WHEN it comes to making bold statements, few do it with the unapologetic charm of experimental electro-pop-with-a-dash-of-nusantara singer-musician known by her pseudonym Takahara Suiko or Taka in short.
“I started my musical journey by getting kicked out of a band,” she begins matter-of-factly. I blink. She doesn’t wait to ease me into her sphere.
“I was too outspoken so they decided to look for a replacement without telling me,” she confides, telling me half-gleefully that she chanced upon their advertisement for a new vocalist.
“It was for my position,” she adds, before continuing with an unrepentant smirk: “So they don’t want me? Fine! I’ll start my own band. So I went ahead with my crazy idea of being a one-woman band!”
The cliched “rest is history” rings true for her. Calling herself “The Venopian Solitude” (“there’s no real meaning to it. “Solitude perhaps because I was doing everything by myself”), Taka went on to make music unabashedly in her own inimitable style — viscerally accessible songs filled with wild ideas and incongruous references to social commentary of the times.
Her unique brand of music found an audience. “I simply made music, uploaded them on YouTube and went on to make more,” she says, adding that it eventually got her an invitation to attend the reputable Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal last year, where she joined 34 up-and-coming music makers from 38 countries across the globe, making her the first Malaysian to be selected to join the world-travelling music institution.
Set up in 1998 by Red Bull, the Red Bull Music Academy hosts an annual month-long invite-only workshop, entailing daily intimate lectures with pioneers from various areas within music who share about production topics, music history, and personal stories.
By night, the academy hosts a four-week long music festival with parties and concerts, allowing participants to perform on varied platforms, from legendary club venues and obscure basements to cultural institutions and halls. Previous lecturers included Erykah Badu, Brian Eno, Giorgio Moroder and Bjork.
EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME
Hijab-wearing and slightly austere in appearance, Taka contradicts the monolithic image of a singer — glossy and glamorous.
“When they hear my music and then see me, people get surprised. I think they expect a different image but I couldn’t care less at all,” says the 27-year-old somewhat defiantly.
“I didn’t expect to get in,” she says of her acceptance to the academy. She tells me it was her second application that got her in and the experience was “intense”.
Her eyes light up as she recounts: “It was two weeks of intense collaboration with other fellow musicians. We got to perform every night in many different places all around Montreal and were given full access to state-of-the-art studios with the best equipment.” So what came out of it? “150 songs from 35 participants!” she exclaims.
“We squeezed in as much studio time as we possibly could. We’d rush into studios in between lectures and it was pretty mind blowing to have to come up with that many completed songs and then, some uncompleted tracks as well!” she recalls, smiling. “There was so much to learn and observe. The way people work and how productive they are when they’re in their ‘zone’ made me realise that I can’t be lazy. I’ve got to work harder than this!”
She describes that with all the latest equipment and sound system they were exposed to, it was basically two weeks of “ear-gasm”. Chuckling, she says: “I came back to my own humble speakers and thought to myself ‘this is so sad!’”
Still, “humble” equipment was what started her lifelong passion for music.
“My earliest memory of music composition was when I was 10 years old. I’d use my father’s monophonic phone back in those days and tinker on the single-note playing tones to create my own tunes,” she recalls, telling me that her mother was adamant that she and her siblings focused on their studies so they weren’t allowed to take up any music lessons.
“My only outlet was that phone,” she says half-wistfully.
It was only after her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) that Taka actually insisted on wanting to play the guitar. Her mother pointed to the old keyboard gifted to her by her father when she was 15 and told her bluntly: “Janganlah main gitar. Keyboard kat rumah tu penuh habuk!” (Don’t play the guitar while your keyboard at home is gathering dust).
“So in retaliation, I stayed up all night and played the keyboard on full volume just to annoy her!” she recollects with another laugh.
As an aside she confides with a grin: “I did buy a guitar later. which I managed to keep from my mother for at least a year!”
Her candour is refreshing but Taka remains tightlipped about her real name despite being aware that in the music industry, visibility is important.
It was an idea that highlighted her creative clout but it was also a coping mechanism, forming a pop-star proxy to deal with the invasiveness of fame.
“Nobody out there knows my name,” she says, revealing that the idea of having an alternative identity originated from the days of the early Internet.
“I was a voracious IRC user (Internet Relay Chat, a real-time chatboard where users connect and chat under the guise of anonymity) and there was a time I went through the ugly experience of being sexually harassed online.”
Deciding never to put out her real name again coupled with her obsession with Japanese culture then resulted in the pseudonym Takahara Suiko.
The relative anonymity suits her just fine.
“It separates my music life from my personal life. Like at home, my mother doesn’t call me Takahara Suiko, she calls me Adik. So if Takahara Suiko becomes super famous one day, it won’t get into my head. I’m still Adik to my mother and a wife to my husband. I’m still me,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
SPREADING HER WINGS
Our conversation shifts to her genre-bending music and when I ask her to describe her music, Taka sighs. It’s the sort of sigh that comes with a slight eye-roll and exasperated sub-vocal muttering. A sigh that, despite her best efforts, she can’t quite seem to suppress.
“I haven’t tried describing my genre.
I don’t know what to call it!” she exclaims, telling me half-exasperatedly that the thread that binds her work together isn’t genre but her own stories or authorship.
“People keep trying to pin down the sound or style of Venopian Solitude but the truth is you’re never going to be able to.”
After a pause, she says reluctantly: “I’d say my music is theatrical in terms of my music and lyrics. It starts with something slow and then builds up before going down. As much as I’d like to say it’s theatrical, I don’t really know what theatrical means!”
Her unique brand of music isn’t her only draw. Her vocal prowess is just as arresting from breathy, almost tentative old-school timbre progressing to full-bodied wailing that’s guaranteed to send tingles down your spine.
I’m tempted to categorise Venopian Solitude as belonging to my favourite genre: music that makes your eyes well up and your heart beat faster. Her music makes you feel uncomfortable because you never know what is coming around the curve.
She agrees: “I think that’s good, that’s important; sometimes it never gets better but sometimes it gets great.”
Citing artistes such as Kimya Dawson, Regina Spektor, Kimbra and Laura Marling as her influences, she says they have helped her develop and shape her musical journey to what it is today.
She’s no longer a one-woman show today but instead has been with a group of bandmates who actively contributes towards the creative process and sound.
So it’s no more Solitude now, I remark and she laughingly agrees: “I’d like to think we’re really moving towards being something bigger.”
A glint in her eye, she continues: “I love the idea of having four bassists, six guitarists, and you know, 10 percussionists and what-not. There’s this one song in our soon-to-be released album where the arrangement involved four percussionists, two drummers, two bassists, one guitarist and three keyboard players. There are only six of us so we had to divide between sets.”
She adds: “As far as my vision for the band goes, I definitely see Venopian Orchestra becoming a reality sometime in the future. Perhaps soon or perhaps 50 years from now. Who knows?”
Who knows? From being kicked out of a band to breaking musical boundaries and garnering a following, there’s no telling what could happen next.
At least for Takahara Suiko, she’s simply here to make her music.