Self-reflection with ‘Head in the Clouds’

Danial Norjidi

After having worked on a number of projects in the United States (US) film music industry, Aisyah Zulkarnain marked a new milestone with her recently released debut EP, Head in the Clouds.

“I wanted to give an introduction to me as a producer and artiste, especially since I have shifted my focus from film music to songwriting and production earlier this year, which led to my decision in creating this EP,” said Aisyah.

Growing up, she listened to R&B and artists like Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, Usher, Mary J Blige and Justin Timberlake.

“As time went on, I started listening to other genres like rock, jazz, hip hop, funk, soul, pop, and all the in-betweens, which has shaped my musical style today. Because of this, I’d say the EP leans more towards alternative R&B, as I’ve merged all these different elements I’ve picked up from multiple genres.”

She explained that the main theme of the EP is self-reflection. “It’s the reason why I named it ‘Head in the Clouds’, which is actually a lyric quoted from the last track of the EP, Unfamiliar.

Aisyah noted that there are two interpretations to this title. “The first is that I wanted to reference the fact that this little Bruneian Malay girl had a dream to pursue music, who was told ‘no’ many times growing up, but still persisted to get where she is now. Head in the Clouds also represents the state of being lost in thought and reflecting on my own feelings for a situation, as all of the songs in the EP lyrically deal with confronting emotions.”

Aisyah Zulkarnain produced the tracks herself at her home studio in The Valley, Los Angeles
Aisyah’s debut EP, Head in the Clouds
In terms of her future plans, Aisyah Zulkarnain said she wants to collaborate with more local and international artistes. PHOTO: AISYAH ZULKARNAIN

There are four songs on the EP. Aisyah described the first song, Let Go, as “a sassy breakup song”, saying, “I wanted to create a track that talked about moving on from a relationship, and keeping your energy safe and your self-worth high.”

She first wrote the EP’s second song, Words, about three years ago when she was in Rochester, New York. “I always performed it live, but had never recorded or released it and left it sitting in my hard drive collecting dust. Fast-forward to the beginning of this year, I revisited the track and decided to change a lot of things about it. The only initial elements I kept were the chorus’ original lyrics and its chord progression, and I scrapped everything else so I could start from scratch.”

“This song expresses the feeling of wanting to confess your love to someone, especially someone who you’ve known for a while, but feeling shy about it while trying to find the words to say it.”

With Craving she was “inspired by the early-mid 2000’s R&B love songs for this one, but wanted to put a bit of a modern twist to the production and arrangement while still keeping the dreamy aspect of it”.

She described the fourth and final song, Unfamiliar, as being “a very special track to me”, and shared that it was the first track for the EP and that she wrote it when she was feeling homesick towards the end of 2019.

“As the years progressed it got harder for me to go home because life got busier here. My siblings study abroad too so I always try to coincide my travels to Brunei with theirs, as I like to visit when the house is full, but sometimes my dates don’t line up very well with theirs so it became rare for me to travel back home frequently.”

“‘Unfamiliar’ touches on the topic of my music journey, how grateful I am for the opportunities I’ve experienced abroad, but also feeling lost and confused with where and how I identify the notion of ‘home’ and what it means to me.”

“Having spent the past seven years of my life in the US, I’ve made some of the most important decisions in my life here. Most of my adulthood life has been spent in the US, and some of my best friends are here too. At the same time, Brunei is where I’m from and where I grew up. My childhood and teenage years were in Brunei. My family and other best friends are in Brunei and in the Southeast Asian region.”

“So I feel this big pull, like a tug-of-war rope, between these two worlds. I wish teleportation were a thing so I can just snap my fingers and be in two different places whenever I want to be. But the song also serves to remind that home is what you make of it and is wherever your loved ones are, and that it’s an amazing blessing to experience life between two worlds.”

Aisyah produced the tracks herself at her home studio in The Valley, Los Angeles. Speaking on the instruments she played for the EP, she said, “I sequenced the synths and programmed all the percussion/beats in the tracks. I love sound design and merging synths with real instruments to create a hybrid soundscape, which is something I was heavily influenced by from the hybrid-orchestral composers in the film music industry here. I am also very passionate about beat making; it’s definitely one of my specialties when it comes to producing.”

“Other than that, I also hired some live musicians to play on my songs – Luke Okerlund on guitar, Thomas Mariano on keyboards and Elisha Tiga on bass.”

“The recording process was really fun! Since I self-produce and self-engineer my own work, I had a lot of freedom to experiment and try certain ideas out on the spot. I used a Neumann TLM 103 microphone to record my vocals and any additional samples, and I sequenced everything in Cubase.”

Asked how the pandemic has affected her and whether it had any impact on the EP, she said, “I had started exploring the songwriting/producing route of the music industry towards the end of 2019. When COVID-19 hit and forced the entertainment industry to put production on hold at the beginning of this year, there was a sudden decrease in film scoring projects, and I took that opportunity to fully dive into the songwriting/producing route.”

“I feel like the pandemic didn’t affect me as much in terms of my workflow because I have my own home studio, and we deal with remote work all the time in the industry anyway. Music is very therapeutic to me, and I’m so grateful that I was still able to be creative and have some form of outlet (which was creating music) any time I felt stressed. Because of this, I think it has ironically impacted my work on the EP in a positive way.”

Head in the Clouds was released on October 16 and is available on all music stores and streaming platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music/iTunes, Deezer, YouTube Music, Tidal, and more. In addition, Aisyah shared that if one buys the album on iTunes, it comes with a PDF booklet.

In terms of her future plans, she said, “I do have a couple of projects with some local Bruneian artists that are in the works, but I’ll have to keep those a secret for now. Other than that, I plan to release an album in the future and to collaborate with more local and international artists. I definitely would love to do more live performances once COVID-19 dies down too, and hopefully be able to perform internationally.”

In a previous interview with the Bulletin in 2018, she shared that her experience in the film music industry included working at Henry Jackman’s studio and then at Arkenstone, Inc where she was hired as Bryce Jacob’s technical score engineer, mostly composing music for short films as well as other projects.

Following on from this, Aisyah said that since 2018, she has been a part of the music team for more projects including Netflix’s Daybreak (2019), Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger (2018), and Disney Junior’s The Rocketeer (2019). “I’ve also scored the music for James Abrams’ You, on the Island (2019) and wrote the score and original song, Memories, to his recent film, Walls (2020).”

Based on her experience working in the music industry in the US, when asked what her advice would be for other people from Brunei who may aspire to have a career in a similar industry, she said, “Take the opportunity when it comes, even when you feel uncomfortable or nervous about it. In order to grow and gain experiences, we have to be put out of our comfort zones.”

“Before I moved to LA, I was seriously considering pursuing the ‘safe options’ by either going back home or staying in Rochester, NY because I felt nervous about the unknown and unfamiliar. If I hadn’t taken that leap of faith, I would not have experienced what I have in the professional industry these past three years.”

“It’s also important to remember not to let other people project their fears onto you. If you let that happen and absorb that stress, it can affect your mental health and the way you work, and things will quickly feel overwhelming,” she added.

While her music is available on various music stores and streaming platforms, Aisyah also posts regular content on Instagram (@aisyahmusic).