Neo-soul singer Najwa Mahiaddin is transcending her inspirations and starting to sound like the genuine article.
Doe-eyed musical debutantes may be the proverbial dime-a-dozen these days, but few can lay claim to Najwa Mahiaddin’s raw charisma and golden pipes.
drawing favourable comparisons to the likes of Billie Holiday, erykah Badu and Alicia Keys, Najwa possesses that special quality that cuts across generations with a sound that’s both classic and contemporary.
The International College of Music (ICoM) Berklee Transfer Programme student may well be Malaysia’s foremost exponent of neo-soul. And given the dearth of such likeminded local artistes (in the lineage of Sheila Majid and Adibah Noor), audiences certainly have responded in droves.
Najwa, 24, has gone from open mics to anchoring sold-out showcase events within a relatively short time – and she’s just finishing work on her debut album. Set to be released by her own label Nada Biru Records, Innocent Soul is due in mid december. The album was recorded in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. As a culmination of four years of gigging in the local scene, Najwa’s new single Sweet October premiered on local radio this week.
The stage is set for this Kuala Lumpurraised singer with a packed schedule of activities ahead before she heads to the United States later this year to continue her studies in music.
“It’s going to be busy for me in the next few weeks. The single is out and the album is set to drop in december. I’ve got to work around whatever time is left to get the word out before I pack my bags for the US,” said Najwa.
“I will definitely be back for the holidays and will hopefully keep a profile in the scene despite my absence,” she added with a laugh.
She’s even been involved in high-profile collaborations with hip hop maverick Malique (ex-Too Phat) on tracks like Kau Yang Punya and Senyum and with all-girl supergroup The Ramlees featuring yuna, Liyana Fizi and Mira (of Tilu) on Itulah Sayang, a track off Astro and XFM’s P. Ramlee ... Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti: Satu Indiepretasi compilation album.
Tonight, Najwa will be performing with her backing band Thing one at the Sweet October show in conjunction with Kuala Lumpur jazz haunt No Black Tie’s 12th anniversary celebrations.
We recently had the chance to speak to Najwa about her rise to prominence. You’ve been touted as the “youngest soul performer in the country.” Do you think your relative youth is the reason that you’ve managed to garner a fan-base as varied in age as yours?
Some people say I have an old soul and producing something I love at my age is coincidental with being the youngest soul performer in the country. That’s interesting to learn. I don’t think it’s my age – well, at least I hope it’s not (as to) why my fan-base is of various age groups. I guess people are starting to realise that there are other forms of music to appreciate in this country, especially for the younger set of listeners. Fortunately, I fall in that category of “other form”.
The more mature audience will be familiar with this sort of music and I think their comprehension of it is due to the fact that they grew up with similar sounds in the past. I understand and was told that the 1970s and 1980s had favoured more black sounds more than ever. I just hope there will be a revival of these sounds. Why do you think it’s taken this long for neo-soul to permeate the local scene?
I guess it’s a matter of personal interest of the type of music people like to write and play. The music’s been around and there are some performers like elvira Arul, who has performed soulful music. But writing and producing this type of music seems to be clouded by similar genres such as R&B and jazz-pop. I guess understanding and comprehending the construction of this type of music may also be a reason why many have not really ventured into it. What exactly does neo-soul mean to you?
To define it, I guess it’s a juxtaposition of many sounds. Soul, R&B, blues, jazz and funk and fusion all intertwined into one. Personally, it is an expressive form of music that is perfect for me. Neo-soul hasn’t seen the level of popularity, at least since the heyday of practitioners such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell. What’s your take on how to keep the sound and scene fresh and exciting?
Just keep ‘em comin’ I guess. No one and I mean no one is and will ever be bored of those names you have mentioned. To keep it fresh and exciting? I guess to keep on producing beautiful music that you feel people will appreciate and favour, whether you produce it in its traditional form or fuse it with what is current. The bottom line is – it’s gotta sound sweet. Are there any newer artistes that inspired you lately?
(British soul acts) Rox and Mama’s Gun are a couple of artistes that I find quite inspiring. especially Mama’s Gun’s take on Fireflies, which I perform, just funked up to another level. What can we expect from your debut album InnocentSoul? Any notable collaborations?
It’s gonna be an album I hope that people will obtain for keeps. It has songs that I have written over the years – throughout my teenage life until present. I love the album. It’s really just the way I wanted it to sound like.
Collaborating with some of the region’s best still numbs me. I’m just privileged to work with them. Initially, trying to determine the right people to work with me was a real challenge. I have had some names in mind and basically reduced it to just a few.
I worked together and closely with Widi Puradiredja, a notable producer who has produced for Maliq & d’essentials (of which he is a part of), Twentyfirst Night, Boogiemen, Soulvibe and Renita – all soulful and funky musicians and artistes from the Indonesian achipelago.
I decided to work closely with him from listening to what he has produced in the past and was quite certain he would understand and was capable of creating the type of sound and style of arrangements that I aimed to achieve.
The both of us managed to produce it collectively and mutually agreed that that it was the right style and sound that was required to make Innocent Soul the way it is. Widi then had the daunting task of selecting the right musicians to play in the album and the perfect ensemble came into being. How was it like working with Malique on both KauYangPunya and Senyum?
It was fun. His talent as a performer and a
producer is exemplary. Always evolving. Always creating memorable music. It was always fun working with him and I appreciate how he would always includes me in his production. I guess in a way we complement each other’s art the way it should be complemented. Heard you recorded with The Ramlees while you had a bad injury. What kept you going, and how was it like working with the other girls?
My, news does get around in this city ( laughs). yeah. I had a sprained ankle. Could hardly walk. Had to be piggy-backed up two flights of stairs (to the Kamar Seni studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur). It’s always a privilege to work with my fellow comrade-inarms. We weren’t at the recording studio together but we do perform occasionally – though not often enough. These are talented people.
We may be performing together as The Ramlees at the launch (of P. Ramlee ... Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti: Satu Indiepretasi) on Nov 3 at Hard Rock Café in KL. How do you foresee your sound evolving?
It would probably be similar to what I am doing now. However, after learning the ropes further on sound and music during my upcoming education at Berklee, I may learn techniques that may surprise you. It’s too early to say. Let’s keep an open mind on this one. n Najwa performs with Elvira Arul at Sweet October – No Black Tie 12th Anniversary Celebrations tonight at No Black Tie, 17 Jalan Mesui, off Jalan Nagasari in Kuala Lumpur. Showtime: 9pm. Cover charge: RM40. For more info, go to noblacktie.com.my.
Rare breed: ‘Some people say I have an old soul,’ says Najwa Mahiaddin. – Pic courtesy of Halimi Saidi