Meet Debra Khng

By Charmaine Yap
(Interview conducted on 12 Feb 2014)
Debra Singer
Debra wrote her first song by piecing together the fragments of tunes – tunes that had popped into her head and which she had hummed into a little voice recorder she bought from Mustafa in 2010 – to form a melody. She penned the lyrics and after multiple drafts, ‘Strangers’, a ballad duet (soon to be released) was born. From these humble beginnings, Debra (Year 3 Literature +USP) is now an upcoming singer-songwriter who has just released her own music video, and is anticipating the upcoming debut of her six-track EP. Debra sat down with us to share her music journey, and what a journey it has been! Her story is one of pursuing one’s dreams and passions, and of making things happen for yourself. 
Cover shot lying on leaves

Debra had always wanted to pursue music as a child, but becoming a singer had not seemed accessible to her at that time. It was only during her gap year in 2010 that a series of events gave her the opportunity to finally pursue her passion.

That year, disillusioned by her temp jobs, Debra met her mentor, Kevin Mathews, a veteran in the local music scene, at a song-writing workshop at the Esplanade. She had popped by on a whim and then later contacted him because she was curious about the local music industry. She then met up with him at Starbucks and sang across the table, because, as she says, “she did not have a clue to exactly what to, and where to start”. Her voice convinced him of her potential, and he agreed to give her song writing lessons, encouraging her to write her own songs. Debra felt then that she didn’t have the means to write songs because she wasn’t musically trained. Nevertheless, she went on to write her first single with his help. From there, she wrote more songs and sang her originals at small cafes, and in that process, learnt to overcome her stage fright.

Debra enjoying herself at her Esplanade Gig
Debra perfuming at her Esplanade Gig

Another defining event that occurred around December 2010 was the loss of her voice for 8 months due to vocal edema. Debra’s horror was evident as she described how her voice would just trail off because it got fatigued, and for that period she could not actually talk for more than 15 minutes, let alone sing. The vocal edema turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it prompted her seek vocal therapy, and her voice returned in mid-2011 just before the start of her freshman year at NUS. She has since corrected and refined her vocal technique, and she contends that she is now able to sing better. The episode bolstered Debra’s resolve to pursue singing.

“When I got my voice back, I went on with singing. I decided that singing is something I actually love, and it’s something that is finite. I mean, I realised I could actually lose that gift and that made it all the more precious. To me, if you have a talent, you have a responsibility to nurture it.”

If you have a talent, you have a responsibility to nurture it
“If you have a talent, you have a responsibility to nurture it.”

While she doesn’t think of herself as a maverick, as she had stuck through the traditional path of the local education system all the way to university, Debra is certainly no stranger to making unconventional decisions, choosing to swap Additional Math for Art at O levels (and subsequently pursuing the subject at A Levels).

“It was really ironic, how back then everybody was advising against that decision. Art seemed the most ‘impractical’ subject, but it turned out to be the most important, pragmatic one in shaping how I handle my music project right now. It developed my resourcefulness and tenacity,” said Debra, “When you do a creative coursework you have to deal with so many experimental failures, creative blocks, time constraints and very high levels of stress. It’s a different kind of stress from that of an academic paper.”

While she thinks the Singapore education system could focus a lot more on nurturing creativity, it helped Debra realise the value of hard work and discipline. “The education system drilled a very hardcore work ethic in me. [I realised that] if you worked really hard because you want something so badly, it’s actually possible to get it,” she explained.

As Debra recounted her experience, it became clear that her resourcefulness and work ethic play as much a part in her success today, as her vocal talents. Said Debra: “I can’t sit and wait for people to spot me, I don’t think that’s really ever going to happen, so it’s more about you trying to find the resources and people to collaborate with to make something out of your dreams, as best as you can.”

“Initially, when I started out, I didn’t know anybody, and I think I didn’t know what to do,” she admitted. But that didn’t stop Debra from looking for the right people she needed to make her music. “I would call up musicians that I knew by name, but didn’t really know personally. But there’re always mutual friends. Everybody on this island is two degrees apart.” Such collaborations are a mainstay of Debra’s musical works – from collaborating with seniors on her music video “All of Me”, to musicians who back her up during recordings and live performances. “When I dabble with an idea, I try to act on it. I’ll start calling people up, and things start moving,” Debra shared. “And so that’s how it happens. You can actually make things happen. You have to act on what’s brewing in your mind.”

Backbeat Studios - Debra would be there in the night after school for recording!
Backbeat Studios – Debra goes there in the night after school to record

Her musical journey is funded by private tuition that Debra gives. At one point she was working 4 times a week to foot the bill for her recording project. Expenses range from things like studio time, to vocal and guitar lessons, to miscellaneous costs for her video shoots.  Nevertheless, she is upbeat about the possibilities. “A lot of things are possible if you are resourceful.  […] There are a lot of expenses, but the people that I work with are actually really resourceful themselves, like the crew for my music video. And the wonderful bunch of musicians that actually helped out with the recordings pro bono. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them. I am utterly grateful.”

Her perfectionist streak is revealed as Debra describes what happens in the recording studio. She confessed to recording up to fifty times just to get a phrase right, and vocal sessions can last up to five hours straight. The recording process is stressful for Debra, who compared the trepidation of listening to draft mixes of her tracks to receiving national examination results.

Sheer dedication from the Perfectionist!
A perfectionist at work: live video recording of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’

After completing the recording of her first studio track, making a music video seemed like the natural next step, and Debra storyboarded the music video for her song “All of Me” herself. She described it as a song in the style of kitschy pop music. It was directed and produced by her art senior from junior college and crew were Art, Design, and Media (ADM) students at NTU at the time. The charming setting of the MV in the Ice Cream Chefs outlet at East Coast Park nearly didn’t happen as the owner had been reluctant to let them shoot there, thinking it was too small. It was only after some persistence that he relented. “I basically emailed them and begged them to let us film there. I just had to have that place in my video. It had a sentimental value to me.”

Filming of the MV at East Coast Park
Filming the “All of Me” MV at East Coast Park

Juggling school and her musical ambitions createdt a dichotomy that she struggled to balance out. Debra had thought about dropping out at several points during University. She described it as a “pre-quarter life crisis”, where she experienced a tug-of-war between dropping out to fully pursue music and finishing University. At one point she applied for La Salle College of the Arts while still in her second year of university, but decided to stay in NUS, feeling that she was not making the best of her circumstances and resources here. Shortly after that, a friend invited her to join NUS Amplified, through which she got to know other musicians. “I realised I could still grow here, if I wanted,” she said. “And I just couldn’t give up literature.”

We asked Debra to tell us more about her upcoming EP, “Wolves of the Night”. She described the sound of the EP as mainly soft rock ballads, influenced by 70’s and 80’S rock, and artists like Don Henley, Patty Smyth, Simon and Garfunkel, to name a few.“When I did the EP, I just wanted it to be a good EP. It wasn’t so much of wanting to be famous. Essentially good art is the main goal. It’s my first effort, and I hope people like it. I don’t see it as an end in itself. Rather, it’s a stepping stone to other things. I’ve learnt so much and really pushed myself out of my comfort zone – well, socially and financially – trying to make this EP.”

Photo shoot for 'Wolves of the Night': Looking forward to the EP!
Photo shoot for her EP, ‘Wolves of the Night’

So what’s next for this aspiring musician? Debra revealed that she has started on the storyboarding for her next music video which is in the works and might be set beyond these shores (but that is all she is letting us in on for now). In the long run, Debra hopes to create a distinct identity with her music, and be good enough to hold a solo gig with just her guitar. When asked about future plans to hold a concert, she laughed, saying, “Concerts and stuff would be nice, but as of now, I feel like I’ve got a pretty long way to go.”

“I think that’s nice though,” she mused. “To reach a level where people will pay to watch you…it would be a dream to be able to play to a paying crowd.”

Debra Portrait B&W high contrast

Look out for the upcoming debut of Debra’s six-track EP “Wolves of the Night”! To find out more about her music, check out her artiste page and YouTube Channel.

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