In Conversation With: Marian Carmel, Singer-songwriter

  • Through our weekly series In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the ideas, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals who are creating ripples in unique ways.
  • This week, we speak with singer-songwriter Marian Carmel on her journey of self-discovery and growth.

Marian Carmel grew up in a home filled with music. 

“It’s like that for a lot of Filipino families,” she says. “Music was a huge part of our lives. We have this thing called a Wow! Magic. It’s a microphone that when you plug into a TV, becomes a karaoke machine… The first song I ever sang was Christina Aguilera’s ‘I Turn To You’. And I just never stopped.” 

While she always had a love for music, it never occurred to her to pursue it as a career until she moved to Singapore and chanced upon a musical titled Forbidden City in 2003. Enamoured by their work, Ms Carmel knew at that moment that she wanted music to be a part of her life. 

She recounts, “[My mom] got me the soundtrack [from the musical], and I played that every day for the next one to two years.” 

Ms Carmel would go on to pursue musical theatre in her childhood and adolescence, before finally discovering that her calling is in songwriting. She says of the switch, “When I was reflecting about how I wanted to express myself, it came down to being able to tell stories through music… That’s why I turned to songwriting.” 

Growing up in a house filled with music, Marian Carmel’s venture into it was no surprise. Starting out in musical theatre initially, Ms Carmel eventually found her calling in songwriting.

To hone her skills, Ms Carmel participated in the Noise Music Mentorship, organised by the National Arts Council, in 2016. 

“It was a real eye-opening experience that had me put one foot through the door,” she recounts. “It just snowballed from there. Being in a community where everyone is making [music], it’s inevitable that you feel inspired as well.”

Today, the 23-year-old is a bona fide singer-songwriter with numerous tracks to her name. It is an identifier she upholds with pride. 

“It’s the way I like processing things in my life,” she says. “The moment that I’m past this threshold of emotions, I need to write it down. Out of all the things like being a musician, singer, or producer…the thing that I love and enjoy doing the most is songwriting – being able to tell stories, paint environments, and express universal emotions into my own creation.”

Sitting down with TheHomeGround Asia, Ms Carmel shares about her songwriting process, her music, and her journey of self-discovery and self-love. 

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length]

Marian Carmel (MC): I love making music when the sun is down. It feels timeless, like you’re in a liminal space. It’s like when you go to Cheers in a petrol station, it feels like time is paused and you have all the time in the world. Maybe it’s because like when the sun is up, you can see it setting, and you’re like, I need to finish this. But when the sun is down, there’s no sense of time whatsoever. I feel like I can really focus on making music without having to feel like there’s not enough time left. 

Singer-songwriter Ms Carmel has a penchant for making music in the night, drawn to the feeling of timelessness when the sun is down.

For me, [a song] starts with an idea or a concept. For example, a friend and I will be talking about something then I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s an idea.’ I whip out my voice memo, and I start humming or singing the first thing that comes to mind. Depending on how much I like it, I will decide whether or not I’m going to expand on that idea and turn it into a song. Usually, it starts with an idea of something to say, a message to convey. That’s the core of it. Then I build on the story and the imagery around it, and the punchline at the end of the chorus. [I like to tell] all sorts of stories. As of late, a lot of down, bad love stories, because I’ve been rejected a lot. 

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): How would you describe your style of music? 

MC: Honestly, I’m still discovering it. I feel like my style is very honest. Honest and truthful. Sometimes way too brutal. But it has a lot of restraint. It bleeds from my personality. I don’t like to belt when I sing. And even though I have a lot of energy, it’s still very soft-spoken.

THG: What would you want people to take away when they hear your music? 

MC: I would love to know that they relate to the music, that it gives them a sense of comfort, and that they feel understood and heard, because that’s the role that music played in my life, whenever I felt lost. Whenever I just feel very existential, depressed or down, music has always been there to make sense of the emotions that I’m feeling. And to be able to know that there’s someone else out there who feels this way makes me feel less alone, and makes me feel that maybe I’m not so crazy after all. I want to be able to provide that solace for other people. It would be amazing if even just one person would be like, this song helped me get through my breakup or something, or just, oh my god, thank you so much for turning this into words. The art would have already done what it was intended to do.

THG: Is there a song you’ve written so far that you hold particularly close to your heart?

MC: I hold all of them close to my heart. There are so many. That’s like asking me to choose from my one billion children. 

It changes every time. For me, I think it’s always the most recent song simply because it would mean that you’re still somewhat in that space of your life. If you asked me now, I would probably say the song that I just wrote last night, because I still feel it. 

But if I were to really pick, I think I would pick Rose. That song feels timeless to me, not in terms of sound, production or music, but because of the message. I wrote it when I hadn’t written a song for two years.  I was in a huge creative rut. And this was a song that I wrote with remnants of verses that I scribbled out months apart during that two year period. When I listen to it, it reminds me of how much I’ve grown, and to be patient with myself. It’s a message, and a reminder that I’m hoping to keep with me, like a piece of advice from my past self to my future self.

The last verse of Rose goes, ♪ I have grown a little older. I have learned a little more ♪ . It’s talking about how much I’ve grown. Even though there were some ups and downs during that process, and I was directly impacted by the people around me, I’ve also made the effort to grow. It’s me giving myself credit and a pat on the back for doing a great job. I’m a lot more grounded now, or rather, sure–of myself and my artistry. Even though the things that I put out sound very different from one another, I know that that’s okay because that’s a part of who I am. I don’t need to pigeonhole myself into one genre, one style of writing, or one type of way of portraying myself, because I’m a three-dimensional human being. These are all facets of myself that I’m allowed to show.

THG: Besides music, you also do digital illustrations, animations, and create zines. Is visual art something you would want to pursue further in the future? 

MC: I strictly want to keep it as a hobby. Going into music, I know that once you make art your job, you can’t just make art for art. I’m very picky with the things that I say yes to so that I can respect this outlet that I have and so that I can keep it as a happy place for me. There are people who take it seriously. They practice for hours and hours and they’re so amazing. As much as I want to do that, I don’t want to put that pressure on myself because then it stops being fun, and I won’t want to do it. If it makes me happy, then that’s all I need it to do. It’s an outlet for my energy. It gives me the serotonin that I need. 

THG: You mentioned wanting to keep art as your hobby, but music is your career as well as your passion. Is there ever a conflict with what you want to make versus what you think will work? 

MC: I’m really lucky, because whenever I write stuff, people generally tend to like it. And I think it’s also because it shows how happy it made me. Sometimes, I don’t even have to try, it just shows in the music because I genuinely do enjoy the process. Even recording vocals for a song that I don’t 100 per cent, because it’s cheesy or whatever, just the process of singing and doing this and that, is very fun. There’s always something good to take out of it, and I just try to focus on that.

THG: These two loves of yours (music and art) collide in your video series, Crying and Crafting. Can you share a little more about how the series came to be? 

MC: It was actually a split second decision. I was going to promote You Like The Chase as a pre-save, and me being me, I thought, ‘What if I make a video in order to promote it? And what if the video is about a Zine from the previous song?’ [I decided to make it] a series, and do it for all my songs. 

When I was recording it, my sister and my dog were about to leave for the Philippines. I was facing the wall, making the collage, and then I just started sniffing, because I remembered that my sister and my dog had seven days left in Singapore. I just couldn’t imagine life without them. [Then, I decided,] that’s what I’m gonna call [the series] – Crying and Crafting. Now, I’m going to be making a Crying and Crafting episode for every song that I release as a part of this album. It’s such a fun thing to immortalise your song. I think it just offers a lot more value. You get to show people what it was like to make it or what it looks like in your head, how you experience it, and what the song is about. I’m a very hands-on person, so I like being able to express it like that. 

THG: You identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Could you tell us a little more about your journey of self-discovery? What would you like to see for this community here in Singapore? 

MC: The last year and a half has been very transformative for me. I discovered a lot about myself in terms of my queerness, being able to accept it, coming out to my family. Them being able to accept it was one less thing on my shoulders, which enabled me to make the things that I’m making. When you’re not out of the closet, it’s like a huge burden on your shoulders. It’s so tiring to have to hide that part of yourself. And to know that I don’t ever have to do that with my family anymore alleviated a lot of the stress, and helped me focus a lot more of my energy into doing what I want. 

It was also about coming home to myself. Coming out feels like rediscovering myself, because this was such a huge part of my identity that was locked away, and I didn’t know that I was actively doing that. That’s the sad part about it: it was very internalised. You accept the fact that you have to be a certain way, because that’s how society accepts it. But once you’ve told your inner circle or the people that you care about, and they accept that, for me, I think that is enough. It empowered me to try new things. It’s very freeing. 

I would love for us to have a space here in Singapore. Not a physical space, but a space in the minds of Singaporeans. Because there’s not much that separates us from the rest of the community. We are a part of it. I would love to see policies and, just to have us in mind, whenever decisions are being made. 

THG:  What kind of impact do you want to make on others? 

MC:  I would love to be able to inspire those around me, and to be able to impart knowledge to others.  Creativity is such a powerful thing. And it doesn’t just have to be with art, it could be resourcefulness, being inspired to do better, or to make the world a better place. It could just be a tiny thing, like providing for your family, cooking for someone, as simple as that. It really makes your day and then when someone’s day is made, they’re pushed to do better. That creates a ripple effect. When they do better, they’re probably making another person’s day. I love to be around people, make them smile, make them laugh and you know, just good vibes. Enjoy life.

In October, Ms Carmel is set to release a new album titled To You, To Me, an ode to her past lovers and herself.

THG: You’ve an album coming out in October. Tell us more about it.  

MC: It’s called To You, To Me. Basically, it’s eight songs cut into two parts. The first four are to you. And the last four are to me. The concept of the album is about writing letters to my past lovers,  addressing some issues that we had and the realisations that I want to be able to immortalise and remind myself so that I don’t make the same mistakes in the future. Throughout this process, I learned accountability and was able to realise and accept that it’s a two way street. 

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