The conversations of nearly a hundred people filled the upstairs hall of the Ancienne Belgique on a cold February night in Brussels. The crowd mingled, most of them there for headliner Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet and unsure of what to expect from opener Sandrayati Fay. But when the folk singer-songwriter opened her set with the new song, ‘Petals to the Fear’, everybody took notice. The noise from the audience drained little by little, and by the second verse, she had sent the chatty crowd into a daze.
“I lay down a flower / To every fear in my body,” she crooned. The crowd stood utterly still, captured by this restrained anthem. Sandrayati had the room spellbound.
The rest of Sandrayati’s debut studio album, ‘Safe Ground’, is as enrapturing as ‘Petals to the Fear’. The record has been a long time coming, following a decade performing in indie circles in Indonesia and parts of Europe. After all these years, Sandrayati is still enchanting new listeners.
“I don’t know how many people will know my name in this crowd,” she tells NME backstage at the Ancienne Belgique, a few hours before the set. “But it’s perfect timing with the album coming out next time, to get the music to more ears and hearts.”
There was a rawness to Sandrayati’s sound in her previous EPs, 2017’s ‘Bahasa Hati’ and 2020’s ‘Nest’ – as if you were hearing these songs through the patter of gentle rain. On ‘Safe Ground’, though, Sandrayati had a new collaborator: the producer and composer Ólafur Arnalds.
“He heard things in my songs that I could hear too and he had the tools to translate them. He helped uplift what I could hear, he physicalised it and that was such a gift,” Sandrayati explained. Arnalds’ production helped give the guitars in her music “such a flow”, she adds, helping her inch closer to the sounds she was hearing in her head. “I can hear myself a little better now.”
‘Safe Ground’ was also recorded in Iceland – a world away from the musician’s longtime home of Indonesia. It’s not too surprising a trajectory for Sandrayati: a Filipino-American who grew up in Java and Bali, a woman of many places and paths.
Her story, she acknowledges, is not an easy one to explain. “It’s a challenge to me, albeit on a miniscule level, to introduce myself. I say my name is Sandrayati and I’m from, I dunno, everywhere? You can’t really describe it.”
Two of the tracks on the album are in Indonesian, including ‘Suara Dunia,’ where you’ll find Sandrayati’s emotional and principled core. Her mother and father, both climate and indigenous rights activists, nurtured her worldview while working alongside communities struggling for survival and identity.First released in 2019 by Daramuda, the trio of Sandrayati, Rara Sekar and Danilla Riyadi, ‘Suara Dunia’ honours the Mollo people in West Timor for their heroic victories against mining incursions.
“Ólafur Arnalds heard things in my songs that I could hear too and he had the tools to translate it”
“They have a mantra, ‘Batu adalah tulang. Air adalah darah. Hutan adalah urat nadi. Dan tanah adalah daging.’ It means, ‘The earth is our flesh, the rock is our bone, the water is our blood, the forests are our hair and skin’,” Sandrayati explains. “So when you rip the mountains apart, you’re ripping the bones out of my body. It’s that deep feeling of love for a place. This indigenous wisdom exists everywhere in the world, but it’s gotten lost somehow and we try to remember it.”
Sandrayati explained this conflict to her Belgian audience, then quipped “they won!” The audience cheerfully applauded. Language barrier aside, she says, the challenge in making meaningful music is conveying empathy through sound. “It doesn’t have to be through words, it’s just the feeling and the energy behind something that brings that strength too.”
In the initial stages of work on ‘Safe Ground’, though, Sandrayati felt pangs of disconnection from all that had made her.
Shortly before the world went into lockdown, Sandrayati travelled to Iceland to work on the record. She spent an extended period of time in unfamiliar surroundings, far from her community and the issues she championed. Absent were the blaring traffic, chirping crickets, scurrying lizards and roosters she was used to hearing crow a few feet from her window.
“I was kind of lost, but I had to learn to sing these songs just for me this time. I needed that safety and community before and now I was only able to hold that space in the studio. So I felt I was finally able to sing softly and sing for myself in a moment,” she says.
Caught during a pandemic in a foreign land, ‘Safe Ground’ became Sandrayati’s meditation on navigating isolation while carving out her own niche inside the studio.
“I could literally only hear myself. I’m alone in the house and I physically hear myself better. On another level, I felt like I needed to create the spaciousness for the energy I wanted to share with the world. It’s not just about moving to a place but even within a place we have to be constantly creating our environment.”
“It’s a challenge to me, albeit on a miniscule level, to introduce myself. I say my name is Sandrayati and I’m from, I dunno, everywhere?”
‘New Dawn,’ composed in Iceland, drives home this feeling of finding solace in the world while imploring the listener to consider doing the same. “There is a bird with a home in her song / She knows where to go in the stillness she found,” Sandrayati sang live, after a burst of a chant-like, whistling falsetto. In the recorded version, Arnalds’ backing piano melds perfectly with the guitar plucking, emphasising the spaces between notes.
Sandrayati sees her music as something of a spiritual act: the “experience of seeing something beyond yourself, something outside of your body.” In song, she seeks to honour her roots and ancestors, in doing so hoping to share something that is both spiritual and tangible.
Sandrayati’s Filipino great-grandmother, she shares, was a singer back in the day whose career was cut short. “Being a woman at the time who sought a music career wasn’t easy and it still isn’t,” she adds. “But I really feel like I am so honoured in this time and lifetime that I can sing for her, and I am in a position that I can be on a stage. An ode to her, my connections with my own ancestors and the people who have supported me in a way.”
Today, Sandrayati marks the release of ‘Safe Ground’ and kicks off the UK leg of her tour with Mulvey. She’ll also headline her own show in London on March 22 – her first – and later in the year will co-headline another European tour with her friend, Icelandic singer JFDR. She is also looking to return home, playing more shows in Asia and specifically Indonesia and the Philippines.
As she has all her life, Sandrayati will continue to travel, to move restlessly. But she’s in a good place. “I don’t feel like I’m on top of a mountain – I feel like I’m at the bottom, but with good people around me. I’m not so excited. But it feels right. I feel in it, centered.”
Sandrayati’s ‘Safe Ground’ is out now via Decca Records