“I forgot the name of my album”, local singer Benjamin Kheng said sheepishly as he fumbled while recording the introduction of his interview with us.
Brief as it was, the moment of vulnerability revealed a different side to the singer, who always looks so put together and perfect on his social media.
That duality would continue into the interview as he tackled our questions with a more chill and laid-back vibe, as opposed to the loud and energetic personality one might associate with him.
When we pointed out that people who didn’t know him well might perceive him as such, he quipped, “I’m very practiced.”
He chuckled, then continued, “No lah. I would say there’s a duality to everybody, I suppose. Right? And I think most of my friends who are extreme extroverts hit a wall, and then okay, they’re done for the day.”
Kheng, 33, conceded that he is more of an extrovert - based off internet quizzes which he joked about taking seriously - and it was something he used to be ashamed of admitting.
“Everyone that’s cool, to me, is an introvert,” he said.
But now, he’s owning up to loving the “right” social energy and connecting with the right people.
Although, if you ever run into him on the streets, perhaps keep the small talk to a minimum - just a tip.
Kheng confessed, “I think as you get older, you struggle with small talk a bit - and I felt that. Not that I can't talk about the weather. I love talking about weather.”
Taking a (bathroom) break from the party
This was also the inspiration for his single Break From The Party from his album Gloomy Boogie Vol. 1, which was released in August.
The song was written in the bathroom stall of a social event Kheng was in when he “couldn’t human anymore”.
“I love a good bathroom break at a social event,” he shared.
“No shade to any of the events I've gone to. I think it's just like a social energy quota situation and I was just burned out. Nothing against the people there. I just needed some alone time.”
As he sat on the toilet, he thought this would be “a nice idea for a song” and “sang it into my phone as a voice note”.
He added, “Sometimes songs take freaking months to write, some songs take 10 minutes. And that was one of the 10 minute songs. I mean, I did a bit more work after that. But like, this is one of the songs that just came out.”
That’s not the only song from the album to come from a personal space. His other single, Rock Bottom Blues, explores the depths of emotions experienced during difficult times and toxic relationships.
Kheng explained, “I think the idea of hurt people hurting people is very real. Like, if you go into a relationship where you're not addressing elements of yourself, and then you bring that into the context of relationship, you know, you guys end up both drowning, as opposed to if you're both healed, you're in a position to heal each other and other people.
“I definitely was there. I mean, when I was younger, not anytime recently, but I was in relationships where I hadn't settled so much of what was inside, that inevitably, I caused the holes in the ship without knowing.
“So yeah, the song wasn't necessarily a reflection of a toxic relationship, but sometimes putting a mirror up to yourself and going, it's me, I'm the problem.”
Being more honest with his work and navigating mental health
Kheng, who arguably pierced mainstream consciousness with his duet of The Caifan Song with comedian Annette Lee, has been crooning in the local music space for more than 10 years.
Yet, it’s with his latest album, Gloomy Boogie Vol. 2, that he feels more honest with the work that he’s done.
He felt that he was always “serving a narrative because it was the job” or he was just making pop music (“easy stuff”) with the band Sam Willows - prior to embarking on his solo career.
“I think I always shied away from being brutally honest in the work because I think there was always a fear that when you articulate it, you actualise it. You almost birth it into the universe,” said Kheng.
“That's why a lot of men suppress their emotions, right? And don't talk about it, or they just think it will go away. Yeah, so, I think it was that but then I felt like I am 30 plus, it's time to be real lah, I guess. And I feel like it worked out. I felt really good about it.”
Though his two-part album digs deeper into his mental and emotional state, Kheng clarified that he is doing all right and he’s just been made more aware of mental wellness through conversations.
He said, “[My mental health] wasn't better or worse because of the album. I think it’s because I was in a state where I thought of it more and I was going to therapy. Therefore, I felt like I wanted to be more honest with the work I was doing.
“I think the work I was creating until that point wasn't a very accurate reflection of where I was in my life… But overall, these days, it's more stable, I'd say.”
Kheng also shared that the album was “a product of me healing”, and is wary of using his music as a cathartic medium after being told by a theatre director that “it's dangerous sometimes to treat your craft as therapy because you don't always have a good handle on it”.
He was told that, especially in a discipline like theatre where it’s “very collaborative” and “very giving”, it can be dangerous for yourself and others who listen to it if “you don’t keep yourself checked”.
“You can get sucked into it, it becomes its own thing, and then you lose yourself in the process,” he added.
Therapy helping his mental health
The thing that truly helped his mental health was therapy, as opposed to distracting himself with writing and music.
He explained that in therapy, he was equipped with “actual practical tools to help me get out of issues, whether it was personal relationship stuff, mental or spiritual”.
When asked what made him decide to go for therapy, he deadpanned, “A lot of my friends were doing it. Hey, good peer pressure. It's the ‘in’ thing now. Haven't you heard? Therapy? It's like spin. Therapy is the new spin.”
He let out a hearty laugh at his own joke, then said, “It became normalised, almost, you know, to go for it. I was watching the [David] Beckham documentary. And what Beckham went through in the 90s, like, there was no discussion on mental health. He wished he went to see a therapist back then.
“And I agree. I mean, like, I wish I started therapy way earlier - could have saved so much trouble. You don't need to go through a rock bottom situation to go to therapy.”
Now that he’s on his own mental wellness journey, and exploring a space that wasn’t normalised before, what kind of advice does he have for people who have similar struggles?
Kheng, an “emotional guy by nature”, shared, “It's really okay to feel. I think we're always taught the contrary to that, in this region, you know, especially the boys. I think it's very okay to feel everything you need to feel. But to not feel it alone, and to feel it with people you trust.
“I think that's the difference. And it's as simple as that. To learn not to suppress, but to let it out in a safe space.”
Gloomy Boogie Vol. 2 is available on Spotify and Apple Music from 1 Dec
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