The Ransom Collective on Filipino indie folk music and avoiding predictability as a band

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As indie folk group The Ransom Collective releases their first album “Traces,” the six-piece band talks about what their music celebrates, how they diversify their sound, and what Filipino music sounds like. Photo by ARTU NEPOMUCENO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Ransom Collective is a young band that keeps you young. At the listening party for their first album “Traces” at Oto in Poblacion, Makati, there’s a crowd of early 20-somethings excited to hear their new songs for the first time. Kian Ransom (vocals and guitar) sits in the registration booth, upbeat and eager to share with you a secret. “Try the Bees’ Knees for cocktails,” he advises. “It’s the best!”

His other bandmates Jermaine Ochoa Peck (percussion and vocals) and Leah Halili (bass and vocals) move from table to table. Peck approaches and talks about something she’s passionate about: a reforestation project in Zambales. Leah opens up about her life as a teacher, and how she’s focusing now on her rackets as an artist. Somewhere in the room, sisters Muriel (violin and vocals) and Lily Gonzales (keyboard and vocals) and drummer Redd Claudio engage in similar conversations, as the crowd waits for them to come up front to talk about their music.

The late award-winning writer Luis Katigbak may have described The Ransom Collective’s music best, when the band released their first few songs in 2014. “Sometimes, when listening to a new band, you listen while bracing yourself for disappointment: a song can start off well enough, but squander its potential, fail to achieve flight with the chorus, or betray you with badly-worded sentiment,” Katigbak wrote. “Once in a while, though … not only is that dreaded heart-plummet deftly avoided, but your fond expectations are fearlessly met, even exceeded.”

Katigbak wrote accurately of the first EP. In The Ransom Collective’s first album “Traces,” the band flies. You can hear it in the soaring magnitude of album-opener “Open Road,” a reassuring anthem on embracing uncertainty. The band itself recognizes, however, that in the case of their easily recognizable indie folk sound, there is a tendency to write and play the obvious, says Ransom. Thus the effort to vary the altitude, so to speak: in the titular song “Traces,” the violin sets the stage for a hesitant song about managing expectations; in “Something Better” (“a hardcore breakup song,” says Ransom) an acoustic guitar sets the mood, quiet and somber as compared to the triumph of the opening track.

The Ransom Collective In The Ransom Collective’s first album “Traces,” the band flies. Photo by NICKY AUREO  

CNN Philippines Life had a brief chat with the young band to talk about how they produced the sound for their first album, and what they think of their music in an industry that has yet to fully embrace indie folk. Below are a few edited excerpts from the interview.

How do you work together as a band?

Kian Ransom: The process, putting it together, the way we write music, everything is like, a band, group thing. Same with the songs, it may start with one person, but then by the end, everybody’s input and expertise is put in the end product.

Your music is very celebratory. What do you celebrate in your music?

Leah Halili: Life. [Laughs] It’s not mostly about celebrating; it’s about what you go through in life. It’s about what happens. It’s experiences. The fun and very lively songs, those are the things that are sort of what you say celebratory, but there’s also mellow songs that represent days when you feel bad, when you want to reflect on life.

Lily Gonzales: There’s an introspection that happens. ‘Cause we’re similar in interests and ages, and I guess we’re going through similar things, so the songs are what we go through. That’s kind of how we communicate the songs.

To what extent is the album personal?

Redd Claudio: You’ll find that each track is based on a separate experience, it’s just narrating those experiences. That for me, shows how personal it is in that sense. Usually when Kian gets sad … [Laughs]

Kian Ransom: There’s definitely a couple of songs that are really personal to me, songs I wrote before I met the band — “Present Tense” and “Something Better.” Originally they were just for guitar, [I’m a] very slow singer-songwriter. Once we became a full band, after a time [we said], hey let’s take some of the songs I wrote, see if we can reshape them with the band.

Most of the songs are personal for me because I wrote the lyrics, but in a lot of ways it was something we were experiencing as a whole, like “Settled” for example. I was kind of writing about the feeling of going for something than more than you originally planned, taking that leap of faith to go for something bigger than you thought you could do.

 

What are your favorite songs in the album?

Jermaine Ochoa Peck: “Something Better,” it’s one of the first songs we played.

Why?

[Muriel and Kian laugh]

Jermaine Ochoa Peck: I was going through something also when the band was forming, and the band was playing that song.

Kian Ransom: I think me and Jerms connected a lot through that song. Jerms was the first person I approached when I was forming the band, and I think she related to that a lot. I wrote that song about a breakup; it was hardcore breakup song. And Jerms, when we met, was going through something.

Muriel Gonzales: I like “Traces” because of the complexity of the song. It’s a bit cinematic, but whimsical in a way. It’s got a different character from all the other songs. And I like how it would have different changes in the song that you wouldn’t expect.

Kian Ransom: I like “Tides.” When we were writing it, we had a very indie folky vibe, and at least for me, while we were writing it, I felt like we we were abusing the obvious. We wrote the chords for it — that was very foot stompy, happy, road trippy. And it worked, but I felt unsatisfied because it was so obvious. So that was the song that we — I remember me, Redd, Leah and Jerms — we turned off all the lights, it was pitch black, and we just started jamming this new idea I [had]. That was weird. I liked it! For me that was big moment. ‘Cause I wrote a few chords that [were] less happy, a lot more dramatic. At that time I wasn’t sure they would like it … but when the lights are off, you can’t get embarrassed, you wouldn’t know if they are laughing or smiling at you, everyone’s just playing. You don’t know what their facial expression is, you’re just feeling it.

Leah Halili: Like Mu, “Traces.” I like how every time we play it, there’s this feeling that I get na, this is the title of the album, and this is the story of all the songs we made together.

Lily Gonzales: “Traces” as well. I said "Tides" before because I liked the recording. With “Traces” live, I like it better. I like how it’s cinematic.

Redd Claudio: “Traces” also. I was the last member to go into the band. When I came in, all the songs were kind of already pre-written and pre-arranged. “Traces” was the most involved I got into trying to pull a song together, so that makes me extra proud when I hear it.

The Ransom Collective "Let’s drop the predictable thing and try something else," The Ransom Collective frontman, Kian Ransom (fourth from the left), says. Photo by ARTU NEPOMUCENO  

How do you start writing a song together?

Kian Ransom: Usually I’d start a song, like an idea, a very simple something on guitar, maybe a melody, not even lyrics. Then I’d bring it to everybody and Redd would be inspired by a certain kind of beat. Like with “Traces,” all I had was this piano part. Then Redd added this really cool triplet-ty piano thing. And all of a sudden, okay, we have a feel. Lily took over, embellished it, we added some violin. So the process starts with one idea, people suggesting, then we go from there.

You have a distinct sound. How do you make sure it’s not predictable?

Kian Ransom: It’s like what I said earlier about the song “Tides.” That’s when I noticed, okay, we’re predictable and we’re giving in to the predictability. So that was the song that challenged us — let’s drop the predictable thing and try something else. So “Tides” goes from a very light, upbeat folky sound then gets dark and dramatic down the chorus. The other thing that affects predictability is that since many of us are offering ideas … we find a lot of variability there as we try to avoid being predictable.

Jermaine Ochoa Peck: With the music industry in general, this wave of sound is different from how it sounded before. I think we also just rode that wave. People are starting to be more open to the different sound … indie folk. It’s not only us, there’s a lot of other bands, who are also getting into this kind of music as well.

What makes your music Filipino?

Muriel Gonzales: I think we tend to sort of box what Filipino music sounds like. Before this decade we’re in, people would associate OPM with a certain sound. But if you think about it, we’re just limited with what’s accessible to us, whereas if you go outside, the provinces, mountains, they have their own music, which we do not have any idea how it sounds. We tend to have a misconception or maybe a perspective of what Filipino music sounds like. But our definition of Filipino music is limited to what we have access to. It’s sort of like an existentialist question.

Kian Ransom: Yeah, the question is, is OPM a genre, or is it a definition?

How do you relate with other Filipino bands in the Philippines?

Muriel Gonzales: What I like about the experience … is that people are supportive of each other. I learn something new whenever I listen to other bands, I get inspired. What I’ve seen so far is it’s a very supportive environment.

Kian Ransom: There’s a lot of mutual respect for each other. Even if you don’t love the music, it’s hard not to respect the musicians and what they’re putting out there. It’s cool because you don’t feel obligated to like everybody … maybe there’s a sense that everyone likes each other a bit too much. Or they like each other more than they do. But even if you don’t like their sound or don’t listen to that personally, it’s easier to respect everyone and what they’re doing because they’re so talented. And they put themselves out there.

 

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The Ransom Collective is officially launching "Traces" on May 20 at the Palace Pool Club in Fort, BGC. Entrance is  ₱300 with a free drink, and tickets will be available at the door (no pre-sale). Guests are advised to bring a valid I.D. with a birthdate.

Minors may enjoy the event from the viewing deck of Café Naya at The Palace located at the rear end of the venue. For more details, check the Facebook event page.