Photo by Robin Wong
Although she’s always been into singing, Malaysian singer-songwriter Bihzhu didn’t start out with music as a career plan.
“I’ve always loved singing and it was just something I did without thinking much about it, kinda like breathing,” she says. “So I never considered it as a career or something to do with my life, even when I started my first band in college, a pop-jazz duo called Rhapsody.”
Throughout her time at college, the duo performed quite a number of gigs, but upon graduation she took up a position as a writer for a men’s fashion magazine, with her singing reduced to a hobby in the background.
“But it soon became clear that music was fulfilling me in a way that writing never would,” she said. “So at the ripe old age of 27, I decided to quit my first and only job to plunge into music full time.”
Embarking on a solo career, she released her debut album ‘Nightingale Tales’ in 2011. This garnered a fair bit of airplay on Malaysian radio stations as well as some coverage in the United States. An eclectic mix of uplifting tunes, Bihzhu’s repertoire reflects the wide range of music she has listened to over the years and her enthusiasm and love of music is all apparent when she starts to discuss her influences.
Photo by Prakash Daniel
“I grew up listening to my dad’s cassette tapes of bands like Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Brothers Four,” she explains. “And I think my love for vocal harmonies stem from these early influences. Then in college I veered towards the jazz greats like Ella, Nina, and Billie, their vocal artistry and depth of feeling and soul really resonated strongly with me.”
“However, my all-time favourites are Fat Freddy’s Drop, a dub reggae band from New Zealand. I did a stint in a reggae outfit for a while and I can credit Fat Freddy’s for making me fall in love with the genre.”
“And then there’s Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian icon who’s still touring at his age! I first encountered him in the Almodovar movie ‘Hable Con Ella’, where Caetano performed the song ‘Cucurucucu Paloma’. There is something so mesmerising and pure about the way he performs music, there’s no fancy acrobatics, just a pure, pure, beauty.”
“More recently I’ve found myself gravitating towards a lot of contemporary, female artistes like Eska, Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas. The list goes on…”
Photo by Prakash Daniel
Bihzhu hails from Penang, the island referred to as the Pearl of the Orient, which has a fascinating and diverse history and culture, as well as a very rich musical history. She admits, however, that she has only discovered this musical heritage fairly recently.
“I am ashamed to admit that like most young Malaysians, I had no idea of how much musical history we had. It’s not taught in schools, and our musical icons (save big ones like P Ramlee) are not celebrated,” she says. “But due to some lucky stroke of fate, I got involved in a project spearheaded by Capricorn Connection (the same peeps behind the Penang Island Jazz Festival) to document Penang music from the 1940s onwards.”
“So here I was sitting at the National Archives every day, combing through crumbling newspaper articles for any music-related pieces,” she continues. “That project became an exhibition, and was compiled into a book, ‘Just For The Love of It’, and ultimately culminated in the Penang House of Music, a gallery and museum in Georgetown that showcases Penang’s incredibly rich musical heritage.”
“It struck me that as a Penangite and a musician, I had zero idea that we had so much wealth in our own backyard, and that was a really rude awakening,” she says. “And this is why I feel that the Penang House of Music is doing an amazing job of documenting it all, and breathing some fresh life into it and sharing it with the world. Through this project I re-discovered some amazing gems like our most prolific composer Jimmy Boyle. And I even had the chance to perform his compositions with his son James Boyle, and I’m recording a cover of his tune ‘Chendering’.”
Photo by Robin Wong
In addition to discovering the musical heritage of Penang, Bihzhu is also enthusiastic about the contemporary Malaysian music scene.
“There’s been such an amazing explosion in the Malaysian music scene, and the artists I’ll mention here represent just a fraction of what’s out there at the moment. But I can definitely recommend artists such as Anna Chong, The Venopian Solitude, Nadir, Salam Musik, Njwa, mutesite and the Faliq Auri Trio. All worth checking out.”
Despite this burgeoning scene, like many musicians, Bihzhu is very conscious of the rapidly shifting landscape in the music industry in recent years. Firstly, there are the changes in the local music scene.
“It’s changed tremendously!” she says. “When I started out in 2005, the singer-songwriter scene was tiny, everybody knew everybody, and there were barely a handful of live venues supporting original music. Today, you’ve got music events happening every single day; sometimes a few on the same day, the fans are spoilt for choice.”
“The music audience have also matured, and there’s a growing appreciation for, and pride in, local artists them, which you hardly saw back in the day. And this definitely translates into brands and corporations following suit.”
Then, there are the huge changes to the music industry brought about by the Internet.
“Technology is a great boost obviously. Anyone can find you online,’ says Bihzhu. “But like everything else, there’s a lot more ‘noise’ to wade through, so there are pros and cons. Also, with the rise of streaming services and so on, I have seen my income from direct sales of my music drop off.”
“I believe that coming out to catch a show of your favourite act is still the best way to enjoy music,” she continues. “And buying directly merchandise from your favourite bands is still the best way to support their work.”
Independent musicians these days very often need to work on their own marketing, promotion and bookings as a way of making their work sustainable, and Bihzhu feels these new roles create an additional challenge for artists.
“Personally, my own challenge has been to focus on the art and creating,” she says. “And not get distracted and caught up with the business or social media side of things, which are also necessary. It’s a fine balance that I’m still struggling with every day.”
Nevertheless, she is still finding time to concentrate on what she loves best and Bihzhu has a few things lined up for this year.
“I’m working on recording some new tracks, hopefully for a new album,” she explains. “I’m also looking at maybe reviving my #CribConcert series that I launched in 2013, where I did house concerts and live-streamed them at the same time. It was fun, and it feels like its time again.”