Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I first meet Barbie Almalbis in her living room. With a career spanning 23 years (first with Hungry Young Poets then Barbie’s Cradle then as a soloist), the singer-songwriter carved a place for women in Filipino rock in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Here in the home she shares with her husband, artist Martin Honasan, we sit down and discuss her new three-song EP “Tigre,” her first major release since her 2014 album “My New Heart.”
After that album, Almalbis found herself in a creative dry spell. She would be writing constantly but was never happy with any of her output. “I think I learned a lot from the five years that I haven’t been able to write. It was kind of frustrating,” Almalbis says. “Bakit ba ‘yung songwriting hindi parang some skill lang na gagawa ka ng upuan then once you know how to build a chair, you can always know how to build a chair? Why is songwriting so elusive? Sometimes I can write songs that I’m happy with and there are seasons na parang wala akong magawa that I’m happy with.”
Things changed a few months ago when creative forces around her aligned. “Siguro na-inspire din ako sa scene ngayon na ang daming mga iba-ibang klaseng music na lumalabas and there’s support for all kinds of music, you know? And I started collaborating with my husband. We’ve been writing a few songs together. So nag-start ako ulit magsulat and parang happy ako sa nagagawa ko and naging tuloy-tuloy siya. So parang hanggang ngayon, parang writing season na ulit, after years.”
It helped to be around her kids Stina and Liam. “Kasi kids are naturally creative, ‘di ba? They have no hang-ups and no fears yet, and it’s great to learn from that. I would sometimes use that. At this age, no one’s told them yet that writing a song is hard or whatever so I just told them, ‘Hey, write a song,’ and they both wrote songs.”
The decision to release three songs as one EP was borne from logistics. How many songs could a band realistically record in a day or two of studio time? “It works out for me even on the creative side kasi na-realize ko parang creatively draining rin talaga ‘yun. I mean, like, after I make an album before, parang kailangan ko talaga magpahinga for a few years. Nagsusulat ka, tapos nag-aarrange ka then while you’re recording it, you’re building it, like adding parts,” she says. “Even after just three songs, maganda rin na may pahinga, and then maybe another three, then record another three para fresh ka ulit. I think mas mag-wo-work at sa schedule rin, kasi I’m a mom and everything, so I can’t live in the studio anymore.”
With enough material banked for more sessions, she intends to follow up “Tigre” with more new singles in the coming months. “We want to lead up to that, to an album, but just release it in a different way.” More than managing her creativity and her time now as a working mom, the three-song EP comes with another benefit: it means we get to talk about each song in detail.
The opening track “Cover” is a tender, fluttering love song declaring lasting devotion for someone. The song was written as a surprise for Almalbis’ bandmate Nikko Rivera and his then-fiancée Michelle Lim ahead of their wedding. “We wrote a love song for him but we wanted him to be part of the song. I presented the song… to the band. I changed the lyrics so he won’t realize that it’s about him. Sabi ko sa kanya, ‘Nikko, gusto ko you do all the solos, all the keyboards parts.’ Parang he’s like the star, like, ‘This is gonna be your song.’ Sobrang clueless talaga siya! Hindi talaga niya nalaman ‘til the other day sa wedding party nila na doon namin ni-reveal ‘yung song. It was a lot of fun.”
The second song “Ghost” begins as if calling out to an elusive lover. Over lilting pianos and playful acoustic guitar riffs, she sings, “I saw your ghost on the radio. You spoke so kind, I was feeling low. Still a mystery, how you called to me in a magazine, in a lucid dream.” Soon, you realize she’s speaking to a force greater than herself: God. “It’s more a song about faith and my faith journey. As the song progresses, it’s about ‘yung progression din of getting to know God, how His spirit moves in my life,” Almalbis says.
The title track “Tigre” was the first to be written for the album. She and her husband wrote it about their cat Vernie (named after singer Vernie Varga). A first-time cat owner, Almalbis found herself fascinated with the animal’s quirks. “It’s a new experience for us kasi first time lang kami naging pet people. I mean, we had a fish before but you know what I mean. You can’t hug your fish,” she says with a laugh. “So ‘yung song, puro tungkol sa kanya, all her quirks. It’s basically about loving somebody who’s mean — parang unrequited love kind of song then sa end mo na lang malalaman na it’s about a cat.”
I tell Almalbis that the EP makes for a fascinating snapshot of her life now: a song about friends in love, a song about faith, and a love song for a cat. She agrees. It’s not until later, listening to the record on loop that I realize that each of the three songs is an invitation to a secret. “Cover” is a love song written for someone who didn’t realize it was for him. “Ghost” seems like it’s yearning for a person, but it speaks out to a greater force in the universe. “Tigre” waits until the very last line to tell you the mercurial figure at the heart of its story is actually a house cat. The fascinating power of the EP is how it obfuscates to reveal stories from Almalbis’s life.
“I’ve always written from life experiences,” she says. Though it took a five-year dry spell to get to “Tigre,” this juncture is an exciting place to be for an artist who feels most at home in creation. “I started writing when I was 14 and this was in Roxas City, Iloilo in the early ‘90s. So there was no music industry then over there… so hindi ko siya inisip na career or anything. Naging refuge ko ‘yung music. Siyempre wala pang Internet, so araw-araw guitar lang ‘yung ginagawa ko sa bahay. So it’s always been that for me: escape or expression or a way to process my feelings siguro.”
And though songwriting is nothing like making a chair, it’s something Almalbis is continuing to work at. “When somebody asks me about milestones or my dreams, it’s weird because I’ve never been like that. I appreciate all the good things that have happened and the support but I’ve always been just like, I’m happy when I’m creating something.”