At just 23, Alextbh has been coined Malaysia’s first globally-renowned queer pop artist. For Alex, music isn’t just about melodies and lyrics, it’s about connections. Growing up in a conservative society, Alex uses his music to share acceptance and representation even if he can’t find it at home. Alex’s music is a mixture of a pop club mix and sultry vocals. His music alone is artistic, but his story of growing up without any queer Malaysian icons to look up to brings listeners a deeper understanding of him: he became that icon.
His recent song “Between” from his debut album is sure to be a lockdown dance party bop. Damn, doesn’t it make you miss those sweaty clubs, blinding lights, and blasting bass? Put this on in the shower, close your eyes, and it’s pretty much the same thing!
The rising pop icon sat down with LADYGUNN to discuss his debut EP, growing up in a conservative society, and the importance of using your platform to spread awareness.
How has music changed your life for the better?
It’s everything to me. It has helped me reconcile with myself. It brought me to places I’ve never been to play to people who I’ve never met but know of my story. Most importantly, it helped me grow. At times when I feel like I have nobody to turn to, music is my therapy. It’s cheesy but it’s true. That’s why I love writing songs. They’re my relic, and sometimes I revisit them to remind me where I am now.
Do you pull from cultural trends, or try to create in a vacuum?
I’d say what I’m doing falls in the uncharted territory. Growing up, there were not a lot of openly queer musicians that I could draw inspiration or references from, and even if there were, they didn’t represent my identity or belonging. I think that’s why I enjoyed writing The Chase. It’s about the cyclical nature of hookup culture and how I tried taking up space to prove that I’m invincible, only to realize that I was stuck in a void, surrounded by the walls that I’ve built. I was concerned that the narrative might be too niche and end up only relating to a very small subset of my listeners. There’s nothing worse than failing to communicate with your listeners what you want to convey. But, I do think this is a very real issue that not many songs or artists attempt to address. That’s why I wrote songs that give these stories more context. Not everything is one-dimensional. A lot of these songs are all about falling in love, and then out of it, and then “Fuck all the boys, I feel powerful”. It feels very in denial. It’s like these songs are intentionally made for fast consumption, and we’re expected to rejoice and reset. Everyone moves on differently. Like, I woke up in a hotel room one day and just stared at the ceiling for an hour, and the guy I hooked up with was on the far end of the bed sleeping. The night before we got along so well and he said he wanted to see me again. I almost had an urge to reach out, wake him up, and say “let’s have breakfast”. But instead, I said goodbye and walked out abruptly. That’s how I chose to move on. And I felt like utter crap. See, when you try to convey all these emotions (or the lack thereof) into songs, they don’t sound as celebratory or anthemic, but these are very real situations. I think as songwriters, we need to write songs that don’t make us collapse in on ourselves.
Has coming from a highly conservative society like Malaysia made dealing with it easier or harder?
It’s surprisingly easier. I get to live my true self and not hold anything back. And the more I do that, the more things fall into place. Like, my listeners, my friends, the people I work with. There’s definitely this notion of “I got your back if anything happens” in the community. Like I said, at the end of the day, I don’t care about the criticisms. I care about the output and where our progress is right now. And right now, we have a ton of work to do. We need a community that is strong and resilient and that means not paying attention to any noise that might affect us.
How are you utilizing your platform to bring visibility to the BLM movement and other humanitarian issues around the world?
Like everyone else, I redirect people to all the resources needed to educate themselves on the matter and to donate or sign petitions. But I also want everyone to reach out to people close to them. That conversation with your racist uncle needs to be done, however difficult that may be. I think that’s the most effective and direct way to show your allyship. That’s what I did with my mom. I asked if my mom is okay with me bringing a Black guy home, and she said: “he’s human and shares the same flesh as we do, what’s wrong with that?”. It’s surprising because I grew up with my mom telling me to not be friends with dark-skinned people. I saved myself from having a difficult conversation with her, but that might change when I do it with dad or some of my friends who believed that all lives matter. I used to be indifferent about everything in life, but I didn’t realize how much privilege I had. Now is the time to be political, to use your voice and amplify it, especially if you are a public figure. Sometimes, my fans would send me articles about what’s happening to their country, or a card link to educate on certain issues, and I am just immensely grateful to have listeners that are socially aware of what’s going on. It’s like a whole new level of connecting with my fans beyond music. It has helped me feel more connected with the world, and it’s more important than ever to listen to what the world has to say right now.
Do you think the political/humanitarian turmoil of the world in 2020 will influence any of your future works?
Definitely. I think we all have a lot to say about this year. It’s insane. I’m taking my pace to process everything right now, but I can’t seem to put it into words. It’s sad, it’s growth, it’s willpower, it’s the short bursts of happiness. Whatever it may be, I think 2020 amplifies every emotion in the spectrum.
What do you think is the overall responsibility of artists using their platforms to incite change?
Artists serve as a medium for expressing real, universal emotion. Any artists that fail to do so, will in turn fail to understand and connect with the state of the world. To disengage with politics and social issues is to betray the people that have built you. Beyond asking people to donate or sign petitions, I think the most important thing artists can do is to listen.
How have you been keeping creative during quarantine? Is there any advice you’d like to give to your listeners about how to stay inspired during times like these?
Trying out new things and have a go at it without giving it much thought. That approach definitely helped when I picked up photography early this year. The tricky bit is definitely the initial push to start the momentum. The more time you sit on an idea you want to work on, the more time you spend questioning things and eventually you feel overwhelmed and give up. I also think it’s important to surround yourself with people that are supportive in what you do. If that’s something you can’t achieve in the physical space, you can always reach out to people online and exchange ideas. Whether it’s fan art on Twitter or sound design tutorials on Reddit, you’d never know the things you’d encounter for inspiration.
How do you handle criticism?
To be fair, I don’t get much to begin with. If we’re talking about comments that specifically target my sexuality, surprisingly they’re few and far between. I think it’s because I brand myself carefully by choosing who to engage with and learning who my listeners are. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever change the minds of the conservatives. My job is to use my representation to uplift the queer community, and to help people that are in contact with the community (like families and friends) feel comfortable without having the need to resort to pandering to social norms and become violently anti-queer. The rest is just white noise. Noises spewed by hateful people, that I fear will only amplify if I choose to engage. I pay no mind to them. The one faith I have that will never be shaken is knowing I’m at the right side of history.
What’s one thing we’re likely not to learn about you from listening to your music?
That I’m a minimalist! I think I’m on the more extreme end of the spectrum, though. All the clothes I own are either in black or white, my phone and MacBook wallpaper is solid black, my room, bedding, and table are all white, I choose to fly with carry-on luggage (which is black in colour, of course) even if I’m flying halfway across the world, the list goes on. My ultimate goal is to pack everything I own in a suitcase and live a nomadic life. As an artist, I think that’s the kind of life I have to get used to anyway. It feels good to not let physical objects tie you down. If I own something, it serves a purpose and gives me joy. Like my 2012 MacBook Pro, which I’ve upgraded the internals over the years, and the recently-bought mirrorless camera that helped me learn a lot about photography, and it’s being used on the daily now because my roommates and friends would borrow it and do photoshoots on the go. Minimalism extends to the way I produce music, of course. You can clearly hear it when I transitioned from my work in 2016 like “alive”, to “Stoop So Low” a year later. Stoop So Low is super minimalist in its production, and in turn, it gives the vocal a spotlight, and naturally, people are drawn into the lyric more. I used to think lots of gear would mean that I’d be more productive, but that wasn’t the case. I bought myself a keyboard a couple of years ago, but I barely used it. I don’t really know how to play any musical instruments, I’ve always drawn my notes with my mouse straight into Ableton anyway. I pared my gear down ever since. Today, all I have is my laptop, a mic that I hold with my hands (I used to think I needed a stand but I prefer the “live performance” feel by holding the mic) and a pair of nice Yamaha speakers. So yeah, I’m very passionate about the minimalist lifestyle. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea (not when minimalism is practiced to my extent) but I think everyone should consider adopting parts of it. Living simple is refreshing in an age where we’re told to consume relentlessly.
CONNECT WITH ALEXTBH
photos / Samuel Yong
story / Sam Berlin