When writing about Athia Haron; when trying to encapsulate in writing the narrative that led to the 24-year-old Malaysian singer-songwriter’s eponymous debut album, writers usually find themselves unsure as to where to begin.
Do we begin with her first piano recitals? Does her decent repertoire of live performances at corporate events hint at greater and greater exposure?
Do we begin with her first foray into the media consciousness, as a plucky 14-year-old winning medals for Fencing at the Malaysian U-15, U-17 and U-19 National levels? Did her standing as Malaysia’s best junior fencer of her time put her in good stead for the glare of the entertainment industry?
I say neither. We begin now, with the woman she is at the time of writing. Some might argue that the past is essential in shaping the present, but I say nothing shows you the present like, well, the present.
Athia is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, researching bio-inspired Flight Control. Her research marries the sacrosanct dogma of nature’s machinations with the loftiest of human ambitions – flight – experimenting with the former to advance the latter. It’s a symbiotic dichotomy, and one you should keep in mind when considering Athia’s music.
Take, for example, Twist Sendiri, an homage to Malay 60s pop standards as popularized by the likes of P. Ramlee and Saloma. Here, Athia confidently steps into the past, into much older musical sensibilities, and confidently leaves her mark on it. It is not an experimental piece by a 24-year-old trying to create something for #ThrowbackThursday. It is the work of a musician unstuck in time and genre, whose reverence is for music in its entirety, and not its many trends and iterations over the years.
My favourite track in the album is Little Me. This is Athia at her most vulnerable. It’s lyrically raw, delicately toeing the space between paean, ballad and lament, and encapsulating everything you love and hate in a relationship with your parent, or (if you’re a parent) your child. The song was co-written with Athia’s sister Dr. Dhania Haron, making this a deeply personal one for the artiste – and it shows.
The experimentation with music continues with When I Am With You. It’s a folksy, upbeat number. And while it’s a chance for Athia to have a complete emotional range in her album, it also shows the multitude of influences that go into her music.
The strongest song in the album, however, has to be Sampai Hati. Backed with fantastic work by the great Dato’ Mokhzani, Malaysia’s piano extraordinaire, Sampai Hati is a symbol for Athia’s rapidly burgeoning career. The song takes musical cues from the standards established in Malaysian pop, but layered with the wisdom of a young woman raised by globalized sensibilities.
Lyrically, the song tells the story of a girl whose lover underestimates her intelligence as he tries to weasel his way out of getting caught for cheating. “I speak English, you penipu (liar),” she declares, self-assured, unperturbed, powerful.
Similarly, I don’t think the music world should underestimate Athia Haron. This album was cut in a span of under a month, when Athia was taking a break from her doctoral research. Imagine what she can achieve with time, and space for creative expression.
The Renaissance is coming, and Athia Haron might just lead the way.