Despite not having released anything since an album in 2011 and an EP in 2014, Najwa is still headlining major festivals. Instead of relying on quantity to keep her relevant in the industry, Najwa banks on the quality of her music.
If you’ve been following Najwa closely over the years, you’ll notice that she’s evolved from a talented soul and R&B singer to an artist who is willing to push the limits of her craft. We catch up with Najwa prior to her performance at Good Vibes Festival to discuss her experiences in music school, her new EP and more.
We read somewhere else that your dad plays the piano and your brother – Moslem Priest – is a DJ and producer. Did you grow up in a very musical environment?
I would say it was pretty musical. We’d always have activities that would revolve around music. It wasn’t a strict musical upbringing, but my parents would always stress on the arts and culture. Whenever we travelled when we were younger, we’d either go to the museum or catch a musical. In that sense I was always exposed to music. That’s kind of how I got my passion for music.
Does the music you make now reflect what you grew up with?
In a way, yes. As an artist you definitely evolve but at the beginning when I first started writing music, the songs were pretty close to the songs that I had been listening to growing up. Later on I discovered other artists and other styles of writing, and then I went to music school and learnt different things; that was when I think my writing changed a little. But yes, at the beginning it was definitely influenced by what I grew up with. That’s why my earlier music was kind of old school – because at the time I would always gravitate towards soul music and jazz – compared to now when there are more electronic, R&B and hip hop elements in my songs.
How old were you when you first started writing your own music?
My piano teacher used to give me either classical or contemporary pop song pieces to practise back when I had piano lessons. But after practice or even sometimes during, I would suddenly start playing something else, whatever I was feeling at the time. It was then I realised that I actually enjoy composing music. That’s how I got started. Then when I got older, the whole teenage angst thing kicked in and I started putting all those emotions into song. That’s how I started songwriting.
What was studying at the Berklee College of Music like?
It was fun but at the same time it was a journey of self discovery. Prior to music school I
was pretty set in what I wanted to do, what my voice was and what my music would be like. But in music college, I was exposed to different sorts of music, especially to music from around the world! It wasn’t just jazz and R&B, there was also Latin music, African music – it was a lot of sounds and I was immersed in all of this.
My college mate asked me one day, ‘What does the sound of your country sound like?’. I realised I haven’t actually thought about it; I was so drawn into this whole idea of Western music that I didn’t really look into my own music and the culture surrounding it. That was when I decided to look into that and think about my roots a little bit more. By doing that, I discovered all these different types of music and I realised that I had actually been exposed to them this whole time – it was just at the back of my head.
Do you think Malaysian artists aren’t exploring their roots enough?
They want to hear something different, they don’t want to listen to something that’s already been done; what they want to listen to is something they’ve never heard before. So I feel like injecting some of your roots into your music would definitely give you an edge, make you stand out from everyone else. But it really is up to the artist.
How did you get started mixing traditional music and contemporary music? What was the reception like?
‘Seri Mersing’ [Najwa’s single released in 2014] was actually part of a college project. It was for electronic music production and we were tasked to either write your own song or do a cover, so that’s when I decided to start mixing traditional and contemporary music. My teacher really liked it, and also the people I sang the song to. I guess to them, it’s a different way of singing. It made them open their ears a bit more and they were definitely intrigued and wanted to learn more. And then when you explain that Malaysian music isn’t just that because we also have all the different races and different music coming out of Sabah and Sarawak, it sparked a deeper interest into the music.
Your last body of work was the ‘Aurora’ EP. Are you working on anything new now?
I’m working on my next EP. They're actually songs I’ve already written when I was writing ‘Aurora’. But I wouldn’t say they were the songs that didn’t make it onto ‘Aurora’; they’re just songs with a different vibe. In this EP, I’m exploring different soundscapes while injecting some traditional elements to it. I also have a Malay single, a duet with Imran Ajmain that’s coming out soon.
How different is the vibe in the new EP compared to the old one?
‘Aurora’ was fully electronic but this one has live elements to it. It has a nice mix of analogue and digital. There’s even a song with gamelan.
You’ve played at shows around the world, from New York City to Hong Kong. How different are the scenes there compared to KL?
Honestly, I don’t know what it is about the energy overseas. Whenever I find myself performing outside of Malaysia it seems like people are more responsive. But I think also since I’m based in KL, there’s this idea of ‘If I want to see Najwa I can see her whenever’. And I feel that that people will always want to listen to the international acts and the local talent gets sidelined a bit, unless you’ve really made it. But there’s so much great talent out there; I love going out and catching new local talent because there’s so much great music out there.
Listen to 'After the Rain' by Najwa featuring JUNY