Shelhiel: The auteur riding a new “organic” wave of Malaysian pop music

The maximalist, multilingual artist talks his debut EP ‘Superstrobe’ and his vision of M-pop

Shelhiel’s debut is out of this world. The Malaysian pop artist’s first EP, ‘Superstrobe’, tells the story of an angel who falls to Earth – and then falls in love, soundtracking his journey with sparkling synth pop. In accompanying promotional photos, the 27-year-old Shelhiel looks the part – if the part were a cross between a J-rock star and an alien character from a video game.

The fantastical conceit of ‘Superstrobe’ – and the polish of its sound – belies how down-to-earth Shelhiel is. In high spirits and possessed of a crackling wit, he’s positively effervescent, even over a video-free Zoom call and a late night. When NME catches up with him, he’s four months into city living in Kuala Lumpur, having moved from his home state of Kedah. It’s where he grew up as a “church kid who went through the Grade 1 to 8 piano lessons”, subconsciously absorbing musical influences from old video games before he got his mind thoroughly blown by Skrillex and joined an underground producer collective.

Shelhiel is currently working on the three music videos that will follow ‘Superstrobe’, which was released in November. “I think it’s a process of learning how to make things work while not being super perfectionist – but also wanting to really execute a vision,” he reflects. “I’m doing it DIY, for the first time. I’m learning a lot. I didn’t even know what a DOP was!” (For the similarly uninitiated, that’s director of photography.)

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Shelhiel Malaysian pop music Superstrobe EP
Credit: Press

The upcoming ‘Superstrobe’ videos will flesh out the story of the project, Shelhiel says. But there’s plenty to love about the EP as it is, which slips easily from coy and flirtatious to earnest and emotional, pulling from club music, Mandopop, K-pop and more along the way.

Shelhiel’s been described as a maximalist pop artist, but ‘Superstrobe’ deliberately scales back on the sonic bombast that characterised some of his previous work (see 2019 single ‘Do You?’). He speaks proudly of aiming for “timelessness” for the melodies of ‘Fashion Angel’ and ‘Runnin, Merindu’, the two standouts of the project.

“I didn’t get too crazy about it or too experimental,” he says. “I just wanted to properly introduce myself to the world.”

On ‘Superstrobe’, the devil lies in the details, whether it’s the twanging guitar that forms the hook of ‘Fashion Angel’ or the funky, horn- and flute-filled breakdown on ‘Chillin’. Even the choral interlude, ‘始____终’ (or ‘Beginning____End’), must not be discounted.

Shelhiel breaks down the Chinese wordplay that turns the 37-second track into a crucial puzzle piece in the cycle that is ‘Superstrobe’: “‘始终’ means ‘beginning and end’. But when ‘始终’ comes together as a word, it also means ‘continuously’. That’s why there’s an empty space in the middle – I’m leaving it to the listeners to put their own symbols inside: a comma, leave it blank, or a full stop. It can be a cycle – maybe a vicious cycle.”

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Indeed, much of the richness of ‘Superstrobe’ lies in its effortless multilingualism: Shelhiel sings and raps in English, Chinese and Malay across the project. In the saccharine opening verse of ‘Runnin, Merindu’, he plays with contradictory metaphors – flowers budding in autumn, morning dew at dusk – to signal an impossible love, only falling into plainspoken pleading in the pitch-shifted coda.

It was Shelhiel’s first Malay song, and he sought guidance from close collaborator (and “studio husband”, he laughs) I-SKY on the verses. “I sounded really funny and I didn’t want it to sound too funny, because this is a sad song,” he said. “It should be sounding emotional.”

“Language is the gateway to another new world… It really opens up, opens you up”

And for Shelhiel, singing in different languages isn’t only a logical consequence of an upbringing in multicultural Malaysia – it’s also about experimenting with various vocal cadences, and tapping different wells of emotion and expression.

“Don’t you feel differently when you listen to a Malay song or Indonesian song?” he asks animatedly. “In Mandarin songs, sad lyrics in Chinese lagi gao [Malaysian slang for “highly potent”], don’t you think so? It’s a vibe!” He’s now learning Cantonese, he adds: “Language is the gateway to another new world – the mentality and the mindset and the community, also. It really opens up, opens you up.”

Shelhiel is unabashedly enthusiastic about Asian pop music. Though he only recently let others into his personal creative process – I-SKY helped mix and master ‘Superstrobe’, and Shelhiel has since learned if you “trust the right people, they really exceed your expectations” – he’s eager to collaborate and make connections across Asia. He name-checks Malaysian icon Noh Salleh and Indonesian artists Efek Rumah Kaca and Kunto Aji as inspirations, and talks about befriending pop and electronic contemporaries from Thailand and the Philippines. He remixed ‘Fashion Angel’ in April, turning it into a posse cut with five other Asian artists – and an inadvertent rap and R&B showcase from the region.

At some point in our conversation, Shelhiel breezily remarks that because ‘Superstrobe’ is a concept EP, “I just recently learned that it’s ‘art pop’, or some shit like that.” To his mind, Shelhiel makes M-pop: Malaysian pop music, but not the kind that constructs a “beautiful image” of racial and cultural diversity, “just to make the ratio work”.

Instead of contrivance – and a music industry siloed and “segregated” by language and genre – Shelhiel envisions organic harmony. “I guess the new M-pop that I want to push is… something that Malaysians do, where we just celebrate each other,” he says. “It can be Chinese, English, or Malay, or it can be a mixture, like me, trying to do something new. But it can always still be M-pop.

“I hope to see myself as a bridge because I’m already very blessed to understand all these languages and have this colourful, exciting upbringing. I realise not many people can be as fluid as me in this situation. So what can I do to actually push Malaysia? What can I do to actually bring beautiful things together?”

These aren’t easy questions to answer. Last year Shelhiel collaborated with fellow Malaysian artist NYK (and ‘Runnin, Merindu’ guest) on ‘AAA’, an infectious bop with shoutouts to Chinese retailer Taobao and popular Instagram account Diet Prada, as well as cutting callouts of monied posers with their “big ass mansion and your momma’s blessing”. After ‘AAA’ went viral on Douyin (the Chinese name for TikTok) this year, users followed the song to its music video, where some left YouTube comments to the extent of, “Who knew Malaysia had this kind of talent?”

Those comments, Shelhiel says somewhat exasperatedly, come about because “Malaysian music is always five years behind”. He exclaims, “Now they’re on hip-hop hype! They’re on the Spotify playlist Beats & Rhymes… Stuff I fucked with maybe five, six years ago, they only listen to it now.”

Then, more soberly, he says, “But you see, it’s our role as artists to educate and to show [listeners] more. If I release one song that’s really crazy and artsy-fartsy, but hard to resonate with and relate to, it loses its purpose.

“I know my direction aims at the global market,” he continues. “But Malaysia is still my country. Malaysia’s still my home. Everything I learned, I learned here, I got inspired in this place… I guess the way right now is to push globally as well as locally. I’ve got to do both.”

Shelhiel’s ‘Superstrobe’ is out now

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