By SGN | 21 Mar 2023
For the past year, Renny has been constantly on the road, playing over 100 shows around the world as Conan Gray’s keyboardist. Highlights include performing at Coachella and the MTV Video Music Awards, though one recent show, on 20 February 2023, will probably stick in her memory – because it was her homecoming.
“The Star Theatre performance was very emotional for me,” she says. “Conan told the audience that, for many years, we’ve always talked about coming to Singapore, and now it has finally happened.”
Being based in Los Angeles for nearly a decade has sometimes left Renny feeling homesick, so it was quite the treat to not only be able to spend some time back home, but also introduce her US friends to some of Singapore’s famous eats.
On the night before the show, Renny took them to the bustling Newton hawker centre, gave them a quick tour, then sent everyone off on little missions to get dishes like satay, BBQ chicken wings, sambal stingray, chilli crab, and carrot cake (Conan’s favourite). The food was a hit, except perhaps the durian mousse, topped with a scoop of Mao Shan Wang, that Renny got them to try for fun. That didn’t go down as well.
“It was such a crazy, memorable night. I kept telling them it was like my two worlds colliding, seeing them eat the food I grew up loving in Singapore,” she shares. “Right before we left for Bangkok, some of us went to Maxwell Food Centre because they wanted to try more food!”
Performing in Singapore was an emotional moment for Renny.
A dream deferred
When she was a teenager, Renny yearned to study music abroad but, lacking the support of her parents at the time, had to put that dream on hold. Instead, she joined a local rock band, Black Forest – first as keyboardist, later becoming its vocalist – and studied sociology at the National University of Singapore.
After graduation, she rushed headlong into music, this time as a singer at weddings, commercial events and on the pub circuit, regularly performing at popular joints like Wala Wala and Acid Bar. The opportunities were rolling in, and Renny’s parents were glad she could make a comfortable living, but at the back of her mind, she knew she wanted to do more than sing covers.
In 2013, one of Renny’s cousins was severely burned in a work accident and had to endure an excruciating yearslong recovery. “That was a wake-up call for me,” she says. “It made me think about the things I wanted to do but maybe was too scared to go for.”
With her parents’ blessing, Renny dropped everything and flew to Los Angeles to start over, enrolling in Musicians Institute to study keyboard in contemporary styles. Making up for lost time, she worked extra hard, won two scholarships, and right before graduating summa cum laude, opportunity knocked again. It was to be her most lifechanging one yet.
Younger Renny wouldn’t believe me
Tagging along with a friend, Renny auditioned to play keyboards for a pop singer whose identity remained secret. Only when they got through did they learn that it was a YouTuber-turned-budding artist named Conan Gray, who was about to embark on his first tour.
Soon, Conan would explode onto the world stage. He made a landmark debut with the record Kid Krow, the song Heather became a TikTok sensation, and his followup album Superache was launched to critical acclaim, all while he accumulated millions of followers and billions of streams online.
Reflecting on the intervening years, Renny says, “I’ve seen him grow from a boy to the young man that he is today. I love him a lot, as a friend and as an artist, and it’s very gratifying to work on songs that have his stories and personal meaning behind them.”
Her journey with Conan has been filled with exciting milestones and incredible memories: opening for Panic! at the Disco, appearing on Seth Meyers’ and Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk shows, performing at Lollapalooza, as well as at storied venues such as Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Forum in Los Angeles.
“The Forum was a memorable one because, five years earlier, I took an hour-plus bus ride to watch my musical hero Stevie Wonder play there,” Renny says. “And I remember looking at the huge audience thinking: I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play in this venue!”
She adds, “If I told Renny years back what she would be doing now, she would have never believed me.”
Renny is the keyboardist of Conan Gray’s live band.
The Asian connection
Outside of her touring duties with Conan, Renny has played for artists such as 88rising acts NIKI and Ylona Garcia, as well as written and produced music for Chinese rapper TASHI DELÄK and Panamanian guitarist Ruben Wan.
Her versatility as a musician and producer stems from having an adventurous musical palate. She admires master pianists like Keith Jarrett and Barry Harris and is a fan of modern jazz artists such as Kiefer and Jacob Collier. But depending on her mood, you’re just as likely to find her listening to rap, K-pop or movie soundtracks.
While Singaporeans are a rare breed in the Los Angeles music industry, Renny knows of a few good connections. One is film composer Jon Ong, whom she’s known since junior college days. “We played the same gigs,” she reveals. “I was the keyboardist from Black Forest and Jon was the guitarist from Flybar.”
Another is none other than her husband, Elijah Kai, an amazing guitarist who has played for Dami Im, Tayla Parx, Backstreet Boys, and Maverick City Music, the contemporary gospel collective that won four Grammys this year.
Besides connecting with other Singaporeans, Renny also has a project in the works that is close to her heart and takes her back to her roots. “I just recorded a three-song EP on my grandma’s piano back in Singapore. It will be released over the next couple of months,” she teases. “I would say it’s my love letter to Singapore.”
Eat, sleep and breathe music
Renny occasionally receives post-show DMs from young girls saying things like, “It’s so cool to see you on stage. I want to be like you when I grow up!”
“It’s great to be able to inspire girls to dream big,” she muses. “Being Asian and female in the Hollywood pop scene, I have walked into rooms that a lot of people couldn’t walk into. And so now, whatever room I’m entering, being at my 100% is not just about me anymore. It’s also about the people who come after me.”
She says, however, that there’s no set advice for someone who hopes to follow in her footsteps, since every musician she knows has had to figure out their own path.
“You need to look inwards and really ask yourself: What do you want from music? And are you ready for all the setbacks and failures along the way? Personally, I know that, even if I can’t tour anymore, even if I don’t have these projects, I’ll still be hungry for music and will somehow find a way to do something related to music.”
Recalling how, at Musicians Institute, she was struck by the childlike wonder and sense of discovery that teachers in their fifties and sixties still possessed, she says, “I want to be like that. I just hope to keep growing, keep immersing myself in music – to eat, sleep and breathe music for the rest of my life.”