Rocket Men Pt. 2

This article is a continuation of a series of emails exchanged between singer-songwriters Shanon Shah and Jerome Kugan. Click here for Part 1.

Shanon: Juara Songwriters

I filled my head with Beatles songs at one point. But hardly anyone’s ever said that I sound like the Beatles. I suppose there are people who would say that they can hear Tori Amos in my music. But that’s probably because the obvious connector there is the piano. She plays it, I play it. It’s very flattering, but I think that’s a comparison that overestimates my capabilities.

> Political and philosophical stuff

Yes. It can’t be reduced. I like trying to complicate the picture, because it’s much more powerful to pose questions rather than to make truth claims.

> “You remind me of the dog that went to outer space

That was a really good quatrain. Where’s it from? I’m someone who does believe in rhyme. I need the constraint of finding a good rhyme in order to create openings to craft an honest emotion or thought. Like I said before, I use structure as a means of trying to access the inaccessible. But I respect all approaches. I love Bjork’s lyrics. And yours.

> other people have different ideas of where it should go and I’m kind of unwilling to go in that direction

I know what you mean. But that’s the thing about collaboration. You have to merelakan that the way it’s going to turn out will not necessarily be the way you imagined it while playing alone. But you also want to retain your artistic ownership over it, and you want to be working with someone who’s changing it precisely because they understand what you really want.

> What about you, Shannon? Where/how do you see yourself in the music scene?

Ha ha. I want to grow lah, for sure. I want to make many albums. Try new things with each album. I hope to pick up the guitar one day and hopefully I’ll make a guitar album.

A lot of popular music is so de-politicized now. I’d like to inject some form of political and social consciousness in my songs, bit by bit. Of course, I’m having so much fun writing songs about my broken heart, my horny loins, etc., that I don’t know how I’ll do this, but I do want to. I’d say that I aspire to be the guy whom people would remember as “that writer of gorgeous songs with a clear moral compass.”

> And since it was brought up, what do you think of the local scene?

Depends which “local” scene you’re talking about. For me, what Pete Teo is doing with Songwriters Round is really so good for the local scene. But we’re talking about a particular niche. And then there’s the Malay music scene, which has its pleasant surprises every now and then. Last year’s Juara Lagu – the one where ‘Bunga­ bunga Cinta’ by Misha Omar won – was really interesting. It was so diverse, so fun, and the entries were really strong from a songcraft point of view. But how does one join the dots between Juara Lagu and Songwriters Round? Does one even want to join the dots? What would it accomplish? What does it mean to have a vibrant local music landscape?

The thing is, there are so many influences for local songwriters to absorb – hip hop, Pan Arab pop, Indonesian pop, Bollywood, Cantopop, MTV, traditional Malay music etc. And I’ve heard local artists who use these influences intelligently and come up with really interesting music. But I’ve also heard songs that appear to have been written with great bombast, but feel as though they were churned out of a factory line.

> Do you have a favourite local performer?

I don’t know if I have favourites. In primary school I liked Gersang and Zainal Abidin. In secondary school, I loved Ella. Some of M. Nasir’s stuff. I think Siti Nurhaliza is a true performer. But I don’t really have a favourite.

Indonesia lain cerita. I like Sheila On 7. My favourite Indonesian band by far. What about you?

What are you listening to at the moment?

In the past week, I’ve been listening to:

Sam Phillips – A Boot and a Shoe

Radiohead – Kid A

Bjork – Medulla

Tori Amos – From the Choirgirl Hotel

Mercury Rev – All Is Dream

Joni Mitchell – Night Ride Home

My LRT listening. 🙂


Jerome: This is not a pipe

> Tori Amos in my music

I see it sometimes. You and Tori. There’s real warmth between her and the audience, the same as when I see you perform. But your artistic approach diverges from hers at a point. You’re more like Rufus Wainwright on Poses. Sometimes there’s that dreamy aspect to your songs.

BTW, did you know that Tori’s got a new album coming out called The Beekeeper? Her website reports that the inspiration behind the album comes from her discovery of the hammond as a writing instrument. So she’s putting in lots of organ and piano into the new album. I can’t wait to hear it.

Actually, come to think of it, I would like to hear you playing your voice against other keyboard instruments, like vintage wurlitzer or rhodes keyboards, or celestes and harpsichords, and organs.

> > “You remind me of the dog that went to outer space

> That was a really good quatrain. Where’s it from?

It’s not really that good la. Just made it up. 🙂

> I use structure as a means of trying to access the inaccessible.

That’s one way of putting it, using structure to ‘access the inaccessible’. Though I’d like to see if there’s more to it.

I’ve been reading this book called Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music which has lots of essays on music by the so-called ‘avant garde’ and other experimenters like John Cage, Henry Cowell and Brian Eno, and it’s really interesting reading the chapters on the listening experience, which goes on about how machines and humans living in close proximity has influenced society’s sonic experience and changed our lives, pushing certain innovations to cut out noise or to amplify it. Some composers even introduced elements of noise, distortion and chance into their music. I guess some did it in rebellion against centuries of music written with clearly defined structures such as the Western tuning.

Stockhausen tried to throw structure out the window. But I think in the end even he discovered that it was pointless because there’s always structure there. The composer’s intent is a kind of structure, sculpting what sounds go where in a piece of music. Even if it’s named a silly indecipherable title, it’s still a title. Magritte’s painting of a pipe was underscored with: ‘This is not a pipe.’ Of course it’s not a pipe, it’s a painting, a representation. And when you call a song, ‘This Love’, there’s no actual love in it (if you can put ‘love’ into anything, that is – it’s just a figure of speech about an abstract concept). It’s just a representation. Like signs, like language.

But that’s where the magic lies. You use what you have in your experience, and what’s full of meaning, to create a narrative that hints at the impossible. Which is what I love and admire about certain types of traditional folk music (though that could construe some type of exoticisation on my part). But some people don’t even try to understand the process, which can be rather sad. Because part of the journey into music is to understand what makes it tick. I don’t think there’s any real final answer, but the examination of it is really fascinating.

> > And since it was brought up, what do you think of the local scene?

I don’t go out very often to watch gigs. But every now and then I see some local acts and get very pleasantly surprised. I have a soft spot for troubadour folkies like Azmyl Yunor, Meor, Pete Teo and prog-ish/punk-ish bands like KLPHQ, Lurks, Ben’s Bitches and Furniture. I also like the more experimental stuff, like from Goh Lee Kwang who does a lot of stuff with Nyoba Dance+ and Chong Kee Yong, now resident composer at the MPO. And there’s also Hands Percussion and Rhythm in Bronze, very good. Adeline Wong’s work has been quite stunning too.

I wish more of the mass media’s attention could be focused on the work of such people, who are doing really good music.

> What are you listening to at the moment?

A whole bunch of stuff, but these ones are quite up there.

Depeche Mode – Violator

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway

Nico – Desertshore

Kate Bush – The Dreaming

Brian Eno – Another Green World

Interpol – Antics

Question: If you could meet and collaborate with any musician, who would it be? And why?


Shanon: Mana Milla?

You the very the flatter me lah. Telling me you see Tori and Rufus in me has a somewhat orgasmic effect on my brain.

Yeah, I would like to explore other keyboard instruments. Maybe an acoustic piano that has been detuned and fed through some fuzztortion. Actually, when I was first introduced to Bach, I used to think, “What’s the big deal?” And then I started imagining trying to re-create the EFFECT of the harpsichord or the pipe organ on the piano and suddenly Bach got so much more interesting.

> Stockhausen tried to throw structure out the window

Exactly. But a complicating example is this: my three and half year old niece can sit with me for four minutes and tell me exactly what she’s pissed off about. And she can do it honestly, with much emotion and a lucid narrative. Does that make a song? When we try to challenge existing structures, what are we replacing them with?

> part of the journey into music is to understand what makes it tick

Part of the joy of music, for me, is that a lot of it is very mystifying. If I could explain in words exactly what I was doing with my music then I’d stop making it. Because, to me, a songwriter says with a song what he or she can’t say any other way.

The process shouldn’t be mindless, reductive or trivial. But at the same time, it also shouldn’t be an excuse for intellectual masturbation.

And what did I just do right there? I set up a bunch of rules, didn’t I? Which I totally despise doing, but I can’t see a way out of this now:-) Foot has been placed firmly inside of mouth.

> If you could meet and collaborate with any musician, who would it be? And why?

Maybe Milla Jovovich. Weird choice, I know. But have you heard ‘The Divine Comedy’? It wasn’t the most fantastic album in the world, but it had plenty of charm. And her sincerity was just so disarming. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. I was so amazed that this supermodel was trying so earnestly to do something that confounded all expectations of her.

OK lah, then there are my other standard answers – Aimee Mann, Sam Phillips, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos, Neil Finn, etc.

And then of course there’s you. But I’ll have to be quite honest here: I’m afraid of collaborating with you. Afraid we’ll both start fighting, or that you’ll come out of the collaboration with diminished respect for me or vice versa. You once gave me a lyric, and I’ve sort of been putting off setting it to music. Precisely because of this fear. But it’ll happen lah. And if it doesn’t we’ll just have to put it down to the circumstances we both work under.

What about you? Who would you like to collaborate with? (OK, you don’t need to feel obliged to say me, ha ha.) And what’s the difference between writing with the guitar and writing with the computer?


Jerome: Punk Zen

>> Stockhausen tried to throw structure out the window.

Oops, not Stockhausen. I mean Schoenberg. But Stockhausen too. 🙂

I agree with the complexities of labelling what passes off as music. Some composers have even shirk off the label of music, instead calling themselves organisers of sound. Which is another way of looking at it, I guess.

One fundamental thing I found out after having performed here and there is that people are very very personal and rather immovable when it comes to music. (Or anything else for that matter.) We’re all creatures of habit and love our bit of comfort. One man’s fish is another woman’s banana.

For years, I didn’t see any musical value in heavy metal and cock rock kind of music because I thought it was all about violence and angst. But now, after having met lots of very funny metal musicians and some who are really quite brilliant, I can appreciate the emotional place where it comes from and the need for the metallists to do what they do.

Punk is even more visceral. It’s all energy. But it’s quite Zen too at the same time. And there are people out there who will lay down their lives defending the tenets of punk and all that.

It’s like when Coltrane was doing his ‘sheets of sound’ stuff later in his career. Jazz purists who were still into bebop and swing just couldn’t understand and dismissed him. But those who saw that he was trying to expand the possibilities of the genre knew that his work was vital to the evolution and survival of jazz music.

> But at the same time, it also shouldn’t be an excuse for intellectual masturbation

Intellectual masturbation. Ha ha. I used to poke fun at it too. But it’s fun, no? I should shut up now.

> Milla Jovovich…  I’ve always wondered what happened to her.

She’s busy killing zombies in Hollywood, I think. I haven’t heard Divine Comedy but I heard her on The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack where she does a dreamy version of ‘Satellite of Love’.

> I’m afraid of collaborating with you

If it happens, it happens lah. No need to force it. 🙂 There’s nothing worse than being made to think of music as some kind of obligation.

> What about you? Who would you like to collaborate with?

Maybe write a pop song for Kylie, cause she’s quite fabulous. I don’t go for all of her music but I really respect her survival instincts. And Cyndi Lauper, who’s always been an inspiration. Arto Lindsay yeah. Maybe Robert Wyatt. Or Yuka Honda! Or DJ Krush, who does a lot of collaborating.

More down to earth and closer to home, I’ve been trying my hands on writing a little gamelan thingy for Gamelan Club actually, but it’s not very good. A lot of local musicians I’d like to work with, but a bit embarrassed to say here, because they might say “Eleh, who does he think he is?” Ha ha. And of course with you. But don’t know what I can contribute lah. Maybe some beat patterns? Come to think of it, our music is like chalk and cheese. 🙂

> What’s the difference between writing with the guitar and writing with the computer?

My knowledge of guitar is limited so I tend to write small simple songs with it. The computer has more sounds so the songs tend to be bigger. In terms of themes and moods, I think the computer makes me write rather cute tunes. I think it’s because of the Japanese cartoons I used to watch as a kid where computers and robots are quite friendly. Of course, you can write very dark and gothic stuff with a lot of texture using computers and samples, like Portishead and Massive Attack. But I’m more like Cibo Matto, very bubblegum and washing machine.

The guitar has rather sad memories for me, so the songs come out rather melancholy. I always try to make it sound like Suzanne Vega’s more haunting songs. But I fail and always end up sounding like myself. In a way that’s good though. I’d love to pick electric guitars though and feed it through millions of effects boxes. Ha ha.

I used to write with a cheesy Casio keyboard, which was a bit out of tune, and that was a lot of fun.

Of course, the next big challenge is to mix all these different approaches together. And then it’s either sink or swim.

A little detour back to the subject of influences.

It seems like both of us are very influenced by ‘Western’ music or overseas artists. But we’re very shaped by Malaysia’s very diverse musical landscape, though much of the music seems imported. You sing in Malay and English but your songs are written on the piano, a traditionally European instrument. I sing mostly in English and don’t even really make any effort to reference my Kadazan musical legacy. Sometimes I feel like I should tap into more indigenous musical forms but I’m such a banana I think it would be tokenistic and dishonest if I did. It would be an insult to the true blue traditional folk artists.

Do you ever feel like you should be referencing more traditional forms of music like joget or zapin, etc in your work?


Shanon: Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel

I used to be ashamed that I don’t try to push more boundaries the way Bjork does or the way Radiohead does. But then at some point I decided to be glad that I enjoy writing the songs that I write. It would be boring if everyone was trying to do what Bjork is doing. All fish and no bananas, so to speak.

> our music is like chalk and cheese

But you know, that could really work! Think Kylie & Nick Cave’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. Or Madonna & Mirwais with ‘Music’. Neneh Cherry and Michael Stipe with ‘Trout’. Tammy Wynette and the KLF with ‘Justified and Ancient’.

> referencing more traditional forms of music

With me, it’s not so much zapin and joget stuff. That’s all very KBSR and KBSM for me. For me, it’s more the Bollywood stuff my father used to play in his car. I’m not even talking about new stuff like ‘Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham’ or ‘Kuch Kuch Hotaa Hai’. The older stuff really gets to me in strange and beautiful ways. I’m also very much influenced by stuff my mother used to sing to us when we were kids – old Hokkien tunes, Chinese children’s songs. I love ‘Niwa wa’.

But, you know, I think this is the challenge that our generation of Malaysian artists will face. I for one have always felt disconnected from the so-called ‘traditional’ arts. Because I am classified as ‘Malay’ (even though I have Pakistani and Chinese blood), I used to react against any sort of homogenisation of ‘Malay’-ness. And in my personal interactions with so many other Malaysians, I find that so many of us do not fit into neat little boxes labeled ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ or ‘Other’. Even so many of my Malay friends are quite proud to announce that they have Banjar, or Javanese, or Bugis, or Malabari ancestry. The person who introduced my brother and sister to ABBA and The Carpenters was our Aka Kamala, who is a Tamil Hindu Malaysian who also spoke to my mother in Hokkien, to my father in Tamil and to us in English! The person who introduced me to a lot of Malay music is my childhood friend who is classified as Malay, but is actually a Hadhrami, a Syed.

I for one feel such an ache for reclaiming the many wonderful aspects of my identity – my Indian-ness, my Pakistani-ness, my Chinese-ness, my Malay-ness, my father’s Islam, my mother’s Catholicism before she converted to Islam, my grandmother’s Buddhism, Aka Kamala’s Hinduism – and most of the time I find that I have to react against an environment in which race and religion are so politicised.

And it’s hard not to feel that in my choice to pursue songwriting on the piano, I am actually making a very political decision and a very political statement. But underneath the politics of it lies the fact that I choose the piano and I choose to write songs in this way because of my lived experiences, too.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see the piano as a Malaysian instrument. Only because of the ways in which things have unfolded in this country over history. Purging colonialism is not the same as excising the ways in which all our lives have been shaped by the forces of modernity. The former is necessary, the latter is destructive. For me, the issue is more about how I – as a middle-class, ‘Western’-influenced Malaysian singer­ songwriter – can connect and build bridges with other Malaysian artists who have chosen the path of more traditional art forms.

Jerome, this has truly been a pleasure. Don’t know if it’s been masturbatory, but it was definitely intellectually orgasmic!


Shanon Shah’s album under Pony Canyon will be out soon. Look out for it!

Jerome Kugan is co-organiser of KL Sing Song, a songwriters festival and workshop. Check it out!

Pete Teo has organised Songwriters Round 16 and Songwriters Round 17 in conjunction with KL Sing Song.

First Published: 07.04.2005 on Kakiseni

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