Photography by @faridsyedd

Lunadira wants to shatter the Malaysian pop mould

After dabbling in YouTube covers, it was when the Kuala Lumpur singer-songwriter focused on original songs that she struck a chord.

by Kelly Lim
10 March 2020, 5:27am

Photography by @faridsyedd

“It’s interesting that we’re talking on this day because it's not as if I'm riding on a wave where I have a lot of big things coming up,” Lunadira says as she finishes her iced latte outside Patina By Three, a homegrown cafe located in a quieter neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur’s Uptown Damansara. She signals her close friend Jimmy aka Reddi Rocket — cafe co-founder and fellow label-mate who produced her latest single Crazy Dizzy — for another latte before calmly continuing her train of thought, “Right now, it feels like I’m in the space I need to be in right before that happens.”

Don’t mistake her laidback attitude for complacency. The last year has seen the 25-year-old singer-songwriter garner 1.3 million Spotify plays in a total of 78 countries, in addition to sharing the stage with the likes of artists like SZA, Lorde and The Neighbourhood at major local festivals such as Good Vibes and Urbanscapes. Despite her relatively quick ascent to the spotlight, she’s focused on longevity when it comes to her own music and how she can work together with other creatives to introduce new sounds to the local scene.

Malaysia’s music industry is small compared to the international acts abroad. There’s a clear formula to success if you want to make it in the local, male-dominated, Malay pop market (“make a Malay track, look a certain way, collaborate with certain people”) or on the mainstream charts that play Drake songs from five years ago on the radio.

But that’s not to say there isn’t talent or change beyond that. Lunadira stresses that there are efforts within the industry and emerging talents like alt-indie band Midnight Fusic and MC-producer Airliftz, who are all working together to spark a collective movement that will make things different. “DJs on the radio are trying to change it too,” she adds. “They want to insert more local stuff. Local collectives like Saturday Selects and Under The Radar are working with spaces to introduce new music to the local nightlife. They’re fighting for it too. Collectively, everyone is like we're sitting on a goldmine right now, why don't we push it out?”

Live music venues are limited in the city, so independent cafes and bars, offering more intimate spaces, are increasingly popular locations. YouTube was the catalyst that allowed previously unsigned and undiscovered artists to make their voices heard and gain recognition in the mass market mould of music in Southeast Asia.

Strumming along to ‘Yuku’ her ukulele, Lunadira was one of them. She cultivated an online audience by turning songs like Zayn’s Pillowtalk into silky, layered renditions of her own. Following the encouragement of her friends, she then started showcasing her songwriting skills through short videos on Twitter before dropping her first self-penned single Forever’s Not Our Thing in 2017. Writing was a way for her to process her nonstop stream of thoughts and emotions but turning them into songs allowed her to connect with other people. Her melancholic musings on heartbreak crooned over airy ukulele riffs, introducing a less produced, intimately relatable sound to locals who resonate strongly with her sadness. Local independent label This Way Up Records, brainchild of Malaysia’s hiphop maverick Jin Hackman, took note and took her in as their first and only female artist.

Since then, Lunadira’s released two other tracks: the sultry 2018 hit STUCK WITH YOU, a raw, bluesy guitar piece that laments the emotional back and forth of a dysfunctional relationship, and ur cute but boring, a catchy, more whimsical track that pokes fun at a lover who’s more beauty than brains. Both songs are sonically different to what usually plays on the radio, but Lunadira has always been adamant about making music that’s true to who she is. She credits the diversity of cultures and languages in Kuala Lumpur for nurturing the strong sense of self-awareness that comes out in her songs. This process of creation, along with constant collaboration, brings about a level of open-mindedness and trust that allows her to create her own narrative without compromising her heritage, “It’s something I strive to do every time I write my music, especially in a country where culture and religion are often sewn together unnecessarily.”

Her latest track Crazy Dizzy is further evidence of the artist’s ongoing growth. Breathy vocals croon over soft piano notes that occasionally glitches back and forth like an old record, almost hypnotising the listeners into a seduction of self-destruction, “Baby girl you shouldn't play with fire / If your heart is soaked in gasoline.” Decidedly maturer in tone, the song is mesmerising with nu soul influences, as she cries out internal conflicts about being captivated by another, despite knowing herself that the relationship is evidently doomed.

Crazy Dizzy is a song that I’ve always wanted to create from the start but I couldn’t communicate that in the beginning,” she explains, emphasising that the close knit community around her has been integral to her growth as an artist. The cafe is one of their usual hangouts and has become somewhat of a safe haven for chill time, impromptu jams and serious meetings when required. "It was only possible through a jamming session with Jimmy and another friend, Farid (aka artist $miley). Jimmy understands my language. I told them, I had a baseline in mind and just wanted to record it. Farid went onto the keys, then the hook was made and that was that. Initially, I felt nervous pushing it out because it was a sound that was catered purely to myself. But a few people actually came up to me and said ‘yeah this is so you’, and that made me really emotional.”

When asked what she’s working on now, she jokes that she only releases one song a year, “Someone actually tweeted, can she please release more songs? The thing is, I have a fuck ton of songs that I made in the beginning and maybe it’s because of how I consume music, but I realised that it was hard for me to find my own sound that way. You can look at an album and hear ten different genres, but making it work is a challenge.”

If she had the financial support, she’d focus only on music. But as of right now, she’s juggling a part-time job, live performances at local gigs, and squeezing in studio sessions whenever she can for the EP that’s currently in the works.

“Right now, I’m learning a lot, and figuring out how I can execute my music in a way that can capture the attention of people who aren’t used to my sound,” she says. “I’m working on a single that’s again different from what I’ve put out. Lyrics are one way I can draw them in, but I’m also thinking about how I can use my voice and melodies as a tool so that people can appreciate the production too. It’s about telling my story and working with other people to do that through sound. There are a lot of girls who do covers and want to make music, but they aren’t sure how. Hopefully, someone will see me and think, I can do that too.”

pop music
kuala lumpur
i-D Asia