The journey to Afgan’s English debut album ‘Wallflower’ did not begin smoothly. Two years ago, the Indonesian pop star arrived in San Francisco to begin work on the record – and shortly became a victim of theft. While out for dinner in Chinatown, someone broke into the car the singer had rented for his month-long stay in America, stealing all of his belongings, including his passport and the money he had brought along for the trip.
This would have been a nightmare for anyone, especially a starry-eyed artist looking to start a new chapter in a foreign country. But the musician, who was then 29, remained optimistic, taking the incident as a prophetic sign for new beginnings. Today, Afgan fondly looks back on it as a “blessing in disguise”.
“It was so crazy because the reason why I wanted to come to the States was to actually start over musically and you know, find something new to work with,” he recounts to NME over a Zoom call from his home in Jakarta. “It all just happened, like a coincidence. Like, now I really had to start over. I had to buy new clothes!”
While car windows might have been shattered, Afgan’s dreams certainly weren’t. To him, everything in his life “happens for a reason”, and he wasn’t going to let a bump in the road stop him from creating the album he had “challenged” himself to make when he celebrated his 10th anniversary in the music industry. Since making his debut in 2008 with the album ‘Confession No.1’, the singer born Afgansyah Reza has consistently delivered radio-friendly bops and big romantic ballads for the Indo-pop audience. With five LPs and countless number one hits under his belt, it’s safe to say that Afgan is practically a household name – not only in his homeland, but also in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, as his Spotify listener base shows. But with a brand-new decade ahead of him, the singer was craving some change.
That chance came during a fateful encounter with Ghazi Shami, the founder of US record label EMPIRE, at Singapore’s Music Matters conference in 2018. Inspired by Shami’s vision and how their goals aligned, Afgan didn’t take long to ink a deal with the company, a partnership the singer describes as “organic” and “effortless”. “I feel like we share the same energy,” Afgan says of EMPIRE, “and they actually believed in me and what I’m about to say in my music.”
And a few years later, we have ‘Wallflower’, Afgan’s debut release on the label and his first-ever English record. Arriving earlier this April, the album is named after the singer’s favourite movie The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and his deep connection to the soft-spoken protagonist Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. “I just relate so much with the main character and felt like my personality had a similar quality with him,” he says. “I looked up the meaning behind the word [wallflower] and felt like okay, that’s actually a good description of me and I want to own that part of myself.”
Like Charlie, Afgan is naturally shy, but on ‘Wallflower’ that bashfulness is concealed through 10 sleek contemporary R&B tracks that evoke the confidence of 2000s Usher combined with the modern pop elegance of Khalid. At the centre of each song is the singer at his most vulnerable state. On lead single ‘Say I’m Sorry’, he replays a painful breakup, while the Jackson Wang-assisted ‘MIA’ hears the pop star pledging his loyalty to his other half. ‘Don’t Forget About You’, one of Afgan’s personal favourites, is a tender reminder not to lose yourself to someone else.
Baring his soul didn’t come too easily for the introverted singer. For the first time in a long time, Afgan was put in a room with an all-new cast of producers and songwriters, among them frequent Trey Songz collaborator Troy Taylor and platinum-selling duo Tha Aristocrats, whose credits include Ne-Yo, Lil’ Kim and fellow Indonesian star Agnez Mo.
You could say Afgan was nervous at the start. Being in a room full of unfamiliar faces and decorated professionals initially made it difficult for the singer to open up. “It was hard,” he admits. “Especially writing songs with people you barely know and in a totally different environment, different culture. For you to be able to share your true feelings about whatever you’re feeling that day is a bit overwhelming and kind of intimidating.” But the pop star quickly got over the cold feet and reached a level of trust with his collaborators.
“R&B has always been a big part of me but I never got to express it in my music”
“I really wanted to be truthful on this album because I never get the chance to make this kind of music that is really authentic [to me]. In Indo, I’m so used to making these Indonesian pop love songs. But I feel like I have something much more to offer.”
In fact, opening himself up to his co-writers accelerated the whole creative process. “In a day, we can write and record around like three or four songs, which is impossible here in Indonesia,” he says. “[American producers] also just like to invite as many as people into the studio and it’s all very spontaneous. Like, ‘let’s invite this guy – even though we just met, we’ll just create’. I just love that kind of energy.”
‘Wallflower’ isn’t simply the singer’s foray into the global pop market, but also an introduction to his true identity as a person and a musician. The strong R&B influence on the album can be traced back to Afgan’s childhood growing up on the sounds of Brian McKnight and Craig David – and to a certain degree, his own Indonesian roots. “As Indonesians, we love melodic music and a lot of Indonesian songs usually have this sort of ’90s influence to them, so I tried to bring that into the studio while writing the album. I think that’s why [‘Wallflower’] sounds very nostalgic.”
“R&B has always been a big part of me but I never got to express it in my music,” he confesses. “That’s why I knew that I wanted to do a full R&B album and work with the right producers. I wanted to bring that kind of nostalgic feeling of how I fell in love with music in the first place.”
Among the sea of R&B, however, is ‘Bad’, a swaggering modern blues rock tune that channels Amy Winehouse with hints of Santana. There’s an unexpected rebellious streak that runs through the track’s narrative as Afgan trades his usual reserved persona for the role of a cocksure Casanova. “Uhh breaking hearts is my profession girl / It’s easy for me / I tried to tell you once before but you just ain’t wanna leave,” he teases.
‘Bad’ was originally supposed to be a straightforward sexy love song, Afgan reveals. But he scrapped the initial idea because the “beat was so badass” that it needed an equally feisty storyline. So the singer crafted a playboy alter ego. “I just really wanted to create a character that is so far from me. Someone really bad and really selfish, who doesn’t give a shit about anybody else except him,” he explains with glee. “We ended up creating this character and it was so fun to be someone else on a song.”
“I’m so used to making these Indonesian pop love songs. But I feel like I have something much more to offer”
But Afgan is most compelling on the album’s deep cuts where he is in touch with his inner feelings. The downtempo ‘Hurt Me Like You’, which the singer has a co-writing credit on, is about “battling depression, anxieties and insecurities”, he says. They are new topics that Afgan is beginning to explore on his new release. “I want my fans to relate to me as a person, because I know I also struggle with my mental well-being. I just want [my music] to be real for a second in the album.”
Now that ‘Wallflower’ is officially out in the world, where does Afgan plan to go from here? Are his Indo-pop days now far behind him? The singer dismisses the idea with a laugh, although he notes that his musical priorities are currently elsewhere. Don’t get him wrong, he says, “I love singing ballads. It gives me a different feeling, you know? But right now, I feel like I’ve done that enough. I want to try and explore this R&B sound which I think I enjoy doing as well.”
“But I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do Indonesian pop again,” he quickly reassures NME: he’s still got a few more of those in the bank and plans to release them at some point. Until then, Afgan wants to keep polishing his brand of R&B-meets-pop and work towards being the “authentic” musician he really wants to be.
Afgan’s ‘Wallflower’ is out now