Instant success can be both a blessing and a curse. Just ask 23-year-old singer-songwriter GANGGA, whose bluesy 2020 single ‘Blue Jeans’ has racked up over 62million streams on Spotify alone in less than a year. It’s the second song he’s ever released.
The heart-on-sleeve guitar ballad, framed as an earnest late-night phone call that goes straight to voicemail, got a huge boost from two very different kinds of influencers: Australian singer Larissa Lambert, whose cover of it has notched over a million views on TikTok and YouTube combined; and K-pop idol Taeyong, the leader of NCT who broadcasted it to his fans in a livestream on the app V Live a mere two weeks after Lambert.
“Of course, I was very thrilled at first,” GANGGA – real name Gangga Kusuma – tells NME. “I was, like, ‘Why did [‘Blue Jeans’] turn into this?’ I was over the moon knowing lots of people were listening to the song. But then, there came a phase in which I felt terrified. I was, like, ‘People are demanding bigger things now! What am I going to do?’”
Gangga’s lack of experience added more fuel to his insecurity. “I wasn’t totally ready for this industry. I was a newbie. [Such success] was way too fast for me,” he continues.
Gangga credits his team with helping him keep his head above water “even though the confusion was still there” and he plunged into “lots of overthinking”. He began to work on his full-length debut studio album ‘It’s Never Easy’, which dropped August 27. Surprisingly, its tracklist doesn’t include his breakout hit. “‘Blue Jeans’ had its moment back in 2020. Now I want this album to have its moment,” he declares.
During the recording of ‘It’s Never Easy’, Gangga kept his circle small by working strictly with three producers: Will Mara (who produced ‘Blue Jeans’), Eky Rizkani (who produced Indonesian folk singer Nadin Amizah’s latest EP ‘Kalah Bertaruh’), and Petra Sihombing (whose credits include big names such as Tulus, Hindia and Kunto Aji).
Sihombing in particular has been invaluable to Gangga’s journey so far, the musician calling him “all of the above”: a senior figure in the music industry, a mentor, a teacher and a friend.
“I needed that kind of figure: a producer who can help encourage me and provide me with a fresh look,” Gangga says. “I have learned so much [from him]. To be honest, after seeing him work, not only have I learned about music production, but also so many things that have changed my perspective.”
Musically, ‘It’s Never Easy’ is a soft rock and dream pop record, incorporating elements of blues and folk. The album consists of downtempo torch songs with restrained arrangements and delicate vocals, the lyrics focusing on heartbreak, romantic hang-ups, and separation anxiety – all inspired by GANGGA’s past relationship, which also informed the album’s title, which specifically means “how it’s never easy to forget”, he cheekily remarks.
GANGGA was keen to craft a tracklist so the album “gets sadder and sadder” as you listen to it. And given the album was so personal, he also decided against having a featured artist. “I wanted to capture all the sadness that happened in my life,” he says. Does he worry that the autobiographical nature of the album might drive his listeners to take interest in his personal life? “People are free to make their assumptions,” he replies nonchalantly.
Another goal that GANGGA had was to create a record that was both “intimate” and “organic”. So he deliberately asked his producers not to take cues from any albums by other artists and instead, positioned himself and his own emotional state as the central factor that directed the construction for each song. “All the ideas came from me and my mood. It was, like, ‘The mood of the album has to be my mood.’” Even though the concept of a breakup record is nothing new, GANGGA was determined to make one that embraced vulnerability – something he thinks many male artists are still reluctant to do. “With this album, I want to tell everyone that it’s okay for men to cry,” he says.
In ‘It’s Never Easy’, GANGGA uses alcoholism as an allegory for a toxic relationship, as on the songs ‘It’s Always I Love You’, ‘Ice Kiss’, ‘Day After Day’, and most transparently, ‘Whiskey Bottle’. Before anyone wonders how this lyrical strategy will land in his relatively conservative homeland, GANGGA advises listeners not to take his lyrics too literally. He breaks down the metaphor of ‘Whiskey Bottle’: “Being hung up on an ex is no different from, say, being addicted to alcohol… And when you need a distraction in your life, you always go back to your addiction. It’s like running in circles.”
The eighth track, ‘Foolish’, marks a turn in the narrative. After spending most of the album wallowing in grief and emotional dependency, the narrator finally comes to his senses. “Before ‘Foolish’, he blames his former lover. Come ‘Foolish’, he takes a look at himself,” GANGGA says, observing that when it comes to men dealing with heartbreak, “regret always arrives late”.
“‘Blue Jeans’ had its moment back in 2020. Now I want this album to have its moment”
Though every track holds meaning for GANGGA, the folk ballad ‘This Love Will Never End’ was his most personal and most difficult to write. “When I wrote the songs before ‘This Love Will Never End’, I was fine because I was reminiscing about the past. But, when I wrote that song, I wrote it at the exact same time I went through it,” he shares.
Describing itas both “a closure and a confession”, ‘This Love Will Never End’ was “the way for the guy to tell his ex that in the end, even though he was hurt, he can never stop loving her.” Given the song’s significance, GANGGA asked producer Eky Rizkani to make it different from the rest of the record, which explains its folk-influenced, stripped-down arrangement. “The production made the song sound ‘free’ – as if the guy had finally come to terms with reality,” he adds.
‘It’s Never Easy’ offers no upbeat tracks, but GANGGA isn’t worried about his audience finding it too bleak. “I only hope this album can be the closure for my sorrow. If my sorrow were a glass full of slops, I poured all of it into this album. Only then I could move on with a brand-new story,” he says.
This year’s AMI Awards – Indonesia’s equivalent to the Grammys – are mere months away, and the success of ‘Blue Jeans’ and the steady popularity of its successive singles surely makes GANGGA a potential contender. But the musician prefers to manage his expectations.
“My being content with myself is enough, [including] what I have done and what I’m working on. Whatever happens – awards, nominations – is a bonus and if those were to happen, it wouldn’t only be my own. It would also belong to my team and my friends,” declares GANGGA, who sounds like he has grown tougher and wiser – both in his career and life.
GANGGA’s ‘It’s Never Easy’ is out now