Ellya Keesha and Nelysa Nazrin have a casual charisma as XONE – it’s like you’ve always known them. In many ways, Malaysians probably have. From a young age, the two have taken refuge in the arts: first as cheerleaders; then as two-fifths of the country’s youngest and now-inactive girl group Pandoras; with appearances on the national reality talent show Ceria Megastar. (Ellya even had a stint as a Mouseketeer on Disney’s Club Mickey Mouse.)
And now, they’re known as XONE (pronounced ‘so-en-ee’), the pop duo whose name is a cutesy acronym of X for love, O for hugs, N for Nelysa, and E for Ellya. They debuted last December (their birthday month) with the release of ‘Lantaklah’, which translates to ‘whatever’ in English, or as the duo put it: “Do what makes you happy. Keep it real.” The Cyber Barbie punk-meets-K-pop song did well upon release, but it’s the music video, which dropped in February, that’s racked up 1.2million views and counting on YouTube.
XONE feel like they’ve been born to do this together. The best friends tell NME, over Zoom, that it’s ‘jodoh’ – fate. They’re soulmates, practically twins who were “born in the same hospital, one day apart.” From the day they met in school as baby-faced seven-year-olds, they’ve been inseparable, bonding over their shared love of dancing, singing and performing. “We thought we were Hannah Montana,” Nelysa laughs. Ellya adds, “Nelysa was the only one, out of all our friends, who matched my energy. We were forever coming up with choreo, making up routines, singing some random song.”
‘Lantaklah’, though, is too good to be random. Its music video, which has commenters gushing over XONE as Malaysia’s next pop hope, impresses with its braggadocio and precise, vigorous dancing, shot against the KLCC Twin Towers. There are beat drops, horns, percolating synths, and confidence-boosting lyrics: “Kutahu semuanya kan OK (I know it’s all going to be OK) / I know I’m gonna play it cool / La-la-la-la-la, lantaklah / ‘Cause I know I’m gonna be, gonna be just fine.” A declaration and a promise of what’s to come.
First of all, congratulations on all the success you’ve had with ‘Lantaklah’. How are you two feeling?
Nelysa: “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, and so happy and grateful and proud. It’s been over a month since we released it, and because it’s our debut, we didn’t expect to hit a million views in three weeks!”
Ellya: “It’s crazy. You know, Nelysa and I grew up together. We’ve always been into dance, drama, and performing arts was, like, our thing. But being in the industry, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves – this is based on our personal experiences – feeling like we’re not good enough, not really believing in ourselves. That’s where the concept for ‘Lantaklah’ comes from. It’s to remind ourselves that we don’t have to care about what everyone else thinks, or about our doubts, our imperfections. Sometimes you just have to tell yourself ‘lantaklah’.”
Nelysa: “Go for it, lantaklah. Do your best, hope for the best.”
“People would say things like, ‘You’re copying K-pop’ and it wasn’t acceptable. Now they draw comparisons to K-pop, saying our industry is getting there and getting better” – Nelysa
Did you have a feeling, prior to the release, that ‘Lantaklah’ would do well?
Ellya, Nelysa: “No, not at all.”
Nelysa: “We were not channeling the ‘Lantaklah’ energy.”
Ellya: “It’s also ‘cos we had been in Pandoras, and the way Malaysian pop was viewed at the time was completely different.”
Nelysa: “People would say things like, ‘You’re copying K-pop’ and it wasn’t acceptable. Now they draw comparisons to K-pop, saying our industry is getting there and getting better.”
Ellya: “We released ‘Lantaklah’ with no expectations, no hope. We were proud of it and we wanted to put it out, and we didn’t even stop to think about how people would respond to it.”
How do you feel about the comparisons to K-pop?
Nelysa: “I can kind of understand the similarities between our thing and K-pop, because it inspired us to put together the two things that we love most: singing and dancing. We take it with pride because if you can compare us to K-pop, I mean, the standards!”
Ellya: “‘Cos we feel like we’re not even close, you know? But everyone’s been so encouraging and nice.”
Could you walk us through the songwriting? Did you write it together?
Ellya: “It was composed and written by Audi Mok and Shazee [Ishak]. They gave us the demo, and they were very open to all our suggestions because we really wanted to get our hands in on it.”
Nelysa: “We tweaked some of the melodies for a few parts of the song, like the pre-chorus, some lyrics in the chorus, the bridge, and I wrote the rap – but that took a lot of tries. Props to Shazee for giving us that creative space, for helping us bring together the bridge melody that we made.”
Would you say you have similar music tastes?
Ellya: “We’re both obsessed with Ariana Grande – but we also have very different playlists.”
Nelysa: “Our concept is this Avril Lavigne, punk princess thing, but like Ellya said, our playlists are so different. I’m a master in K-pop – I love SEVENTEEN – I know all the songs, all the dances, but I don’t know much about Malaysian and Indonesian music.”
Ellya: “That’s my thing.”
Nelysa: “We complete each other like that.”
“There are those who say, ‘These girls look too overweight to be in a pop group’, and honestly, it gets to us – but that’s where ‘lantaklah’ comes in” – Ellya
What sort of artists do you hope to be?
Nelysa: “I like how we started off with ‘Lantaklah’; it’s such a motivational vibe, it tackles mental health, and above anything I think we just want to be our truest selves. On TikTok, I’ve seen videos under our sound of people from all age groups going to school, going to work, and they’re saying ‘Lantaklah’ is their morning song. It helps them kick-start their day, and I’m really proud of that.”
Ellya: “I love that. I love that we’re their morning song.”
As young women in the industry, do you feel extra, unhealthy pressure to be and look perfect at all times?
Ellya: “That pressure exists. There are those who say, ‘These girls look too overweight to be in a pop group’, and honestly, it gets to us – but that’s where ‘lantaklah’ comes in, you know?”
Nelysa: “Anywhere and everywhere you are, it’s just something that is. We say ‘lantaklah’. We want to be as real as we can be; we want to show young girls, young boys, even older people that we’re all human.”
Ellya: “Do whatever you want to. Do what makes you happy.”
XONE’s ‘Lantaklah’ is out now