Ardhito Pramono has had a year. At the start of 2022, the Indonesian actor and jazz-pop singer-songwriter was entering his fifth year as a recording artist, and things looked bright: he’d snagged five nominations at the 2021 AMI Awards and released his fifth EP for Sony Music, a fable-based collection of jazz tunes for children.
So it came as a shock to everyone when the 27-year-old was arrested in his home for marijuana usage in January and charged under Indonesia’s narcotic laws, facing a potential sentence of four years in prison.
After issuing public apologies and spending six months in rehabilitation, Ardhito returned to public life in June. A month later, he released ‘Wijayakusuma’, his first ever full-length album and his most ambitious material yet. Its title is no coincidence: In Javanese mythology, the Wijayakusuma flower (or fishbone cactus) is believed to have magical properties that can revive the dead. It is also said to bring luck and happiness to those who see it bloom.
“A while ago I got myself into trouble, getting arrested and all that, it’s like I was in a state of suspended animation,” Ardhito tells NME. “Hopefully this flower can bring forth happiness and a miracle for me to come back to life.”
Resurrection doesn’t mean a return to the status quo. ‘Wijayakusuma’, released by the recently revived indie label Aksara Records, marks a drastic departure from the easy listening folk-jazz style Ardhito has been known for by embracing the classic Indonesiana sound of the 1970s and 1980s.
The album is nostalgic and unabashedly Indonesian, recalling the works of the country’s great “pop kreatif” singers and composers of the past such as Chrisye and Candra Darusman (whom Ardhito had previously collaborated with on the song ‘Waktuku Hampa’). Though anachronistic, this sound isn’t so much of a throwback these days thanks to revivalist artists such as Diskoria, Mondo Gascaro and Parlemen Pop, among others.
There are still traces of Ardhito’s signature laid-back, piano-jazz style on numbers such as ‘Rasa-rasanya’ and ‘Berdikari’. But it’s the centerpiece ‘Wijayakusuma’, featuring a live recording of a full Indonesian orchestra ensemble, gamelan and the Javanese sinden style of singing (courtesy of guest vocalist Penny Candra Rini) that really showcases the album’s high ambition.
“This album was so difficult to make, it’s crazy,” Ardhito says. “The song ‘Wijayakusuma’ alone took about a year before it was released. Normally, it [would take] me three months tops to sit on a song.”
The song ‘Wijayakusuma” took more than 100 vocal takes to get right because Ardhito and his team wanted to get that one perfect, continuous take – much like how singers used to do it back in the days of expensive reel-to-reel recording. And Ardhito had to go back to vocal basics: “I had to relearn the pattern of my singing and even my inhalation techniques. It’s things that I’ve kinda forgotten because I’ve been singing in these ranges that I was so comfortable with. I always fell back on my folk and crooner jazz influences.”
Another big change on ‘Wijayakusuma’ is how Ardhito sings entirely in Indonesian – something he’s never done before, having sung mostly in English. “Around 2016, most of the hits churned out by artists like Danilla, Fourtwnty and Payung Teduh were sung in Indonesian, and so my label was skeptical about me writing songs in English. But [2018 single] ‘Bitterlove’ came out and did really well, even among the younger audience,” Ardhito recalls.
In 2018, when Ardhito was working as a radio announcer, he interviewed Narpati “OomLeo” Awangga, a songwriter and musician known for his involvement with Jakarta’s synth pop veteran Goodnight Electric and his “karaoke music selector project” OomLeo Berkaraoke. Over the years, the two became good enough friends for OomLeo to criticise Ardhito for singing in English and arguably influencing a new generation of Indonesian musicians to follow suit.
“It’s a testament to the improvement of Indonesian artists that many can sing in English fluently and convey the[ir] message to the listeners,” says Ardhito. “However, after talking to OomLeo and digging deeper into the back catalogue of Indonesian music and listening to artists like Nuri Satrio, Theresa Zen and Sam Saimun, I realised that there’s a wealth of amazing music and beautiful wordplay in older Indonesian lyrics. So, why not embrace our own culture?”
“What I’ve learnt from rehab is: just do it for today. Tomorrow is a different story”
Ardhito is an established artist, having started composed music in 2013 and releasing material in 2017. By changing his musical style, he no doubt risked alienating faithful listeners. How does he feel about this?
“I don’t even think about that anymore. I don’t care whether this album will get plenty of streams or whatever,” Ardhito stresses. “But people need to listen to this album, because it was done in such a careful and detailed way, from the music down to the words.”
Most of the album was completed after Ardhito returned from rehab – seven tracks were recorded in two weeks. But only one song on the tracklist was written post-rehab. On the rather upbeat and optimistic ‘Daun Surgawi’ (‘Heavenly Leaf’), Ardhito tries to playfully illustrate what it feels like to explore his creativity and cope with his anxiety without using drugs. A translated sampling of its lyrics goes: “My soul is awake / No more doubts / Laughs fill the calm night / Your green scent / Your tall, beautiful pattern / There’s no disaster / Feels like nirvana.”
When asked whether his rehab has contributed to his current state of well-being, Ardhito says his anxiety is better, and he’s taking things day by day.
“I try to live my life to the fullest. I go on last-minute vacations, I try to compromise with what other people say of me. Just regulate your breathing, eat properly. Those things are very important,” Ardhito shares.
“What I’ve learnt from rehab is: just do it for today. Tomorrow is a different story. If you can get through one day, two days, it’ll be a week, a month before you know it. One day, you won’t relapse anymore.”
When NME catches up with Ardhito, he’s just wrapped a week of touring, and is proud of the way his new material has been received. “When I was performing in Padang, many sang along to ‘Kesan Pertama’, and to me that’s an achievement,” he says excitedly. “Now the challenge is to perform ‘Wijayakusuma’ on stage. Because it’s such a grand song that needs a lot of players and equipment, it wouldn’t come across well playing it through a sequencer alone.
“But all the other songs have been getting a warm welcome. I feel very supported.”
Though his arrest and rehabilitation became an unignorable media storm and an inevitable part of the background to ‘Wijayakusuma’’s release, Ardhito is confident that the album will stand tall and proud as the controversy surrounding his past mistakes fades away.
“It’s the most advanced and personal album that I’ve made so far,” he declares. “Whatever I did in the past, this is an album that I won’t be able to repeat. Controversies, they don’t last long, but your work will.”
Ardhito Pramono’s ‘Wijayakusuma’ is out now via Aksara Records