I’ve always wanted to do culinary. Maybe I’ll study culinary art. Maybe next year, I’ll enroll in a baking or pastry class, or cooking,’ Froya says, more contemplative than in jest. It’s early in the evening, but Michelle Lee – better known as Froya, Sabahan songstress – has her hands full: During the day, she’s an award-winning composer for commercials and films, working full-time in a studio; at night, she’s the independent singer-songwriter behind ‘Fries in Cream’, ‘Kill You’ and ‘Uncomprehended Child’, gearing up for the drop of her debut album ‘Panic Bird’. Do what you love and love what you do, they say; she’s taken it to heart, making music day and night. Culinary, then, is a conversation for another day.
Stemming from ‘Freyja’, ‘Froya’ in Norse mythology is the name for the goddess of beauty, love and sexuality – but when asked if she ‘ identifies with her namesake, Froya shakes her head, incredulous. Her music has been described as ‘quirky’, but in flesh, she is a hesitant subject, polite and soft-spoken.
‘I have confidence issues. I had zero self-confidence back then – but recently, I realised that we’re a work of perfection and we are working towards perfection, and so we don’t have to beat ourselves up over it,’ she says.
Face-to-face with Froya, one senses that she beats herself up over a number of things – more specifically, the strive towards perfection. Take ‘Panic Bird’, for instance: She has worked on the album for five to six years, rewriting and reworking it, with a release date pushed back further and further since early 2013.
The record, on its own, refuses to fit snugly into a specific genre – ‘Dawn’ is electro-heavy, pulsing with positivity; funk, reggae and pop are major touch points in ‘Sealed Jar’; and ‘We’re Here’ is calming, carried through with a chorus that comes across like chanting.
It excites her to ‘not stick to one genre, to keep it interesting’. She never quite settles on a signature sound. Above and beyond that, however, it’s also fitting – she is expected, after all, to experiment with all genres at work, but also, here is a classically-trained composer and multi-instrumentalist. She plays the piano and organ and picked up the cello, saxophone and violin in college, but describes being classically-trained as ‘painful’.
‘You have to do everything by the book, you have to play it exactly the same way, you have to curve your fingers. I felt that there was no freedom to express in that way,’ she said. ‘That was me, I just felt like, “What’s the use of creating music if you’re not actually creating, you’re just following?” I started to want to study more about music.’
College, then, changed the course of her life.
At 19, Froya made the move from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur; she enrolled in International College of Music (ICOM), a leading music school in Asia Pacific and a partner institution of the Berklee International Network. It was at ICOM that she exposed herself to folk, jazz, pop and rock; later, she got hooked on electronic and trip hop, citing Imogen Heap, Miike Snow as well as Zero 7 as influences on ‘Panic Bird’.
‘The weirder the music, the more interesting it got for me.’
The big move to the big city birthed ‘Panic Bird’. ‘At first, I was scared of the city. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know the people around me; I felt that everyone was cold, but it was all in my head. The album is about how to adapt: the search for direction, surviving in a big city. These songs were written five years ago – I don’t feel the same anymore. I grew out of it; I grew within myself. I still relate back to the songs; they remind me of where I came from.’
Froya’s appeal is – yes, her girl-next- door, subtly bohemian looks, but also – that her music sets the mood, but spells out a deeper intent. Her lyrics, often tinged with darkness and defiance, are enveloped in happy, upbeat jangles – even her speech, throughout the interview, is peppered with phrases such as ‘Don’t forget to look at the bright side’ and ‘There’s always light after dark’. She speaks with the sort of situational specificity that makes it difficult to keep in mind that one does not actually, truly know her. And yet her songs are her secrets, her stories – shining a light on her anxieties, insecurities and panic at all times; they are her starting points, not her stumbling blocks.
‘Uncomprehended Child’, her second single and album opener, is her most successful song by far. ‘It wasn’t meant for radio. The song is for my parents more than for radio. I always felt some sort of guilt – every day I see them grow older I feel a little bit selfish. I wrote it to tell them that deep down, I still love them. It’s an Asian thing, I think. Asians are family-oriented. I’m glad that people received it well. I was surprised.’
The word ‘surprised’ is trying. Here is a performer-slash-producer who has, after all, an intricate, insider’s know-how on the art that is music-making: From the first time she played ‘Fries in Cream’ in late 2011 at Reza Salleh’s Feedback Open Mic at The Bee, her star has risen and risen , slow-burning and steady.
‘Actually, I’ve finished writing my second album; I couldn’t wait anymore. After this, I’m going to go straight into producing the second album. Hopefully the second album won’t take as long. I’ll just have to wait until it’s actually ready.’
She might be prey to panic, but ‘Panic Bird’ is proof she’s more than ready.