'It' boy Benjamin Kheng on a roll in music and on stage

The guitarist, vocalist and songwriter has his feet planted firmly in both the theatre and music industries, but he seems almost surprised at his own success, armed with a firm grip on reality and a healthy dose of self-awareness.

On how his band, The Sam Willows (Kheng, from left, with, sister Narelle and friends Sandra Tang and Jonathan Chua), are perceived. -- PHOTO: THE SAM WILLOWS
On how his band, The Sam Willows (Kheng, from left, with, sister Narelle and friends Sandra Tang and Jonathan Chua), are perceived. -- PHOTO: THE SAM WILLOWS
Benjamin Kheng when he was four years old and when he was six with his parents and sister Narelle (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN KHENG
Benjamin Kheng when he was four years old and when he was six with his parents and sister Narelle (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN KHENG
Benjamin Kheng when he was four years old (above) and when he was six with his parents and sister Narelle. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN KHENG
Benjamin Kheng when he was four years old (above) and when he was six with his parents and sister Narelle. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN KHENG
Benjamin Kheng grew up enjoying jam sessions with his family and being active in sports. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Benjamin Kheng grew up enjoying jam sessions with his family and being active in sports. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

There is just something about singer-actor Benjamin Kheng that exudes effortless hipster chic.

The 23-year-old sweeps into Costa Coffee at VivoCity with some sort of cardigan-scarf hybrid around his neck. His hair, buzzed at the sides but long and slicked back down the middle, is the sort of with-it hairstyle that would launch a thousand eager copycats. Wooden bracelets clack around his wrist.

One gets the sense that he can't help it. He's just... cool.

"It's time to get rid of this creature," he declares as he runs his fingers through his mop of hair which, by the time you read this, would have been shorn off for his lead role in the army musical Ah Boys To Men.

He will be stepping into the shoes of Ken Chow, the spoilt and naive army recruit whose story propelled the Jack Neo movies of the same name to record-breaking box-office success. The musical runs till May 4 at the Resorts World Theatre.

This moment, it seems, is Kheng's time in the sun.

The guitarist, vocalist and songwriter is a quarter of the fresh-faced indie-folk band The Sam Willows, whose delicate, layered harmonies have travelled from the United States to South Korea, and who have gained a strong following here.

He has also been picking up meaty roles from established theatre companies, including a star turn as Dick Lee in the Esplanade's National Broadway Company in 2012 and as the deeply romantic Romeo in Toy Factory Productions' musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet in February this year.

With his feet planted in both the theatre and music industries, Kheng is the current "it" boy of both - but the affable man seems almost surprised at his own success, armed with a firm grip on reality and a healthy dose of self-awareness.

While he did not start out eyeing a career in the arts, he grew up immersed in it. He says: "My parents were the kind of people who put us in everything to give us a buffet of choices for what we wanted to do in life later on, so I was always one of those kids who had to do everything."

Kheng has warm memories of the jam sessions the close-knit family would have every Sunday while he was growing up. His father would grab a guitar and his mother, younger sister Narelle and him would sing along.

His housewife mother, in particular, had a flair for the arts. She loved drawing and painting, and introduced him to classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Bach. Kheng played the piano and violin, took speech and drama classes, and also tackled tennis, gymnastics and swimming.

From the age of six, he started training twice a day as part of the selective Swimfast Aquatic Club, run by former national swimmer David Lim. He also travelled to regional competitions while at Anglo- Chinese School (Primary) and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).

Then, tragedy struck. His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was eight and died after a four-year struggle with the illness at the age of 44.

Measuring his words, he says: "You learn to cope with grief... I do remember her fondly. I was close to her. I would stay up till 3am talking to her about serious stuff, about life.

"It was hard. It was really hard."

He collects his thoughts: "And I - I did lose a big part of me. And I don't let go easily. But it does - it has helped me to take a step back when life gets ahead of me, to appreciate things."

Kheng soldiered on. And when the Singapore Sports School opened its doors in 2004, he was part of its pioneer batch of students. His focus on swimming took a more professional turn and he travelled to competitions from Britain to Australia.

He laughs: "I'm not the tallest guy and in swimming, when you go overseas, the guys you race against are, like, 15, and 1.9m tall and with full beards, and I'm like, dude, how did you get that big?"

Slipping into a pitch-perfect Australian accent, he responds: "I don't know, mate. Just growin'." But "Asians win with technique", he reminds me. "We're quite small, but always fast."

His specialities were long-distance events and the individual medley, where swimmers do different strokes in one race. The more "painful" events, he jokes.

He mulls over this: "I think that sort of was a reflection of myself in later life, because I realised I can't really beat people at some things and it's hard to stand out in some things. So you find the road less travelled and just run that race."

He did stand out at the sports school, however, re-writing records for his age group and earning medals at international youth meets, such as the Queensland State Championships in Brisbane.

Despite a hectic schedule, his interest in the arts continued to percolate. He eked out time on his days off to catch plays and music gigs while at meets abroad. His English teacher also took him and his classmates to watch local productions, such as shows by Wild Rice.

Kheng found himself drawn to the performing arts. He says: "I was still semi- serious about swimming at that point, but I thought I need to do something arts-related, if not, I'm going to implode."

So he enrolled at Republic Polytechnic as part of a through-train programme the sports school had in place, choosing arts management and technology as his course of study. There, he learnt everything from facilities management to costume design.

He also landed a radio presenting gig with Lush 99.5, where he got to interview his local idols, including directors Tracie Pang and Beatrice Chia, whose plays he was a fan of. He took his first steps in professional performance, taking part in the 2009 Shanghai International Children's Theatre Festival and the short play festival Short+Sweet.

After graduating in 2010, he decided that he needed a career change. "It was always impending. I was going to hit this wall. The sporting lifespan is really short - for swimming, you're best from 26 to 30 and then after, that your options are limited if you don't have another skillset.

"If you love it, that's fine. And I liked it. I didn't love it. That's the simple answer. I had no experience in it, but I loved the arts, and that was a strong enough impetus to jump ship."

His father, Kheng Meng Siong, 55, was deeply supportive of the switch. The elder Kheng, a manager in a petrochemical firm, says: "He told me he wanted to quit swimming and I think he was surprised by my answer. I said, it's your life, and whatever you want to do, you just need to do it well and with passion."

The proud father, who tries to attend as many of his son's performances as he can, adds: "He's very hardworking and disciplined... He has many options and it's still fairly early in his career, so I hope he just enjoys doing what he's doing and see where that takes him."

So Kheng took the plunge.

Through a friend, he landed an audition for the 2011 revival of Boom, a play about Singapore's physical heritage framed by a moving family drama by local playwright Jean Tay. He played multiple characters, including an abusive father, but was not pleased with the result.

"It was something I felt was beyond me at that point and I felt uncomfortable every night," he says, with disarming candour. "In hindsight, I think I didn't love my characters. That's something I learnt - as a performer, no matter how unlike you or how terrible or blase they are, you must love your characters.

"You have to imbue them with that sense of empathy. Because if you don't, no one will believe you."

Kheng carried this epiphany to his next show, the musical extravaganza National Broadway Company, commissioned by the Esplanade for its 10th anniversary celebrations in 2012.

He had gone for an audition under the assumption that they just needed a pianist to play background music.

He recalls: "So I walk into the audition space at the Esplanade, and in walks Ong Keng Sen. I didn't even know he was going to be there. And he's wearing black. Like everybody says. The stories are true." And then he channels an uncanny impersonation of the theatre director going: "Hmmmm, what are you going to play for us today?"

To his shock, he was given a script for the role of composer, musician and household name Dick Lee.

He got the part - but not without some bumps along the way. Halfway through, Ong gave him a dressing down ("in the nicest way possible", Kheng assures), saying that he was not sure if the young performer was the best fit for the role and that he needed to spend a lot more time with his character.

A shaken Kheng, who had taken some absences from rehearsals due to music commitments, pulled it together and threw himself into the part.

Audience members eventually voted for his character to become the head of the fictitious National Broadway Company in the theatre production, which was a tribute to Singapore icons in the theatre, past and present - and future.

As part of a new breed of up-and-coming performers, Kheng hopes to pursue his studies in the arts. But with The Sam Willows slowly gaining regional traction, those plans are on hold.

He says: "With the band taking off and touring a bit, people were saying, school is always there, and music is something you might want to see if you can do now.

"Then obviously the other argument is, but you don't have a foundation, you're building it on shaky ground. But the other opinion is, you learn best on the job - it's very confusing."

So for now, he has been learning from the practitioners he rubs shoulders with, as well as reading up as much as he can on everything from character analysis to styles of performance.

He is still working out a balance between his commitment to theatre - he hopes to eventually write, direct and produce - and his dedication to his band.

For a group just two years in the making, they have established a strong reputation in the music scene. The other members of the band are Narelle, 20, and their friends Sandra Tang and Jonathan Chua, both 22.

The under-25 quartet have received seven bookings for next month and toured six international festivals in the past eight months, including the prestigious South by Southwest festival in Texas and Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

Later this year, they will be performing at an engagement initiative for the Singapore International Festival of Arts, as well as travelling to the George Town Festival in Penang, Malaysia.

Their debut six-song EP has sold at least 2,000 copies and their YouTube channel, showcasing a mix of breezy covers and originals, has garnered 730,000 views and counting. In fact, the group left such a deep impression on multi- Grammy-winning producer Steve Lillywhite (who has worked with the likes of U2 and The Rolling Stones) that he rerecorded their ballad Glasshouse.

And fans will be pleased to know that they are hoping to release a debut album next year.

The group are a bit of a "four-headed creature", Kheng says with a laugh - their musical sensibilities have begun to blend and they write their songs and arrange music together. But while the band are riding the wave, Kheng, who is dating a fellow musician, is realistic about its trajectory. "It's just like swimming overseas. You see people who are bigger and better than you and yet you're this pint-sized Asian group which, for some reason, can still corner a bit of the market."

What the band will evolve into remains to be seen, but right now, they are happy to tour and produce new music.

Kheng has had some reservations about putting his private life in the public eye. Their single Nightlight, for instance, was written for his late mother: "It's one of those bedroom songs that you write for therapy."

He wrestled with a fierce discomfort of putting something so personal on display, but eventually realised that it had, in fact, made a strong and positive impact on listeners.

Narelle says of her older brother: "He is his own biggest critic. He's very cautious of everything he puts out and very self-deprecating. The fact that he manages to push past that and to take criticism in his stride - it's a very big deal."

She adds fondly: "I think the best thing about Ben is that he understands. No matter what it is, whether it's people or music, he will try his best to understand it or them."

Their father has since remarried and they live with him, their stepmother and three stepbrothers, all in their 20s, in a terrace house in Pasir Panjang.

As the interview comes to a close, Kheng presses his palms to his cheeks, his hair spilling across his face: "I feel so naked, talking about myself. It's such a weird experience."

Shaking off the spotlight, he adds: "In swimming, even though you're fighting for your own timing, it's about the team. The humanity of sports is bigger than you.

"And in art, it's not really about you in theatre. It's not just about you as a talent. It's about the bigger picture. It's about the story you're telling."

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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