COVER STORY

Barbie Almalbis, Kitchie Nadal, and Aia De Leon on breaking free from nostalgia

When Barbie Almalbis, Kitchie Nadal, and Aia De Leon — three beloved singers of a generation that can’t seem to get over the nostalgia brought by mid-2000s OPM rock — come together to stage a concert, the result is less about holding on to the past and more about moving forward.

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It's not hard to tell their voices apart.

Kitchie Nadal with her lyrical rasp, Barbie Almalbis' childlike delicateness, Aia De Leon's majestic power. Rock is not necessarily a genre that lends itself to vocal showcases in the strictest sense — and all the more in the mid-90s, the era the three singers first came to prominence in and a time identified with grunge and a particularly unstudied method of singing — but their voices managed to rise above the static anyway.

Nadal, Almalbis, and De Leon occupy the same space in the pantheon reserved for our teenage firsts. Because they grew up with us, because they punctuated our first heartbreaks with the right love songs, celebrated our first successes by providing the soundtrack to our triumphs, and maybe even later, proved comforting respite when we ran into them again on YouTube, we'll always look at them with rose-tinted glasses, rooting for their successes and hoping for their happiness — after all, how else do you treat old friends?

And so, in the first week of November, when news of a concert featuring the three singer-songwriters hit media outlets and the music blogosphere, reception was generally enthusiastic — three of the most-loved singers from OPM rock's mid-2000s golden age are suddenly back in the public consciousness.

The concert “Secrets” came about when the three artists were approached by Gabi Na Naman Productions. On the heels of the successful concert they staged with Ebe Dancel, Bullet Dumas, and Johnoy Danao, Gabi Na Naman wanted to do a similar concept with the three women.

"When we were asked to do it, we said 'yes' right away," De Leon says. "We’ve been friends for a long time but this is the first time na tatlo kami," Nadal adds.

Aia Barbie Kitchie In a time before celebrity It girls and digital influencers reigned, artists like Aia De Leon, Kitchie Nadal, and Barbie Almalbis proved to be effective endorsers for major brands in the mid-2000s. On Aia: H&M coat, Vero Moda tee, Uniqlo jeans, Dr. Martens boots. On Kitchie: Ines de la Fressange x Uniqlo velvet blazer, Uniqlo shirt and jeans, Aldo boots. On Barbie: H&M coat, Uniqlo top and jeans, Aldo boots. Photo by RALPH MENDOZA  

It's easy to see how the title “Secrets” came to be — while each artist has a different sound, the three write from experience and their songwriting tends to be confessional. "We're private people," De Leon says. "So when they said that ‘Secrets’ was the title of the concert, in my mind, sabi ko, 'It's so appropriate.'"

There's a tendency to color productions like this with nostalgia — our favorite OPM throwbacks on one bill for one night, reliving the good old days. But Almalbis, De Leon, and Nadal have never lived in the past. And while they don't shy away from the legacy of classics like "Sundo" and "Akap" for De Leon, "Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin" and "Same Ground" for Nadal, and "Torpe" and "Money For Food" for Almalbis, it's important to note that the three also never really stopped growing and making music.

In a profile on the American pop star Gwen Stefani in the New York Times, songwriter Justin Tranter described her as an artist who “defined one whole era of music" — in 1995, with the No Doubt album “Tragic Kingdom” — and then "did it again as a solo artist" — with her debut solo album 2004's “Love. Angel. Music Baby.” Tranter notes that that "is very rare” for any artist.

Almalbis, Nadal, and De Leon share similarities with Stefani — popular lead singers of 90s rock bands who eventually made names for themselves as solo stars and, in Almalbis' and Nadal's cases, proceeded to define another era altogether. As fickle and competitive as the music industry is, it's a true gift for an artist to have that prolonged breakout moment and define an era for a whole generation of listeners — to have lightning strike twice and have it happen again is something else.

It's been a little over a decade since peak ubiquity for the girls and it's easy to forget just how big things got at the height of it. In a time before celebrity It girls and digital influencers reigned, artists like them proved to be effective endorsers for major brands in the mid-2000s. Almalbis' song "Just A Smile" was used in a popular Close Up ad using Sam Milby, the era's beefcake of choice. Nadal did her own take on the McDonald's "Love Ko 'To" jingle and had a McDonald's commercial, along with a special "Kitchie" meal ("Kitchie's No. 1 Twister Fries”). Together, Almalbis and Nadal endorsed clothing brand Bayo and did a popular jingle for haircare brand Sunsilk, entitled "Greatest Day." De Leon, as part of Imago, had an inescapable jingle for restaurant chain Tokyo Tokyo ("Let's go! Itadakimasu!").

And so, when days before the trio's December 10 concert at the Music Museum, it was announced that the show was sold out, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. The thing with nostalgia — and especially when it comes to songs one grew up with — is it tends to make you look at anything related to that era with warmth, forgetting its rough edges and only remembering the best days. That's a double-edged sword but one that can work in your favor sometimes. And so, when three voices of a generation come together and asks for that generation to move forward, we make way. And with a second date in February currently being planned, the supposed comeback has become something else entirely — a victory lap.

Aia.jpg Aia De Leon spent 15 years as lead vocalist for Imago before she quit the band. On her bid as a contestant on "The Voice Philippines." “I had just left the band then and I said I had to be in a place where I could be challenged,” she says. On Aia: (Left) Zara leather jacket, Uniqlo top and jeans. (Right) Vero Moda shirt, Uniqlo jeans. Photos by RALPH MENDOZA  

The last time we saw Aia De Leon, she was singing a cover of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" on the first season of “The Voice of the Philippines.” Slowing down the song by staying behind the beat — a jazzy inflection that coach Bamboo Mañalac says he liked while coach Sarah Geronimo says indicated that De Leon was "nabe-behind" — De Leon took a risk and stripped herself off her trademarks as a vocalist, deciding not to showcase the power her voice is known for and choosing a dance-pop song as her audition piece. In turn, none of the coaches turned around for her — a decision they lamented after the fact.

"Bakit ka sumali ng ‘The Voice’?" a confused Lea Salonga asked. "I totally know who you are!" In an after-show interview, Salonga said that she had already seen De Leon perform in a concert, as lead singer of the band Imago. "I'm actually a fan of this woman," she said. "She is one of the most talented vocalists that I'd ever heard."

Today, Aia De Leon cracks a soft smile when asked about “The Voice.” "I don’t shy away from being asked about it," she says. "It was a very personal decision more than anything else. I was in a season during that time when it wasn’t good. I think I was transitioning to becoming a different person—probably it’s part of growing up."

"At that point I said 'If this is starting over from everything, then it must be [from] ground zero.' I had just left the band then and I said I had to be in a place where I could be challenged. It was a lose-lose situation if you think about it, coming from a place where I was already in a band with a good number of people saluting me for that."

"People who know me said, 'Why would you do it?' or 'What else are you looking for?'" she says. "The real reason was, I had to destroy to be able to build again. Everything."

"People who know me said, 'Why would you do it?' or 'What else are you looking for?'" she says. "The real reason was, I had to destroy to be able to build again. Everything."

From 1997 to 2013, De Leon was the lead vocalist of the rock band Imago, an act known for their strong guitar sound and polish, as much as for the De Leon-penned power ballads that showcased the expressive qualities of her siren-like voice. She joined the band almost by accident.

"When I met Barbie in college,” De Leon says, “she told me "'Ang ganda ng boses mo' and I told her I write poetry. Then she said 'Ba’t di ka mag sulat ng kanta?'"

"She came back the next day with a complete song," Almalbis recounts.

De Leon fell into the band scene by pinch-hitting for bands in temporary need of a vocalist. "I would be their reliever kapag namaos ‘yung singer," she says. "Ang sabi ko, 'Hey that’s also cash,' so ganun ganun lang." One day, Zach Lucero approached her about joining a band. She said she wasn't interested in singing covers and would rather write songs. He said, "Perfect." The band turned out to be Imago.

"Wala akong plano," she says. "So if you see the length of my career may hits and misses along the way. I wasn’t groomed, manufactured, and molded. I didn’t have any mentors. I self-studied the guitar. I would literally go to live shows to be able to pick-up something."

"From what I could see, Aia was really keen on learning everything she could about music — as in sponge," says Myrene Academia, the bassist of Imago and Sandwich. "She was already a great singer, but she would woodshed her guitar work and songwriting, putting in a lot of time and hard work. She learned very fast. And when she's not overthinking or distracted, she could distill these emotions into this perfect little gem of a song (e.g. "Akap," and "Sundo"). Then when she sang it, magic na yun."

"Akap" and "Sundo" have since become Imago's signature hits, the songs that helped the band build a solid 17-year run (15 years of it with De Leon). Until today, fans still walk up to De Leon and send her personal messages on Facebook, to tell her how much those songs mean to them. "I feel like a life coach," she says, smiling. "Sometimes when I sing those songs and people sing along, I get overwhelmed thinking about how many people have sung these songs and really felt them."

"When they start being so real in the conversation, I feel like we’re the same," she says. "Maybe it comes with being a writer that you’re an empath. You immediately latch onto a story that you never heard before or a unique experience that was shared to you — we all go through the same things, eh. It’s a gift when people start coming to you and being vulnerable to you. I tell you that’s probably one of the things that I’m rich with."

Growing up, De Leon says that she struggled with gaining her father's approval and building self-esteem. "My father had other plans for me," she says. "My interest in the arts and music wasn’t really encouraged, for lack of a better word…. I felt inadequate because I was thinking about what [the options were] — doctor, lawyer, architect. And I was miserably struggling. I felt inadequate."

"Aia has her demons to struggle with and that's part of her package, part of what makes her good," Academia says. "I truly believe and I've told her many times, she is one of the best songwriters around right now."

"The end of an era is, for me, not bad at all," De Leon says. "Why? Because it levels the ground and you can choose where to build and how to build it. So that’s where I’m excited. I’m not one for nostalgia. I’m not one for clinging on to the past — that belongs where it belongs, in the past. In moving forward you’re always a newbie. You’re always an amateur."

Today, as she prepares the release of her new album — a release that will be digital-only, with just a few pressed CDs for "people who really want them" — she says she's figuring things out and doesn't want to be boxed in genres and expectations. Growing up on her parents' jazz records ("my favorite is Ella Fitzgerald") while being influenced by everyone from Led Zeppelin to No Doubt, she seems to want to do right by herself and produce a record that reflects her true influences and personal history. De Leon, after all, is one of the country's most dexterous vocalists, an emotional, restrained singer in a country that worships birit divas. She rarely shows off, only using her powerful upper register in service of the song.

"’Yun yung problema sa ‘kin ehkaya siguro ‘di ako yumayaman. I'm very malikot," she says, laughing. "Everything that I do has to come from a place that’s real so the growing part, I’m like a car that always has fuel to move forward and I don’t have a reverse button. I get confused. It’s like 'Didn’t I do this before? So what’s the point in doing this again?'"

Kitchie.jpg While people relate more to Kitchie Nadal’s emotional songs — the biggest of them being 2004’s “Huwag na Huwag Mong Sasabihin” — her songs since that time have focused on social issues and nation-building. "I want to study how people feel and how people react, especially now that times are changing," she says. On Kitchie: (Left) Ines de la Fressange x Uniqlo velvet blazer, Uniqlo shirt and jeans. (Right) Valentino leather jacket, Uniqlo top and jeans. Photos by RALPH MENDOZA  

In 2004, when Kitchie Nadal released her self-titled debut album, few could have predicted the blockbuster success it would have. While Nadal had already gained some recognition through Mojofly, the pop-rock band she was lead singer of from 1998 to 2003, her solo debut broke out the way few OPM rock albums do.

Nadal seemed to have stumbled onto something anthemic in 2004. Where the Mojofly of Nadal's time was characterised by wide-eyed youthfulness, sprightly pop-rock hits about boys na "nang-klepto pa ng marijuana galing Baguio," Nadal's solo songs were dead serious about love and life, brandishing an ability to condense outsized emotions and themes into catchy four-minute pop songs and winning the hearts of a country that has always had a flair for melodrama with one of the most enduring love songs of the last 20 years — "Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin."

 

The song "Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin" became one of the decade's biggest breakout hits — crossing over from rock stations to mainstream pop stations. And the video — largely a close-up of a girl-next-door beautiful Nadal singing the song with her band — catapulted her to super stardom, making her an in-demand endorser and cover girl. "It was her debut as a solo artist," the music video’s director Erwin Romulo says. "And I thought that focusing on her face would be good to get a very strong association with the song." When all was said done, Nadal's self-titled debut album sold around 215,000 copies — going 7x Platinum and becoming one of the best-selling Filipino albums of all time, ensuring that her place in OPM history was pretty much cemented.

"It was a little bit crazy," Nadal says now, laughing. "There’s so much fun in having those kind of experiences but it’s really hard also. There are many times that [you're] super happy then super sad, or whatever. It was an extreme experience."

By the end of the era, when her record label released a special edition of the album to prolong its success, she sang on the final track "Pangarap Ko": "Pangarap ko, maging isang tulay / Hindi ito papipigil ano man ang sabihin nila" — on hindsight, a clear sign of where Nadal's motivations lay.

"It was a little bit crazy. There’s so much fun in having those kind of experiences but it’s really hard also. There are many times that [you're] super happy then super sad, or whatever. It was an extreme experience."

 

Overwhelmed and restless after the runaway success of "Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin," and suddenly finding herself a national celebrity, she purposely retreated from the spotlight and found a way to leave the country and travel for two years.

"I was away for a long time — straight ‘yun [na two years]. And for me, it was the most rewarding thing," she explains. "I had to respect my season. I felt like I’d been performing all over the Philippines from Tawi-Tawi to Aparri. Imagine that? All over the Philippines. I wanted to grow … That’s why I started to travel and I started to focus more on [learning and getting out]."

At the peak of her fame, Nadal would balance two to three gigs a night, with a full load as a Psychology and Education double major in De La Salle University, not to mention a practicum in La Salle Greenhills and another in a mental institution. "It wasn’t a mistake because you have to experience it also so that you can learn. From there, you get to choose what you really want," she says. "I was also testing myself — my limits. How much I can give one night? It was really a challenge for me and I had tendencies of overworking myself."

 

After the two-year break, Nadal came back to the industry in 2007 with an EP called “Drama Queen TV,” a compilation of songs of hers used as theme songs of TV shows and movies, from the Piolo Pascual vehicle “Lovers in Paris” to the Angel Locsin-fantaserye “Majika.” Proper albums “Love Letter” and “Malaya” followed in 2008 and 2013, respectively, but by that time, Nadal had moved on from the genre that made her famous. "I think people relate more with my emotional songs." In the years since, her songwriting has focused more on social issues and nation-building. "I want to study how people feel and how people react, especially now that times are changing," she says. Her fifth album is due for release next year.

While the love songs tend to grab focus, a closer listen to her debut album suggests that those themes were always in Nadal's songwriting. On "Fire," for example, she doesn't shy away from discussing abortion — "the stench of truth: the life for a life to be kind as to be unkind." On "Bulong," one of the album's hits, she dresses-down her generation for wasting its time on alcohol and challenges her peers to rise up.

"I believe that songs can heal people. For me, it's a good outlet also, it's therapy," she says. She lives out this belief in the youth ministry she's been working with for more than seven years. "I have a ministry for street kids" — more popularly known as the Junior Rappers — "and they're also into music…. In fact, they recently [went viral] and had 14 million hits [on social media]!" she shares proudly.

The legacy of her self-titled debut is enduring enough that in 2014, 10 years after its release, the popular Sunday noontime show ASAP saw fit to pay tribute to it, with stars like Piolo Pascual, Aiza Seguerra, and Yeng Constantino doing covers of its hits. And in 2015, in the most unexpected of ways, Nadal went viral when photos of her wedding to Spanish journalist and NGO worker Carlos Lopez spread on social media, with talk revolving around her ₱799 wedding dress. "It was the weirdest!" she says, laughing. "I really don't care eh. Siguro, if I'm a celebrity inviting a lot of people, I would have to care about [buying an expensive dress]. My wedding only had 13 guests."

She met her husband in Tacloban, where they were both volunteers after Typhoon Haiyan. "He was already working at that NGO in Cebu [at that time]. I did [a lot of] NGO work also." In the 12 years since the runaway success of "Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin," Nadal has built a life for herself based on service and community. She's traveled and gotten married, lived life, and found her place in the world.

Still, talk of "Kitchie Nadal" in the public consciousness will always persist around the question: "What ever happened?" And after an era as successful as the one she had in the mid-2000s, assumption will always be that she tried to reach those same commercial heights again, only to fail — but that's presuming we know anything about who Kitchie Nadal is.

In 2016, at 36, Nadal says she's more content than ever. "I think you just have to try whatever’s in your heart and that time [the mid-2000s], that was my passion," she says. "I wanted to just keep playing. That was my season. I played all over the Philippines, doing those kind of songs — emotional songs."

"But I really don’t allow myself to get pressured. I don’t even entertain it in my head. Some people ask me, 'Come on, you know, you had your hit songs before. Why don’t you keep writing those kinds of songs?' And I don’t let it affect me…. To be honest, if I compare [myself with] how I was before, I’m definitely much more fulfilled now. I think that it is how we should live our lives. You have to be fulfilled as you grow older. And as you mature, you realize that the happier you are [divorced from other people's ideas of success], the more confident you are."

Barbie.jpg In the 90s, Barbie Almalbis was introduced to the rock scene as the lead singer of folk-rock group Hungry Young Poets. She is more known, however, as the lead for Barbie’s Cradle, one of the most popular bands of the 2000s. As a solo artist, she has released the albums “Goodbye My Shadow” (2011) and “My New Heart” (2014). On Barbie: (Left) H&M coat, Uniqlo turtleneck, Aldo boots. (Right) Factory shirt. Photos by RALPH MENDOZA  

Barbie Almalbis-Honasan exploded onto the scene in the mid-'90s as the lead singer of the folk-rock group Hungry Young Poets. On the strength of hits like "Fire Woman" and "Torpe," Almalbis and the band were able to garner airplay on MTV Asia — a major achievement at the time for a Filipino act — while Almalbis herself was still trying to balance life as a college student by day, and rock star at night.

"I learned to play guitar in grade five and ever since then, halos everyday nag gigitara ako sa bahay. Hindi ko inisip na pwede ‘to maging job," she says. "I was in my accounting class [in De La Salle University] tapos may nakilala akong guy who introduced me to Ricci [Gurango]. We formed Hungry Young Poets and then ganun lang, tuloy-tuloy. Hindi siya … Diba may mga tao na nagpa-plan ng future nila? ‘Di ako ganun."

After Gurango left (to eventually start Mojofly, the band where Nadal got her start as lead singer), the rest of the Poets became Barbie's Cradle — one of the most popular bands of 2000s OPM rock. And in 2006, as her profile as a singer-songwriter in her own right continued to grow, Almalbis branched out on a solo career.

Today, she's a mother of two and is married to Martin Honasan, a painter. How does she reconcile Barbie Almalbis-Honasan the 39-year-old mother of two, who attends PTA meetings and graces Working Mom covers, with Barbie Almalbis the rock star, an occupation where "cool" and "hip" might as well be job descriptions? "That says more about the stereotype [that people have]... I think when you become a mom you don’t have to stop being who you are," she says. "I’m still growing as a musician and that part of me ‘di naman kailangan mag bago."

 

In the 2001 single "Money For Food," Almalbis wrote about the instability of pursuing a career in the arts. "Maybe I should stay in school," she sang, "and learn to make a living, selling some things that I don't love … maybe singing is a luxury…" But hers has been one of the more resilient careers from the mid-90s OPM rock scene. Barbie Almalbis has been famous since she was 18, and her audience has seen her successfully transition from the Joni Mitchell fever dreams of her mid-90s band Hungry Young Poets to the radiant Christian rock-leanings of Barbie's Cradle, to the confident strides of her solo work, to her creative, productive life as a young mom. Her last two albums, “Goodbye My Shadow” (2011) and “My New Heart” (2014), were recorded in her home, so she could be near her kids.

"I think when you become a mom you don’t have to stop being who you are. That says more about the stereotype [that people have]... I’m still growing as a musician and that part of me ‘di naman kailangan mag bago."

After two decades in the music industry, she's a real name-brand, a name that stands for thoughtful, solid songcraft and a way with lyrics that renders the spiritual truly personal and the personal spiritual. Not many artists can get away with serving a hook like "All I need is God" to mainstream rock radio, but Barbie's Cradle did just that on the summer 2003 hit "All I Need," successfully launching their “Playing in the Fields” album and making a line like "Inside of my heart is an army of angels" one of the most memorable lines in a year where the biggest international hit — 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” — contained the hook "I got the X if you into taking drugs / I'm into having sex, I ain't into making love."

Perhaps that ability comes from Almalbis, a born-again Christian, never aiming to preach but to share. "In that season of my life, ‘yun yung central na nangyayari so ‘yun ang sinulat ko," she says. Almalbis says that she found herself spiritually because of the unpredictability of fame and a career in the music industry.

"Career-wise there’s ups and downs. There’s times we’re busy, there’s times we’re not busy. Through time makikita mo na rin eh, how fleeting lahat ng ‘yan, even fame. It’s not something you can get your significance from. Parang grabe kung wala na sila, wala na akong worth — alam mo yun? Yung pag wala na yung applause, wala ka na."

"That’s why yung relationship ko with God was a big factor and like a big turning point for me in finding my significance. I learned how to find my significance in Him. And through different seasons, okay pa rin ako. Sa kanya parang lagi akong solid. Hindi siya nagbabago. May sense of security ako."

 

 

Today, she finds peace in the body of work she's built and the life she leads. "In my 20’s or in my teens, it felt like I was always forward. I guess there's a season in your life when it feels like you have to build something, that you have to prove something or yourself," she says.

"Pero kasi the season now, I’m enjoying it more. Itong concert na ‘to iba yung experience ko. Kasi parang nangyari na ‘to dati eh, pero parang ‘di ko masyadong napansin. You know what I mean? We’ve had concerts before pero parang ngayon you just enjoy the moment. Now we’re having so much fun."

***

Secrets: A Night with Aia, Barbie, and Kitchie is on December 10, 7:30pm, at the Music Museum, San Juan.

Styled by: MJ BENITEZ. Stylist assisted by: FRED PUA and INAH MARAVILLA. Hair by SYLVINA LOPEZ

Special thanks to The Bowery (Unit F5, Forbes Tolun, 29th Street, Bonifacio Global City)