A Gathering of Women is SAND Magazine's first International Women's Day series in collaboration with four creatives. We find out how each of us can step up to create and contribute to change, a very pertinent act in the world we live in today.
We met up with Sam Rui, who recently released her latest single, Solid Gold, after a well-received first single. She also recently graced the Laneway Festival stage in Singapore. Presently an R&B artist, Sam lets us in on how past experience has shaped her works we enjoy today, in the midst preparing her upcoming LP.
The way the theme is titled makes change seem very intimidating, like I have to be really outstanding and do something monumental. But I don’t see change as having to be loud or dramatic all the time. Making change via a gradual process sort of route can be equally as impactful.
I can’t dictate what any individual can or should do to contribute to this, but I can make sense of it by applying it to my context as a woman in the local music industry. For the most part in the music industry (and the rest of the entertainment industry really), the bulk of your success is determined by your appearance - especially so for women.
Our chances of having ourselves heard, acknowledged and appreciated for our work are slim if we don’t fit this particular formula of an ‘attractive female’, or if we don’t sexualise our image or craft.
I’ve never been a conventionally attractive person. In primary school I was overweight and was put in this “club” where PE teachers made you run laps and only eat fruits during recess. I had frizzy hair and chunky specs and for the most part was not an impressive-looking kid. I remember being in the school choir then, and never being picked for solos even though my choir master said he loved my voice. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was because I didn't look the part of the slim, angelic solo child girl singer they wanted (no hate towards the very cute girl who got all the solos).
It’s been a decade or so and since then, I’ve ditched the spectacles but I know that I’m still not ‘hot’.
I don’t at all fit the mould of how a commercially successful female singer should look. So I see my role in this as trying and change the perception of women in the entertainment industry, and test if people here can simply appreciate my music for what it is, and not for the face, body, boobs or butt that come with it.I hope that in challenging this traditional mindset, I can also prove to myself, and other young girls with the same body image issues I had as a kid, that despite whatever confidence issues and perceived shortcomings I have, I can still do what I do and succeed.
How is your experience in the entertainment industry any different from your male counterparts?
If you’re a woman and fall slightly below what society deems as good-looking, you’d have a tougher time getting your voice heard.
For some reason, a woman has to be sexualised for people to take her seriously. Why do we have to be ‘hot’ before you listen to our music?
That’s why I’m a huge fan of platforms like Spotify. You listen to my song and decide if you like me, without having to look at me first. The best part is when people respect what you do before they even think about how you look like or find you attractive. It ensures longevity as an artist and I don’t risk becoming merely a trend for my looks. I’ve been gaining momentum on that and I’m quite happy that has been the core that I’ve built my career on so far.What’s the power of change to you?
It’s a natural process to be embraced. You have to force yourself to change continually. It’s synonymous with growth. I used to play a certain style of music and people knew me for that. But if I never changed, I would never have grown into my current state as a musician. Change has quite literally become my formula in life.
At any point in your career, no matter how small or huge you are, you have to keep pushing and reinventing yourself. Don’t ever become complacent with where you’re standing. You can’t afford to think, ‘I’m somewhere now, people know my music and my job’s done. That’s it.’
You once said, "A different sound doesn’t mean that it's any less personal." This can also be applied to our approach in life. Like how you can still afford to be vulnerable even if you have become a stronger person.
For sure. Never forget your worst and weakest times because that’s what made you rise up and become a better and wiser person. See shitty experiences as an opportunity for growth, and be thankful for how far you’ve come, but always remind yourself to be empathetic and retain vulnerability.
Be proud of your growth but never become jaded and hard.
You're a very unapologetic person. Do you think that stemmed from coming to terms with your inner self?
I don’t think so. Honestly, I don’t know who I am yet. I’m trying to figure this out with music. Like I said previously, I’ve got a lot of body image and self esteem issues, yet the songs probably doesn’t give you the impression that I’m actually that insecure.
For example, in Better, I called the “other girl” a hag in the song but casted a really hot girl in the music video. In real life, I don’t think Kate (the girl in the video) is a hag and that I’m better than her. My intention with that casting choice was almost like I wanted somebody to outshine me in my own video. By casting her (she’s a freelance model) I’m knowingly putting myself in a position where I know I'll be compared to her in terms of looks and coming up short. But that was the whole point—I wanted to put myself in a position so uncomfortable, and learn to come to terms with this less-than-ideal presentation of myself.
Not playing myself up in my own music video was a dumb move, marketing wise. But I made that decision because I knew I was presenting myself as I am, even if it may not be the most ideal version of me. I was slowly coming to terms with who I am and all that I lack in that way.
That is why my music will always seem unpolished, unrefined and amateur to some, but real to some and most importantly to me. I feel like when you approach your music solely through your persona, it becomes very one-dimensional. I will make music as me, not as the person I think or anyone else (for that matter) thinks I should be to become some sort of overnight sensation.
When you try too hard to find yourself, that’s when you end up in a pigeonhole and not really growing.
If you come to a conclusion way too early in your life and decide ‘this is who I am, this is how I’m going to lead my life’ then really, have you discovered anything?
You have to be willing to listen to other people, humble and even humiliate yourself, put yourself in situations where you don’t know everything and are uneasy. When you don’t know something, admit you don’t. Ditch all that hype and fluff and just admit it when you’re lost. When you’re in this place of absolute cluelessness and humility, that’s when you really learn and grow.
Tell us about the making of Solid Gold.
I was in a relationship for three years and that happened for the majority of my late teen life. So in that time, I was in the happy relationship bubble and didn’t go out or club. Then last year when I was single for the first time as a young adult I went all out and did the full yard. One of these new “single girl” experiences involved me making out with a stranger at Zouk this one time. And that was what Solid Gold is about.
This song was more of a writing challenge for me. Better, Boys and all of the songs I’d written up till that point came from very intensely emotional experiences that I each compressed into a song. It’s easier to write a song that way because you have so much raw material to work with. Solid Gold was my attempt at blowing up a two second, shallow interaction to a three-minutes song.
I started writing songs when I first got diagnosed with depression at 16, and since then that’d been the only way I knew how to write songs. It took me a while to come out of that stage. I think I kept myself in that mental state because I felt like I couldn’t write when i wasn’t depressed, that I wouldn’t be as good an artist without it.
In writing Solid Gold—despite it being such a shallow song in meaning—I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a good song. I wanted to know that I could still be a valid musician even when I wasn’t depressed. And I guess I did.
The LP is a documentation of my life after a break up. If you think about it, Solid Gold wasn’t a heartfelt interaction but it was still a pretty significant post break-up event.How are you not wary of admitting that you’re writing a breakup record?
People always want to win. The truth is, most people love elusive and secretive musicians because there’s this constant aura of mystery. Like when you’re dating a new person and they play hard to get so they end up holding the power card, you know? For me, my music is not a power play, or to see how elusive I can be to be more enticing an artist. My music just is what it is. I’m pretty damn obvious in my songs. You listen to it and you know who and what it’s about. It would be hypocritical of me to be this upfront in my music, but choose to stay on my high horse and avoid the subject when being questioned about it.
Furthermore, this intimate relationship between the artist and listener is one that I’ve built with my listeners since putting up my first song, Blue, on Soundcloud and Tumblr. People resonated with it and told me their own stories with depression or the highs and lows of their lives.
Not that I have some sort of saviour complex but I like the idea of how listening to those songs made them feel like someone understood whatever they were going through. In return, I felt less alone too. I’d like to think we found comfort in one another through music, and even though the style of my music has changed I still like to think that nature of the relationship exists.
So of course it’s important that I talk about the shitty parts of life in interviews and let them know that I’m still here listening and reaching out in my own way. I just want people who find themselves in a broken place or even going through depression to know that there’s someone who cares.What fascinates you?
Music and art that evoke a significant emotion or energy. I enjoy art that puts me in my place, makes me question what I know and tells me when I don’t actually know shit, guides me along a path of thought but leaves room for my own definition. Emotional art is the best of its kind. That’s the only valid art.
It’s the same with music. What’s the point of having a song with a great beat without any feelings? It’s such a waste to have good production value and high budget art that feels empty. There’s no point in that. To me, that’s just white noise.
I like being able to tell how the artist might be like in person. Just look at Tracey Emin—she’s one of my favourite artists ever. Her works don’t make much sense… Sometimes I see her works and go 'what the fuck is this?!' but I love them because they’re so disturbing. You can, in fact, decipher the meaning and emotion in her art without having to know the backstory. That intuitive interaction in art fascinates me.What’s the biggest misconception people have had about you, or your music?
That I seem very confident, and somewhat a fuckgirl. In reality, I’m much more of a wallflower. I was homeschooled for two years and in that time I was a very socially awkward person, and am still a lot like that. Being on stage is comfortable for me but outside of that setting? Not so much.
Would you ever let people write your songs?
(laughs) No! I love co-writing and collaborating with fellow musicians but I will never sing a song that’s been thrown at me out of nowhere. That feels like karaoke to me and not only that, you’d be able to hear the difference as well. It will never be as genuine as performing a song I can truly call my own.
I don’t think I’m the shit when it comes to songwriting and I’m COMPLETELY down to take advice from songwriters I respect anytime. But I will never sing or perform anything without seeing the meaning in it.What would your ideal world look like?
That’s a tricky one. What’s the ideal dystopian world?
To have a world based on my standards alone sounds fucking communist. Also, it’s impossible for everything to be butter smooth. If all of us were whitewashed to be the same, the world would be a boring place.I would want every culture in the world to stay strong. Just let us co-exist with our differences and appreciate each other’s quirks with respect.
How do you tune out when the world gets too loud?
Being homeschooled for two years meant that I had enough time to tune out. All I did in that period was study at Starbucks. If I had to do something else, I drew. Music requires a lot of interaction whereas visual art allows me to escape and be on my own.What groundbreaking changes do you foresee in your life and spirit?
Who knows? If you had asked me this question last year, I would tell you that I just want to put the first song out and have fifty people attend my gig. But things spiralled. I don’t even know how Laneway happened. I played a show at Kuala Lumpur and a room full of people were singing all the words to the chorus of Better.
My wildest dreams are waiting to come true, one by one, and I’m just going to keep riding the wave.I definitely want to make this a sustainable career, and keep playing shows on home ground and abroad. I’m very, very spoilt by that experience in Kuala Lumpur and I can’t wait to go up there again, or to other places in Asia.
Finally, what's Women's Day to you?
It’s a time to take pride in our craft and be thankful for wherever we are in life presently. I'm lucky to be in Singapore, a country so young and the fact that we started off as quite a contemporary society. Generally, women in Singapore didn’t have to go through the severity and omnipotent sort of sexism that say, women in the United States did—back in the 1800s when women were defined by law as second-class citizens.
It’s taking pride in the fact that I know so many successful women who are entrepreneurs, artists, single mothers, other women in any line of work and of any age or race who are doing what they love and doing them well.
We’re lucky to not have that as part of our history. So at least to me as a millennial Singaporean, Women’s Day isn’t a day where I become super driven to champion a feminist cause all of a sudden. It’s a much more scaled down move in celebrating and being grateful for the opportunities I have here.
It’s a reminder of how capable we are, and it’s a day to express my respect for all the capable women I know.