Feby Putri: “What scares emigrants the most is returning to where they came from with empty hands”

The Indonesian folk artist moved to Jakarta to chase her dreams, excavating the tumultuous experience on her debut album ‘Riuh’

Sometimes an album cover says it all. The artwork of Feby Putri’s debut album ‘Riuh’, for instance, is a simple summary of what its 10 songs are about: darkness nearly swallows the 21-year-old singer-songwriter as she attempts to reach for a delicate ray of light.

Putri confirms that she has not been living her best life lately.

“Lots of people had asked me this before: ‘Why don’t you just write about the happy stuff?’ But I just wasn’t in that mindspace,” she tells NME. “I cannot write feel-good songs when I don’t feel good myself.”

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The cover was partly inspired by a dark moment Putri experienced in her home in Jakarta a few years back.

“My apartment is really dingy and it gets overly quiet, so it was as if my apartment had forced me to succumb to this state of overthinking and these negative thoughts were just swirling inside me,” she divulges. “I wasn’t bright enough. There was still a lot that I had to learn. I was 18 when I moved to Jakarta; I was just a kid who knew nothing!”

It has been almost four years since Putri hit the ground running in the big city, an emotional journey she decided to archive in what would eventually become her debut album. A folk record that incorporates elements of country music, dark pop, and soft rock, ‘Riuh’ (‘Tumultuous’) recounts the turmoil that Putri has experienced in Jakarta: homesickness, disappointment, loneliness, and self-doubt.

“Back then I was so ambitious that I had so many thoughts spiraling in my brain and they turned into this massive hullabaloo. So, I decided to let it all out in this album,” she explains.

Indonesians already know Putri’s ability to excavate heavy emotions in her music through her chart-topping duet with Fiersa Besari, ‘Runtuh’. But that song isn’t on ‘Riuh’, because Putri insisted on writing the entire album herself, sans featured artists or songwriters.

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“I don’t have it in me to say, ‘Here goes my first album!’ when it is someone else who makes it for me,” she explains. “I don’t think that kind of album would be considered mine per se. Music is totally mine when I create it myself from scratch.”

The album’s dark tales begin with ‘Rantau’ (‘Migrate’): a midtempo guitar-driven number in which Putri recalls her wide-eyed, 18-year-old self arriving in Jakarta for the first time. It’s about Putri’s naïveté and optimism about what the big-city life could offer her. In Indonesian, she sings: “Lots of souls I do not know / Beginning new story now / Worries would come and go / In a realm I think is whole”.

“I was 18 when I moved to Jakarta; I was just a kid who knew nothing!”

For Putri, leaving her hometown Makassar for Jakarta was important to pursue her musician dreams – but it was also the beginning of her hardship. She’d postponed her college education in Makassar to pursue music professionally, and living independently did not come naturally to the then-teenager, who is the youngest of seven kids.

“I was super comfortable with my family [in Makassar]. When I returned home from school, food would already be on the table and I could sleep without burden. But, when I stepped into Jakarta – the metropolis that everyone describes as rough – I soon discovered that, well, Jakarta is indeed quite like that,” she recalls with a laugh.

Her new life in Jakarta soon got darker, as documented in the subdued ‘Alih’ (‘Switch’) and ‘Dera’ (‘Rattle’). While the former is about the “self-loathing” induced by the remarks of internet trolls (“The sound is echoing / I hear it resonate / Force myself to accept / The words of insult”), the latter narrates how Putri desperately clings to her Jakarta dream as she witnesses her fellow emigrants return to their hometown because of the COVID-19 pandemic (“I fight on top of my dreams / Hoping to conquer this rattling feeling / In order to feel what is real”).

“It’s not just me – what scares emigrants the most is returning to where they came from with empty hands,” Putri says wistfully.

On ‘Liar Angin’ (‘Tempest’), Putri feels insignificant and downcast in the face of the odds stacked against her (“Even the universe is laughing / Ha ha ha ha / Can’t be seen, can’t be heard”). It’s a song that calls back to the “unfair” attitudes Putri encountered from some Jakartans who she thinks dismissed her as a musician on the account of her background and appearance.

“There was this moment in my apartment when I contemplated, ‘Why does fairness exist only for the grand? Only for the rich and the elite? Why is fairness meant for the ones who are only kind on the outside? What about the rest of us, then? The ones who have no money, no beauty, no tall frame, no light skin, and et cetera.’”

Feby Putri interview Riuh album
Courtesy of BYNC Records

Besides introducing new material, ‘Riuh’ also features a new version of Putri’s debut single ‘Halu’ (‘Mirage’). When the song was first released in 2019, ‘Halu’ was a means of raising awareness of schizophrenia. By re-recording the song and making it the second track of ‘Riuh’, however, Putri wished to convey what the song means to her personally: how the mirage of her loved ones is not caused by an illness, but instead, “immense homesickness”. In hindsight, Putri realises that “‘Halu’ is about how I genuinely need to work on my independence.”

She seems to finally grab her ray of light in the closing track ‘Berkesudahan’ (‘Over’), crooning how she has “returned to the light along with serenity / That hand reaches out, holding on to mine”. As the year 2020 passed, she discovered that her ‘light’ was not necessarily fame or public approval, but simply the state of “no longer being alone”. The coda was inspired by and dedicated to her “second family” in Jakarta: her bandmates, sound engineers, and the close-knit team that make up her label BYNC Records. “What they have shared with me about their lives serves as my guidance,” she says.

Even as Putri promotes her debut album, she’s compiling demos for her sophomore effort, now a more worldly adult embracing the concrete jungle. But even though Feby Putri may have found her ‘light’, she’s acutely aware that the darkness can return any time.

“The last track of the album says that my grief is over, but the truth is, there is still some stuff out there that could cause me more turmoil!” she exclaims, laughing. “After all, we are all just humans.”

Feby Putri’s ‘Riuh’ is out now via BYNC Records

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