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A Singaporean Band on Achieving Global Fame With Bedroom-Recorded Tracks

By Joe Tan

Illustration by Marisa XinFor the independent pop band Sobs, their very own bedrooms double up as DIY recording spaces.

The great trajectory of technological advancement has brought about monumental changes in our daily lives, be they great or small. The accessibility of communication, for example, is just one of the everyday conveniences we often overlook. But arguably, the most discernible impact that technology has had is in the shift in expectations and aspirations for young people.

In 2019, a study conducted by surveyor Harris Polls done in conjunction with toy manufacturer Lego concluded that the majority of children aged between 8 and 12 found the newly-created job of an online content creator to be their biggest aspiration. Broadly speaking, these jobs consist of producing original work across creative mediums and sharing it digitally on social media platforms. For the music industry, this has meant the unprecedented boom of independent recording musicians entering the landscape.

This crop of music artists comes from a generation that likely can’t imagine life without the internet, mainly because they haven’t lived without the medium. And it’s reflected in the intuitive capability in which they are able to learn, record, and share music they have made from scratch across the world, building themselves a fanbase of international listeners in the process. What is noteworthy about these young musicians today is their potential to go beyond niche corners of the internet to achieve global fame, on the strength of their talent alone. The point that is most compelling, however, is their DIY approach to music — because recording is rarely if ever, done outside the confines of their bedrooms.

“We tried buffering the walls with mattresses when we were recording music in my bedroom, just so we wouldn’t disrupt the neighbours. But that didn’t work,” says Raphael Ong, the guitarist for Singapore-based band Sobs, which also consists of vocalist Celine Autumn and bandmate Jared Lim. Confident he’s not giving any secrets away, he shares that a closed wardrobe actually makes for an effective makeshift soundproof music booth. Other recording equipment in the band’s DIY recording space includes Celine’s vintage mic with a strangely glutinous grip, which has since been wrapped with tissues for more comfortable handling.

One may think that given their humble resources, that Sobs is just another forgettable profile found in the unknown depths of platforms like Bandcamp. But their self-produced single titled “Girl” has garnered over three million hits on Spotify, and they have a loyal base of over 40,000 monthly listeners on the music streaming site.

We tried buffering the walls with mattresses when we were recording music in my bedroom, just so we wouldn’t disrupt the neighbours.

“Sobs’s music isn’t meant to be too serious,” says Autumn, “It’s just pop music.” Incidentally, the band’s name has a similarly casual origin. “Sobs was just a word that I kept texting in response to Jared when we were coming together to form this band,” she remarks. “We decided to call ourselves that for no bigger reason and it just kind of stuck.”

The nonchalance of the band’s members towards their own material mirrors that of some of today’s most prominent young musicians with a similar DIY ethos and lo-fi sound. Characterised by the term “bedroom pop,” the genre features reverb-heavy, psychedelic dreamy tunes that often weave pop cultural references into lyrics, and the emotions of growing pains into its tracks. What many perceive as imperfections in audio recordings, such as background noises or conversations, are also left intentionally audible in the final audio track, which lends the music an authentic quality and a sense of romanticised nostalgia. In the song “Fender” from Sob’s 2017 extended play “Catflap,” a barking dog can be heard peppered over a background music track, alongside hazy conversations.

Today the lo-fi approach is widely embraced as being synonymous with a kind of authenticity, perhaps as a backlash to the slick overproduction in modern pop music. Even established artists like singer-songwriter Fiona Apple released a much-anticipated fifth album in 2020 that was recorded completely at home and features background noises like dogs barking as part of the soundscape. But whether this DIY music production ethos is a growing trend amongst even established musicians, or a necessary consequence of the pandemic, remains speculative.

The almost nonchalant attitude to production values extends to other aspects of the genre, again a sharp contrast to the heavy marketing that goes into big label music. Clairo, the musician whom many accredit for being a trailblazer in the genre, has a melancholic track detailing a failed romance on her album “diary 001,” titled “Flaming Hot Cheetos.” So named just because she was enjoying the said snack while recording the demo. “The song title itself was kind of a mistake. I didn’t really think much of it. When I uploaded it to SoundCloud, I kept the demo title just because I thought it was funny. It’s been entertaining to read people’s theories about why I called it that,” she says in one of her first interviews.

Notwithstanding the addictive sound of bedroom pop, what makes the genre so popular with the music streaming generation is likely the relatability factor of the musician. Given that they are likely of a similar age, understand the same references and live a similar lifestyle, it’s hardly surprising that the work produced by these musicians exert a strong emotional pull over their fanbase. The listeners are, after all, rooting for an almost idealised versions of themselves — capable too of producing music in their bedrooms, if only they had the chance.

And perhaps they do. “It is so [easy] today to produce music with the help of YouTube tutorials and available music-editing software,” Ong says. “Anyone with the least of means with real [motivation] can showcase their music and get recognition online, and we can’t wait to see how the local music community will grow and change in the coming years.”