Benjamin Kheng gets by with a little help from his friends
As someone who started out his music career as a pop band member, Benjamin Kheng has always found joy in collaborating with other artists and immersing himself in the creative process. And it’s something that stayed with him even after going solo in 2019.
“I’m a solo artist, but I have a lot more fun collaborating. Because I came from a band, music to me is always way better with other people. From writing to performing, music is meant to be shared—it’s the language of music,” the Singaporean music artist told the Inquirer in a one-on-one interview arranged by Sony Music Philippines.
“When I’m alone, I feel lonely at times … I love to create with other people. It’s like, ‘Here’s our little creative baby,’ said Benjamin, who used to sing lead vocals for the band Sam Willows.
As part of the quartet, Benjamin performed in high-profile events like SXSW Music Festival in Texas and the MU:CON in Seoul. In 2020, he put out his debut EP, “A Sea That Never Stops.” This, along with other releases, helped him land a nomination for best Southeast Asia artist at this year’s MTV Europe Music Awards.
Outside music, Benjamin pursues acting and has starred in various films, television shows and musicals He’s also the brainchild of the Singaporean online comedy sketch series “The BenZi Project.”
Benjamin has since linked up with different musicians from Australia and Southeast Asia, including Filipino singer-songwriters James Reid and Bea Lorenzo.
His song with James, “Rock Bottom Blues,” is part of “Gloomy Boogie Vol. 1,” the first installment of his two-part debut album. His song with Bea, “Good for a Time” on the other hand, earned a nomination for best global collaboration recording at this year’s Awit Awards.
Now, Benjamin is gearing up for the release of “Gloomy Boogie Vol. 2,” which features the new song “Shared Trauma,” with Keenan Te. There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’ That’s because they bring in more ideas. It’s fun writing with friends,” he said.
The rest of our Q&A with Benjamin:
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for an Awit award here?
That was exciting. When they told me, I was like, “What? That’s so crazy!” But any reason to come back to the Philippines and see friends, eat good food and just have fun, I’m down!
I come here about every two years or so. I used to be a swimmer, so I used to come here to train and compete. So this is a familiar place for me.
You and James performed your new song together for the first time.
I had the chance to perform on the Wish Bus with James. We have a single out called “Rock Bottom Blues,” and we finally got to play it together. It wasn’t my first time on the Wish Bus, but it was my first time doing it with such a large crowd. It was nice to see people turn up and stop by and say hi … I enjoy hanging out with musician friends while doing some promo.
What was working with James like?
It was great. I got to hang out with him a lot this year because of the song. He’s a wonderful guy; really creative and hardworking. It’s nice to see that he’s pushing so hard and doing his best.
How did the collaboration come about?
I met James after I wrote the song. We hadn’t decided what we were going to do with the song. And someone suggested like, ‘Hey, maybe we can ask James, if you would be keen on having him.’
The sound isn’t something you would immediately associate with James—it was a little bit out there. But James is a very versatile singer and we were surprised that he was down. He sang on the second verse, which he wrote.
Aside from James, you have also worked with Bea Lorenzo (“Panandalian,” “Good for a Time”).
She’s so talented as a writer and has a crazy good, soulful voice. When we met, she was like, “Actually I met you a long time ago at a YouTube event.” Our collaboration was done mostly online because it happened during the pandemic and lockdowns. We did a lot of recordings and discussions on Zoom.
But last year, I finally got to promote the songs with her here. When we finally got to hang out, we really vibed … We even did some karaoke.
And now for your latest single, “Shared Trauma,” you collaborated with Keenan Te.
I met him online. He’s really big on TikTok (2.1 million followers). He does all these reels and writes great songs. We met up to do writing sessions, and we came up with this song. It was fun and easy writing with him. He was very chill, down to earth and talented. Because we wrote parts of the song, too, I felt that it wouldn’t be right if he wasn’t on the track. I didn’t want to just take the song and do it on my own. It felt like a Keenan song, too.
Tell us about “Shared Trauma.” Was it based on a specific experience?
It touches on how I used to be when I was younger, when you rush into a relationship even though you haven’t really healed as a person; when you’re in love with someone, but just end up talking about your past hurt. That’s not good because then you try to find the answers from the other person.
What’s the lesson here?
Work on yourself first. I’m saying this as a married man now. Make sure you’re OK on your own, that you know yourself before entering a relationship. If not, you will just end up projecting [your shortcomings]. When your relationship fails again, then you lose even more of your own identity.
At which point in your life were you able to say, “OK, I’m all good now”?
I don’t think I have reached that moment. You’re constantly working on yourself. I still get sad about things in the past, but you learn to grow around it, get more mature and control your thoughts. Now, I mostly just write songs. And I don’t do stupid things anymore! But yes, I think songwriting helps in that aspect.
Will the song set the tone of your upcoming EP “Gloomy Boogie Vol. 2”? The first one was kind of introspective.
Genre-wise, I think we jumped a little bit. There are a lot more upbeat songs. True to the title, “Gloomy Boogie,” it will have songs you can dance and cry to.
But what genres do you naturally gravitate toward?
My influences are all over the place. But I would say— since I grew up in musical theater—when left to my own devices, I often tend to be very dramatic! I have to remind myself I have to tone it down. But I had a hip-hop and nu metal phase, rap-rock. I was also into gospel music.
Some of your songs can be heavy and touch on serious themes. But outside music, you’re also really popular for your funny, silly videos on social media. Is that a different creative outlet?
That’s a really good point. I haven’t thought about that. Maybe I should! There’s part of me that’s like, you have to dig deep to be a singer-songwriter; that you have to come from a place of pain and sacrifice. But it’s not always true—you can have fun, too. But I have always wondered why I didn’t infuse that side of myself into my music.
On social media, you can flood it with ideas and energy. But when you write a song, less is more. Pulling back the layers and being more selective can be more profound, and you can get your message across easier. You’re not distracted by all the bells and whistles and the algorithm.
Some people who know you on TikTok may end up listening to your music and wonder, “Is this the same person?”
I see that. And it’s way less boring that way. People can have different emotions and feelings. Those are two sides of me. There’s a side that loves to goof around and be silly and another side that cries in the bathroom at a party. You celebrate those sides of being human.
Do you try to maximize your social media presence to push your music? A lot of musicians today get big breaks on TikTok and other platforms.
I see how important it is for people to go viral and get things going. That’s great. That’s how a lot of musicians get their first step. But I’m also trying to find a space where I’m not exhausted by that. Because it can be tiring.
You see so many artists today who blow up with one song on TikTok and just end up chasing the same dragon; trying to replicate the same song. Sometimes, it works. But sometimes you lose yourself. I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be that guy who still creates music from the heart; music that people love and creates fun environments. It’s not about chasing the next high, but about putting out something meaningful. INQ