Benjamin, who’s also working on new music, is dedicating much of his time to his latest endeavour The Benzi Project – a web series of parodies filled with sardonic yet introspective views on middle-class privilege and racial stereotypes.
Here, the 29-year-old wears multiple hats: He directs, scripts and performs the show with his good friend, social media influencer Hirzi Zulkiflie, who’s a familiar face on local Youtube shows.
Benjamin says: “I’ve always wanted to talk about social issues, but I wanted to do something light-hearted yet educational. The comedic element makes it easier for the audience to enjoy our content.”
The musician-actor, who snagged the lead role in Dick Lee’s 2017 coming-of-age musical film, Wonder Boy, adds: “Many of us (the current younger generation) don’t care about societal problems that don’t directly affect us. But that’s just ignorant, and it narrows our view of the world.”
HAVING EACH OTHER’S BACKS
Equally talented, the siblings have each starred in several film, TV and theatre productions. Don’t expect any sibling rivalry though.
The Khengs still live in the same house (with their father), and share an endearing bond – one that is cemented by their love, admiration and memories of their late mother.
Benjamin reveals: “We lost our mum at a young age. And she brought us up with a lot of love. We’ll always support one another.”
The siblings lost their mother to Stage 2 breast cancer in 2002, when Benjamin and Narelle were 12 and eight years old respectively.
The touching 2015 music video for The Sam Willows’ second single For Love (from their debut album Take Heart) depicts a doting cancer-stricken mother who fights to live for the sake of her young daughter. It was inspired by their mother’s four-year battle with the illness.
Narelle, who majored in communication studies at Nanyang Technological University, reveals: “I don’t know what I’d do without my brother. He just gets me. There are times when I feel that nobody understands me, and I’ll turn to my brother for help. It’s kinda weird because we’re so different, but at the same time, we totally get each other.”
Benjamin muses: “Yeah, she’ll just give me this look of hers when we’re in a crowded room, and I’ll immediately know what to do. Also, this may sound weird, but I live vicariously through Narelle. I always feel this crazy happiness when she achieves something that I didn’t manage to.”
At the studio set, they offer insight into their personalities – and a glimpse at their deep relationship.
Socially observant and introverted, Narelle settles comfortably into a couch after greeting the crew, looking up from her phone occasionally to scan the room, while her brother chats animatedly with the stylists and photographer.
His sister is never far from his mind – or sight. In between conversations, he strolls up to her to ask if she’s okay.
While she speaks with much thoughtfulness, at times, restraint, Benjamin is the life of the party – the sort who would put anyone at ease upon first meeting.
He says: “Being in the industry together has helped (us). We’ve had many people come up to us with misconceptions of what we’re doing with our careers. We can never really expect them to understand our struggles. But because we (Narelle and I) have each other’s backs, it becomes much easier to see past the judgment.”
He turns to his sister, and just like two school kids, he teases her by flicking his fingers on her forehead, to break the moment of seriousness.
Outside work, the two enjoy the company of mutual friends and attend many parties together. But when they’re off spending free time alone, the two have very different interests.
“I love watching films, reading and going through art works when I have pockets of free time. I find myself gravitating towards creative things.
“Working on these things are how I spend my free time, and that keeps my mind stimulated,” Benjamin enthuses.
On the other hand, Narelle finds that having fun is her utmost priority.
“I’m someone who loves to play. Having fun, letting loose and going to parties with my girlfriends are just a few ways I spend my free time. I enjoy the company of trusted friends very much,” she says.
For better or for worse, Narelle says that her brother has always been a pillar of support – even though she found herself becoming hostile to people around her at one point.
“I was turning into someone I didn’t like, but I didn’t know how to stop,” she recalls. “Yet Benjamin was very patient with me, and supported me without intruding into my personal space.”
That inspired Narelle to start the #YouAreEnough social media movement this year in August, to support women who are victims of domestic abuse. A pop-up thrift concept store, where shoppers could purchase stylish second-hand clothes with the tag “You Are Enough” sewn on them, was part of it. All proceeds went to the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations to help less fortunate women.
Narelle says: “Benjamin’s care for me inspired me to kick-start this. I realised that I could help others too, like he did for me.”
On Benjamin: Cotton embroidered T-shirt, and wool twill trousers, Dior Men. B01 Labyrinth ring (worn as pendant), Serpenti Viper white and pink gold earrings, Bvlgari.
On narelle: Cotton blouse, Dior. Serpenti white gold earrings and ring, Serpenti gold watch, Serpenti Viper white gold ring and bracelet, and white gold with motherof-pearl rings, Bvlgari.
I live vicariously through my sister. I always feel this crazy happiness when she achieves something that I didn’t manage to.
I don’t know what I’d do without my brother. He just gets me. There are times when I feel that nobody understands me, and I’ll turn to my brother for help.
Cupro blouse and corduroy pants, Coach. Serpenti white gold earrings, Bvlgari.
Leather jackets, Coach. Serpenti Viper white and pink gold earrings, and B01 Labyrinth ring (worn as pendant), Bvlgari.
Jacquard wool sweater, Louis Vuitton. B01 Labyrinth ring (worn as pendant), and Serpenti Viper white and pink gold earrings, Bvlgari.
Wool knit dress, Louis Vuitton. Serpenti white gold earrings, Bvlgari.
TEXT HAYLEY TAI PHOTOGRAPHY SHAWN PAUL TAN, ASSISTED BY MELVIN LEONG & KAT MIDORI STYLING WINDY AULIA, ASSISTED BY SEAN THAM HAIR & MAKEUP SHA SHAMSI, ASSISTED BY LAEA HIDAYAH USING IGK/SEPHORA & CHANEL BEAUTY NAILS JOYCE CHANG