How do Filipino songwriters write modern love songs?

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What does it take to make a modern Filipino love song? Yael Yuzon of Sponge Cola, Marion, Josh Villena of Autotelic, and BP Valenzuela weigh in. Photos by SAMANTHA LEE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s something in a Filipino love song — in the form, in the language, in the way it cuts through a crowd or creeps through car speakers and immediately announces its presence.

Whether it is to declare love, demand it or decry it, to reminisce a last dance or to wish you had two hearts, love songs arrive in our lives so powerfully and linger in memory, weaving into the lives of those who listen. To hear a Filipino love song is to hear your own heart soar and leap and take a tumble, to be told your own story from an almost frightening proximity.

What is it that happens in the mind of someone who writes a love song, who draws a story from experience and imagination then decides to give it to the world? Four songwriters — indie pop artist BP Valenzuela, Yael Yuzon of Sponge Cola, Armi Millare of UDD, Josh Villena of Autotelic, and singer-songwriter Marion (who’s also worked with Kathryn Bernardo and Alex Gonzaga) — speak to us on the inner workings of their songwriting, the nature of Filipino love, and the way love rises from memory then bleeds into song until it’s part of the world.

BP Valenzuela

I feel like “Second Nature” is about falling in love. It’s about the giddy part of love, not the difficult part of love. It’s about the easy part of love, which is just giving in to your impulse and just letting go of the reins and just wilding out. So I think that’s my favorite love song [I’ve written] just ‘cause at the time I wrote it, I was just very naive about love and very hopeful. And I wish that, as a songwriter, I could get back to that point, but it’s always nice to look back and listen to it and remember: This is how love’s supposed to feel like.

What people would always quote, at least, was like, “It may look nice in your head but is it ever really more than?” It’s something that people really resonated with. When I was writing “Steady,” I was 18 and I didn’t know what I wanted and I saw this nice, cute little fairytale with this boy in college and then I was just like, “Alright, this is a thing that is unequivocally good, this is something that I could probably see through.” And then the more I imposed that image of love on myself the more it felt like it looked nice in my head, but it was never really anything more than that.

I like hearing that people have made out to “bbgirl.” ‘Cause a bunch of girls messaged me, and my friends take screenshots of comments on the YouTube video and there are a bunch that’re just like, “I met my girlfriend through this song,” “We made out to this song.” Honestly, that’s my favorite music story.

I feel like songs are snapshots of a moment and I think everyone’s idea of love differs, but then love songs really communicate the kind of love you wanna feel and the kind of love you wanna receive. And you don’t even have to say it, like certain things just remind you of people and the best way to let someone know that you love them is through sending them a song.

Yael Yuzon of Sponge Cola

Every love song from anyone from any country comes from its own context, and the idea of a love song being Filipino ties in heavily with our past, with our colonial past, if you want to trace it all the way back there. You love on bare feet. I know that term was coined by Joi Barrios, she’s a Filipina poet.

I think Filipino love songs are very passionate. It’s always everything we’ve got. It’s always altruistic. When we love, we can’t just say I love you and work an $8-per-hour shift. Alam mo ‘yun? When we say I love you, it’s everything. Hindi nagtitira, it’s bigay-lahat. It’s walang power bank. Maganda ata ‘yon. Ang Pilipino kung umibig, walang power bank.

You know what, I’m gonna put “Kapag Tumibok Ang Puso” [as a favorite love song], which my cousin [Donna Cruz] sang, just because it really captures the kilig, even the sound of the instrumentation, the dum-dum-dum-dum. If you listen to the bassline of the song, it sounds like a giddy 14-year-old girl who’s in love for the first time, the way the syllabication of the words, “He-to na na-man na-ri-ri-nig,” it really sounds like a heartbeat that’s fluctuating that maybe should be checked by a doctor.

Maybe I’ll put “Gemini” in there [as one of my favorite songs I’ve written] because I was very young when I wrote it, but I remember writing a very intimate song was kind of taboo for me ‘cause I was 19. And Filipinos are very conservative. I’m very conservative! I get shookt a lot, so the idea of writing a song that’s intimate and sexual without sounding [distasteful] — to be able to strike that balance is kind of hard.

As a writer, I guess I’m very self-absorbed. I want to like it; I don’t care if other people don’t, which is weird for a guy who’s technically in a pop-rock band because normally pop-rock bands make anthems. Pero my theory when it comes to anthems is that you have to like it first. If you don’t like it, some people might sing it, but you’re not gonna feel it when you sing it.

Armi Millare of UDD

Filipino songs are really Filipino-specific. So many words almost have no equivalent in the English language and it makes me think [that] our perception of certain things and feelings are original to us that way, too.

Sana” is such a hard song to sing, so I’m always technically challenged by it, and I feel that it really just wrote itself in many ways in terms of the choice of words and how they sort of magically rhyme somehow, including the meter. The song surprised me with the bridge — like it had to be there but I didn’t quite know it was coming until I was almost done writing it. Having written “Sana” made me feel like I didn’t just get lucky the way I did with “Oo,” and after that, I started to really focus on bettering my craft as a young songwriter.

The phrase “Ikaw na lang ang kulang” sat in my head for weeks fresh from a relationship but it was there for too long and I began not to feel much anymore so I couldn’t finish the song. I just wrote the rest of “Sana” alluding to two friends of mine who had just broken up. I was writing vicariously through something I wanted more, which was for my two friends to get back together.  

What’s always touching is when people come up to me and tell me that the songs got them through a tough time. It’s always nice to be able to help in some way. The idea of people finding a safe place within the space of four minutes in a song that the band has made is always a good thing. I think it gives us a semblance of hope, that there’s something that can be done about a situation through a song. It’s not result-oriented in terms of healing a broken heart but it’s helpful making the song part of the process. Mending something isn’t really up to us, anyway — that’s mostly time’s job and the songs are just there to pass the time until then.

Josh Villena of Autotelic

Of course ‘yung syllables, ‘yung words — it’s easier, I think, to digest, kasi most listeners naman understand Filipino. Mas feeling nila it’s close to the heart din. Mas magiging conversation kasi ‘pag in Tagalog ang lyrics.

I guess [my favorite love song I’ve written], it’s ‘yung “Laro.” Nag-iba ‘yung tingin ng tao sa kanya. Kasi some people interpret it as not just a love song. It’s about time — when we were growing up, things were much simpler, tapos nung lumaki tayo, the concept of “laro,” naging complicated na eh. We play with our time, we play with work, sa personal lives natin, then all of a sudden, parang iniwan ka nung panahon, then parang everything’s just going too fast.

Two weeks ago ata ‘yun, we performed at Rizal Auditorium, then while performing, meron isang nasa crowd na bata, he was holding a note. Nakasulat doon, “Thank you for saving me.” Para sa akin, sobrang heavy and sobrang powerful ng message na ‘yun eh. Even ako naging reminder siya sa akin while performing: Music did save me — emotionally, financially, lahat ‘yun.

[Love songs,] hindi siya necessarily nag-he-heal or nag-me-mend ng broken heart, but sinasabayan niya ‘yung pinagdadaanan ng tao ‘di ba? Ang gusto lang naman ng taong nasasaktan ay may nakukuwentuhan siya or may nakaka-relate sa kanya. That’s not necessarily going to heal you, pero parang kayong nagkuwentuhan.

Marion

For love songs, it’s usually inspired by my own experiences but, since I’m totally single right now, there’s not much to grasp from. What usually happens is I’m inspired by other people’s stories or watching a movie or watching a T.V. series and having those romantic moments there. And then I usually weave it into my own personal experiences, like pockets of memories from way back when I was feeling those things.

I’ve written “Fallen,” which was actually used in the movie “Achy Breaky Hearts,” and it was like the kissing scene and everything, so it’s a very lovey-dovey and very Norah Jones-ish feel. And then I also liked “Free Fall Into Love” ‘cause it was used as a theme song, although initially I wrote it as an English song, and then when the producer heard it, he suggested that I make it into a Taglish sort of thing so that more people will be able to relate to it.

For Leila Alcasid — I wrote and produced for her recently — I actually really wanted to personalize it for her, so I went to her place then we exchanged stories and everything. I really wanted to get to know her, so that her essence could be put into the songs that I write for her. It kind of feels like you’re someone’s therapist. I’m glad that I am able to channel that into an actual song.

Sometimes people ask me, “Do you still feel the way you do in the songs?” What I usually feel is that once I put it out there, I’ve already gotten rid of the feeling. For example, [if] it’s like a heartbreak song, I’m totally bawling my eyes out while writing it but once it comes out, it’s [like] “Oh, I’m done now.” Even for myself, it’s free therapy.

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Watch BP Valenzuela, Yael Yuzon, Josh Villena, and Marion talk about their songwriting process in the video below: