Cynthia Alexander's sound endures change in her new album

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Cynthia Alexander's new album, "Even Such is Time," bears the shift of soundscape from the chaos of Manila to the quiet of Tacoma, Washington, where the artist currently lives. But despite the changes, the voice is still distinctly hers. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There's a part of Cynthia Alexander's guitar where the polish has been weathered by years of playing, leaving a patch of exposed wood right where her fingers anchor themselves in order to pluck strings. It's the wear and tear of an entire career — one that she hasn't entirely left behind, despite her move to the Pacific Northwest five years ago.

Most of her time in Manila so far has been spent preparing for the launch — her first album since “Walk Down the Road” in 2009. We're in a studio tucked in the side streets of Ortigas, along with some of the most formidable musicians of the local music scene: Abby Clutario of Fuseboxx; Louie Talan of Razorback on bass and banjo; pianist Mlou Matute; Zach Lucero, guitarist of Imago and DJ of the dearly-missed NU 107; guitarist Kakoy Legaspi, who plays for Dong Abay; guitarist Sancho Sanchez of The Dawn; bassist Yuna Reguerra of Conscious and the Goodness; and tabla player Charanjit Wasu. The room is packed, so I tiptoe over cables and sheets of paper scribbled over with chords to new songs to get to a place to stand.

They're all three hours into rehearsals, with two more hours to go. Sancho and Zach bow out to head to play a show with their other bands. Cynthia calls for a dinner break.

In a small waiting room beside the studio is a bag of steaming hot samosas that Charanjit brought from an Indian grocery somewhere along United Nations Avenue. He pours the last of a large pitcher of Chai tea, rich and fragrant, before heading out as well. I saw him play with her on one of the legs of her farewell tour several years ago. The rehearsal is also a reunion of sorts for her and the band, many of whom have been longtime collaborators, reminiscent of the days of 70’s Bistro, Sanctum, and her regular shows at Conspiracy Cafe.

Photo-17 (6).jpg For the album launch, Cynthia enlisted the help of some of the most formidable musicians of the local music scene, such as her long-time stage companion, pianist Mlou Matute. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Cynthia and I chat over the samosas for dinner. However, this isn't the interview. That, we would settle over a written correspondence. I'm here to listen to rehearsals.

Back in the studio after dinner, Louie and Yuna riff off of the sprightly bassline of “The Weather Report” from her 2000 album “Rippingyarns,” while Kakoy intently searches for the right notes to play on the guitar. The song is at least 18 years old, but it hasn't lost any of its lustre. Cynthia sits on the far end of the room, plucking out chords for the rest to follow: a circular lullaby that crashes and recedes like waves along a shore on a cloudy day. She begins to sing about racing shadows.

It's her new album's titular song, “Even Such is Time,” which was nurtured in Tacoma, Washington. The shift of soundscape from the chaos of Manila to the quiet of Tacoma is palpable. As a whole, the album is softer, closer to contemplative stillness of “No Umbrella” than the sweeping restlessness of “Malaya.” It's different, but continuity prevails despite the changes; the voice is still distinctly hers.

Cynthia's songwriting is deeply intuitive, responding to what’s in her surroundings, and what isn’t there. In our correspondence days after her album launch, she writes: “A song I wrote recently (not yet recorded) I wrote/heard in the hum of the car engine while driving on the highway. When I got home, I sat down at the piano and helped it unfurl. My process hasn't really changed, except that I'm living a quiet life in Tacoma, Washington (just south of Seattle), without the steady revving hum of neighbors' karaoke + jeepney + bus + trucks + tricycles, I'm able to hear that undercurrent of sound and rhythm that Manila tends to swallow.”

Despite the distance, some the lyrics are still tied close to home. “What I Left Behind” and “Along the Road” feature lines adapted from poems by her mother Tita Lacambra-Ayala. It’s a thread that traverses thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, and Cynthia’s way of staying connected despite the distance.

Photo-21 (7).jpg Songs like “What I Left Behind” and “Along the Road” feature lines adapted from poems by her mother Tita Lacambra-Ayala; Cynthia’s way of staying connected despite the distance. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The creative freedom granted by staying independent enabled Cynthia to release some of the most inventive, moving songs of the late ‘90s and early 2000's, seamlessly transmuting indigenous instruments, pop melodies, and unconventional arrangements into something timeless. Her complex approach to the guitar also inspired a lot of musicians, women in particular, to embark on their own sonic explorations.

Compared to when “Comet's Tail” was released in 2005, developments in technology have made recording equipment widely available and accessible. Yet in the States, studio time still comes at a steep cost. Being away from the constellation of musicians and producers of the local music scene, Cynthia crowdfunded the album, finding 168 backers from around the world. The most dedicated supporters received special booklets with handwritten lyrics to the album, a gesture of gratitude and goodwill.

It’s another cosmic stroke of luck that she found a sound engineer in a neighbor, Matt Brown. “The funny story about Matt is that I met him because he was my neighbor in Seattle more than five years ago, when we lived in adjacent apartments. We'd agreed to share a wireless internet connection, and when my partner and I knocked on his door to get the password, he opened it to reveal a full recording studio in his tiny apartment. I may have gasped. He didn't even know that I played music at that point.” Matt later moved to Germany, but he and Cynthia still kept in touch as she set up her personal studio in a converted garage in her backyard.

It was all a process of trial and error. “I never had to set up a condenser mic for myself before this. But this was an adventure, and I found that I could do it. There is just something empowering about that. It's knowledge that I can keep using, and I can pay it forward by teaching others like Matt did for me.”

Photo-22 (5).jpg “I never had to set up a condenser mic for myself before this. But this was an adventure, and I found that I could do it," says Cynthia on the process of producing the album alone, away from her pool of musicians and producers back home. "There is just something empowering about that. It's knowledge that I can keep using, and I can pay it forward by teaching others." Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The Pacific Northwest also held other lessons for her. “Immigrants everywhere know that when you move to a different country, you give up a lot. If your identity is tied closely to what you do for a living, you're in for some serious self-reckoning,” Cynthia says. “As a musician, I had the experience and the skill that I'd gained from so many years of playing and writing music, but Seattle is a music-saturated town, and I didn't have an audience that venues could count on to buy tickets. It was very humbling, because I had to start from scratch. I'm fortunate that I didn't have to go it alone, and that I found so much support in the community. I definitely don't play as much as I used to, which was frustrating at first, but when I do play, it can be really exhilarating.”

One of the most memorable shows for her so far was a Leonard Cohen tribute show organized by her friend Tomo Nakayama for the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project at Seattle’s Town Hall: “It was a sold out show at the Seattle Town Hall; people were sitting packed into the wooden pews and standing in the back. There were so many incredible musicians on the lineup, including Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Lori Goldston, an amazing cellist, and I was so honored to be a part of that, especially as an immigrant. I even spoke a few words about my own journey as the Leonard Cohen song was one I'd learned as a teenager growing up in Davao, and here I was singing it in front of an audience in Seattle. So you get the whole perspective: the struggle and the triumph. That was an inspiring night.”

Photo-4 (5).jpg “Immigrants everywhere know that when you move to a different country, you give up a lot. If your identity is tied closely to what you do for a living, you're in for some serious self-reckoning,” Cynthia says, on moving to the States and pursuing music abroad. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

“I’ve stayed independent, but I've never been alone,” Cynthia says. Despite having left Manila, local support for her remains strong. The tickets to her album launch at The Music Museum sold out long before the show. As the cheers from the crowd on the night itself showed, she is sorely missed. In the audience, I overheard rumors of a surprise show at her home court Conspiracy Cafe from more than one person. It didn’t happen. Maybe in the future.

After all, even such is time.

It’s fitting that, in Cynthia Alexander’s distinct manner of poetry, the title lends itself to different meanings depending on the context; it can be consolation for loss or longing, a justification for changes, or a reassurance of trust in the way things fall into place however unexpectedly. It forms a telling conversation with her past songs, such as “Walk Down the Road,” which submits itself to chance and grace, or “Knowing There is Only Now,” about “walk[ing] out through the door to welcome back reality.” The time and place of said reality between those two songs and “Even Such is Time” may be separated by nearly two decades and a sea change, but there are things that still endure. Look up at the sky and you’ll know why.