His name is Alextbh…and he is “Malaysia’s first queer pop star.”
Born in Kuala Lumpur, the rising R&B/pop singer has made a name for himself through his lacquered, romantic and often playful music, as well as his outspokenness about queer identity in Malaysia—a country whose government has explicitly and consistently condemned the LGBTQ+ community.
Fully poised and confident in himself and his abilities, he fully holds the creative reigns, crafting emotive melodies and lyrics, producing his own music and even creating the visuals for his videos. His efforts have earned him co-signs from musicians such as Sevdaliza, Khalid, and Clean Bandit.
On his debut EP, The Chase, released July 17, Alextbh approaches the uncomfortable feelings that arise in hookup culture: the heartache, the ambiguous longing. It’s both visceral and thought provoking. About the early single “Between,” Alex says, “I wanted to see how comfortable I could be with my sexuality in my songwriting. It feels empowering to write something explicit in a physical context, and I guess it’s something I should explore more often. Queer bodies are human bodies and there’s nothing wrong with trying to frame that intimate moment and showcase it.”
Still under quarantine, BlackBook spoke to the twenty-three-year-old rising star about growing up in Malaysia, his time spent social distancing, and his experience producing and animating the video for the single.
These are strange times we’re living in. How’re you keeping busy?
I find that picking up new job hobbies tends to make me happier. Anything that I can get my hands on and learn to distract me for a bit. So far I’ve learned a little bit of 3D modeling on Blender, and I’ve recently started learning about photography as well. Still wish I could pick up at least one book to read or even a podcast to listen to, but I have an extremely short attention span.
What’s the hardest thing about quarantine for you?
Keeping a consistent workflow. There are days when I’m really burnt out from the state of the world, and when I do feel that way it’s really hard to pick myself back up again. For instance, I’d go really intense on working out one day, and then ignore it for the rest of the week. I also think it’s difficult for me to realign with my social circle. Like, I’m not a FaceTime person at all. I need to physically hug my friends!
What have you been listening to lately?
A lot of Kelela and Tinashe. There are days when Kelela’s “Bluff” just plays on repeat for like a hundred times while I’m working. She deserves all the coins! The main R&B girls really get me through a lot of the bad days. Oh, and Gaga too. I haven’t felt this excited since her “Born This Way” era.
Who are some of your strongest influences?
It used to be Flume. When I started out as a musician, most of the tutorials on YouTube were centered around EDM, and in my opinion Flume was the archetype of that genre. I then had a phase with James Blake, mostly because I admire his storytelling and his consistent and creative mix of analog and digital. Now I’ve transitioned to R&B and/or pop. It has been like that since “Stoop So Low.” I was obsessed with SZA, Sinead Harnett, Kelela and the like. So yeah, it depends on where my musical journey is.
Image by Samuel Yong
I know you produce your music as well as write it, so what’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with lyrics then move on to production?
At any given time, if I have any lyric ideas in my head, I’ll just write it down on my Notes app, so I have a catalogue of verses and ideas that I can play around with later on. And then when I’m producing, I usually start with a beat, and as the sounds are taking shape, I try to match the lyrics with with the beat. But I have no idea what comes after. My workflow isn’t really formulaic. Some days I’m able to write, and some days I scrap the entire thing.
I read you studied engineering, correct? What was the transition to music like?
Yes, I graduated with a Diploma in Electronic Engineering, but I didn’t want to continue on that path. There wasn’t really any transition, I knew that making music has always been my main passion. I’d fire up Ableton any time I could get. I remember the day when I received my transcript, I knew it was set in stone.
Where’d you learn how to make music?
YouTube. As with any skill, the resources are abundant, you just need to spend lots of time doing your research. When I’m bored I look up things like “R&B type beat tutorial” or “cool chord progressions” on YouTube. The world we live in is great.
For the cover art for “Between,” you’re wearing a VR headset. What was the idea behind that shoot?
It was my friend/stylist Evonne’s idea (@d8.eyes). The song is centered around sex and instant gratification from hooking up with strangers online. It’s all about that cyberpunk vibe.
The video is a sensual montage of closeups on male bodies (broken up with shots of flower petals), and you quite literally frame these intimate moments with a border made of your stage name. Can you elaborate?
It started off as a challenge to see what kind of video I am able to make with the littlest amount of money, whilst being in quarantine—and that was the end result. I didn’t have anything planned in my head, really. I was just going through pond5.com and all these stock video sites trying to figure out if I can find anything good. I almost gave up because none of the footage was even decent. Like, they’re great for generic company videos or ads, but not for something artistic. That is, until I discovered those two stock footages. I cropped them out because ambiguity is sexy, haha!
How has your creative process changed?
I learned to be more efficient. Like, when I come up with a song I sort of already know how it’s going to look visually. I know who to work with, I know what to source for. Obviously this takes a lot of trial and time, but I’m happy with the current team I’ve got.
What was the hardest song to realize on the EP?
It would be “Numb.” It was emotionally challenging for me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted that in-your-face approach in songwriting. I was wondering if I only wrote the song out of guilt. It’s about hurting people, and it’s not something I take pride in. It took me a while to convince myself to fully open up.
I have a surface level understanding of the actions Malaysia has taken against the LGBTQ+ community—could you talk about what it was like growing up there and why you feel the need to inspire change?
Many people grew up with inferiority complexes, and I was no exception. You can’t blame me when it feels like the world demonizes your very existence. You head out and see billboards showing skin whitening products. You go on porn sites and see muscular white models. You try to buy contact lenses at a store and the salesperson pushes you to get the colored one because it’s blue and looks nice on you. Shit like that fucks you up. It takes a lot of tenacity to be queer and brown. I think a lot of us have been unlearning the complex, but it’s so deeply rooted and ingrained that it’s difficult to completely get rid of it. That’s why we need representation. That way, we can truly dismantle the broken system.
Where is your community centered? Do you find it in Malaysia? Abroad? On social media?
I’d say it’s in Malaysia. The queer scene over here isn’t big by any means, so you get to know people after two or three parties. I made a lot of friends from drag balls, or parties and [other] events.
Can you speak a little about that community and any guiding figures in it that you look up to?
As with any community, there are like pockets of people scattered around. Not unlike that Mean Girls scene when Janice talks about the cafeteria. Some of my closest friends are drag queens, like Carmen Rose (@carmnrose), Cik Teh Botol (@ciktehbotol), and Acne (@justacnescarr). Doing drag isn’t easy at all. The amount of dedication, hard work and love they put in their craft is inspiring. They also pioneered the drag-techno scene in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s so cool that they brought in something that’s conceptually so foreign. Like, this isn’t Berlin bitch, it’s KL!
Was it a hard decision to become an openly queer voice in music? Were you worried about backlash and criticism?
Not at all. I wouldn’t imagine taking my queerness out of my work. I am queer, and something about saying that over and over again gives you so much power, [you feel] nothing can hurt you.
What do you try to communicate through your music?
My emotions. All sides of the spectrum. In “Walls,” I was pleading. In “Stoop So Low,” I was infuriated. In “No Space,” I was adventurous. That’s what music is about, no?
What are you hoping The Chase will accomplish?
I hope anyone that listens to it can give me an answer to the questions that The Chase [puts forth]. Questions like, “do we need emotional visibility in hookup culture?”
As “Malaysia’s First Queer Pop Star,” do you feel as though you have a responsibility to communicate the queer community’s message?
Definitely. Each and every queer person here has lived a difficult life, and the ultimate form of reclaiming ourselves is to see everybody manifest that pain and turn it into something beautiful. Like drag. Or singing. Or becoming a data scientist. Or opening a law firm to help LGBT communities. I want to facilitate that change. I want my community to know that anything is possible, because I used to be the kid that felt like a failure.