‘There's a continuity to it that’s interesting, because it means there isn’t an ending to the story; it means I continue to and am still looking for answers, whatever they may be,’ Ali Aiman admits. We are discussing – dissecting – the Omar Ibrahim-directed music video for his single ‘Try’, off his new nine-track album ‘Circles’, which shares a similar ending with his music video for ‘Morning Sun’; they both feature Ali walking off into the distance, into the unknown.
Some things have changed since the release of his debut EP ‘Overture’ in 2014 – for instance, his primary focus is no longer to write music for people other than himself, and his own evolving musical tastes and styles – and some things haven’t changed at all. ‘Circles’, not unlike his EP ‘Overture’, is a collection of emotional epics crafted in Ali’s signature sound: down-tempo and haunting, piano-anchored gems layered over minimalist, oozing electronic beats.
To the multi-instrumentalist, there is a difference – a line drawn in the shifting sand – between the music that made him and the music he’s making. Make no mistake though, whether he’s come full circle or whether he’s only just coming of age, this is a record that’s rising above the rest.
'I’ve always believed that the best music is honest music'
How do you view ‘Circles’ in comparison to your previous works?
I think it’s less personal. I think the sound has definitely changed quite a bit. It’s just, you know, when you write a song, you don’t think about how you want it to be; you just write whatever comes to you. It just came to be what it is. At the same time, I think ‘Circles’ is much more complex. When I wrote ‘Overture’, I was writing about my experiences in life. ‘Circles’ is a bit different; some of it is about other people, and I think it’s less personal that way. The songs aren’t that, what do you call it, ‘depressing’ isn’t a good word; I hope maybe you can find another word for it. Anyway, in general, it’s quite an upbeat album compared to ‘Overture’.
I started work on this album in 2015 and to be honest, compared to ‘Overture’ it was a lot harder to get this done, to get it out there. I had realised that my style of writing – and my melodies – had changed, and that realisation threw me off guard. I still don’t know how I feel about the album, but maybe that’s the point.
You have a bit of a reputation for making melancholy music. Track two of ‘Circles’, ‘Right About Now’ is a little more upbeat though, and reminded us of ‘Every Little Thing’, the second track from ‘Overture’.
That was actually written for my live performances, and I remember it was before Urbanscapes 2014, and I realised all my tracks were very… [laughs and trails off] Well, anyway, I was saying to my band members, like, ‘Man, they’re going to fall asleep. I’m going to write something more upbeat!’ I wrote it for my live shows, and then, you know, I decided to include it in ‘Circles’ as track number two because sonically, it’s very different from the other tracks, and I suppose in comparison to it, not very different at all from ‘Every Little Thing’.
Let’s talk about themes. What is ‘Circles’ about, thematically? Earlier, you said that it was a ‘less personal’ album, and we were going to ask you: who are you singing about, or who are you singing to?
I shouldn’t mention anyone in specific, but I feel like it applies to a lot of people, what I’m trying to say. I never really thought about it but if I had to, I’d say the themes are courage and perseverance to be true to one’s self (or sound); greed and being ungrateful for the things that we have; and in the end, acceptance. I’ve always believed that the best music is honest music. To do that is to embrace all that affect you, and I did this for ‘Circles’, as I did with ‘Overture’ .
Of course, it seems to us that it ends on an upbeat note with ‘Looking Glass’ – but not really, because you’re singing in the song that ‘life through a looking glass’ is ‘so beautiful’ to you.
What do you think it means?
That you’re saying that the opposite of what is expected or what is normal is a more beautiful, or palatable, option than –
That’s true, and I think for me it’s also that when you peer into someone’s life by looking from the outside, you don’t see the imperfections. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just that the grass is always greener on the other side.
You’re probably one of the very few, if not only, contemporary producers in KL to list composers such as Debussy and Franz Liszt as influences and interests.
I grew up taking classical piano lessons. I grew up listening to Liszt, Bach, Chopin, and that influences the way I write because I’ve always been attracted to all these melodic phrases. You know, you can see traces of that in Muse, you can see traces of that in Radiohead too. I feel like I gravitate towards that type of music and I think it’s fair to say that I’m quite influenced by it. I admire them a lot, I listen to a lot of their music, I analyse their stuff .
You’re surrounded by music all day, especially with your teaching post at the International College of Music (ICOM), but what’s it like writing for yourself and writing for others? In your last interview with Time Out KL in 2014, you said that one of the reasons you released ‘Overture’ was because ultimately, you wanted to ‘write music for other people’ – and that ‘Overture’ would help with getting your name out there, and getting recognition. Has that changed?
I think it has. I think where I am in life right now, I don’t have that craving anymore; my focus has shifted. I feel satisfied writing my own music. When I last spoke to [Time Out KL], me writing for myself was, in a way, my demo for other people; like, ‘Here’s my stuff , if you like it maybe I can write a song for you.’ Now, if I write a song, I’ll sing it myself. Of course, if the opportunity comes along, I’ll consider it.
You also have done a couple of collaborations this year…
Yes, I did one with +2dB. I’m a big fan of their stuff ; I love ‘Islands’, it was one of my favourite local releases of the year. I have no plans to collaborate at the moment. My musical tastes have shifted a bit; most of the songs I’m writing right now are more guitar-driven.
You used to be a metalhead.
Yes! The songs aren’t metal songs, though, but there are more intricate guitar lines in them, and they’re in Malay.
The only Malay song we’ve heard from you was ‘Jangan Kau Pulang’.
Yes, that was ages ago. I like that song a lot, but you know, I feel like my sound has changed so much. It’s difficult to go back.
‘Circles’ is out now on Bandcamp and iTunes. For more info visit fb.com/aliiaiiman.