August Wahh has terrible stage fright. How terrible? “I learned to look at people’s foreheads instead of their eyes, if it gets too much,” she laughs. Wahh hasn’t had to look at any foreheads in the past seven months – something she’s simultaneously lamenting (given a still-progressing global catastrophe) and celebrating (given her magnificent discomfort as a performer).
The key, she says with an embarrassed snicker, is to “trick yourself” into thinking no one’s watching.
Indeed, August Wahh fancies herself more as a memoirist than a star. And last week, she added a chapter to these memoirs with the release of the new three-track EP ‘Vivid’, which she describes as an audio journal of “daydreams”.
Wahh teased the veritable mini-novella in early October with the release of ‘Hue’, a melodically and rhythmically sinuous affair helmed by the producer Subculture. Its reverb-drenched, shoegaze-leaning sound probably wasn’t what her fans are used to, but she’s been known to shift gears with ease.
Throughout her chat with NME, Wahh routinely likens making music to “painting pictures” while stressing the importance of choosing the right artists to colour outside the lines with. And for ‘Vivid’, Wahh’s label Redbox Asia found her some pretty intense co-painters to fill canvases with: apart from Subculture, there’s London-based jazz artist Ashley Henry, R&B singer-songwriter Life On Planets, and UK producer Girls Of The Internet. “They captured my ideas and they added their magic, too. Which made everything better, I feel,” the singer beams.
Written entirely during lockdown, the modest collection is a marked detour in sonic character. The Girls Of The Internet-produced ‘Press Play’ – which also features Life On Planets and keyboard wunderkind RJ Pineda – veers closer to acid house territory than Wahh’s usual electro-soul, while the aforementioned ‘Hue’ conceals twee-pop tricks up its sleeves. Rounding things up is ‘Eyes’, produced by Ashley Henry, which explores a more organic, band-oriented sound.
For all intents and purposes, August Wahh’s still-young solo discography is a testament to both caution and deliberation. She confesses that this “painting pictures” business can be quite demanding on her creatively and emotionally. But “I really resonate with that kind of vulnerability,” she shares.
She does tread lightly in spirit and in heart – her lyrics often give her away – but as a studio animal, she is unforgiving, known to redo a track several times over if it doesn’t feel right. “I’d like to think I’m meticulous,” Wahh says. “I can’t stop if I got something going.”
And August Wahh has always got something going. From singing Whitney and Mariah tunes as a child at her dad’s General Santos ribs-and-jazz joint, to being hoisted up onstage at all manner of shows (“Parties, school events, prayer meetings – you name it!”), she would eventually shelve her spirited pre-teen renditions of ‘Through The Fire’ and ‘Saving All My Love’ for something more artistically fulfilling.
Moving to Manila in 2007 to pursue an education in music production, Wahh amassed a network of like-minded friends who lived and breathed music. “I was already writing songs then but never really cared for it or shared it – until I did,” she reveals.
In 2010, she would take on the August Wahh moniker – which combines her birth month and her last name in reverse – and put out two low-key releases on SoundCloud: the Deeper Manila-produced ‘Roots’ and ‘Starborn’.
“I’d like to think I’m meticulous. I can’t stop if I got something going”
Those two songs would eventually get reinterpreted by neo-soul band Chocolate Grass, in which she handled microphone duties from 2011 to 2017, releasing a lone record (2015’s ‘Magic Hour’) in the process. Returning to being a solo artist marked both a stylistic shift and a rethinking of her creative process: though her newer material remained highly percussive – see the freestyling, free-spirited ‘Blue Dreams’ and the irresistible syncopations of ‘Elated’ – music-making once again became a stripped-down operation.
“Structuring songs with a band is definitely harder because creative differences come into play,” Wahh explains, “as compared to doing it solo, where I get to control whatever image I want to paint” – returning to the curious metaphor. “I feel like all of you really need to trust each other. And if you don’t, it shows in the art,” she adds.
That kind of trust is beautifully manifest in her work with the producer crwn, with whom she cut her debut EP ‘Labyrinth’, to many still Wahh’s signature release. “I was lucky with crwn. We both trusted each other and we had chemistry, I think. Honestly, that’s why it worked out.”
It almost didn’t happen: While at a music festival, she mustered enough liquid confidence to just walk up to the already-buzzed-about producer and said, point-blank, “Let’s collaborate.” The rest, as they say, is history.
On the strength of these collaborative releases – the celebrated single ‘Sahara’ and subsequent EP ‘Labyrinth’, released in the summer of 2019 – August Wahh would secure coveted spots at regional festivals like Wonderfruit (Thailand) and the inaugural staging of ASEAN Music Showcase (Philippines), and also a spot on Spotify’s emerging artist programme, RADAR.
“I really resonate with that kind of vulnerability”
To date, her songs (or her pictures) cover a sprawling spectrum: a deceiving Rothko-like linearity, but on occasion, also a slapdash, Basquiat-like rebellion. And at the heart of the material – beyond the cool chill-wave sonics, soulful singing and bouncy beats sure to keep you bobbing for days – is a naked vulnerability and a heart-on-sleeve lyricism. Wahh does honest, minus the insufferable wallowing, exceedingly well.
“Being emotional isn’t a bad thing if you put it to good use. I’m proud of that because I can definitely say all the songs I’ve written are charged like that,” she says.
The bookend tracks of ‘Vivid’, for instance, speak directly of her life in lockdown, which – as much as it is an opportunity to recharge and reboot – still has everyone “fiending for the old life,” as Wahh puts it. She’s unhinged in the opener (‘Press Play’), bargaining in the middle (‘Hue’), and lucid in the closer (‘Eyes’).
This transparency is what defines August Wahh: she’s an open book regardless of whether anyone’s watching, and whether that gaze makes her feel self-conscious. The pages are there for anyone to leaf through.
“[I learned] that it’s OK to be super-uncomfortable for long periods of time. The point is to be in the now, and not think about what’s to come,” she says.
August Wahh’s ‘Vivid’ is out now