“We were a bit lost for a while. Y'know, the labels disappeared, no one was funding albums, walang nagpro-promote.” It’s a quick aside Barbie Almalbis makes when I ask her about the difference between the music scene now and what it was like when she released her 2006 album Parade. The passage of time is something to consider, if we’re talking about Tigre, her first EP in five years since her last album My New Heart. The term “OPM” had a lot more currency then, and the sounds that dominate the landscape now are their own movement. But it’s not like Almalbis, an institution, to be worried about such things. “I'm super happy with what's going on right now. Medyo may changing of the guard, mga gatekeepers sa music scene. Now people seem very free to write what they want.”
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Under dim orange lamps, in El Pueblo’s 12 Monkeys, Almalbis speaks with the kind of magnanimous kindness that characterizes her airy tenor. She sounds free. When I ask her about what she’s been up to between the EP and her last album, I expect a grand journey of self-discovery that can taper smoothly into a comeback narrative. But her answer is more inspiring. She was just living life.
“[I was] busy being a mom and everything. I've been also writing, I've been gigging the last five years,” she says. “But I've been trying to write. As in gawa lang ako nang gawa ng songs, pero walang lumalabas. Until the last five months, writing material for this album.” This is the demeanor of an artist who doesn’t allow art to govern her life, but lets her way of living shine through in her work.
“I'm always just writing. I'm not thinking like, ‘Is this gonna come out in an album, an EP?’”
EP cover by Kuki Ulpindo. Love this so much, @kukiulpindo! — (Repost) My favorite @barbiealmalbis song, TIGRE, is launching tomorrow at 12 Monkeys! Drew the cover and supplied the actual cat/muse, Vernie! 🐈 (Long story short, we had to re-home her with Ate Barb and Kuya Mart— not exactly pet people— because she and our alpha cat, Momo, kept trying to murder each other. Now they’ve joined us in the Crazy Cat People club. As in Kuya Mart has googled, “How to say I love you to your cat.” 🤣✌🏽) #artph #womenwhodraw #womenwithpencils #mixedmedia #illustration #best_of_illustrations #kremerpigments #watercolor #watercoloristsph #childrensillustration #childrensbookillustration #khadipaper #barbiealmalbis
Tigre is the shooting star happenstance of a release that sparked from this break, her first release since 2014’s My New Heart. The three-track EP is a return to form, a glistening pop rock offering that sees the singer-songwriter at the top of her game. Not surprising, if her discography is evidence that Almalbis is one of the most consistent musicians active in the scene today when it comes to quality of output. Do you ever notice she doesn't have a single bad song?
Let’s talk about My New Heart for a minute, though. Almalbis’s artistic thumbprint is clear in all her songs, dynamic song structures and phrasing backed by elegant lyricism. But an extremely technically skilled backing band acted as the album’s rock solid foundation. That hard-hitting synergy is at work in Tigre. “Cover” is a love song that eases in with some finessed finger-plucking (an underrated aspect of Almalbis’ musicianship) before splashing into driving rhythms. “And I will go with you forever / May nothing keep us apart” she vows, spurring into bliss and eventually the song’s killer keyboard solo.
“Ghost” is a love letter to an invisible addressee, an invisible force, but one whose presence feels concrete and real in the song’s gliding melodies. The song twinkles with bright synths and easygoing bass. It’s the kind of song specially designed to be played on long drives.
The title track of the EP is an interesting one, a groove-laden jam Almalbis wrote with her husband Martin Honasan that doesn’t reveal its subject until its last line. “Martin and I got along really well as songwriting partners. He co-wrote 'Tigre' with me. It was about our beloved cat.” You can’t tell at first, the way the lyrics seem to speak to a distant lover. “Gusto kitang tawagin / ‘Wag mo naman akong awayin,” she sings. But well, cats can be distant lovers. And well, it’s amusing to know that there are artists approaching the loftiest themes with the utmost gravitas, and their stuff doesn’t funk as coolly as “Tigre.”
Honasan’s creative contributions were lyrical. “Medyo privy na siya sa writing process ko, so he helped me write some songs, especially Tagalog songs,” Almalbis says. “We've written some Tagalog songs, and we're hoping to release them in the near future.”
What I think amazes me about Barbie Almalbis is that any other musician in her position, who has already climbed their way to icon status, would carry themselves with a sense of self-importance. But she doesn’t. To Almalbis, art is a calling, a service.
"The other day we had a gig in Intramuros. We played our songs, and the crowd was okay, steady. And then a guy went up the stage — ano sila, mga seamen — ran to the stage, and then [he] wrote me a note saying 'Can I sing with you?' So I was like sure. He went up to the stage. And then I said, 'So what song do you wanna sing?' Sabi niya, 'Do you know ‘Wonderful Tonight’?” Pretty disrespectful, if we’re being frank, but Almalbis lets out a laugh like it’s part of the job. “I know how to play that song, so I said sure!”
The perspective that music is a service, and the sense of freedom that allows bursts of creativity to transpire, are forces that define Almalbis’ Tigre as an EP. The universe must be so generous, to have given us a singer-songwriter like her.
You can listen to ‘Tigre’ on Spotify.
Photographs by Ted Orsenad