Aisyah Aziz on Elevating Her Music by Embracing Culture

Over a Zoom video call one afternoon in November, Aisyah Aziz, the Malay singer-songwriter, speaks to me from within her home. What struck me instantly was her casual, confident disposition, perfectly set off by her head of bold, vivid yellow hair cropped into a pixie cut. In a loose, white T-shirt, she is snacking on a pack of roasted almonds. Her face, devoid of the graphic, daring makeup looks she often wears in public, is dominated by wide, round eyes, softly angular cheekbones and a pointy chin. Her speech is laden with Singaporean colloquialism and often ends in laughter, conveying a sense that the 26-year-old doesn’t take herself too seriously; one is instantly put at ease by her relaxed presence.

Another notable trait of Aisyah is how she likes to answer almost exclusively through anecdotes. She recounts instances to me as though she’s thinking out loud, her self-referential responses — “And I was like… And she was like…” — marked by a spontaneity in word choice and in her animated facial expressions.

This hyper-candidness might lull one to imagine that her career as a musician, which she embarked on at age 19, has been an easy course. 

She was teaching me how to speak, which was funny… So, at 24, I was learning how to speak.

In 2015, Aisyah launched her professional music career in Malaysia after finishing sixth in the Malaysian reality singing competition Akademi Fantasia. Her most loyal fans know her for her vocal skill in Malay pop, a recognition she still acknowledges now, saying, “I know that I sing better in Malay.” It would be two years later that her sultry voice, which tends to trail off in an idiosyncratic rapid vibrato, would receive critical acclaim on a regional stage. She bagged three awards at the 2017 Anugerah Planet Muzik (APM) awards: Best Collaboration for the independently released track “Tanda Tanya”; Best Singapore Song and Best APM Song for her duet with the Malaysian singer Haikal Ali, “Senyum Saja.” In the same year, she won the award for Singapore’s Best Asian Artist at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, where she also performed live. 

Aisyah Aziz wears Moncler Collection coat, Cartier Clash de Cartier earrings, rings and bracelet.
Aisyah Aziz wears Moncler Collection coat, Cartier Clash de Cartier earrings, rings and bracelet.

It was also in 2017 that Aisyah was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia.

“From maybe mid-2017 to 2018, I wasn’t singing as much,” she says, following a solemn pause. “[I had] the hashtag ‘#aisyahsings,’ where I upload all my covers and where everybody goes to find them. And I was so consistent with it. That became a thing; every single time I uploaded a cover, it went viral on Twitter, on Instagram. And then, suddenly, I stopped.” She continues, “I got out of touch, because I couldn’t even do a 15-second cover without my whole neck tensing up, and my whole body being very anxious. And I didn’t know why. I think that was a really dark time in my life.”

At decidedly the lowest point of her music career, she sat up and consulted the expertise of a speech therapist. “She was teaching me how to speak, which was funny… So, at 24, I was learning how to speak,” she says. “Like, that’s crazy.”

Aisyah recalls something the speech therapist said, which really struck her: “She casually went, ‘Aisyah, I think you need to speak to somebody about your mental state, because sometimes we overlook it, and we don’t know where our thoughts are going, which could be the cause of why you can’t sing.’”

Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.
Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.

2017 was also the year that Aisyah transitioned from working predominantly in Malaysia back to a life in Singapore, where she continued her journey toward becoming an independent musician. With her return home, she found herself surrounded by people who mainly spoke English and who were unabashedly owning their own subculture of thoughts and artistic identity. “I was spending a lot of time with artists like Yung Raja, Fariz Jabba, Fakkah Fuzz. These guys are very Americanised, you see, but also very rooted to their culture, which I found very interesting,” she says. She also recalls the memory of a new year’s show which Fariz and Yung Raja took part in as well. “And they were so hyped… [when] the energy for most of the performances were not quite there. So I was looking at them, and I’m like, ‘I kind of follow man, this energy.’” She would go on to emulate the duo’s high-impact performance during her own segment that night. “So they really taught me a lot of things, like how I can burst into whatever I’m feeling, my emotions,” she says. 

Back in Singapore, Aisyah also had to pivot toward songwriting in English. “It was a conversation I had overheard, where a friend of my friend mentioned that, ‘With the internet and technology, I can’t imagine why people stick to only writing in one language, in Malay. Obviously English is the language to go with, everybody speaks English. And people don’t want to hear exotic stuff…’ or whatever,” she says. “So that kind of stayed in my head.” Driven by necessity too, as most of the country’s events and shows were mainly in English, she started to write English songs to ensure that she didn’t have to turn down any performing opportunities due to a language barrier. And as a bilingual Singaporean, she felt an even greater need to create music in both languages. 

Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.
Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.

In February this year, Aisyah released a live EP in English, titled “Sugar,” with a full live performance video hosted on YouTube. Within a dimly-lit studio, she sings five tracks that register a sensual, mature sensibility. In the title track “Sugar,” she is the mistress to a lover who must leave to go to his family by daylight. Atop a round, red velvet carpet, she kneels, sits and stands, moving freely throughout, laying down her heart with her long, wavy hair undone.

This is not the same Aisyah who was ridden with anxiety over two years ago. Aisyah didn’t seek professional treatment for her mental health then, even though her speech therapist had suggested it. “If my anxiety was stopping me from singing, then my anxiety had to go. It was that easy,” she says. “I did not choose anxiety over music; I just didn’t know that it was anxiety.” She identified her triggers and worked backwards on her own and with the help of people around her. “Almost immediately after that, two, three weeks later, I did a two-night show,” she says. “From not being able to sing for 15 seconds, to doing two nights.” 

If my anxiety was stopping me from singing, then my anxiety had to go. It was that easy.

The Aisyah who sits before me that afternoon in November has certainly found confidence in her own skin. “I think every instance in my life, from then till now, has shaped me in some kind of way, big or small,” she says. She has gone through a lot: a transformative yet perplexing time in Malaysia — “a lot of the times when I was in Malaysia, I don’t think I was in a clear headspace, or in a space where I knew what I wanted to do,” she tells me; her first commercial breakthrough in the region; the fraught transitional phase that came with her return to Singapore. And now, on to the present — Aisyah is just getting started, and deems herself a “late bloomer who is still very wide-eyed and learning.”

On set at T Singapore’s December cover shoot, Aisyah Aziz discusses her take on the perfect balance when it comes to her music.

 

Currently in the works is a collaboration with the Singaporean singer, songwriter and producer Charlie Lim, a multilingual track in which Aisyah will lend her vocals in Malay verses. It’s set for a 2021 release. “Immediately when I heard the song I was like, ‘I need to come in with the Malay words la,’ and he was like, ‘do it.’” she recalls. “He didn’t go, ‘Oh, later the radio won’t play.’ He wasn’t, like, that guy.” 

Elsewhere, Aisyah is working on growing her own original works to offer more diverse and multilingual music. This is fulfilled in tandem with her personal growth, a continual process that the pandemic and the circuit breaker period have only helped put in greater focus. “I feel so privileged to be able to say that I’m in a space where I could get out of the numbness that so many people felt by working on myself, doing a ton of yoga, and meditating,” she says. “Like I mentioned, it’s interactions with people that can really take me out of my headspace — into a new one.”

On T Singapore’s “Holiday” December cover are musicians Aisyah Aziz, Benjamin Kheng, Jasmine Sokko, Tabitha Nauser and Yung Raja. All clothing and shoes by 6 Moncler 1017 Alyx 9SM and Moncler Collection.
On T Singapore’s “Holiday” December cover are musicians Aisyah Aziz, Benjamin Kheng, Jasmine Sokko, Tabitha Nauser and Yung Raja. All clothing and shoes by 6 Moncler 1017 Alyx 9SM and Moncler Collection.
Photographs by Stefan Khoo
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Styling by Jenine Oh
Subjects (clockwise from top left): Benjamin Kheng, Yung Raja, Tabitha Nauser, Aisyah Aziz and Jasmine Sokko.
(Benjamin Kheng and Yung Raja) Grooming: Sha Shamsi using Dior Makeup and Hanz de Fuko.
(Tabitha Nauser) Hair: Den Ng using L’Oréal Professionniel, Makeup: Fiona Bennett using Fenty Beauty.
(Aisyah Aziz) Hair and Makeup: Manisa Tan using Dior Makeup and Keune.
(Jasmine Sokko) Hair: Samuel Sim at Hairloom, Makeup: Larry Yeo using Charlotte Tilbury.
Manicure: Rebecca Chuang at Fluttery Tips.