Topping Spotify Singapore’s Viral 50 chart, scoring huge gigs at the likes of Laneway Festival, Ultra Music Festival and more, psychology student-turned-R&B chanteuse Sam Rui has accomplished in her relatively new career what many established local acts have yet to.
Admittedly, our introduction to Sam’s music only came after her debut single, ‘Better’ shot straight to #1 on Spotify. But it didn’t take long for us to fall for her brand of slow burning alternative R&B, with heartfelt tunes like ‘Never Be (Let It Go)’ and ‘Boys’ reminding us of every heartbreak we’ve ever known. Ahead, we speak with the 21-year-old musical trailblazer, where she dished on her burgeoning career, moving past comfort zones, and writing about her exes (giving us pretty good relationship advice while at it).
How was it like prepping for your album release?
When I started recording, it was just something I was doing for fun. Then as things started blowing up, I felt like if this opportunity fell into my lap I’d be really stupid not to capitalise on it. At every step of the way, I would look back on my progress and note that I would have to up the stakes – work harder and add several factors that I wouldn’t have added if I had released it six months earlier. It was really free and easy up until the start of this year when I realised what it was turning into and what I wanted it to be. This was when I started investing in more money, effort and time, and when it started to get stressful.
For the most part, I’ve been quite lucky with my music. I haven’t had to do much to really push it, and not to be haolian, but good music speaks for itself. To do the smart thing and run a press release works (and is quite necessary to do), but you can’t do that and not have anything backing it up. I felt that people who found my music without me pushing it down their throats would really appreciate – and would be the audience that I wanted – so that’s why I just let it do its own thing.
Comparing yourself now and six months before, has anything changed for you as an artiste, strategy-wise?
If the product is good and authentic then there won’t be much of an issue. Listeners know what they’re listening to and they are equally picky. From the start, people have commented on how I should perhaps start singing more Chinese songs because the market is bigger, or make more pop and R&B songs. I could have taken that advice and maybe things would have picked up more, but I would have felt it was forced. It has worked for me right up till this point and it would be stupid for me to switch things up because this is a formula that’s already working for me. I’m still the same person, my approach and the way I sell music is still the same. I’ll let you decide for yourself if you like it – I’m not going to blast it everywhere and make you ‘swallow’ it, you know what I mean?
Having performed at Laneway, Ultra and this year’s SHINE fest, do you have any pre-show routines?
Pi Pa Gao! (Laughs) I chug this like mad. I used to drink from the bottle but now it comes in little sachets. So before shows when other people usually [do] something to calm their nerves, instead I drink Pi Pa Gao. That’s my only pre-show ritual.
Did you have any doubts going into music?
For sure. I need to have a safety net of sorts – I still have a very traditional mindset and my family is quite a typically traditional one. Every once in a while, I tend to [think that] this is not the best thing to do. But then I think of how I’m still young and how dumb I would be not to invest my all in it seeing as how it fell into my lap. It’s better now than in my late twenties when I have a family to support or to buy my own house. I can still afford to be a little more self-indulgent. But I’m still very cautious. I didn’t drop out of school and I’m currently only on my gap year. I plan to eventually go back and finish my degree and explore other career paths that I’ve kept open, but [music] is my priority [right now]. Hopefully it becomes sustainable, but if it doesn’t then at least I’d have tried and I didn’t let what society expects of me [deter me] right away.
What does your family think of your music career?
My family is not extremely against it, but they’re always very cautious. They see me as like a rabak person who just wants to do music, and I think they still think that a lot of the decisions I make regarding what I do are emotional. And they’re still stressed about this even though they should know that I know better. But I can understand where they’re coming from. They’re always like, “Are you sure you don’t want to continue with school and do both at the same time?”
I always stand my ground because being an artiste means there are things you need to cut out if you want it to work. I appreciate that they don’t shut me down and stop me from doing what I really want to do. I think some parents would have stopped their kid from doing music – but my parents are also not super ‘all in’, which I appreciate as it keeps me in check. My brother digs it, he gets to come to shows like Ultra for free, and he has a lot of street cred amongst his friends. He’s pretty supportive. But yeah, my family are supportive, they come for my shows once in a while and I really appreciate that.
As a young solo female artiste, has pushing yourself out of the comfort zone always been something you’re comfortable doing?
I’m a very self-conscious person, I don’t have the highest of self-esteem. When I release a song or perform, I don’t have that kind of mindset like “Yeah, I’m doing what I’m doing. If you like it, good, if you don’t f*ck you”. I don’t have that kind of mentality. Growing up, I’ve always been the sort of person who needed approval and affirmation that what I’m doing is right. I think because the trajectory for me doing music was so steady, I wasn’t pushed out of my comfort zone so suddenly that I didn’t have time to prepare for it.
For example, I started writing and my first song on Soundcloud was just an audio file of my voice; my face was not even there and I felt comfortable enough doing that. It slowly pushed into performances where I’d hide behind the guitar, and it’s escalated to the point where I have to front a whole band. It’s been a very steady thing and along the way I have people close to me who support me in what I do. My band is very supportive and they give me feedback and criticism, but I know it comes from a good place. So I always know what I have to work on and they’re the people I want to please when I’m doing this, and the people who’ve had my back since the beginning. I’m not trying to please everyone, just the people who matter to me.
Making a leap from Youtube covers to creating your own music and writing your own lyrics, was there anything interesting you learned along the way?
In terms of performing, I’m always open to feedback but in terms of my writing, it’s still a personal thing to me. I don’t let anyone dictate that process. Some people think like, going from covering songs to writing your own lyrics is a very big step and that you need to learn how to do it. But my favourite subject in school was Literature so I’ve always had this in me – I love the language and the way you can phrase words together to make something entirely your own. I didn’t have to force myself to learn how to write. It came very naturally, and I take a lot of pride in what I’m doing. It gives me a lot more fulfilment than covering other people’s songs.
Your lyrics draw inspiration from your personal experiences, as well as past relationships. So have any of your exes contacted you?
Well, I think my ex hates me cos I basically slammed him in a song and made a ton of royalties out of it. We’re probably never gonna be friends again (laughs). Funny story, ‘Solid Gold’ is about the first stranger I kissed. We went out on like two dates after that and realised we weren’t going to get along but we’re still kinda mates. We’re not like super close friends, but we see each other around. When we were dating, he sent me this WhatsApp voice note, which I sampled and put it at the end of the song. It had been like three months since we spoke and I hit him up out of nowhere like “Yo, can I use your voice note in a song just for fun?”. And he was like “LOL, yeah sure”. That’s pretty much the only contact I’ve had [with an ex]. Everyone else wouldn’t want anything to do with me after what I’ve done, so yeah.
You’ve mentioned that being empowered is relying on your own capabilities and your belief in how far it can take you. Was this self-aware mentality something you’ve always known?
Growing up, I always needed validation from outside sources to feel okay about what I’m doing. After some time, it just gets exhausting trying to please everybody. But in-between the pockets of what I’d be doing to please somebody else, I would do something for myself occasionally and be like “this is the best I’ve ever felt”. It felt satisfying to me and I was answering to myself.
But if you take that route too far, you can become a narcissist. That’s why self-awareness [is important]. On one hand you know what you’re doing is for the right intentions – this is your art, you take control of it entirely. But then, you also still have a certain sense of humility, by learning from people who have a better sense of themselves than you do. [In contrast], being self-conscious is not a good place to be because you’ll put yourself down all the time. But when you’re self-aware, it’s a good balance between being confident and being willing to learn and be put in place by somebody else who knows their stuff.
Dealing with heartbreak at a young age is always tough…
My luck is just damn suey. (Laughs) Everybody I’ve dated in the last year and a half that I’ve been single have always “not been sure about where they stand with me” and I would always take that personally. Like what about me isn’t good enough for you to commit? That’s why I wrote all those songs. There’s a line in ‘20,000’ that says: “It’s been a long time coming, even you can tell that I’m fully grown.” It’s a reminder to myself that if somebody is unsure about a relationship with you, don’t take it personally. If you’re not enough for them, it’s not up to you to try to change it. They should accept you for who you are, or not at all. It might have nothing to do with you even, it just might not be the right time, or they don’t want something serious at that point of time. You shouldn’t keep trying to shape yourself differently to fit the next person better. You should just stay firm in who you are.
Well, you seem very grounded now!
It took a really long time though! That’s why I have so many songs on this album. By the time I wrote that last song, I was so exhausted – of feeling like I wasn’t enough for anyone, be it friendships or relationships. This is me and I have stuff to work on, but I also have a lot of things going for me and if you can’t appreciate it, it’s your loss.
Do fans ever approach you?
Oh yeah, I’m quite surprised. Every once in a while somebody will send me a DM on Instagram or come up to me in person and tell me why they liked one of my songs or stories – I can’t explain to you how surreal it feels. These were songs I wrote for myself and the fact that it reached them and they related to it on such a personal level, it’s crazy. That’s the power of music and the Internet.
One time at Laneway Festival, this girl came up to me, shaking. She asked for a hug and then she started crying. I didn’t know what to do so I just talked to her. She told me she had been following me on Tumblr since five years ago, when my depression was at its worst. During that time she was [depressed] also, and she would message me anonymously and we would have conversations but I didn’t know it was her. She felt like she had nobody to talk to then, and to have someone ‘faceless’ who knew her situation really helped her through it. And she said seeing me go from that period to playing at Laneway, it made her feel like she wouldn’t be stuck there forever too. That was so crazy, I was shaking too.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Hopefully playing shows on the regular abroad, being able to support myself entirely and collaborating with artistes outside the region. I want to put Singapore on the map. Asian R&B still doesn’t have a distinct sound, so I want to create like a Singaporean-Chinese influenced R&B sound and I want to be a part of bringing Asian R&B to the world. We’ll see how it plays out.
Listen to Sam’s debut album, Season 2.0 out on Spotify and iTunes now!
Check out our Fashion and Beauty spread with Sam Rui, Trishna Goklani and Munah Bagharib in our August 2017 issue, out on newsstands now!
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