Can music still heal us?
Elda Suryani, one half of indie folk group Stars and Rabbit, takes a long pause and closes her eyes.
She composes herself and answers NME’s question resolutely: “Yes, it still can. That’s the magic of how music works. There’s something indescribable about music that can unlock something deep within us.”
Days after, Suryani’s hopeful philosophy will be put to the test by an alarming spike in Indonesia’s COVID-19 caseload. On July 15, the country’s daily case count became the worst in the world. To date, Indonesia has reported over 3million cases and 83,000 deaths – numbers experts say may be far lower than the actual figures.
For Stars and Rabbit, who are entering their second decade in music, “this is the worst way to kick off a new era”, Suryani says. As a founding member of the band, she has found the last 10 years since their formation in Yogyakarta “an overwhelming journey”.
“Looking back, there was a moment when I made music and performed on stages without stopping to the point of which my body went sort of ‘autopilot’,” she confesses. “I just worked and worked and worked, then I hit some kind of a writers’ block. I forgot how to write music, and no matter how hard I forced myself to write, I just couldn’t.”
Suryani broke past the block when she learned what she describes as “her most important lesson” so far. “I learned how to create a space for myself,” she says. “But to create that space, I need to be aware of myself first. It’s important to get in touch with myself and ask, ‘Where am I? Where have I been and where am I going?’ I basically learned how to restore my state of being.”
“The world outside was (and still is) in a constant panic mode, so we wanted to kind of put that panic at ease”
Cleansed and refreshed, Suryani was ready to ring in the new decade with her partner-in-crime Didit Saad, who joined Stars and Rabbit since 2019 after original member Adi Widodo left to pursue a career in advertising. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a promising clean slate was quickly tarred by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The duo still managed to be creative, the impulse stemming from their desire to “give something back” to people who were suffering from the pandemic.
“It was back in 2020, during the early months of the pandemic,” Suryani says. “I asked Saad, ‘What can we do to help these people? What can we give to them?’ Unfortunately, for things that people actually needed – such as medical equipment and the like – I could not give or even make something like that.
“Then Saad said, ‘Let’s just keep doing what we do. Let’s make music for people. But we have to approach our music differently.’ We must figure out first what kind of music people want to listen to in these chaotic times.”
Saad chimes in: “Whatever happens, the way I see it, we always have to remember why we make music in the first place. I told Suryani that we should position ourselves as a ‘giver’, not as a ‘recipient’. We try to give what the people need – without expecting anything in return.”
‘On Different Days’ marks a moderate departure from the duo’s usual sonic stylings. Instead of expanding the rousing folk-rock sound that has become their signature over the years, Stars and Rabbit decided to opt for midtempo tunes with traditional folk soundscapes and sparse arrangements – similar to recent folky records by the likes of Hayley Williams and Taylor Swift.
“We were aiming for a soothing quality,” Suryani explains. “The world outside was (and still is) in a constant panic mode, so we wanted to kind of put that panic at ease. But, at the same time, I didn’t want the songs to sound preachy.”
The album’s title ‘On Different Days’ was taken from the lyrics of one of its tracks, ‘Pretty Anticipated’. Saad points out that the title was Suryani’s idea. “I believe that the title represents what different days we are experiencing right now, so the title doesn’t just embody the song or the album, but also life in general,” she explains. While Saad handled all the production, Suryani was key songwriter, lyricist and lead vocalist. The brainstorming sessions took place “in a WhatsApp chatroom”, says Saad – with physical meet-ups only required when Suryani recorded her vocals in the studio.
From the lyrical perspective, ‘On Different Days’ explores hope and optimism. The album’s lead single ‘Merry Alone’ addresses the current pandemic head-on (“Ooh, we’re in the middle of disease / Unexpected mother crisis”) while also reminding listeners that no one suffers alone (“Would you be / Would you be / Merry alone / Alone with me?”). The song was inspired by how Suryani found meaning even amid the pandemic.
“I believe we all can get through this, but I have to be careful not to force my optimism on anyone”
“Personally, it didn’t take too long for me to accept this chaos. I feel like this pandemic was bound to happen from the get-go. It’s like Mother Earth screaming at us, ‘Stop! I just needed a break!’” Suryani laughs. “Besides, I have had situations in my life that seemed very brutal, but I came out alright on the other side. I believe we all can get through this, but I have to be careful not to force my optimism on anyone.”
If ‘Merry Alone’ is about how to take on a dark period with a smile, ‘Pretty Anticipated’ is about how to persevere should the worst is yet to come (“If I stumble in the dark / That’s okay, light it away and sing / If I stumble upon the grace / Welcome in, welcome in”). “I’m not a psychic, so I can’t say that this pandemic will usher in a massive transformation or something,” Suryani giggles.
“But we never know what will happen next, right? That’s why at least you have to know where you stand and how to stand tall. You’re the superhero of your life and you have to be, like, ‘There’s nothing I cannot take on! There’s nothing I cannot get through!’ For the sake of life itself, you just can’t give up.”
And Stars and Rabbit are at their most optimistic on the album’s final track ‘Time Traveller’. A minute-long voice note, it expresses the duo’s gratitude at how time seemed to slow during the pandemic, even as the whole world felt keen to move on from it.
“You’ve got to remove your headspace from this dire situation. Take this moment to be grateful that we are still standing and – specifically for us – that we are still able to do what we do. Otherwise, we’d just get grumpy and that wouldn’t help anyone,” Suryani shrugs. Wise words from a musician who, after a decade of music-making and hard work, has learned that no matter how brutal everything may seem, “resilience will always pay off.”
Stars and Rabbit’s ‘On Different Days’ is out now on Green Island Music/Big Romantic Records/Trapped Animal Records