Isyana Sarasvati had a plan for Joyland. When she took the stage for her set on the third and final day of the Bali festival, she appeared from the smoke like beloved comic character Emily the Strange – wearing all black (including the lipstick), showing off a bob haircut and a keyboard slung on her left shoulder. Kicking off with fiery rock anthem ‘Lexicon’, her set got progressively angstier. By the time she reached the final two numbers – ‘Il Sogno’ and ‘Unlock the Key’ – the audience had nearly turned into a frothing mosh.
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Sarasvati had been particularly anticipating performing those last two songs to a live audience, she tells NME a few days after her performance. “We had tried to perform them a few times before, but without a live audience, the energy was indeed different. I think what’s interesting about songs like ‘Lexicon’, ‘Unlock the Key’ and ‘Il Sogno’ is that you’ve got to see how they are performed live. And finally, Joyland helped make that happen.”
So Sarasvati successfully executed her plan at Joyland: road-testing her most recent material and putting on a rousing, crowd-pleasing set. Laughing, she recalls her pre-show jitters: “I told my team back in our hotel, ‘Damn, I’m nervous as hell!’ Like, I was feeling hot inside!”
Sarasvati’s anxiety is understandable, considering how the ill-fated 2020 had unceremoniously halted everything, her career aspirations included. She had been excited to tour Indonesia to promote her 2019 album ‘Lexicon’, a nine-track neo-classical and progressive rock LP that was noted for its major sonic departure from her typical, pop-R&B stylings.
The creative risks the 28-year-old took were recognised by the industry, the Anugerah Musik Indonesia (AMI) Awards nominating ‘Lexicon’ for Best of the Best Album and awarding its opening track ‘Sikap Duniawi’ (‘Worldly Behaviour’) Best Progressive Production Work. On top of the critical acclaim, she was set to launch her own label, Redrose Records, after finally completing her contractual obligations with Sony Music Entertainment Indonesia.
“It was kind of the right time for me to chase my next dream, to proceed with the next step,” she says now. “The bigger ones are launching my own label, establishing my own [artist] management, [helping] build the music ecosystem in Indonesia, opening my own music academy and so on. But the first step was launching the label.”
And so the global pandemic could not have come at a worse time.
“We never expected to find ourselves in this shocking situation,” she sighs. “We could say that the pandemic was like a mini apocalypse to all of us. At the end of the day, we were all affected – not just mentally, but also physically. We got worn out from being stuck in our house[s] for too long.”
The pandemic might have derailed Sarasvati’s plans, but she was determined not to let her creativity suffer. In mid-2020, she started working on what would eventually be her first piece of pandemic material: ‘Unlock the Key’. The high-octane number retains the blend of neo-classic and progressive rock from the ‘Lexicon’ era, though its composition ditches verse-chorus conventions while further demonstrating Sarasvati’s vocal chops as a trained opera singer. Lyrically, the song expresses the artist’s suffocation by, as she sings in English, “the mess that keeps on running in my head“.
Sarasvati understands how her genre left-turns could divide her audience, especially devoted fans who have been following her ever since her 2014 debut single, the wholesome R&B jam ‘Keep Being You’. But she has always seen herself as an “explorative” artist: someone who refuses to commit their artistry to a single style or genre.
“I love music as a whole, and I grew up listening to so many music genres which subconsciously led me to become a much more open-minded musician,” she says. “I feel like every genre possesses its strength and character, and I’m very open to [all genres]. No matter what the genre is, as long as the song’s message reaches my heart, I’ll accept it and have it as my muse.”
Believing that her future material, including ‘Unlock the Key’, needed a “safe home”, Sarasvati disregarded the pandemic and launched Redrose Records anyway on October 20, then released the song on the label eight days later. The Indonesian music industry responded warmly to ‘Unlock the Key’, which earned her an AMI Award for Best Progressive Production Work the following year, making it her second win in said category.
For its follow-up ‘Il Sogno’, Sarasvati went edgier and fiercer, matching her operatic vocals to similarly grandiose heavy metal sonics. Its English and Italian lyrics deal with contemplation of whether a recurring dream Sarasvati is having is “a gift or a burden“. ‘Il Sogno’ caught the attention of one of her idols upon its digital release in March 2021: the Indonesian heavy metal band DeadSquad, who went on to help remix the song.
Sarasvati still deems her collaboration with DeadSquad one of her greatest accomplishments in her decorated career. “To have DeadSquad perform my song? I mean, wow! That’s dope,” she gushes. “Ultimately, trying to push ourselves to be explorative can lead us to the paths or the doors that we have never imagined before.”
“Every genre possesses its strength and character”
Looking at the positive reception of her recent material and the success of Joyland as a whole, Sarasvati feels more hopeful than ever to materialise her plans that were delayed by the pandemic. On top of revisiting the ‘Lexicon’ tour, she is currently preparing more songs for her upcoming fourth studio album – the sound of which, she teases, has a “red thread” connected to ‘Unlock the Key’ and ‘Il Sogno’.
Last but not least, Sarasvati also hopes 2022 will be the year when Redrose Records finally comes into full bloom.
“The dream is to have a label that accommodates lots of new artists who, I hope, get to make music by following what is inside of them,” she declares. “Artists who embrace their respective ‘niche’ and have the freedom to make music and express themselves. That’s what I want.”
Isyana Sarasvati and DeadSquad’s version of ‘Il Sogno’ is out now