If you think you know this face, think again. Fierce, daring and unflinchingly bold, RRILEY is a powerhouse pop musician with a mission, ready to shed the past. You see, she’s also Sandra Riley Tang, FKA that girl from The Sam Willows, who’s now taking on her solo venture with remarkable ease; she’s almost unrecognisable in this reincarnation of her former self — but that’s the point.
“When I first made my debut, I knew for a fact that I wanted to spark something. I wanted people to feel something, whether it’s shock, amazement, something!” she tells us. Once rooted in the Willows, she left behind its relative safety to strike out on her own, transforming like the proverbial phoenix — in a fiery blaze, no less. You’ll see, and hear it, in the music video for her very aptly-titled track, ‘Burn’. “Don’t cry when you see me on fire,” she croons with sizzling attitude, complete with slinky outfits, smooth dancing and a smouldering gaze that locks you in. A hot take on unapologetic independence? Hell yeah, we can get behind that. It’s no wonder she calls it a “rebirth”.
As Lizzo would say, turns out she’s 100% that bitch — we mean it kindly, of course. After all, her music gives you power. Bad day? Got ghosted? Going through a rough breakup? Once you’ve wiped away those tears, put on some RRILEY for the feeling of “fuck yeah, I can do anything”. Since her official debut in May last year, she’s had two self-penned songs under her belt. One, a sultry pop track, the other a sassy ditty; their mesmerising hooks stick in your head, and you catch yourself bopping along even hours after. When put together — which will happen in her upcoming EP — we get a good sense of her message: empowering tracks that speak of lessons learnt, confidence, and independence. Destiny’s Child would approve.
And while she willingly charts her path forward, she’s also the first to admit that walking into uncertainty can be a scary journey. For all that spunk and tenacity you see, it’s refreshing to hear that an unshakable force like her can, like us, feel fear, doubt, insecurity. “It’s scary — but nothing ever worth doing is going to be easy,” she goes. “What I’m doing now scares the shit out of me, but I’m still holding on to that, and I’m gonna keep pushing forward.”
So often in our conversation, she easily bares her heart, and is more game to shed that fierce and fiery exterior than you’d imagine. With her lilting laugh, and spontaneous bursts of excitement, she runs ahead with honest proclamations before even realising how contradictory, but welcome, they sound. Her struggle is of the stereotypes being thrown in her way — the judgement and loneliness of being other than fair-skinned, tall or skinny in what can be a superficial media culture — and yet, refusing to surrender, still banishing them with her music, her art. For all the talk about transformation and rebirth, you also get the strangest feeling: this is who she’s always been. Uncompromising, her own.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ADELE CHAN USING THE LEICA M10-P + SUMMILUX-M 35MM F/1.4 ASPH LENS.
HAIR By DEN NG.
MAKEUP BY SHA SHAMSI.
Styling by Joe Tan.
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HER UPCOMING SINGLE AND EP
“My next single ‘Love Me Like A’ drops on Valentine’s Day. So, you know how in today’s day and age, women are more independent — I’m fiercely independent too — right? We buy our own things, I open my own doors, you know, and sometimes we want to feel like a goddess, a queen. You want to feel beautiful. That’s what the song is about, to feel unapologetic about that. I wrote it in L.A. together with Lo Lauren, Josh Wei and Yves Rothman.
What I’m doing now [early in January] is working on the music video for that, finishing up the track, and also finishing up my debut EP. I also have a special ‘mmm bye’ track coming up featuring this Indonesian rapper called Ramengvrl, she’s super dope.”
ON HER SOLO DEBUT, RRILEY
“Riley’s my middle name, and I decided to add the extra R just because I’m extra like that! [laughs] I want you to roll your tongue! And yes it has to be in caps, always in caps! I think it’s an extension of myself, embracing the part of me that’s loud and bold, unafraid, daring. A bit more dramatic, I guess.
It’s like an alter ego… but not really. When I started this journey, I was like okay, RRILEY’s gonna be an alter ego, different. And then I started this solo career I was like, wow this is really hard! I am me, but also more fierce, more sexy, more edgy — but like this is also me, you know?
I came to the conclusion that maybe it’s not so much an alter ego, but an extension of myself, that I’m able to express myself more fully, in a more artistic sense. On a normal day, I’m not like this! I have worn this outfit [tube top and denim shorts] three days in a row!”
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ON MAKING AN ENTRANCE, AND CREATING A STRONG VISUAL IMPACT
“When I first made my debut, I knew for a fact that I wanted to spark something. I wanted people to feel something, whether it’s shock, amazement, something! When I was with The Sam Willows (TSW), people knew me as like “the fitness girl”, or like the very casual one, and I felt like I had to be different from that! That’s why I did my hair — I decided to do something dramatic and went for white. Go big or go home! It was an important transition I wanted people to see, that rebirth.
I worked with Sha on the makeup look, with all the diamantes. That took so long! The fire on the nail, just because I like being dramatic. I thought it was really cool. I worked with Yessa Nails, and she fashioned an acrylic piece with like a matchstick — it was a real, practical effect. No Photoshop! That marked a defining moment of me moving forward. And when people started calling me RRILEY instead of Sandra, I’m like, who? Oh, me! [laughs]”
BEING INSPIRED BY DRAG CULTURE
“I love drag culture. You can probably see the references, but like, whoa! What I love about it is the idea of transformation, and especially, these are men transforming into women. For me, I’ve always felt like I was too ‘masculine’ to fit into the media industry, compared to all the other girls who are skinny, tall, fair… I’m the complete opposite? So I really saw a lot of beauty and have so much respect for the people in the drag community, because it’s difficult to stand so hard for your art, and also have such amazing prowess to do that transformation. It’s amazing. I watch so much RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s not even funny!”
ON WRITING HER FIRST SINGLE, ‘BURN’
“I started pulling from personal experiences, you know, especially for ‘Burn’ — what do I want to say? I’ve been around, I wanted to burn, come out as a phoenix; they shed a lot of their outer skin, so it’s like, shedding who you were. To not be afraid to be vulnerable, but to become something else, a better version. Transformation. It’s not losing who you are, but taking those pieces and building something new. There’s so much power in that.”
LEAVING THE SAM WILLOWS
“It was very bittersweet. It was like, we’ve been together for so long, my god, what do we do now? And obviously I love them to bits, we’re still friends, we’re close and still hang out and everything, and I’m so excited for their own careers. At the same time, it’s very exciting, and honestly, very, very scary. I’m not young anymore, and I’m stepping up from something stable that was going well. Still, there’s a little fire in me that pushes me as well, because if it’s not now then when? I have to do it now! I have a dream, just go for it.”
HER INTENTION TO SET HERSELF APART FROM THE SAM WILLOWS
“Yes, just opposite! The plan was, complete opposite! And that’s what I was able to achieve, because I have both reactions from it, either whoa or wow. That’s exactly what I wanted — a reaction! Whatever it was, I wanted it. The worst thing would be like, oh. Also what was funny is that I had a lot of people unfollowing me, because I changed my Instagram handle to @rriley, and they were like, who the hell is this?! Who is this person with a fire spamming my feed! But those people who stayed are the ones who realised, oh my god, that’s Sandra. That’s cool. Those who stayed are the ones that matter I guess.”
DEALING WITH SELF-DOUBT
“Well, to be honest, when I started, I was way more sure than I am now! [laughs] You know when you set out on a project, you have a vision, but the moment you step into it you’re like whaat. I constantly doubt myself right, some times more than others, but especially now, I doubt myself way more than I ever have. It’s scary — but nothing ever worth doing is going to be easy. What I’m doing now scares the shit out of me, but I’m still holding on to that, and I’m gonna keep pushing forward.
Sometimes it’s the fans who remind me of this, like hey, I’m making a difference! The Internet can be a scary thing, and 5,000 Instagram post likes, that’s just a number, but these are actual people agreeing with what you’re doing, which blows my mind sometimes. I need to remind myself that.
Even that ‘Burn’ image, when I look at it, I go wow, damn I did that! I had this idea, you know, white hair, fire, and before the shoot, I was like, yes, yes it’s great. But on the day of shooting, I was, uh, is this too much guys? Wait… is this toooo crazy, are you sure? [laughs] Change should never be comfortable.”
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ON CHOOSING POP MUSIC
“It’s interesting because with the Willows, honestly until now I can’t really place what the genre of our music is. It evolved, like pop-folk, then pop-electronic, and then I don’t even know what it is. But I knew with RRILEY, as a solo artist, I just wanted to do pop — radio-friendly hits, things that were catchy.
Pop music’s really close to my heart. I love it because it may seem really simple, but there are so many intricacies that go into it, like, what makes a good hook, what’s a good lyric, what’s something that people would wanna sing. There’s so much things that go into it, and it’s more difficult than what people think.
Yeah, you can’t force it, but my brain is very “commercial”. Growing up, I have a good commercial understanding of what works. The thing about music, sometimes you fall into this trap of becoming too “artsy”, you create things that’s meant for yourself, that people may not understand. But I guess I’m lucky in the sense that I like what most people like — and just because everyone likes it doesn’t mean it’s not good. I want to create something that everyone likes, that’s also good.”
WRITING HER OWN MUSIC
“Honestly, it’s very nerve-wrecking. It’s been almost a year since I started. I really respect solo artists, it’s like, you’re really on your own! It’s just you! If you don’t do anything, nothing’s gonna happen; with a band, you can sort of split the responsibility. Still, now, I have the freedom as an individual artist to talk about how I feel. That’s quite liberating in some sense, that creative freedom.
So the question my producer first asked me was, what do you want to write about? And I was like, oh, no one has asked me that! How do you feel, what do you want to write about? Wow! So many things to talk about! But immediately I knew I wanted to write things that made people feel good, songs that were empowering.
It’s funny because I didn’t intend it to be that way, but after writing all the songs and now preparing for the EP, I realise that all the songs have similar themes, on encouraging you to be more confident about yourself. This feeling. Like, yasss I feel it! You feel more empowered listening to the track. That’s what I want.”
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HER SECOND SINGLE, ‘MMM BYE’
“You know we all have that one person we thought was a friend, basically a toxic person, and sometimes you really have to say “bye” to people so you can move on for the betterment of yourself. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go! It’s gonna hurt, it may make you feel terrible, but you have to move on!
I used to be that person who’d want to solve everything, and I personally like to believe that no one is inherently bad. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding, maybe they’re stupid. But I don’t think they’re bad! I used to always want to help people, but it gets tiring. If you don’t take time to care for yourself, and you just keep giving and giving, you’re gonna drain yourself out. I was drained out a couple of years ago and realised I need to stop, I need to say no. You just need to say “mmm bye” and just move on, you know, people who don’t serve you anymore, fuck that!”
AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ‘MMM BYE’ MUSIC VIDEO
“For the music video, I wanted to do something a little bit more interesting. Instead of it being all sassy and just like, you know, bye, I was thinking of things that upset me, being in the industry.
Even before the Willows became popular, it was hard for me, say, doing auditions for commercials. No one wanted me for me, but they wanted me to fit into this mould that they wanted, which is like, Chinese girl, fair skin, tall, skinny. I was always unhappy because I was always “too this”, “too that”. But why is it like this, why do women have to be a certain stereotype in the industry? It’s not fair that others feel less beautiful, and I hate that.
So I got a bunch of girls who look completely different from one another and are absolutely beautiful, because I want to make a stand. I want to say that women are beautiful no matter how they look like. We all are beautiful, we cannot look at Instagram and go, this is how a woman looks like. That’s bullshit, y’know? It’s really about saying “mmm bye” to all these unfair stereotypes and wanting to break them. It was amazing to hear their stories as well, the issues that they go though, it was inspirational to me. This is why I do music, you know.”
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ON SINGAPORE’S MUSIC SCENE, THEN AND NOW
“Yeah definitely things have changed! The Sam Willlows was the new young thing you know, and now we aren’t. It was difficult then, trying to find a place in the industry — to the indie musicians we were too commercial, to Mediacorp, we were too indie, so where do we stand?! But now, there’s a great scene! There are now so many new artists stepping up, doing great work, and actually making music as a career and that’s so exciting to see. Commercial used to be such a taboo word. That’s the thing, we were initially afraid of being called a pop band, because there’s such a huge negative connotation to it. After a while though, we were like screw it! Pop is popular music, and as long as you do good pop music, that’s all that matters.”
SOMETHING ABOUT HER THAT STILL SURPRISES PEOPLE
“I don’t know! Hmm… I guess when people look at my Instagram, they think I’m very serious, fierce. I guess I have an RBF. But I’m actually really crazy, and really loud! I can’t help itttt! And you’re welcome, because we’re having fun right! I guess it’s hard for people to see who I am till they really meet me. Because people judge by the way you look right, and I have been, or am still trying, to break that stereotype. It’s easy to get dismissed when you don’t have the “commercial look”, so like, how about we give them something real la.
I’ve always been insecure! People think I’m body-confident, and super self-assured but that’s like 100% not the case. It’s a journey. I think there’s important work that needs to be done, and more people should step up.”
INTERNET TROLLS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
“I do feel it’s getting less and less, people trolling me. I don’t fight fire with fire, because sometimes they just want attention. I’d be like, I’m sorry this happened to you, do you wanna talk about it? Kill them with kindness, and they just stop!
While it’s true that the industry is more accepting now, with social media, it’s like, we can present ourselves however we want. If you base everyone off one photo, me and many others will never get a chance. There are the different facets of me, I’m not just this. I’m not just the way I look, which is just one thing. There were so many times that people asked me to, say, dye my hair black, but now it’s good because people like ‘edgy’. That aesthetic change started two years ago I was like, yeahhhhh finally! Fit girls are in! Being tan and being fit is good?! Being able to be different, I like that. Only recently, weird is cool you know. I’m like, ahhh, that’s such a breath of fresh air!”
IT’S JUST THE BEGINNING
“I wrote these songs quite a while back, almost one year ago. There’s a lot more things I wanted to say, so I’m quite excited about my EP coming out. This EP will be a good representation of my first step into becoming a solo artist, but there’s soooo much more I want to say, more that I want to do, more that people haven’t seen. And it’s really, really, just the beginning! But, it’ll have to take time right? It will be a journey.”