Zalila Lee, not a familiar name to those not-in-the-know of the Malaysian singer-songwriter scene, performs regularly at local venues like Merdekarya, The Bee and Laundry Bar in the Klang Valley near where she lives, went to high school and pretty much grew up in.
“Convenience of commuting,” she says, explaining why she hasn’t embarked on a national tour of her original music. Zalila, or “Zal”, is also a multi-talented musician who actively sessions on drums and offers smooth backing vocals for other local artists.
The songwriter recently released her debut album called ‘Shadows’ in December last year, and it has felt like a strangely long gap from when she first stepped into the limelight with her guitar to perform her originals on stage back in 2003.
Zal hasn’t come from any of the Malay reality contests nor has she been an overnight sensation. Considering her raw talent, finally documented now with ‘Shadows’, perhaps she should have given it a go if at least for a laugh. At the least her dynamic voice and musical ability would have given most a run for their money.
‘Shadows’ was recorded modestly in a bedroom of a condominium owned by its producer, violinist Savy Ho, in the wee hours of the morning to avoid noises and disturbance. But the results have been rich and on par with anything out there sonically. The record is also lovingly adorned by gorgeous artwork by the singer’s older sister, Zakia Lee.
Recording of the album became spread out over the years because it “wasn’t a priority, with no release date” and the only push she’s received over the years was from her friends’ adamant pestering.
However one of the catalysts of the album was an American musician named David Knight, whom Zalila had the opportune honour of meeting and befriending when he came down to Malaysia to stay for a couple of years in the mid-2000s.
They worked together on his album, ‘Evacuate’, and she introduced him to an original instrumental piece that she had.
“I played it, and he joined me on it. Next thing we know, we were recording it, ’cause I knew he was going back. So I wanted to just get it recorded, so that was actually the start of it,” says Zal. The instrumental piece in question is the third track on the album, “Cloudy Day Jam”.
“He played this melody line and then we came up with the rhythm and structures. It was fun, it’s just like one of those things you have to record because he’s not going to be around anymore. So it wasn’t something about whether I had time to record or not, it was more of a do or not (kind of thing). So that was the push for me to record a bit more.”
Confessional music, Malaysian-style
The lyrics to Zalila’s music were inspired by many things: conversations that she’s had with her friends, what she’s going through, her ‘jiwang’ moments with her friends, and the most random one – about anything that she cooks.
“Some of them [were written] long ago, some of them recent, some in one day. One just came, it was really special, I guess. That one is the fourth track, called ‘Far Away’.”
‘Far Away’ is a track familiar to Zal’s unplugged crowds, and here on ‘Shadows’ it features fellow singer-songwriter Mia Palencia, one of the big names in KL’s jazz scene. A good friend of hers within the circuit, Mia had to leave for studies in Australia.
“Have you ever ‘jiwang’ with your friends? It’s not with everyone right, there’s a certain someone and she was like that for me. We would emo out and I’d show her something I wrote and it’s not complete…she’s the only other person I’d show something incomplete to.”
“So when she went over [to Australia], the ‘jiwang’-ness was lost. I saw her Facebook post and it was a sad one. It said something about a rainbow and then that was the trigger for me to start, so I started [writing] with that. And then it just grew into this one day cause the feeling was so strong,” explains Zal.
“So she was ‘Far Away’ and then – I know it’s very corny la – but since we sing to each other, and we can’t do it now, we sang it to the wind. It was quite magical ’cause I recorded it then and there when I wrote it. After I wrote it, I sent it over to her and she downloaded it and listened to it on the bus on her way to uni or something. And it was a windy day, so it was quite magical. Singing through the wind. So…that was [how] specific ‘Far Away’ [was].”
Being in the industry for more than 10 years, Zalila explains how it is playing music at cafes now compared to when she first started.
“I started playing in pubs by playing covers, that was like 10 years ago. I’d put my originals in between. We couldn’t play originals in cafes, they wouldn’t ask for it. But it wasn’t so blatant like that, basically nobody was hiring people that were playing original music. Unlike today. So it’s been a really beautiful growth of the scene.”
So the most necessary question I asked her was, why did it take she so long to release the album?
“It wasn’t a priority. I don’t think there’s one way of doing something. It was just something I did to maybe release something in my head. Not, ‘hey look at me, buy!’, I can’t la. You have a song, you play it in your room, you go for open mic, and then you get better at it, and then suddenly somebody books you at your own show. Then you stop doing your own songs, so what I’m gonna do now is, I’m gonna record. Then I’m gonna record and I’m gonna write more songs cause I need more songs to record, if not it’ll be so little and I have to keep doing that, I have to release, I have to push. I’m not there yet.”
‘Shadows’ is an album that you play on a rainy day, staring outside your window with a cup of coffee (or tea, for preference). Or an album you play when you’re just feeling down; it soothes the soul as Zalila’s voice twirls you around to regain your state.