Sun, 22 Oct 2000

Singer Anggun makes a name around the world

By Hera Diani

JAKARTA (JP): After marrying a Frenchman and moving to France, former teen-rocker Anggun C. Sasmi made a surprising appearance three years ago with the release of her first international album, Anggun, which was hardly Indonesian at all.

The album, which sold one million copies in over 30 countries, catapulted Anggun to new heights as a European pop star, with concerts in packed stadiums and inclusion in the lineup of the all-girls Lilith Fair concert along with Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow.

Her success is a bit of a slap in the face for Indonesian singers and musicians who often talk about going international but never really work on it -- at least not much beyond winning an award in obscure international singing festivals.

Yet, the 26 year old is still modest, unpretentious and humble. No snobbishness, no batting eyelashes, or peppering her speech with English words.

In Jakarta for two weeks to promote her new album and the second international album titled Chrysalis, she found time to talk to The Jakarta Post on Tuesday in spite of her tight schedule at The Regent Jakarta. Here is an excerpt of the interview:

Question: So, how's things?

Answer: Great! I just ate siomay (dim sum), it was delicious. And Teh Botol (a brand of tea in a bottle) ... I've got two boxes of it up in my room.

I heard you just got back from Bali?

Yes. Ever since my new album was released in Europe, I have been touring all over Europe the past two months without a single day-off. So, when I saw the schedule of the album promotion here in Indonesia, I decided to take a week's vacation in Bali.

Been really busy?

Indeed. After Indonesia, we are going to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, probably going back to France, and then to Italy, Belgium, Switzerland ... Well, busy-busy-busy! (Laughing)

What about the United States?

Next year, I guess. We plan to first promote the album in Europe and Asia because you see, promoting in the United States needs longer time. It took me nine months to promote my last album there and we had to go back and forth from Paris to America at that time. So, we decided to put the promotion in the United States later on in our schedule.

Why did it take longer?

Because it is such a big country. European countries are next to each other, but in America, it takes a six-hour flight to get from New York to Los Angeles. It is the same as Paris to New York.

American audiences, are they harder to please?

Not really. I got quite a good response there. But the audience is very different in each place. In Texas, I got a lot of airplay, shows with packed audience. But in Los Angeles ... well, I guess Americans really like to categorize music. R&B, Soul, Hip Hop, ... But my music can't simply be categorized like that as it is a mixture of all things. So, they (Americans) were kind of confused where to put it. Some said my music is refreshing and distinctive, while others said the opposite. So, the chances are 50-50.

Why did you give the title Chrysalis to your new album?

Because I really like chrysalides, I even prefer them to butterflies. They hold such a beautiful mystery. We don't know whether it will metamorphose into a butterfly or not -- or what kind of butterfly. I like a situation or a phase before something turns into something else. And the life cycle is amazing. It's reborn three times, from a caterpillar to a chrysalis and to butterfly. It's just fascinating.

You also co-wrote the album, was it your first experience of writing songs?

No, I wrote my first song when I was nine. But this is the first time that I really got involved in the whole artistic process. I don't know, writing songs for me now is more of a therapy, a healthy way to spit out my grudges. So, we can see things more clearly and more objectively afterward.

Maybe you could write a poetry book, like Jewel.

(Laughing) Maybe. Probably. Never really thought about that.

I read that you want to be a part of a classic singer- songwriter collaboration like Elton John. Have you worked on that?

What? Did I say that? I don't recall ever saying that. Well, speaking about collaboration, I recently was involved in an album project for AIDS funding in France. And I was working with the likes of Peter Gabriel (former Genesis vocalist) and Youssou N'Dour. It was really exciting. I mean ... THE Peter Gabriel. And he was singing a song I wrote. It was like, ah (screaming). Collaborating with top-notch musicians like Elton John is not easy, though. Maybe they don't even want to collaborate with me, because who am I anyway?

What was Peter Gabriel like?

Oh, he was very nice. We actually have the same person to deal with for public relations in New York.

Which singers do you like, anyway?

Hmmm ... I like Sheila Chandra from India, Nusrah Fateh Ali and then Sting. (Pausing, thinking) The Beatles ... of course, The Beatles are an inspiration for everyone. David Bowie. I like David Bowie.

Speaking about Nusrah Fateh Ali, does going international mean you have to accentuate your ethnicity or traditional music?

Not really, actually. I was once asked by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads in New York about why singers from outside America feel obliged to put traditional sounds in their music.

There are many singers like that, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I'm not really into that. The traditional sounds in my music is like wearing perfume. You smell it but can't see it. I prefer a smoother way like that. Being Indonesian doesn't mean that I have to sing with the gamelan or wear batik and kebaya all the time. It wasn't my style when I was still living in Indonesia either.

Is it a compromise?

It's not compromising, I call it adapting. As a human, we face different situations and problems all the time in different places. I have to adapt to that, but I never want to compromise. Adapting is a way to enrich ourselves.

Do you still keep up with the Indonesian music scene?

Err ... a little. Just from the Internet, or from friends who visited me in Paris. They brought me albums from Katon and KLa Project. And hey, I saw Bob Tutupoli and Grace Simon (Indonesian singers) on TV a while ago. Wow, they haven't changed a bit! (Laughing)

What about newcomers?

Well, people gave me albums of Reza and Sheila on 7. They're great. The more new singers/musicians, the more varied and rich the Indonesian music scene will be. I see that their music is quite similar. But then again, pop music has always been like that. That also goes for dangdut.

Oh, and I was so surprised when I listened to Chrisye's song ... Semusim (A Season)? Yeah, that one. I was shocked that the intro is dangdut. I thought, wow, Chrisye is singing dangdut now? But apparently it was just for the intro.

What about the global music trends?

Well, as an artist I have to keep up with that. Not necessarily follow them, but just for my knowledge.

What about boybands and bubble-gummer teenage singers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera?

It's better to be in a boyband than being jobless (laughing). Well, the market is big enough for everyone. Even for children. I see here, there are many child singers like Joshua. It's good, there were hardly any in my days.

Tell me about Lilith Fair.

Ah, Lilith Fair. It was one of the greatest moments in my life! A break-through experience. Nothing was more prestigious in the United States at that time for a female singer than being involved in the event.

It was great not just because it was packed with great artists, but it was also a way to discover new talent.

The audience was also different. Since the performers were all women, there were many lesbians in the audience. There were like this bunch of lesbians who propositioned me ... hahaha ... They bought me beers, and I was like, ugh.

Why? You don't like beer?

No (laughing). I don't find being propositioned by lesbians thrilling either (laughing).

Who's the coolest among the fellows in Lilith Fair?

Queen Latifah. You see, some are super nice, others are so snobbish. Queen Latifah is among the latter. She never bothers to go to press conferences or stuff like that, it's like wasting her energy. But once she gets on stage, man ... she's got this great energy. She is just awesome.

Among the nice singers are Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. Natalie even invited me to open her concert.

The Corrs are also nice, we performed on the same stage once. It's more fun, you know, to go on tour with women. We can talk beyond music, like clothes, lipstick, women's stuff.

What about our country's political situation? What does it look like from afar?

There's this magazine in France called Foto which displayed pictures of corpses in East Timor, with blood and separated body parts and all. So, foreigners only see cruelty and brutality. They say that it's a troubled country, that we chose the wrong president, and so on. People keep asking me about this, which is reasonable, since I'm the only Indonesian they know. I always say that we have just got out of a dictatorship so we're having this transition time. And it's not something that we can change overnight. But I think that we'll never fall into the same problem again. We have to be optimistic.

What about having kids?

In several years, perhaps. I'm only 26 now, although a friend of mine who's also 26 already has three kids. But they're triplets, so, ... (laughing)

Ever thought of going back to school?

No, God, no. Life is a better school for me. I saw on TV once a program about people in the Amazon who are completely illiterate. When I changed the channel, there was Billy Gates with the Microsoft case and I was just thinking that the super- smart Gates is no better than those Amazon people, you know what I mean?

I learn of course, through meeting people, talking with them, reading. I read about many things. Buddhism for example. I'm a Muslim but I went to a Catholic school. My parents gave me freedom to choose any religion. And now, since many of my French friends are Buddhist, I also learn about it. Books taught me to listen to my inner thoughts.

Are you going to sing for the rest of your life?

I think so. God gave me this talent, so if I don't make the best out of it, it's like saying to Him 'Thanks, but no thanks'. And it's not a really polite thing to say.