COVER STORY

Disco sphinx: Unique’s silence is golden

After leaving IV of Spades and releasing one of the best local albums of the year, 18-year-old singer-songwriter Unique remains inscrutable as ever.

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Another cover story on an enigmatic celebrity, a promise of never-before-heard insight, a fresh set of photographs to cast the celebrity a new light — this is the goal I go in with.

One conversation that’s been happening mostly among journalists is on the place of the celebrity profile in 2018. Jon Caramanica penned a piece for the New York Times called “R.I.P., the Celebrity Profile, essentially outlining the medium’s former precedence in interrogating public personalities and the increasing pushback from today’s stars who either co-opt the medium (i.e. Beyoncé’s self-produced Vogue cover story) or refuse it entirely, choosing to shape their own narratives on social media platforms where they can speak directly and unfiltered to their audiences.

Every writer doing a celebrity profile hopes to break through an artist’s façade, to be granted rare access into a secret life, to glean fresh insight even from the most studied personae. It’s something I keep in mind before speaking to Unique for this story.

To be honest, the interview makes me immediately apprehensive because Unique offers precious little to work with in every story he’s interviewed for so far. He reads as evasive, hyper-aware of his mystique as an artist, responding in clipped sentences that don’t always answer the writers’ questions. Anyone expecting a conventional interview with Unique would have to rethink their angle.

One of the conditions of interviewing Unique is that all questions about IV of Spades are off limits. Hence, we can only recount his time in the band and piece together details of his exit with no confirmation or commentary from Unique himself.

Photo-5.jpg Photo by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO

We sit down and he meets each of my questions with a curious squint that softens by the time I finish my thought. He smiles and laughs often as he answers, but the replies remain brief, occasionally inscrutable. I realize that what can read as put-on or petulant on paper comes from a place of genuine shyness. Unique possesses an innate intelligence where music comes to him effortlessly, but the words to explain it come less surely.

“‘Pag tahimik ka parang, ‘Ang sungit naman nito,’” Unique says. “Ganoon lang talaga ako, e. Hindi lang talaga ako magaling makipag-usap sa mga tao. Ang hirap din naman piliting sabihin sa kanila na ‘Uy, ‘di ako nakikipag-usap masyado, ‘di ako magaling sa ganyan.’”

Given the breadth of the work that he has made, it’s easy to forget that Unique just turned 18 this year. He begins by telling me he spent his childhood immersed in music. His mother was a singer and his father was a guitarist in a band called Fire Exit. Unique grew up listening to a lot of Michael Jackson and The Beatles, noting “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” as key influences in his work. “Minsan pinapakinggan ko lang sila tapos na-i-inspire na ako magsulat ulit dahil sa kanila.”

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Photos by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO

Unique first gained prominence as the lead singer of the disco-inflected rock band, IV of Spades. Over the course of four years and four official singles, the band managed to amass a loyal fanbase. Part of it was the natural musicality and songcraft — it’s worth mentioning that all four members are sons of former musicians — another was the distinct disco chic look the bands cultivated in their videos and live performances.

The atmosphere within the fanbase has been known to be toxic, with multiple instances of cyberbullying and incidents of fans heckling other acts playing ahead of the band. The height of the toxicity came when, after his absence in several shows, rumors began to swirl of Unique’s impending departure from the band. Conspiracy theories abounded, largely suggesting he was being pulled out of the band against his will. Fans even harassed Unique’s mother on Facebook, demanding for answers on his whereabouts.

Official statements last May from both the band and Unique cleared the air, officially announcing he would leave the band on good terms. Soon after, he signed on to O/C Records, owned by Callalily vocalist and former IV of Spades manager Kean Cipriano, then released his first solo single and video “Midnight Sky” the same night IV of Spades debuted their three-man lineup in “In My Prison.”

Photo-16.jpg Photo by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO

Together with the video and the announcement of The Grandma Tour (a solo concert at the Kia Theater on Sept. 29) came a new, singular look for the Unique brand, fully setting this era apart from his time in the band: all-black ensembles, bare feet, and, crisp black and white photography.

The persistent online commentary on his narrative continued, questioning the near-simultaneous releases, or the ticket prices for a first solo concert. Of the constant dissection of his life and choices, Unique says, “Nakakapagod kasi parang ang purpose mo nga bilang musikero ay gumawa ng music, e. So parang ang daming nangyayari pero kailangan mo siyang gawin, e.”

A month later, Unique released his debut album “Grandma,” a 12-track rock record that shows a young songwriter and producer utilizing his playbook of skills. It’s a pleasant surprise to get a full, cohesive, consistent collection of songs from such a young voice in Filipino music.

Photo-15.jpg Photo by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO

There is the starry-eyed love in “Midnight Sky,” the mid-tempo melancholy of “Sino,” the Lennon-McCartney lilt of “I’m Gonna Break Your Little Heart,” or the stripped-down balladry of “Jules.” Where he’s hesitant to speak at length in person, in song he reveals a depth of observation. “Goodnight Prayer” is a hopeless plea to a God he feels he cannot reach, with an outro of a crowd’s maddening laughter. He sings, “Hesukristo, dalangin ko'y linisin mo ang puso ko. Hesukristo, dalangin ko'y magising at ulitin 'to.”

Album standout “OZONE (Itulak Ang Pinto)” runs in a tradition of music as pop journalism, a vessel for revisiting grisly events in our collective memory — think “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats (about the 1979 Cleveland Elementary School shooting) or “Spoliarium” by the Eraserheads (rumored to be about the Pepsi Paloma rape case). Written after the tragic 1996 Ozone Disco fire, it’s a macabre disco jam — easy enough to dance to, yet unsettling once you know enough about the night that inspired it. “Sunugin natin ang ating mga paa,” he sings. “Dagitab ng bawat padyak ay nadarama.”

Unique says he wrote it after passing the GoodAh!!! that now stands where the original Ozone Disco was. “Nadaanan lang namin siya. May nakapagkwento sa’kin na, ‘Dating Ozone ‘yan. ‘Yan ‘yung nasunog na bar,’” he recalls. “Tapos na-stuck siya sa utak ko, hindi ko napigilang sumulat. Noong una para siyang prosa hanggang sa nagbawas ako ng mga salita doon tapos naging lyrics na siya, melody, at naging kanta siya — naging ‘OZONE.’”

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Photos by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO

Unique also directed the video for second single, “Cha-Ching!” The video offers another look into the artist’s mind, a monochrome gore fantasia where he casts himself as the gun-wielding gamemaster, guiding us through images of bloodied bodies and stigmata, a bed of worms crawling in the earth and a pig’s head in a briefcase.

“Iba siya sa mainstream na film, e,” he says of his work as a director. Apart from the music video, Unique says he’s done a handful of his own experimental short films that he doesn’t upload anywhere. His visual palette comes largely from his dreams. “Parang gusto ko lang mag-experiment kung anong meron sa loob ng utak ko. Kapag minsan nananaginip ako, may naiisip akong kakaiba, isusulat ko siya tapos ico-compile ko at makakabuo na ako ng isang pelikula.”

It feels apt to ask Unique what effect fame has on artistry given how his work, for all its merits, often feels like it must compete with the persistent commentary about his image, his self-presentation or his relationship with his former band. Does being famous make it hard to be an artist? His answer surprises me.

“Hindi siya sumpa, e,” he says. “Magandang bagay rin siya kahit papaano kasi natutulungan niya ‘yung mga artists na ipakita kung anong mayroon sila.” It feels like an acceptance, ultimately, of that push and pull. He’s preparing for his tour, he’s working on more music and hopes to write another album, while still dealing with an unasked-for level of scrutiny.

Photo-12.jpg Photo by JL JAVIER. Styling by JED GREGORIO  

Our brief interview wraps up and I pass him on to our photographer for portraits. What is there to make of the few words we shared? I feel as if I have hardly enough to go on, just my impressions of this disco sphinx and the riddles he offers about himself in the songs.

Perhaps Unique’s 2018 trajectory stands best as a case study for a young artist thrust into the spotlight, on whose silence many will project their own thoughts and impressions. It’s a good place to begin asking questions. What are the demands we make of our artists? Should we be holding them to these standards for amiability, openness, and eloquence? What constrictions have we set — perhaps even the format of the celebrity profile — that simply don’t fit all artists?

For his portraits, we take him around the side streets of Manila, to the whispers of passing strangers. “‘Di ba si Unique ‘yan?” If Unique notices, he doesn’t show it, his gaze fixed on the camera, sphinx-like. Make of it what you will.

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Special thanks to The Public School Manila.