Healing the mind with music and friends

The world can be a better place with special people around and we need to acknowledge it


THEY are both friends with polar opposite personalities.

While singer-songwriter Joel Tan (popularly known as “Gentle Bones”) is shy and quiet, his friend entertainer Benjamin Kheng is loud and chatty.

Still, don’t be fooled by Tan’s shy demeanour as his first ticketed solo show held at Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, was sold out within 10 days!

He is also the first Singaporean artist to win the Supernova Award at the Hong Kong Asian-Pop Music Festival 2016, and the first to be listed in the inaugural Forbes 30 Under 30 list for entertainment and sports personalities in Asia.

Kheng, on the other hand, began his career in showbiz as a radio producer and presenter at only 17 years old on Singaporean mall station Lush 99.5FM.

He’s also a well-rounded entertainer. He ventured into acting and is a vocalist in the band “The Sam Willows”, which earned him a spot on Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 Asia list.

When he’s not performing, Kheng is advocating for youth and social causes, and his passion is mainly on overcoming depression and anxiety disorder with synaesthesia.

Although Tan is a business studies undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University, it is pretty obvious that his true calling has always been in music since he was in primary school.

Before they became long time friends and frequent collaborators, Tan was a big fanboy of Kheng after watching The Sam Willows. Tan has been following Kheng’s journey ever since.

On the other hand, the “obnoxious Kheng” was drawn to Tan’s music, which has a depth to his soul and writing that can’t be matched.

They came together when Kheng asked Tan to sing in his song, the spoken word track “FATHER, FATHER”, in which Tan wrote a bit of the melody with the chorus.

Kheng ended up liking the track so they put it up.

“Five years later, I wrote a song that was mainly inspired by him, being such a positive light to me in the music industry,” Tan explained.

“I see him grow up in such a positive force. Such a multi-talented and generous guy, for real. So, I wrote a song which has a bit of a theme filled with strength adversity, as I feel that he has been keeping very strong.”

Tan sent Kheng the song with some rewritten lyrics and a little tweaking of the melodies.

Later, Kheng came up with the line “better with you around”, which is really the encore of the song.

“We’ve been meaning to get together and make music again for a long time, and all it took was one drunken night at a friend’s wedding.

“I’ve always deeply admired the genius, who is Tan, and how he’s able to tell stories in a very unique way,” Kheng reminisced.

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us live in fear. One second, you’re coping just fine and the next thing you know, a family member has died of Covid-19 or you suddenly lose your job.

Social media may have kept us connected, but in truth, the pandemic has kept us apart. We now live in a world where face-to-face meetings are deemed dangerous.

Of course, we put our families first in our lives, but during these dark hours, our friends are there to help…just online.

Which is why Tan and Kheng have joined hands and show us the power of friendship goals to promote mental health awareness through Tan’s latest EP “Better With You”, which is a compilation of two songs “Better With You” and “Put My Hands Up”.

“Better With You” speaks of a loved one during a period of uncertainty, as well as the singer’s thoughtfulness on reaching out to that special someone. More like letting them know that they are still with them.

On the other hand, “Put My Hands Up” ventures into the hip-hop genre, which reveals the light-hearted aspect of being infatuated with a person and is the written expression of the googly heart-eyes emoji.

It’s also a love letter inspired by Tik Tok which has a catchy arrangement and strong hook.

Tan shares his most personal and honest side of life with his listeners who are struggling to make ends during the Covid-19 pandemic, while making time for some much-needed introspection.

“The inspiration behind ‘Better With You’ is really a reminder that the world is better with you around.

“It can be interpreted as a cheesy thing, but if you understand the concept of the butterfly effect, one small act of kindness you can do for somebody or the positive impact you can make for somebody in a day, or one person in a week, or month maybe, can just spill up on so many positive things,” Tan said.

He added that one should not underestimate the power of love as it will be passed on. If anyone ever feels hopeless or down, Tan’s work is a reminder that the world can be a better place with special people around and we need to acknowledge it.

“You are needed in this world. It’s a very beautiful reminder which I hope that the song will help remind people. I think why I am so in love with this song is because it is such a positive and such a grounded reminder,” he said.

Music Can Heal Our Soul

It is only natural for most of us to turn to music when we feel strong emotions such as pain, sadness and anger.

Music is known to be effective with those suffering from mental health issues and who are also diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities.

It also acts as a coping mechanism for those with substance abuse problems and patients experiencing acute and chronic pain.

Music therapy has also shown to be helpful for those who have gone through brain injuries and physical disabilities.

“A lot of people love music, and I have loved music since I was young. It is quite clear that music has influenced a large part of our childhood and our lives.

“And I hope I can just contribute something positive in this. I feel like purely by understanding, this world can be a better place with you (every individual) around,” said Tan.

He believes that mental health awareness is very important, which one can link anxiety with nervousness and confuse depression and sadness.

“All these things are linked up and it’s worthless to think that it is only applicable to some people. I feel like mental health is something that we all should acknowledge, that we struggle with.

“And especially during these times, it becomes clearer and clearer why it is such an important, specific type of health that we should pay attention to. I hope that people stay strong, too,” Tan said.

There are still some Singaporeans who are quite cynical when it comes to mental health, but Tan said as long as people stay compassionate, there’d be a time when any negativity could be neutralised.

Tan hopes that his listeners and Kheng’s fans would resonate with the EP and bring some positivity.

Kheng said the EP is about learning how to be a better friend or lover, and hopefully preventing all untoward incidents.

“It’s a keen throwback to uplifting anthems, and something I feel 2020 sorely needs,” he said.

Mental health awareness means a lot to him since he has already lost a few friends due to depression.

“There’s a lot of lip service about mental health awareness in Singapore, but we still boast a society and economy that can be soul-crushing with little redemption. But all things considered, I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Kheng said.

A Slow but Steady Recovery

Singapore is among the first South-East Asian nations to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

The island country has even relaxed its Covid-19 restrictions in order to boost the economy. Now, eight people are allowed to meet or be invited to a household, the maximum capacity at malls, attractions and places of worship has been expanded, too.

However, gigs are still not allowed, so there are tons of live streams going on.

“Definitely, a lot of live streams are going on. The most basic idea for me is the fact that we are really lucky to be able to be safe.

“There are a lot of frontline workers who are really doing so much good for the country right now. The government in the world is professing a lot of things to keep people safe. It’s hard to not be in the state of gratitude,” said Tan.

He hopes that everybody would be happy and continue to grow, while he continues to play his part and contribute to the Singaporean music ecostream alongside Kheng.

“We’re making a slow comeback with a couple of local concerts being organised under heavy Covid-friendly rules. Theatrical shows are playing to 50 pax in 500 pax theatres, and it’s nowhere near enough to recoup, but it’s beautiful to see effort.

“Tons of acts are looking into more in-depth live stream experiences like virtual reality, and I can’t wait till we perfect it.”

Kheng has also been spending his time trying to cope positively with the pandemic. “I made lists, I made stupid comedy videos, I did lots of cleaning groceries and buying of egg tarts, and rewatched all my favourite shows and some K-Dramas. Who am I???” he mused.

When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, both Kheng and Tan hope to travel out of Singapore.