Blouse and skirt, SIMKHAI via SOCIETY A. Necklace, SWAROVSKI

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: We understand that you’re a big fan of podcasts.

DAPHNE KHOO: I’ve been listening to so much of the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast.

ESQ: Oh, yes. Duncan can be very deep with the big questions about life. Are you in a better place right now?

KHOO: Yeah, I think I am. When I was younger, I had this beautiful image of the future. No matter how bleak my reality was, everything was going to be better. The equations in my mind, social expectations of people and life... they made sense.

ESQ: I’m hearing a “but”.

KHOO: But as I got older, I realised you can’t predict how people will react to me, so my mindset has changed. While I’m optimistic about my life right now, I also understand that it is because I had overcome tribulations and I'm just waiting for the ones to come.

ESQ: You are expecting the other shoe to drop?

KHOO: Always, always, always, always. But I’m also reminding myself to enjoy the moment. Like now. This is great and I’m super grateful for it.

ESQ: When did this shift occur for you?

KHOO: I think it was a gradual accumulation. Episodes where I got cancer kind of scuttled my plans. I was like, that’s ok. I’m resilient. I’ll get up, I keep going and then it’s one thing after another, you know. It’s not just the illness but also people disappointing you, taking advantage of you.

ESQ: Life and its lemons.

KHOO: But there is hope. That’s what keeps me going.

ESQ: Can we ask about the name change? You went from Daphne Khoo to Haneri.

KHOO: Ok, the reason that I needed a pseudonym... no wait, that’s not right. I’m thinking of another word.

ESQ: Persona?

KHOO: Yeah, thank you. I needed a new persona because I put out a lot of music as Daphne Khoo. It was fun but I didn’t know anything. I had no one to teach me, no music mentor or life coach at the time. I needed to figure out who I was and what kind of music I like for myself.

ESQ: What were some of the things you wish you’d known then?

KHOO: I didn’t know what I was aiming for. I didn’t know if I wanted to write a hit nor did I think about that side of things like marketing or PR. I was driving blind and I couldn't see anything ahead of me. But I’d just go.

Here’s how much I didn’t know: I didn’t hire professionals so instead, for a music video, I roped in my sister's mother-in-law who sells make-up to do my make-up.

ESQ: Selling make-up does not mean one can do make-up. At least, you were enjoying yourself.

KHOO: I was. But there wasn’t a lot of thought going into it. It’s like if you were painting but you don’t care about the brushes or the colours; you just want to get your paint on canvas. That was me.

ESQ: The “Just Do It” mentality.

KHOO: Yeah, just do it and figure it out later. Now, with experience, I find that there’s texture, storytelling and intention in music. I’ve learnt so much in the last 20 years of my career and waking up to that realisation—I didn’t know who I was; I didn’t know what I stood for; I didn’t know what I cared about.

ESQ: When did you start to realise this?

KHOO: The first was in 2008. I was in my mid-20s or early-20s. I wouldn’t have had that epiphany here [in Singapore]. Getting into Berklee College of Music and moving to the States helped. Even then it was this weird hybrid of who I was trying to be and who I thought I was.

That self-awareness came about later on, when I realised I wasn’t focusing on health and relationships.

ESQ: Back then did you think the music was superficial?

KHOO: Not at all. I thought I was super deep but I probably wasn’t. I was introspective; overthinking every possibility. It’s one of the things that served me well but it also ended up backfiring because you can’t take everything too seriously in life. I’m trying to look at one emotion in a thousand different ways.

ESQ: You can’t please everybody.

KHOO: Yeah, but part of being a people pleaser came from thinking that was where my income was coming from. That if I didn’t please everyone, I wouldn’t sell music and in turn, I wouldn’t be able to feed myself.

So, that came from a place of desperation. I was trying to suss out what everybody else wanted. I look at all these young artists these days and—I don’t know if it’s the way I was brought up culturally—but what they do seems selfish and yet, I get it. They are so unapologetically themselves and people vibe with it. It doesn’t matter how I present myself. The bigger question is: How do I feel? And I can also go off on a tangent and be like, Why does that matter?

ESQ: Must be fun living in your head.

KHOO: But going back to your question about “Daphne Khoo” and “Haneri”... people [in Singapore] remember me as Daphne. I’ve done so much more as a musician since I adopted the "Haneri" persona when I was in LA. If you go to Europe or the US, there’s a higher chance that people will not recognise me but they’ll recognise the music, more than all of my fans in Singapore.

ESQ: You work with other music producers.

KHOO: Yeah. With a lot of EDM producers. It’s one of the things that made the most money in my 20s. As Haneri, my first single was with Dash Berlin so I have a lot of requests coming in from around that region. When I returned to Singapore, it seemed like a smart move to go back to “Daphne Khoo”.

ESQ: You’re now working in radio.

KHOO: As you know, I'm now with Kiss92 [Eavesdropping with Daphne Khoo].

ESQ: Congrats. Are you satisfied with where you are right now?

KHOO: No, I’m never satisfied with where I am. But I am content.

ESQ: Was it easy to get to this level of contentment?

KHOO: Absolutely not. You saw me through some dark years.

ESQ: Are we talking about the COVID years?

KHOO: That was a terrible period when I lost my dad. I think that was the biggest reveal that disappointing things can lead to beautiful things. Imagine if I had my visa renewed and decided to stay in the US, I’d never have been able to be with my dad in his last days during the pandemic.

ESQ: But you’d have returned anyway, right?

KHOO: But I might have been too late. Or my relationship with my dad wouldn't have been the same.

ESQ: What’s your relationship with him like?

KHOO: We don’t have enough time to unpack that but in a nutshell: my dad was a wonderful human being but flawed like all humans are. He didn’t know what he was doing when he had kids. He didn’t know how to be a dad to three girls; he was so out of his element with us.

I think the hardest thing in the world is sucking at something for a while and figuring out how to do better. You can’t just be, I’m a bad dad so I won’t be a dad then. He took it upon himself to try and slowly get there. He didn’t know how to show he loved us because he came from a very difficult background and he felt there was no way out of it.

But watching him in the last few months of his life was quite something and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

ESQ: Did you get your closure?

KHOO: I think getting closure made me even more mad at him. In a, wow, you did this perfectly. You did everything you wanted and then figured out how to just make it all better just before you died.

ESQ: Took a while but he got there.

KHOO: He changed a lot as I got older. We had conversations like two grown adults. I mean, he was never good at talking about his feelings but he was consistent on how he apologises, which is never... but in other ways, he’ll demonstrate it by wanting to take you to work, you know? Towards the end, he just got very spiritual. He fought the cancer for eight months and in that time, did some very tough self-reflection. He told us about his life and where he thought he fell short. And then, asked us for forgiveness.

My mom found a bunch of notes on his phone. We kept his number alive and now use the phone as a media player now. He showed me that you don't have to have it all figured out. The people around you might disappoint you but you still can choose who you want to spend time with.

Those memories will stay with me for a very long time. Some good and definitely some bad because it is very tough to watch life drain out of someone you love. It was tough for him too, but he handled it.

ESQ: With regard to your career, would you consider this a comeback?

KHOO: I do, but it’ll be a very slow comeback. I had a new single called “Daydream” that came out. For the last three years, I haven’t looked for jobs; I haven’t been actively creative. I'm just trying to ease my way back into making and releasing music. I try not to let the last couple of years hold me down because I’d rather move forward.

All the accolades and achievements that I have gathered while in LA—even if just for a few years—have been part of the most amazing experience in my life. I’d like to believe everything that’s happened to me—good and bad—is leading me to where I’m supposed to be... which turns out is in this weird little cafe with you right now. And that’s ok. This is nice.


Photography: Jaya Khidir
Styling: Asri Jasman
Hair and Makeup: Nicole Ang at SUBURBS STUDIOS using DUNGÜD and CHARLOTTE TILBURY
Photography Assistant: Kerk Jing Yi
Styling Assistant: Lance Aeron