Rocket Men Pt. 1

We invited Shanon Shah, winner of the Kakiseni Most Promising Young Artist Award 2003, and Jerome Kugan, nominee for Best Original Music for Theatre last year, to correspond with each other via emails, discussing their influences, techniques and worldviews. Both of them have been on popular demand at Pete Tea’s Songwriters Rounds, and have generated keen followings of their own.

Shanon, who spent the better part of last year in a studio, is due to release his debut album (under lnterglobal Music, formerly Pony Canyon) anytime soon. He just quit his job as a risk analyst at Petronas two months ago and is presently busy with human rights activities and some songwriting commissions. Jerome, freelance ghost writer and subeditor at KLue, is meanwhile busy organising KL Sing Song, the songwriters festival featuring workshops and gigs by troubadours from Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and, of course, Malaysia.

Being the verbose creatures they are, Jerome and Shanon generated 10 emails and over 16,000 words. Here is the edited down first half:


Jerome Kugan: What’s Tina got to do with it?

First off, I’d like to sort of compare notes with Shanon on musical influences.

When I was younger, I sort of went for powerful vocalists with colourful personalities. Tina Turner was an early idol. I remember watching her videos and copying her dance moves. And then I heard Tracy Chapman who really blew me away with her first album. She didn’t have the moves and she looked like a man, but her songs were amazing. I got into the black civil rights thing for a while but got over it. Because of her, I was very much into folkish female singers: Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Tanita Tikaram, Rickie Lee Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, etc.

Still, I never wanted to be a musician or anything. I’m more of a writer. I was really into books and writing poetry. Music only came to me when I studied in Australia way back in 94. It was a combination of things: Different attitudes, being away from home, coming out and the opportunity to perform my poetry in public, all those things really boosted my confidence and I started singing.

A friend Eric, who’s now a singer in Adelaide, turned me on to lots of music that was very new to me: The Cure, Dead Kennedys, Bedridden, Kate Bush, Siouxsie, Joy Division, etc. But the ones who really made an impact on me were Bjork, Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead.

They were sort of leading the way in music at the time. You didn’t have to use conventional chords or structures. You could invent your own, providing you still kept timing and maintained the scale.

Especially Bjork. She is a total inspiration. The way she pitted her voice against quite amazing arrangements, which were both classic and groundbreaking at the same time. Her kind of music also opened my ears to appreciate a whole load of stuff like Plaid, Aphex Twin and Autechre. It’s just been non-stop exploration since then. Everytime I hear a new singer or band doing something I’ve never heard before, I just flip out. How do they do this? How can they get away with it?


Shanon Shah: My name is Karim, I live on the second floor…

I also started off by trying to imitate the people whom I admired the most. The first song I ever tried to write was my very own Malay version of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Luka’. It was called ‘Karim’ and I was eleven. I wasn’t a victim or witness of domestic violence, but I shuddered at the thought of being subjected to such trauma. My intentions were good, but my song turned out awful.

>Tina Turner…

Me too! Watching Tina Live in Europe was such an electrifying experience! I spent weeks after that trying to reproduce ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ in front of the mirror.

At first I wanted to be a classical pianist. I started studying classical piano from the age of six. I loved Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Rachmaninoff and I had fantasies of being the Malaysian Vladimir Horowitz. But I derived a different, more immediate pleasure from pop music.

I discovered very early on that Elton John never wrote his own lyrics, so I thought, “OK, that’s what I’ll do – I’ll write the music and get somebody else to collaborate with on the lyrics.” But being Muslim, mixed-race and thirteen in Alor Setar in the early 1990’s, it was not that easy for me to find my Bernie Taupin. Most of my peers hadn’t even heard ‘Rocket Man’ before.

So, from necessity, I had to write my own lyrics. In between writing my science reports and doing my karangan, I would scribble my lyrics into little notebooks which I would hastily stuff under my mattress later because I didn’t want to be found out. I wrote, on average, a song a day. At that rate, you can imagine that the quality of the output did not really match the quantity.

The turning point for me was Tori Amos. I first heard Little Earthquakes when I was 16 and I was stunned. Being a pianist, I was just floored by the way she made the piano sing her pain. And being a really sensitive boy – a reader of books, a lover of music – I found it difficult relating to other kids my age. So Little Earthquakes became my best friend. I would rush through my tuition classes, my piano practice, my homework and my revision, just so I could spend an hour before bed huddled next to my hand-me-down cassette player, sharing in Tori’s pain and ecstasy.

By the end of secondary school, I had also formed intense relationships with albums by Bjork, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Sting, Aimee Mann, Til Tuesday, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow and Kate Bush.

I come from a household that loves music. My mother sang Doris Day, Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley songs to my siblings and I while we were still rolling around in amnionic fluid in her womb. She sang some Beatles, too. My father is a lover of classic Bollywood songs. He drove me to school every day and in his car he played Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Our beloved domestic helper at the time, my Aka Kamala, was a lover of The Carpenters, ABBA, Boney M and Donny & Marie. And I have an elder brother and sister who introduced me to The Police, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Sheena Easton, The Eurythmics and the oh-so-popular Solid Gold chart show on TV.

My brother was also an avid reader of RS Murthi’s reviews. So he introduced me to this culture of reading reviews, and the importance of forming your own opinions about what you listen to, read or watch.

> Music only came to me when I studied in Australia way back in 94

I walked a similar path in Melbourne. But I studied chemical engineering. And I would steal away to the music room at RMIT University in between lectures. Sometimes when the room was empty I would just walk in and play the piano, even though I hadn’t booked the room.

Soon, friends started dropping in. They were mostly my coursemates who had no idea I knew how to play the piano. Soon I started playing them my own songs, and from the positive feedback that I got I soon started auditioning for theater productions at RMIT and also for gigs outside of uni.

A friend of mine, a Bosnian guy called Mensur, introduced me to Leonard Cohen, Ute Lemper, Nick Cave, Suede and lent me PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love. Another friend, Corrinne, introduced me to Pulp. And I went on discovering stuff on my own like Portishead, Morcheeba, Massive Attack, Sam Phillips, Shawn Colvin, Crowded House and Randy Newman. I remember discovering that my favourite Beatles album at the time was Rubber Soul.

But starting off as a classical pianist, I was intrigued by structure – I loved sonatas. And this is also what excites me about pop music – how people work with structure. How do people continue to make the verse-chorus-verse-­chorus-bridge-chorus formula fresh and exciting? Aimee Mann is a genius when it comes to this. So were Lennon and McCartney.

And I’m also someone who is big on melody. Which is why I’m nuts about Sam Phillips. Have you heard A Boot and a Shoe? She has these songs that last only a minute or two, but with the most sublime melodies you could wrap your tongue around.

I also like stuff that has razor-sharp social analysis. I just discovered this song called “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It’s about how Native Americans get screwed by big business and big government. It’s such a great song – it has rage, dignity, urgency, a driving beat, power chords, stunning lyrical craft and unassailable politics.

I just get scared every time I try to write message songs. I don’t want to be hitting people on the head with my politics. I also don’t want to end up being the idiot with the political axe to grind. But yeah, though my life as a songwriter started off ‘Karim’ – which I ended up throwing away – I feel like one day I will come full circle and finish ‘Karim’, once I have developed my analytical powers.

Anyway, I’d like to know what Jerome’s songwriting process is. What about re-writes? I’m so lazy when it comes to re-writing lyrics. Lyrics need to scan well – they need to flow, to paint a picture and tell a story. The music, however, needs to pierce through the part of your heart that you think is inconsolable.


Jerome: Cutting Up New Territory

I went through many many years of writing really bad poetry – over-sincere about experiences that I didn’t even have. I was writing so-called ‘love’ poetry years before I even had a taste of it. And ‘war’ poetry in KK? It cracks me up to think of my pretensions, which I’m still trying to slough off. It really dawned on me that one should write from one’s own experience while I was studying writing in Australia. But it’s still trying to sink in, I think, cause I’m not a big supporter of realist writing. I’ve been moved too much by Surrealist writing too much to completely drop elements of fantasy from my work.

Reading about your influences and music background, I have this impression you have a structured approach to writing music. I’m not as disciplined I think.

I started writing songs by experimenting with a walkman. I would sing into a tape, singing half poems or something that was going through my mind at the time. And then I would play it back and see if it was worth anything. If the melody worked, I would learn it. I used to sing my little songs a capella. I don’t think it’s the usual practice, to write songs like that. So I came from quite leftfield. And I was quite inspired too by Yungchen Lhamo, a Tibetan singer who could keep crowds entranced with just her amazing voice.

Later, I used a little Casio keyboard to compose. Nothing complicated. One note chords, three chord vamps. Sometimes I would use the canned beats, which always made people laugh. To compensate for the minimal backing, I pushed my voice to become quite big, like a foghorn.

In terms of writing lyrics, I had read a lot of stuff by the Beat writers and their American/drugged-out/jazz appropriation of stream-of-consciousness or automatic writing. Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg are always kind of big among liberal arts students, I guess. I remember this one time when a friend and I were just banging and banging away on bongos in a toilet and recording into a 4-track. It was quite dumb but invaluable now as a kind of artistic release.

Then, around 96/97, I fell into league with a couple of left-wing Surrealist poets and musicians. We formed a Casio-punk band called Cutting Up New Territory (or C.U.N.T.). We were self-consciously political and unabashedly unpolished. We were probably one of the worst bands ever. But it was so much fun. Very high drama and listless raw outpouring of insults against the government. The anarchy was fun for a while, but ultimately pointless because we forgot that we had to communicate. Or I wanted to anyway.

I think my friends Elena and Sue, who are both underground reluctant singer songwriters based in Austalia, who really helped me connect the words and emotions on a deeper level. I think it was that yin energy that they gave me: to care and labour over something. The song writing process as a kind of meditation on the self.

It’s easy for me to lose focus. And even easier to lose heart, because yes, sometimes I too find myself walking a well-worn groove. You think you’re in paradise but then you stumble on a shopping mall. Sometimes shopping malls can be inspiring but usually for the wrong reasons. Sometimes I want a tree! With flowers and fruits! With little birds in a nest!

I like going for walks when I’m having blocks. But KL is kind of pedestrian unfriendly I find and not much natural environment on offer. So it can get a bit hard here. I really miss the sea. So most often I turn to my poetry, which receives the brunt of my frustration, copiously drafting and re-editing them. It’s like I’m screaming and beating up my poetry so I can behave and keep the songs pure and innocent. Ha ha. Or hitting the clubs and party like forever never existed. Hedonism works sometimes.

Shanon, you are soon to launch your debut album. Tell me something about the recording process. I’m very curious about it. I’ve had bad experiences in the studio before, where I’m quite intimidated by the engineers who are usually older and have more experience. I prefer working with younger people, because they seem just as clueless as me. But it’s not really working out. I wonder if you could give me some tips.


Shanon: I heard there was a secret park…

I’d be in over my head if I even attempted to discuss Surrealist vs Realist writing. But this whole experiential thing confuses me. On one hand, I really feel strongly that a writer has no right to speak FOR anyone else. But at the same time, how would I craft a story or a song about, say, violence against women when I am not a woman?

For now, I start by thinking in terms of principles. I mean, I don’t need to be dishonest and speak for experiences that are not my own. But, as in my earlier example, I could just speak in support OF women because of my belief in the larger principles of justice and equality.

> you have a structured approach to writing music.

Yup 🙂 That’s very true. It doesn’t just have to do with being classically trained or having been a budak skema for so long. I suppose I just need the constraints of structure in order to access the intangible and the mysterious.

> I would sing into a tape

Yalah, this is VERY not me, ha ha. I’m someone who can’t write with the assistance of anything remotely more technologically advanced than a pen and paper. Not even a walkman.

I sit at the piano and try to work things out. When I discover a tune, I try to contain my excitement. I’ll play something else. If, after a couple of hours, I find that I can recall the tune that I got excited about in the first place, then I’ll pursue it. Have you ever had that experience of thinking you’ve written something fabulous when actually you’ve just regurgitated an old Beatles song?

> I pushed my voice to become quite big, like a foghorn.

Like what Janice said to Chandler in Friends: “Your voice is just calling out to me like a foghorn! JA-NICE! JA­ NICE! JA-NICE!”

OK I digress. My voice used to be really small. No foghorns with me. I love good microphones. But now I’m trying to push my voice, too.

> We were self-consciously political

Yeah, my politicisation happened quite late. I was not politicised as a student. I developed some consciousness of issues – like feminism, human rights, freedom of religion – later in my uni years but never enough to spring me into action.

The point is, my experience with music-making has predominantly been very solitary. I work alone, most of the time. Sometimes it gets lonely, and sometimes I wonder if this’ll turn me into a control freak. But then I think about the whole landscape, about how everyone has a part to play in contributing to its rich contours, and then I feel that it’s ok to work alone at some point. Because my goal is not to end up an island. My goal is still to connect with others. But paradoxically, that’ll only happen when I pay careful attention to myself.

> I like going for walks when I’m having blocks

Yes! You know what’s amazing? I used to finish songs while I went on walks in Melbourne! I remember I used to lock myself up in my room, cracking my head over some damn second verse and then I’d just storm out and take a brisk walk to the park. And while walking, I’d get flashes of inspiration. By the time I reached the park, I would have to rush back to my room because I knew by then what the second verse was going to be.

And you’re right – this is not a luxury we have in KL. As a pedestrian, I feel so severed from the roads and pathways that are supposed to sambut my footfalls.

> Tell me something about the recording process

It was scary. The thing is, even on good days I’m not a confident vocalist. My voice gets trapped in my throat when I get nervous.

Which is why I needed to get help from Sandra Sodhy. I realised that the problem was not that I could not sing. It was that I was terrified of singing alone in that small room. And the trick was to look at my lyrics and find some way of making the text come alive in my head. In a live performance, you are communicating with people who are actually there. In the studio, the communication needs to be simulated BUT IT CANNOT BE FAKED. So I just had to find a way to breathe properly, sing from my gut and not my throat, and make the images come to life in my head.

I think that if you don’t have production expertise, you really need someone more experienced than you are to help you with your first album. Someone nice, and someone whose artistic vision jives with yours. I know my album hasn’t been released yet and I shouldn’t cakap banyak, but I feel that I’ve had the good fortune of working with a producer who was not only experienced, but whose objectives for the album also resonated with mine.

Jerome, where do you see yourself in the local music scene? Do you have a Plan about where you want to take your music? Do you see yourself at age 70, in an ashram, waking up at 4 a.m. and writing every morning for two hours just in time for your 6 a.m. meditation session a la Leonard Cohen?


Jerome: The dog that went to outer space

> Have you ever had that experience of thinking you’ve written something fabulous when actually you’ve just regurgitated an old Beatles song?

No, thank God. Not Beatles. But it’s just because I never had a hero worship thing about the Beatles. I’m more of a Yoko fan.

Every generation has to challenge what’s still relevant. That’s why sometimes I force myself sometimes to take in stuff I just find so harmonically wrong, as a challenge to myself. It’s important to define one’s boundaries, in order to break them.

It takes a certain state of mind, combined with the right personality, at the right moment and place, and with an audience receptive to the idea, to get it right, I think. As with anything. Sometimes, the idea of success might involve falling flat on one’s face in the present. And then thirty years later, you’re touted as a groundbreaker – that broken nose was suddenly worth it. In some cases it’s funny, but in others it’s quite tragic. We all love Nick Drake now, but hardly anyone listened to him when he was still alive. And sometimes it’s not really what’s being said, but how it’s said. Leonard Cohen writes fantastic lyrics. But the bleating of ducks reveals more emotional range than Leonard Cohen. Still, he gets away with it because of how he croaks it. There’s gold in that half octave. Such singers astound me.

> my experience with music-making has predominantly been very solitary

I think it sort of comes down to how resonant an individual experience can be. And what’s considered ‘a resonant individual experience’.

When I listen to songs that use a lot of I, me, myself references (which I do a lot), I listen out for things that I don’t have, have never felt, or described in a way that I have never come across. Witty lyrics are quite fun but sometimes the wittiness can really distract. There are many sides to humour. Sadly, most people only feel comfortable reacting to the slapstick variety. The same with the overly sentimental stuff. There are many ways of approaching emotions.

I try to avoid making statements that are too big, too general, too all-encompassing, or that are too predictable and final. Because, to me, that is untrue. There’s no such thing. There’s always another day. Political and philosophical stuff can be hard to explore because you can’t simplify it nor can you be too naive about it (or maybe you can – who knows?) or it ends up cheapened and loses resonance.

I think, that at the end of it, there’s only the little old me, I live alone, love alone, die alone, kind of truth which is kind of sad, but kind of funny too – but I’d like to challenge that. The thing is that there could never be too many ways of saying anything because our lives are constantly changing. Just a few years ago, who would imagine writing songs about ‘I love you so much I stuck a picture of your favourite pin-up boy on the back of my ipod’. Or “You remind me of the dog that went to outer space/ You bitch, I thought you left for good/ But you came back and burned the sky/ Attention-seeking tramp till the very end” That kind of thing. And yeah, I don’t believe in rhymes. But if it works, yeah, why not?

> where do you see yourself in the local music scene?

I don’t know really. The kind of music that I do gets kind of misinterpreted by a lot of people, especially in the local music scene. Mainly because it draws on sources that aren’t very mainstream. I sing about obscure film characters I empathise with. Or about roses that talk. Or have lyrics that just praise a friend and his work. You know, that kind of thing. I’m very much a bohemian softie at heart. I kind of let go of a lot of baggage when I write. Become a total child. Scream and coo.

When I did Ops Ophelia, I think the action happening onstage really helped people absorb the music. So I’m definitely into doing more theatrical stuff. I don’t know if I want to be regarded as purely a musician, in the classical sense. I feel inadequate for that. I’d like to be more punk actually. But fitting oneself into boxes because it’s easier for others to digest you is kind of dumb.

A lot of things depress me about the world today, which includes the music scene at times, because some parts of it is really brutal. No one should have to go through all that. It’s the price of fame, they say, but I don’t believe in that kind of bullshit. People don’t have to be assholes just because they want everlasting fame.

In a sense, I don’t really want the limelight. I just want to share my music. I do want to record it and release it though. I’ve done a few recording sessions which yielded less than average results. Also, living and working alone, without financial backing, it’s hard to get anything off the ground. It’s easy too to lose heart. I’d like to ask for favours but sometimes I feel unworthy or intimidated because other people have different ideas of where it should go and I’m kind of unwilling to go in that direction.

Thinking about all this really distracts from the making of the music though. I really only want to think of making it first before spreadsheeting some market plan kind of thingie. But I definitely see myself pursuing music for a while. It’s a real pleasure. I don’t know about forever though. I have my poems, which call out every now and then from their folders in the middle of the night, crying for some attention. And I have to comply, you know, cause they’re like little onion bulbs that need water.

But meditation and ashrams, yeah, definitely. Although I’ll probably be the one who’ll have contraband under the meditation mat.

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

And since it was brought up, what do you think of the local scene? Do you have a favourite local performer?


Click here for Part 2 of this article.

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!

First Published: 01.04.2005 on Kakiseni

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