Sekaranggi still remembers the first song she wrote like it was yesterday. The song was called ‘Indah Dunia’ (‘The World Is Beautiful’), and the Indonesian singer-songwriter wrote it when she was in the fifth grade. What was the song about? “If I’m not mistaken, the lyrics were, like, ‘Today I saw clouds’ or something. I was an itty-bitty kid back then!” the 24-year-old laughs.
Sekaranggi – real name Aisyah Sekaranggi Andjani – has come a long way since she was a kid with her musical head in the clouds. Her latest album ‘Delapan’, which dropped earlier this month, is an enigmatic collection of folk songs, with a poetic structure and subtle touches of baroque and chamber pop. It marks the Jakarta native hitting her sonic stride.
It took Sekaranggi a while to come into her own as an artist, having grown up in an environment that didn’t always nurture her musical inclinations. Her father is “a stern man” with some rigid ideas about music, she says, who believes that “the best music is the music that he likes” (he likes jazz and progressive bands like Dream Theater).
She recalls an unpleasant childhood memory that remains fresh in her heart: “I was still in elementary school, and I was performing on a stage. My father was among the audience. Then he said to me, ‘Don’t you feel embarrassed knowing your audience might be even better than you?’ And I was instantly heartbroken. I still remember those words of his to this day.”
There was a silver lining to an upbringing under this patriarch, Sekaranggi says: “If he had given me his support from the very beginning, I wouldn’t have rebelled later on.” Her “rebellion” began when she entered middle school. Using an allowance from her mother, Sekaranggi decided to rent a recording studio and learn about music production. The studio’s owner, Ferdi Adhanta, became something of a “surrogate father” to her.
Entering college, Sekaranggi joined a progressive pop band, but it “didn’t feel right”. Deciding to be a soloist, she settled on folk music, believing it would be the most suitable genre for her. “When I was singing with the band, I always felt like my vocals got trampled by the music,” she explains. “So I figured, if the music were simpler, my vocals could stand out. Also, back then, I was obsessed with Lucy Rose and artists whose vocals are front and centre.”
Sekaranggi officially made her debut as a folk artist when she released her debut studio album ‘Safar’ (‘Journey’ in Arabic) in 2019. She sang, wrote, and produced the album by herself, and the romantic single ‘Kiss Me Slowly’ has accumulated over 500,000 plays on Spotify alone to date – a pretty impressive number for Sekaranggi who, back then, was unsigned.
The song’s popularity was the push she needed to keep going. “This song opened my path, made me get serious with my music,” she says. And, like a serious musician, in hindsight Sekaranggi can’t help but notice the amateurish flaws of her first album. “When I first wrote and recorded ‘Safar’, I didn’t imagine this album would draw in as many listeners as it has now. So perhaps had I known what I know now, I would have put more thought into it and paid more attention to the details.”
After signing with Jakarta-based indie label Notive, Sekaranggi was determined to improve her craftsmanship. While figuring out the sound of her sophomore album, Sekaranggi came up with a playlist of references, including Rose, Radiohead, Billie Eilish and Gen Z TikToker/indie folk artist Lizzy McAlpine.
And while Sekaranggi is still the album’s sole producer and composer, on ‘Delapan’ she invites a couple of duet partners into her world. Bilal Indrajaya appears on the conversational ‘Janji Melati’ and her labelmate Meda Kawu joins in on the summery ‘Kembali Juni’. Ade Firza Paloh, the vocalist of the indie band SORE, contributed a trumpet solo to ‘Janji Melati’, while its string arrangement is credited to the Yogyakarta-based Arc Quartet, whose violinist Sekaranggi has known since her early days as an unsigned artist.
“Initially the quartet offered themselves for free, but I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. Because I’m gonna be pretty tough on you guys. I will have lots of demands!’” she laughs.
“All that we feel, either joy or sadness, is actually just the beginning – over and over again”
Sekaranggi’s lyrics on ‘Delapan’ are economical yet poetic. The chorus of ‘Kembali Juni’, for example, consists of only four words: “warnai hati / lengkapi Juni”, or “colour heart / completing June”. It’s an approach that draws the listener in to search for the devil in what details Sekaranggi has offered.
This type of sparse storytelling was a deliberate artistic choice, she says. “I was more concerned with the message being conveyed by each lyric. In the eyes of the general audience, perhaps they would see this album as a collection of love songs. However, there are certain messages that I slipped in between the lines.”
It was no coincidence that ‘Delapan’ (‘eight’ in English), released on the eighth day of September, is eight tracks long. It’s a number that makes puzzling reappearances in Sekaranggi’s life; the eighth song ‘Selatan Kemang’ is a somber ballad that finds the singer-songwriter experiencing déjà vu over a past relationship that began on the eighth day of a certain month. “Once he and I were over, the eighth day [of every month] feels different,” she admits.
And of course, turned on its side, the number eight turns into the symbol for infinity. On ‘Delapan’, Sekaranggi explores themes of an eternal bond, the passage of time, and “the turning wheel that is life”. Sekaranggi (who is “very, very single at the moment”) believes that an eternal bond between two lovers does not necessarily lead to a happily ever after, but instead, an endless “dualism”.
As an example, she cites the feel-good song ‘Hanyut dan Meluruh’ – whose protagonist finds herself in glee over a man’s seductive promises – and the sullen ‘Berteduh, Berlabuh’ – in which the protagonist cannot cope with her disappointing lover.
“From the beginning, the deep meaning that I wanted to deliver was not the lovey-dovey stuff,” she says. “It was more about the concept of dualism, such as yin and yang, black and white, joy and sadness, rising and sinking. If you listen to this album, some songs are immensely devastating whereas some songs are incredibly happy. That’s what I would like to highlight.”
“If my father had given me his support from the very beginning, I wouldn’t have rebelled later on”
Watching Netflix sci-fi thriller Dark also helped inspire the album’s narrative. Over three seasons from 2017 to 2020, the German show explored thought-provoking themes such as bootstrap paradox: a causal loop in which a sequence of events serves as a trigger for another sequence of events, which in turn serves as a trigger for the earlier sequence of events.
Sekaranggi loved how Dark “highlights how the beginning is the end and how the end is the beginning. All that we feel, either joy or sadness, is actually just the beginning – over and over again”. She makes that sense of circularity literal on ‘Delapan’ – the phone call outro of closer ‘Selatan Kemang’ leads into the intro of opener ‘Bicara Padaku’.
When asked what’s next for her now that ‘Delapan’ is out, Sekaranggi gives a response that’s perfectly in line with the fluidity we’ve been discussing. “For now, I’m all about going with the flow because I still cannot speculate when this pandemic will end,” she remarks wistfully. But one thing’s for sure: ‘Delapan’ marks only the beginning of a promising future for Sekaranggi. “I have no intention to quit… I’m raring to create more.”
Sekaranggi’s ‘Delapan’ is out now