On ‘Pop Seblay’, Danilla Riyadi slips barbs between the laughs

The Indonesian artist’s sense of humour and whimsy is front and centre on her third solo album – but she doesn’t miss the opportunity to speak her mind

The Danilla Riyadi of ‘Pop Seblay’ is not one you’ve ever seen before. The Indonesian singer-songwriter’s first full-length album of original material in five years, ‘Pop Seblay’ shines a new spotlight on the 32-year-old musician, so well known for the moody heroine persona she made famous during the 2010s.

As Danilla – as she is professionally known – gleefully explains at the start of her conversation with NME: “This is probably the most jokey album we have ever made!

“From the lyrical standpoint, I’m telling the stories of my bandmates and their mischief,” she explains with a cheeky smile. “The [lyrical narratives] might seem horrendous, but I feel like nothing is ugly as long as we deliver it as properly as possible.”

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On ‘Pop Seblay’, listeners will meet Danilla the happy-go-lucky rascal, singing about whatever is on her mind, from the inside jokes she often shares with her bandmates to cat allergies.

This is a side of Danilla that her longtime producers, Lafa Pratomo and Otta Tarrega, have known for a while now. The former, who has been Danilla’s co-writer and co-producer since her first studio album, 2014’s ‘Telisik’ (‘Sight’), felt privileged to be bringing out Danilla’s “sense of humour and her shenanigans”.

‘Pop Seblay’, he says, is “an album on which Danilla gets to explore some spaces she has never explored before. An expanse she has rarely looked in before”. Tarrega says: “There was a lot of lenience concerning what Danilla wanted, what I wanted, and what Lafa wanted. We didn’t put restraints on each other.”

“The ideas that they had were so wild, it could be dangerous if we didn’t manage them”

Danilla’s brand of humour is showcased through both the sounds and lyrical stylings of ‘Pop Seblay’. The album’s opener ‘Kudikan’ (‘Scab’), for instance, is a rousing clash of indie rock and the Java-originated genre of dangdut, and depending on how you look at it, its lyrics are about either physical lust or, well, a scab. ‘Fel d 1’, which features R&B singer Teddy Adhitya, crescendos with Marvin Gaye-inspired arrangements and seemingly NSFW lyrics before the outro reveals that Danilla’s late-night moaning is simply due to her cat allergies.

The trio are well aware ‘Pop Seblay’ could have descended into laughable parody. Danilla credits Pratomo for being the “gatekeeper” of the album – the one who was always there to reign in her and Tarrega’s wild ideas. “If it weren’t for Lafa, this would have ended up being a comedy album.”

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Pratomo explains the dynamics they established for the sake of quality control: Tarrega workshopped the songs with Danilla, and Pratomo evaluated the resulting demos and gave them necessary feedback.

“When I listened to [the demos], I was like, ‘Man, this is wild!’ Having said that, the ideas that they had were so wild, it could be dangerous if we didn’t manage them. This could have turned into something Project Pop-like,” Pratomo says, referencing the popular comedic band from Bandung. “Afterwards, I set up a ‘fence’ and explained to Danilla how the gimmicks – there were initially a lot of them on the demos – could lead to that comedy route.”

Not everything is fun and games on ‘Pop Seblay’. Between sleazy synths on the lounge-pop track ‘Berat Badan’ (‘Body Weight’), she pointedly sings in Indonesian: “you would be prettier without the double chin”. On the slow jam and lead single ‘MPV’, she expresses her annoyance with listeners who expect her to return to her old sound, daring them to “say that you cannot let go of the past / say that you refuse to grow”.

Social isolation and a pandemic-fueled uptick of social media consumption inspired Danilla to speak her mind, she explains. “Social media has been spoon-feeding [me] so much stuff and I was like, blergh! Vomiting!” she says with a laugh. “How does everything look so fake, yet so real at the same time?”

Danilla gets particularly real on ‘“Senja” di Seberang Nusa’ (‘“Twilight” Across the Isle’), addressing the “complicated” relationship she has with one of her signature songs, the ‘Telisik’-era ‘Senja Di Ambang Pilu’ (‘Twilight on the Verge of Sorrow’): “Relatives here and there / They say, listen to that Danilla’s song,” she sings.

Danilla Riyadi Pop Seblay album interview
Danilla. Courtesy of Laguland Records

“‘Senja Di Ambang Pilu’ is a good song, and it is totally enjoyable at twilight when people are having their cup of coffee and playing jazz,” Danilla says. “But then, as time went on, people started referring to me as the ‘senja kid’ because of that song. Also, the meaning of the word ‘senja’ [twilight] itself got distorted over time and lots of people were not OK with that, just because. Personally, I have no problem with the song. It’s [people’s remarks] that annoy me.”

‘Pop Seblay’ still makes room for love, though not the kind listeners might expect. The rock-influenced ‘Bukan Otomata’ (‘Not an Automata’) and ‘Di Balik Selimut’ (‘Underneath the Blanket’) are Danilla’s odes to animals, particularly cats. The latter song credits the featured artist Lupus Mutiara: a cat that resides in her and her band’s recording studio whose meows are heard on the song.

“Why do I love animals so much? I don’t exactly know. Maybe because they have no agenda whatsoever,” Danilla giggles. “I feel like what matters to them is simply food and survival. They have no need to be deceitful.”

“Social media has been spoon-feeding [me] so much stuff… How does everything look so fake, yet so real at the same time?”

There is no comedy without tragedy, though – something that Danilla and her mates learned when they dropped ‘Pop Seblay’ on February 22. The rib-tickling offering landed at a time when their home country seemed to be in no mood for a laugh: Indonesia has been experiencing record-breaking daily COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron outbreak since late February, at one point passing 61,000 new cases in a single day.

“The pandemic has truly stunned all of us,” Danilla acknowledges. “Lots of people – including our fellow musicians – have died. The whole thing has become way too dark now.

“That said, sometimes it feels even scarier when we are just stuck inside our homes with an unchanging routine. We have been swaying back and forth, wondering when this will end – and then, we just end up laughing. All we can do is wait and enjoy the ride. How do you live your best life in the darkest of times? Just laugh!”

Danilla’s ‘POP SEBLAY’ is out now via Laguland Records

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