Sandra Riley Tang has been in the music industry for nearly a decade. When she first made her debut with The Sam Willows in 2012, the quartet were nothing short of a sensation, sweeping the nation and topping local charts with song after song. It was seven years later when Tang—now better known by her solo stage name Rriley—decided to re-present herself to the world, this time all on her own.
The path to solo stardom has been fraught with equal parts excitement and challenges, as Tang testifies. “There’s security in a group which I no longer have as a solo artist. Especially with women, self confidence takes time to build and self-doubt often creeps in.” Ultimately, Tang brought her personal vision to life through a series of catchy releases, from her debut launch in 2019, Burn, to her latest melancholic pop track You Should Have Said So. Shot in part on the iPhone 13 Pro and released as an immersive Spatial Audio track on Apple Music, this record is something new for Tang—and yet, in her eyes, a natural part of her development as an artist. Here, she opens up about the journey so far, the inspiration behind her latest song and learning to trust her own instincts.
It has been two years since you made your debut as a solo artist. How was the transition into this new phase in your career been?
When I decided to do a solo debut, I asked myself, how do I differentiate Sandra from The Sam Willows from Rriley as a solo act? I knew that I wanted to create art. It didn’t have to be pretty as long as it was impactful and bold. Whether you liked it or not, as long as I got an impression from my audience, that’s all that would matter. So, with my first track Burn, I went big. I brought out all the wigs, dragon-inspired makeup, Swarovski skull—I even put a fire on my finger, which was real, by the way. I just went full out.
If four people agree, it is easier to believe that you’re making the right choice. As a solo act, I make every decision on my own, which leaves more room for self-doubt
Then the pandemic hit. What has that been like for you?
Yes, it was the worst time to come up and try to do something new and big. The minute COVID-19 hit, all our plans just went down the drain. We were stuck at home and couldn’t do anything—no performances, no promo. But it’s also been a good time of reflection for me to ask myself, who am I really as an artist? What kind of music do I want to make and what kind of messages do I want to send? It’s been a good time, a lot of ups and downs, but I think that has helped me kind of become fuller and more confident of the things I want to do.
Right now I’m with 465—we are a new indie label, which is really exciting. I’m like, wow, I’m an indie artist. [laughs] But I do feel lucky. I have really good people around me that support me and believe in my vision, and I think that’s really, really important.
What have the main differences between performing as a group and a solo act been for you?
It’s so strange how the grass is always greener on the other side! One big pro of being in a group is that the work is split up. So for the Sam Willows it was split four ways. I didn’t realise it at the time, but now I’m like, damn, that was great. [laughs] In everything from interviews to production work, everyone had their own role. As a solo artist, you have to do all of that on your own. When I first started, I immediately felt so much respect for every solo artist out there, because it’s a lot of work.
Making decisions has also become very different. In the group, it was a very democratic process. Don’t get me wrong—it can be tough working in a group and we definitely has disagreements, but we love each other as family. If one person disagreed, we would think of something else, or we would find a compromise that everyone was happy with. If four people agree, it is easier to believe that you’re making the right choice. As a solo act, I make every decision on my own, which leaves more room for self-doubt. I can also be quite indecisive—I sometimes question myself. But I’ve got a great, very collaborative team around me, so that really helps.
Tell us about your new track, ‘You Should Have Said So’. What was the main source of inspiration behind the lyrics?
This track was born out of a pet peeve of mine—when people are just not honest about their feelings. They string you along and when it’s convenient for them, they turn around and go, “Actually…” So in response to that, I’m saying, you should have just said so in the first place! It’s about the feeling of betrayal, basically. I like to live in the moment. If you piss me off, just apologise and move on. I won’t even remember it. So when this hurtful thing happened, I was like, let’s write a song and then I can move on.
The song isn’t to do with your love life, I presume?
[Laughs] You’re right. My romantic life has been great, so no issues there. But I did write the song in a very abstract way. It’s about the feeling of hurt that we are all familiar with. There’s a lyric that goes, “f*** all your X’s and O’s.” When I wrote it, it was in reference to people who were nice to you as a pretence. They’d say something else behind your back but then they’d sign their texts with, love you so much, xoxo. But let’s say you’re suffering from heartbreak, instead of X’s and O’s you might hear exes and hoes. So it’s still relatable no matter what your situation is, and that’s what I love.
What was the process of bringing the track to life like?
When I started writing the song at home, it was still during the circuit breaker. We couldn’t leave house and go to the studio, so we set up a little studio in our home. I live with my boyfriend and a housemate, who is a wonderful friend and also happens to be a musician and a producer. We turned one of our cupboards into a recording booth by draping blankets everywhere—super makeshift, but it worked. I would go into the cupboard, close the door and record in near pitch black. The initial production and vocals were all done at home, and there are still a lot of those elements in the track that you hear today. When I eventually brought it into the studio, we got Riidem and Claire on board as producers as well, and they added on extra production that just blew my mind. It went from being the small project I thought it was going to be to a giant one.
“You have Singaporean music playing back to back nowadays—10 years ago, there was actually a rule that you could only play one local track per hour”
We learned that the track plays on principles of ASMR and that it’s been produced with Spatial Audio. To you, how does that elevate the song?
I had an initial idea of making this song into a world of its own, because I don’t hold grudges and wanted to encapsulate those negative feelings into a song, put it out into the world and move on. I wanted whoever listened to it to feel like they were right there in my headspace at that point in time. So we came up with the idea of ASMR because it’s so immersive and intimate. We played all these little sounds—we used air freshener, we poured water. With spatial audio, it just makes the track way more immersive. Music is usually stereo, so it plays to your left and to your right. But with spatial audio, it goes 360 degrees and is just like a nice icing on the cake, to have this new experience with an orgasmic sound in your ear.
Tell us about the music video. How did the idea for that come about?
Similar to the track, I wanted the music video to be in a world of its own. Pop music videos are usually quite standard. You’ll do a couple of shots with three or four outfit changes, you’ll shoot a scene for each of those outfits with a different background, and then you mix it all up. I wanted to do it differently for this MV, so it would be linear with no repeated shots—more like a storyline. The idea was that the viewer would be kept in the moment.
I co-directed this video with Hypebong and I feel a great sense of ownership over it. I think it turned out really amazing, especially with some parts shot on the iPhone 13 pro, like the first half of the scene where I get out of my chair and the antagonist of the story is revealed.
How far do you think the local music industry has come, and where do you think it’s going?
The easiest way to answer this question is to turn on the radio and see how often a local track plays. You have Singaporean music playing back to back nowadays—10 years ago, there was actually a rule that you could only play one local track per hour. So yes, we have definitely come a long way. The interesting thing is that we don’t have a blueprint to follow, there isn’t a formula, and we’re all trying to figure it out. Moving forward, I think the key to growth is if we find more ways to collaborate with each other and help each other. We could do so much more with our powers combined!