There’s a lot of room in pop for the Big Questions. On both its latest transmissions, much-beloved pop powerhouse The Sam Willows has honed in on the sweet spot between high-impact emotional balladry and philosophical abstraction.“Robot” is a moody, shrouded ditty that fuses literality and metaphor to a breaking point that is impossible to be unfazed by, while “Papa Money” is a funked-out, future bass-buoyed convergence of worlds that is absolutely triumphant. Wokeness is all the rage in popular culture but Singapore’s most successful force in the mainstream arena has fleshed out a deeper, more resonant and, ultimately, better, version of itself in the light of self-awareness. We chat with Ben, Sandra, Narelle and Jon about it all below.
What’s the story behind “Robot?
Narelle: Basically, we were in a room that day and the energy was a bit low and one of the other writers brought this idea of robots with a visual concept in mind. To me, it was a robot and human on a cliff in a Wall-E kind of situation, where there’s just two of them. We have this image of a robot with a human getting older and eventually dying at the end, leaving the robot all alone.
On a more emotional level, the song deals with people around who are dealing with some form depression, whether within themselves or from other people. Very often, the stories of friends and caregivers aren’t shared.
Sandra: This song is about how you spend time with a person who’s going through something heavy. Sometimes, you feel lost and you don’t know what to do and you just have to sit there and be with the person until they gets slightly better.
Jon: The song is also a message to myself to be able to take advice and ask for help. “Robot” is basically someone who’s coming to you and asking for help. You may not have to say anything – just listen.
“It’s about learning how to fall in love with what you’re doing. Do the hard work but love the hard work as well.”
“Robot” is also the most intricate of your arrangements. Your voices are woven together beautifully.
Ben: Thank you. We’ve been increasingly “woke” about our music. We realised we always have to have a synergy within the group. For the first time, in “Robot”, I feel like there was more time to breathe so the story comes together with the way it’s layered. We reinforce the melodies, firmed up the octaves and harmonies and let each voice to be heard clearer.
S: It’s very organic. Each sound has a part to play in telling the story. If we switched the voices around, it would’ve been totally different. Each voice brings a different kind of weight.
N: Building on that, it was more of character singing and I think it only happened this point because we decided to lock in our own personalities and we’ve become very familiar with each other. We know what each of us has to offer and we focused on being raw and honest with the idea.
The song deals with humanity’s quest for perfection. How do you negotiate the dilemma between what you view is better and where you are at?
J: I think, it comes down to your vision for your life. The vision is to be happy. In the past, I made a decision to be happy. Moving forward to this point in my life, I’m translating my actions into that aim.
N: We are our decisions. We talk about choices and how the spiral of choices leads to anxiety and to quote Troye Sivan, “Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself”, so finding the balance of happiness is to fall into our own skin because that’s all we have.
S: There are so many ways to look at it. There’s huge a difference between complacency and contentment. Complacency is being happy at where I am even if I have my own faults that I don’t want to do anything about. That’s not good. Being content is to be happy with yourself and want to be the best version of yourself by working towards it.
B: My favourite athlete NBA player Joel Embiid likes to use this phrase, “Trust the process”. It’s about learning how to fall in love with what you’re doing. Do the hard work but love the hard work as well. I think we’re at the point where we enjoy what we’re doing.
Let’s talk about “Papa Money”, which has a totally different emotional standpoint from “Robot”.
B: “Papa Money” is our story of how we grew up. Although, we can’t say that we’ve never benefitted from our parents, we did make it a point to earn our own keep. We never really used any of our parents’ money to fund anything for the band.
N: It’s also the idea of how we felt like this little baby carving a path in the industry and ‘papa’ didn’t exist. So, “Papa Money” is kind of a celebration of our work.
So it’s like a Sam Willows manifesto, then.
B: Well, yes. Sort of. Laughs. I literally had to text my dad and be like, “Dad, this song is not about you.”
At this point of the band’s existence, what does it mean to chart your own path?
J: For me, it’s about taking this as far as possible. We, as a band, want to take the music offshore from Singapore to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan. I feel like the message in our songs has a certain meaning that could connect with people elsewhere. I want the music to reach these people but in order to do that, we need to be on mainstream radios in these countries. That’s the goal.
N: Honestly, I’m trying to figure out life and who I am and be contented with all the things that we have done. I’ve done way more than I ever thought I would do in life and impacted a lot of people I never thought I could. I just want us to be blessing to the people who love us.
S: I don’t think I’m chasing a dream because it already feels like I’m living a dream. It’s such a powerful thing to be able to influence others and there’s a responsibility to that. I’m very happy with what I’ve achieved and I’m excited for what is to come.
B: For the first time in a long time, I feel really grateful for everything that has happened. “Papa Money” really reflects the fact that it’s a celebration and I’m glad that we actually ventured out of comfort zones for the song. Anything that comes out of it is a bonus.