This piece originally appeared in the Strand Magazine's Summer 2020 Issue.
It’s 2am on a Tuesday night.
We’re scouring Spotify for a distinct low-fi playlist. In uni-student terms: something chill – something vibey, for another all-nighter. The first few soft strums of piano play out of our cheap speaker, accompanied by the melodic crooning of Ardhito Pramono singing Bitterlove, my introduction to the 24-year-old singer-songwriter-actor from Indonesia. The syncopated rhythms and moody tones of Ardhito’s reimagined genre of jazz-pop are melancholic tunes of young love, ambition, heartbreak, and the complexities of coming of age.
However, what truly separates his music from others is his attention to form – how he is adept in combining various genres and in turn, subverting them. His songs recall the swinging sounds of Bossa Nova and old Hollywood jazz, while also incorporating upbeat and contemporary pop music. He mixes English and Indonesian, alongside his trademark sense of wit and wordplay which encompass his lyrics. It then becomes obvious that his blend of the old and the new, the cheery and the melancholy - is what truly catapulted his rise to fame amongst the bilingual and artsy Indonesian youth scene. With his boyish style and gentle voice, Pramono seems primed to break through the conventions of the Indonesian and the global music industry as a whole.
Following the release of Craziest Thing Happened In My Backyard earlier this year, we sat down (on Facetime) with Ardhito to talk about all things jazz, film, and global impact.
Q: Does your music aim to break the mould of traditional jazz? How did you start creating this idea of pop jazz?
Ardhito: Yeah, I would definitely describe my music as jazz, mixed with pop, like you said before. Jazz actually takes me back to when I was studying in Sydney, going to my classes every day and listening to it. Then, I heard how Indonesian teenagers described Jazz as music “only for those who understand it.” I thought maybe I could do something to change that. My grandmother is actually a singer as well – she sings quite a bit of Indonesian classic songs and English jazz. I learned so much from her and used it in my music. At first, my songs were really not that good. (He laughs) One of them, called What Do You Feel About Me, was practically just a copy of an Ella Fitzgerald song because I really liked her. One song, maybe two songs were made when I was working in a digital agency company here in Indonesia and then I made an EP.
Do you think your version of jazz is then more accessible to the younger Indonesian audience?
Yeah, because here in Indonesia, there are a lot of new musicians coming out, like Hindia and Pamungkas, those guys are my friends. The one genre I’ve always loved is jazz. I think it’s unique, so it feels like I’m in my own pool.
What and who are your biggest musical inspirations?
Personally, I love Billie Holiday. I learned so much from observing how she used to sing, how she wrote songs, and how she performed. I adore Amy Winehouse – she’s a legend. I actually practiced my singing with one of her songs, I Heard Love is Blind! In Indonesia, we’ve got Sam Saimun - I learned how to be a good jazz musician from him.
What is your relationship with language, as a songwriter who combines English and Indonesian lyrics? Is it difficult to convey one meaning through two languages?
It’s actually really hard to sing an Indonesian song, for example, the pronunciation The Indonesian language itself is such a complicated yet beautiful language. It’s really beautiful but singing in it has its obstacles. It’s difficult to express feelings in Bahasa because it may not have the direct translation from the ‘English’ emotion I’m trying to describe. Like, if I sing “I love you” in English, there’s three words to say it. Whereas in Indonesian, we have to say aku cinta kamu.
In your new EP, Craziest Thing Happened in my Backyard, you evoke a sense of nostalgia that comes with the bright tones and slow tempos, as seen in the song 925. Tell us about the creative process behind the EP.
You know, the craziest thing had actually happened in my life and during the process of making this EP. It was crazy because we went to Sydney for five days in which we shot four music videos. And also, fun fact: I was having really bad…. stomach problems. (He pauses laughing) I had to hold it until all the filming was finished and then I ran to find a public bathroom, and yeah, it was just crazy.
The creative process is mostly drawing inspiration from my friends.
In some songs, like Happy, you convey a sense of melancholy as well. Does this reflect real life experiences where there can be both happiness and sadness.
Yeah exactly. If you listen to some of my songs, I combine ‘sad’ lyrics with a major progression, so I guess it doesn’t really sound sad. I’m a big fan of that melancholy sound – neither too sad nor too happy. I want listeners to slow down and listen. In Indonesia, if you have a lot of things to do, it’s called sebat aja dulu which just means ‘take a break’ or ‘take a cigarette break’. That’s expressed in my song Cigarettes of Ours – I like evoking that nostalgic feeling.
Do you get inspiration from any movies and films you’ve watched? What films are you currently enjoying?
I’m currently watching a lot of Mark Wahlberg movies because I’m really busy, so I want to enjoy comedies and something light. But I love Wong Kar-Wai – his movies are so emotive and expressive; I draw a lot of inspiration from that. The soundtracks are really good.
You studied filmmaking in university. Do you find the musical production process to be similar to the filmmaking process? Does one inspire the other?
The process of filmmaking is kind of different. I think it’s more complicated because you’ve got to do casting and all the production / post-production. But in music, the process can be done overnight. It can be done by yourself. The creative process is different as well. In movies, when you’ve got ideas, you have to talk to the writers who then will talk to the directors and producers. In music, you’re often working solo so the idea that comes to your mind can be translated exactly in your work.
How does your culture empower you as a young creative in the Indonesian arts industry?
This is a big question! In Indonesia there’s a community that has a lot of creative talent. I want to collaborate with so many people – our culture drives collaboration. There are a lot of unheard musicians out there who don’t really want to be famous or known, but they make tons of great songs. They want to be known for their music. But I think there are still barriers for us young people who want to get into the ‘arts’ industries. We need to encourage more young people to showcase their work and let them know that it’s safe to do so. There’s still a long way to go.
Do you have any advice then, to young people who are aspiring to work in music, film, literature, and other ‘arts’ industries?
The main thing is learning how to distribute your art, how to release it. My advice is to gain confidence through working on your own. It’s hard but rewarding. Learn how to post on YouTube, raise your own funds for your movie, write your own book. Just do it, like Nike says.
What are your plans for 2020?
In 2020, I want to release a vinyl. I’m going to write a full album, and I’d love to collaborate with some amazing people like Sondre Lerche. I’m a big fan of him. We follow each other and I reached out to him on social media, so we’ll see!
We ended the interview laughing in attempts to screenshot the Facetime and the hopeful promise of Ardhito visiting London for shows. Craziest Thing Happened in My Backyard – EP is on Spotify and Apple Music.
Ardhito’s Instagram – @ardhitopramono
Edited by Amika Moser and Halim Kim
Photos of Ardhito Pramono, Credit Ardhito Pramono
(1st Photo) Design by Morgan Bakinowski for Strand Magazine's 2020 Summer Issue