“Look at me know, I’m doing better than I ever have”, coos Sam Rui on the hook of her single, “Better”. Later, near the song’s end, she goes for the clincher with, “Baby, we both know I won”. While most post-breakup missives come off sounding like salty, Taylor Swift-ian means of feed-clogging attention-grabs, Rui’s is a movingly beautiful narrative – and it sounds positively triumphant. Trading in her acoustic guitar for the heady thud and sensual pulse of her adopted neo-R&B mode, the 20-year-old chanteuse-songwriter has staked her claim on new artistic terrain and on the firmament of modern made-in-Singapore music. Here, she waxes lyrical with us ahead of taking to the stage at Laneway Singapore 2017.
Both your originals and covers are intensely personal. Would you say you write primarily for catharsis?
I’d say I write to vent. I was at a low point a while back and I just had to sing. Listening to music does one thing, but when you make your own, you can tailor the music and lyrics to how you feel. You can curate an experience for yourself. It’s a whole other level of fulfilment.
When did you realise that you could sing?
My parents were in their church choir when I was younger so there was always singing around me, but I never thought I was particularly good at it. It wasn’t till I was 15 that my friend signed me up to sing – against my will – at the annual fundraiser, CHIJ Fiesta, in my school. Soon after, I recorded a cover of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” – which I’ve since taken down – and it was after that point that I wanted to sing more.
How do you pick what to cover, and do you have a set approach henceforth?
When I listen to something that I like, I get a bit ‘psycho’ about it. I’ll listen to nothing but that song for a good few months. My current favourite is dvsn’s “Hallucinations”. I listened to it for a good three months. If I feel that way about a song, I have to cover it at some point; I’ll have to get it out of my system so I can move on and find a new song. That’s my approach to songs that I really love.
Take us through your transition into a more electronic aesthetic.
I’ve always liked that dark, R&B sound, but I never thought I could pull it off. Growing up listening to Usher, Chris Brown and Nelly Furtado, I never thought I’d be able to make music like tat, until I met my producer Grosse back in 2014. He asked if I wanted to try something new and I gave it a shot. I really respect black music, so I didn’t want to sound like a pretender – but, with him, I felt I could make something that I’d be proud of. The fact that I’m a very different person now also has a lot to do with it.
“Better” plays like a coming-of-age narrative. Would you say it marks a turning point in your life?
Yes, in the span of time that this song was written and released, I’d say I’m a completely different person. This song means the most to me. It was how I responded to a breakup and I wrote it as a form of empowerment for myself, but I didn’t want it to be a one-dimensional power song.
What can you tell us about your upcoming EP?
It’s coming out early [this] year and I feel like the time for it is right. Every song on it is from a real story – like a diary. Every song on it is genuine. I hope that the people who listen to it realise that, even though it’s a new sound, it’s still me opening up about myself.