Posted: 16 Apr 2014 09:35 PM PDT
Najwa Mahiaddin is making her mark as a musician abroad but the singer reveals life in the Big Apple is not all glitz and glam.
A warm summer day at the back of a building in the thriving art and music district of Brooklyn in New York, the exhaust fans whirred without relent while the stench from a nearby dumpster hung faintly in the air.
"What are we doing here?" singer-songwriter Najwa Mahiaddin thought to herself as she arrived at the venue – the venue of her performance, that is. Mostacho Xprmnt, a R&B fusion band which comprises four Berkelee graduates including Najwa, had landed a gig at the, well, less-than-conventional setting.
"It sounded like a great idea at first. It was summer and we thought it would be cool for people to sit outside on a patio, and just hang out and listen to live music," said the 28-year-old artiste and daughter of the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
"But there was a heat wave going on at the time. It was so hot. And it didn't help that we were playing near where the exhaust fans were. We didn't look good on stage at all, we were all sweating," Najwa continued, seeming to recall the moment with both distress and fondness at the same time.
"It was an experience I will never forget."
Najwa was speaking to Star2 in a Skype interview from New York, recalling the ups and downs of her musical career so far.
Najwa Mahiaddin is actively pursuing her music career in New York, booking a show at Ella Lounge recently.
"Music is everywhere here. Just riding the subway, you see so many musicians in the stations and they're really good. Surrounded by all these talented people, it makes you more inspired to write music," said the performer, who is both a solo artiste and the vocalist of Mostacho Xprmnt, on her decision to move to Manhattan.
But of course, launching a music career, perhaps even an international one, is foremost in her mind.
The raven-haired songstress plans to "go all out" this year, revealing she has hired a booking agent to help her land new gigs and will even start actively shopping for a record deal.
"I'm not gonna sit and wait around. I've been trying to push my music out there, planning for more shows, getting the word out," said Najwa who plans to pursue a music career both in New York and Malaysia, devoting her time equally at both places.
The singer said she also met up with fellow Malaysian export Yuna in New York for tips and advice on breaking into the industry.
But it isn't as glamorous as it sounds (if her backyard performance is any indication).
"You can't expect to perform at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden straight away. You've got to experience performing at different venues to different audiences and see whether they are receptive," said the singer who also earns extra pocket money giving vocal lessons at a music school on a weekly basis.
"You have sound engineers insisting on doing sound for you but don't know how to. There was one guy who was turning the knobs while I was singing and by the end of the show, I felt like my mic was completely off," she shared with a laugh, recalling another memorable experience.
"Every musician has to start somewhere."
A new direction
Najwa got her big break in 2011 when she released her debut album, Innocent Soul, while pursuing the Berklee transfer programme at the International College Of Music, Kuala Lumpur.
Immediately, she took the local industry by storm, clinching the Best English Song (for Got To Go) and Best New Artiste title at the Anugerah Industri Muzik the same year. The singer became known for her sultry vocals, her soul and R&B stylings and empowering lyrics.
But it seems the chilly winds of New York has brought about a change to her latest work, Aurora, a digitally released five-track EP.
"I wrote a lot of girl power songs like Got To Go but with this one, it's more mellow and there's this healing type thing. In New York, it's always cold and concrete and when it snows, it gets muddy and slushy. I'm influenced by the things I see and feel," she explained.
Najwa Mahiaddin's EP Aurora
Arguably more quiet and contemplative, Najwa sings about escaping with her lover to an alternate reality in the Alice In Wonderland-inspired Wonderland and offering a shoulder to cry on for a friend who had just broken up in Before.
But the most drastic change of all takes place musically. Listeners will be surprised to hear a strong electronic influence on Aurora, a huge departure from her vintage R&B roots.
"I have been listening to a lot of songwriters who have an electronic influence – not EDM or dance. That's the direction I want to go. I still enjoy performing with a four-piece band but it's important to present something new to listeners," shared Najwa, who also credits her electronic flair to Berklee mate and the EP's producer Harsya Wahono.
Despite the change in musical direction, the singer assured she hasn't lost her "soul": "If you strip the music off and have me on the piano, I would still be able to play it, it will still have me in it. There's still that soulfulness there because the songs were written organically – me sitting in front of the piano, the same way I write my other songs, and taking that and putting it into an electronic setting."
A clear indication that Najwa is still clinging tightly to her sense of self is the contemporary rendition of Seri Mersing in the EP. Released locally as a single, the popular ghazal folk song has been performed by seasoned artistes like Sharifah Aini and Siti Nurhaliza.
"When I was in Berklee, people always asked me, 'what is the music of your country?' And I recalled ghazal bands playing at family gatherings and the singers singing Seri Mersing," shared Najwa who first decided to rearrange the song for a class assignment.
Besides promoting her cultural heritage Stateside, Najwa hopes the song will inspire Malaysians themselves: "In Malaysia, some youngsters may be taken with the western culture. Through this song, I want to let them know we have such a rich heritage and we should be proud of it."
A family affair
Seri Mersing undoubtedly serves as a passage back home for Najwa, sparking memories that envelope her like a warm, familiar blanket against New York's unforgiving breeze. "I'm constantly in contact with my family, we have a Whatsapp group where we keep in touch. I also hang out with them a lot when I get back," she said, believing in the importance of staying connected with her loved ones.
Asked on which side of the family does her musical talent comes from, Najwa deduced: "My mum would say this as well. It would make sense for it to be from my dad's side. He's naturally talented. He can play the piano by ear. It's innate, he never studied or anything.
"He does sing sometimes but I don't think it'll be to the point where he's going to switch careers," she said with a chuckle, adding that behind her father's serious facade, people would be surprised to find him very relaxed and laidback at home.
The singer also shed light on what it felt like growing up in a high profile household: "We try to be as normal as possible. I would do whatever anyone else was doing. I followed my mum and grandmother to the pasar malam. There's no such thing as we don't do this or that."
Najwa didn't feel there was any added pressure either to carry herself in a certain way because of her famous father: "The pressure isn't because of who my dad is. When I make decisions, just like any other children, I don't want to embarrass my parents. I want to make them proud. Like I want to do well in school to make them proud."
Najwa also spoke openly on accusations suggesting the singer is using her father's influence to expand her music career: "I've gotten that a lot, I try not to read up on what people say. I work just as hard and I have never asked my dad for anything.
"I'm in music, he knows nothing about music. I have to sit down and explain to him about the music industry and what record labels do. Yes he is very supportive, and I have my whole family behind me. But there's no, 'I'll get you that record deal.'
She added candidly: "If that were the case, I wouldn't be a struggling musician in New York and doing that backyard show."
> Aurora is available for sale on iTunes, Amazon mp3, as well as via streaming on Spotify.
source : The Star
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