Archive | November, 2009

Songs from the Jiwang Kingdom: a review

23 Nov

If you haven’t heard of Mia Palencia, it’s a damn shame.

This Sabahan singer-songwriter has a voice that sounds like honey would if it could sing, sweet yet as strong and full-bodied as a good brew of Arabica coffee.

She’s a jazz crooner as well as an acoustic folk songstress and though I love hearing her do jazz standards, her original songs are still my favourites.

Mia launched her second album a couple weeks back, a mix of tunes called Songs from the Jiwang Kingdom. Though I liked her first album Finding My Way, her sophomore album is so much stronger lyric-wise and its stripped down simplicity is something I find really appealing. In these times where there’s too much overproduction, her simple, soothing arrangements are balm for tired ears.

Her first single, Adam’s Anthem, is currently playing on the airwaves and it’s a fun, folksy tune. But it’s not a schmaltzy ‘tribute’ to her partner, but an honest examination of the insecurities that often plague us especially when it comes to love.

"But you will never know how hard I try, to be the dream you think I am."

The next song, Call Waiting, is a rather humourous song about relationship troubles. Ever known what it’s like to desperately wait for your irate other half to pick up the phone, just so you could apologise and smoothen troubled waters? "Pick up the phone, baby, please don’t miss my call again." It’s the kind of song you could have fun sing along to or, if you’re so inclined, sing outside your lover’s door in the hopes they open it.

(Here’s Mia performing the song with Reza Salleh. I had to stop swooning at listening to Reza. It’s so hard not to want to have his babies)

Mia, if you’ve watched her perform live, has quite the sense of humour and it comes across in her songs. Another hilarious piece is the song Biru about a clueless would-be lover.

If you’re in the mood for something more soothing, The Tender Hour is a dreamy piece about that quiet stillness of midnight. The lovelorn would find some measure of solace in her song about unrequited love, Strong Enough.

There really aren’t any ‘filler’ songs on this album and it’s interesting to see Mia infuse some veiled social commentary in the song Smokescreen. The subtlety of the lyrics are far more effective than a full-on protest song, asking more questions of the listener than pretending to answer them. I suppose it’s a sign of Mia’s growing maturity as a lyricists.

If you want easy listening with a bit more lyrical bite, Mia Palencia’s second album is obviously a carefully crafted set of songs with a lot of heart and accessibility.

Must listens: Smokescreen, Call Waiting, Tender Hour, Adam’s Anthem

To have a listen, go to

Order the album by emailing It’s only RM30 and well-worth the money.

Shameless plug here: Mia’s music will grace Electric Minds Project’s next play, Light in KL City. I’ve been incredibly blessed to get the privilege of providing the lyrics for her songs in the play. Do come watch the play and listen to new interpretations of Mia’s music. Running Christmas week at KLPAC, Pentas 2.

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Songwriting for dummies

15 Nov

So my ‘padawan’ as I call him asks me how you go about writing a song.

Do you write the lyrics first then the music or vice versa?

Simple answer is: anyway you want to.

A song can be as short as three lines or as long as you want it to be.

Writing ‘classical’ music is tricky – you need to adhere to rules of composition and musical notation. Think years of counterpoint lessons but at least, in the end you’ll have a strong foundation in formal music training. It’s good to have, but not absolutely essential to write songs.

Other genre of musics are slightly easier. Pop, folk, country, good old rock and roll – you don’t need formal training to write a good ‘current’ song.

If you’re a writer, I’d suggest writing a poem to start with. Poems are easier to set to music because of the way they’re structured. They have a rhythm to the words; ‘beats’ that you can easily structure to music.

You can’t sing a novel. Nor can you set a novella to music either.

Poems are meant to be read.

Plays are meant to be performed.

Songs are meant to be sung.

You don’t have to have a melody on your head to start with. But if you do, then get that melody recorded. Whether on your phone or your computer, just hum or sing the tune to nonsense words or just ‘lalala’ even. Words may come but melodies, they are fleeting.

The easiest way to get started on songwriting is by learning to play an instrument. A guitar is, hands down, the best starting instrument for wannabe songwriters. You can write plenty of songs knowing just four chords – I kid you not. Many a song has been written with the simple G-E-C-D chord progression.

Other ways to practise songwriting:

1. Grab an anthology of poems and attempt to set a random poem to music

2. Do parodies. Choose a song you particularly like and make a funny ‘alternative’ version of it. It’s great practise at making words ‘fit’ a melody structure.

3. Take simple children’s songs or lullabies and attempt to change a note or two. A jazz version of Rockabye baby? A blues version of He’s Got The Whole World? The sky’s the limit.

Other tips – dissect songs. Figure out how they work – tempo, melody, lyrical breakdown. Compare two of your favourite songs from different genres.

Your first few songs are going to sound like other people’s. Deal with it. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. Just don’t attempt to sell those songs; you’re likely to get sued.

Songwriting, like any other type of writing, is something you get better at by practising. Try writing one song a month. Take baby steps. For inspiration, watch Wayne Brady and how he randomly improvs songs on demand. Sure, the songs he ‘writes’ for Whose Line Is It Anyway won’t win Grammys but it’s enjoyable demonstrate songwriting stripped down to the barest minimum.

Try collaborative songwriting. Maybe you know a friend who’s great at creating melodies – you could come up with the lyrics instead. Most importantly, have fun and aim to write songs that you know you would want to listen to.

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