A month before releasing his debut EP ‘The Chase’, Alextbh was having second thoughts. The Malaysian R&B artist, who came on the scene in 2016, had been teasing fans with new songs for months, but he began to feel apprehensive.
In June this year, the 23-year-old Sarawak-born singer, who identifies as queer, opened up on Instagram, revealing that “the state of the world” and “pushbacks on my EP release” had dealt a blow to his confidence and motivation. “I’m only at my best if I have a trajectory. But I seem to second guess at everything I do,” he confessed. He added: “Do people care if I talk about hookups in a queer context when I could have made ‘Stoop So Low’ 2.0?”
A month later, over Zoom, Alextbh tells NME the pressure of repeating the success of his breakout 2016 song was compounded by his fears that his music would not translate well with his fans, who were, at that time, mostly teenage girls. “While I knew that was the kind of music I wanted to write, I was concerned that the context might be too niche and end up only relating to a very small subset of my listeners,” he says.
At the same time, writing from his own experience is what Alextbh – real name Alex Bong – knows best. “Music is my outlet to pour my heart out,” he says. “I’ve been through hardships and heartbreak and it was always easy to translate that anger directly into words.”
But that didn’t mean the new EP came together easily. A series of casual relationships, Bong says, had left him feeling empty and numb. Building walls to protect himself from another heartbreak had created a void of emotion – one that ultimately spurred him to write ‘The Chase’, the title track and closing song of the EP, which was released July 17.
“I wrote it in the bedroom studio of my friend’s place in London, in the summer of 2018,” he recalls. “I was so desperate to find meaning in all of this but failed, because I was chasing this unattainable idea of my perfect self – the perfect guy in a perfect relationship – and I wanted to break away from that cycle”.
Over ‘The Chase’’s six tracks, Alextbh grapples with both lust and vulnerability, navigating hookup culture in the queer community and questioning expectations of the longevity of queer relationships. “We’re expected to be on Grindr, and expected to hook up,” he explains. “But it’s not for everyone – and it certainly was not for me. I realised the answer is contentment and not to just constantly chase the idea of the perfect love like what I’ve been doing for so long.”
‘The Chase’ also marks a change of sonic direction for Alextbh, moving away from a pop polish towards sounds that are atmospheric, mellow and dark. “I had listened to a lot of minimalist R&B music when I was in college and I really wanted that chill vibe. So it kind of steered itself in that direction,” he explains. Daniel Caesar, Sabrina Claudio and Sinéad Harnett were his main sources of inspiration, while the stark sounds of Flume and James Blake shine through, too.
“I was so desperate to find meaning in all of this but failed, because I was chasing this unattainable idea of my perfect self”
Bong was 14 when he received an iPad from his mother and began experimenting with Apple’s GarageBand. The very first song he wrote, he recalls, was about two people falling in love – and to write it he interviewed a couple so he could write their story. “It was very, very bad, but we got to start from somewhere,” he laughs.
His first attempt at recording and producing his own music came after a bad break-up. That song, ‘Stoop So Low’, debuted on SoundCloud and now has over 21 million streams on Spotify, making it his most-streamed song to date.
Alextbh has since seen his popularity grow exponentially, especially among the young queer community in his conservative home country. He’s touted by the press as Malaysia’s first queer pop artist, but visibility comes at a cost – one that doesn’t necessarily make headlines. In May, he performed for a livestream festival organised by the label 88rising, during which he covered Cigarettes After Sex’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby’, partly sung in Malay.
“It was shared on [88rising’s] Facebook and, because most of the fanbase of the other artists are not in my lane, I do get a lot more homophobic hate comments than usual,” he reveals. But he’s determined to focus instead on the many positive comments that outweigh the hateful ones.
“I have got nothing to lose,” he says. “So, I try my best to just humanise the person behind the hate, and [understand] why they are spewing so much negativity. Maybe it is just a projection of their own insecurities.”
Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, and living in an apartment with two housemates, Bong says that he has no intention of moving elsewhere to pursue his career. Though he used to want to emulate the success of his mentor Yuna, who is now based in the United States, and despite being signed to a record label in the US, he says he’s comfortable in Malaysia.
“We live in a world where we’re so connected online. It is quite amazing to have a team that is spread out geographically across the world,” he says. “I can call my manager [who’s based in Los Angeles] despite the time difference, tell him what I want, and he can execute it right away. It is fascinating, and I love it. I don’t have to be in London or LA to write songs, you know?”
“I try my best to just humanise the person behind the hate… Maybe it is just a projection of their own insecurities”
Malaysia being on semi-lockdown has also helped him get productive again, he says. While he rates most days a “five out of 10”, he feels content with the way things are. “I realise that is the quickest way to escape the void and get back to work. That’s when I’m creatively at my best, too. Work now feels therapeutic.”
Bong has started writing new songs while in lockdown, too. “I’m definitely working on more bops,” he says. “Actually, the very day my EP was released, I’d already thought about chapter two.” So when can we expect the full album? He smiles coyly: “It could be another EP, or I might release a mixtape. I like to call it that – it’s cooler, because no one listens to ‘albums’ anymore.”
Alextbh’s ‘The Chase’ EP is out now