Filipina indie songwriter, Lily Gonzales finds her inspiration in Indonesia during a time of COVID

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Lili on Rote watching the sunset as she turns towards womanhood and grows in creativity as an artist. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

IO – It is a commonly accepted fact that Indonesians in general are genetically graced with musical ability including producing some outstanding indie pop and folk bands with a list of names that includes the likes of Sore with their elegant, soothing notes that flow effortlessly into each other and voted amongst the five best Asian indie pop bands in 2019, White Shoes and the Couples Company who shot to fame when their Senandung Maaf (Humming an Apology) was used in the sound track of Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise) starring Nicholas Saputra and Banda Neira’s unforgettable COVID lament Yang Patah Tumbu, Yang Hilang Berganti (Healing the Broken, Replacing the Lost) – just to mention a few.

Lili releases a new single By the Sea, an ode to love and the sea. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

But there’s a new kid on the block: Lili from the Philippines’ The Ransom Collective, who has been in Indonesia waiting out the pandemic since last year and in the process falling in love with Indonesia and writing new music – and she wants to play. On Friday, July 23rd her song By the Sea will be released and in August this year she will be streaming a new album, Sunchild  – very much inspired by Indonesia.

Her full name is Lily Marie Judiel Cenizal Gonzales born on the 2nd of July 1994 in Quezon City, just 9 kilometers southeast of the capital Manilla. Lili comes from a prestigious musical background. Her grandparents were famous screen and music figures in the Philippines after the War. Lili’s grandfather, Josefino Cenizal was foremost known as a composer who was famous for the music he created and directed for films. The American Colonial and Contemporary Traditions in Philippine Music includes him amongst both the pre-war and 1950s Filipino composers for films, mentioning two of his most popular songs, Hindi Kita Malimot (I cannot Forget You) in “Rosa Birhen” which was directed by and starred Cenizal himself and Amihan Sa Bukid (Country Breeze) in Dolorosa.

Lili describes grandpa “Pepe” as he was affectionately known, as a relaxed and easy-going man who joked a lot and was playful and naughty. He liked to pull a naughty face and she remembers how when he travelled with them to see the Great Wall of China at the ripe old age of 90 when people asked him how old he was he decided for fun to add on 9 years as 99 would sound even more impressive. He was already a well-known figure in the Philippine film and music world during the pre-War years as well as in the1950s and 60s. Lili says Pepe was also adventurous. There is an article in the newspaper in 1945 describing how the Japanese offered thousands of pesos for his head after he wrote a victory song about the American landing in Luzon. When he fled Cuenca, Batangas in a car trying to reach Lipa which had just been liberated by the Americans his car was chased by seven Japanese armed with a tommy-gun, rifles and hand grenades. His car ran out of petrol and the Japanese had begun firing at him when fortunately, just then an American patrol detachment came out of the jungle and saved him, killing all seven of the Japanese.

Lili’s famous grandparents Pepe and Olivia Cenizal. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

In 1950 Lili’s grandfather married a beautiful singer named Gloria Pagtakhan Maigue. At the time he was working for Premiere Productions and when prominent filmmaker Cirio H. Santiago met her he invited her to enter the world of acting. Her first film was Palahamak (Harm) and led to her changing her name. Gloria was a true beauty with large dark eyes and tresses that fell to her knees. She also had a very sweet face resembling that of the then popular British-American actress, Olivia de Havilland. So, she took the stage name of Olivia Cenizal. Later, she was to become one of the studio’s top actresses and was twice nominated for the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Award for Best Actress in her films Desperado and Water-lily.

Like Lili, her grandmother also came from a musical family. She was more reserved than her husband but a very loving grandmother and Lili has happy memories of her grandmother tempting her grandchildren to come visit her by offering them the junk food strictly forbidden by Lili’s very health conscious parents.

Piano practice with grandpa Pepe who composed many well-known scores for Filipino films. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

It was her grandfather however, who gave her piano lessons and introduced Lili to the world of music. He also always came to cheer her on whenever she played softball. “I was closest to him,” confides Lili who believes that her grandfather who died in 2015, continues to live on through her by way of the musical genes that he passed on to her. Lili comes from a family of five children who are all musical but it is her older sister Muriel who works with her. They met Kian Ransom, a mixed Filipino-American musician who set up the Filipino indies pop band The Ransom Collective, and became part of his six-member band with Muriel playing the violin and Lili playing the keyboard and singing back-up vocals. They created songs working together and first received public attention when they won first place at Wanderland Music and Arts Festival’s pre-event Wanderband competition in January 2014 and played at Wanderland in 2014. They were signed up by Mustard Music, a sub-label of Universal Records for a year and released I Don’t Care. That same year they independently released their self-titled EP hit singles Fools and Settled, with an enviable 4,661,000 stream.

Lili and her band Lili in action. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

Lili says that they were pretty well-known on the local scene and were one of the first to play indie pop and folk in the Philippines. For readers unfamiliar with indie folk what is meant is not folk music but rather using instruments naturally and not so much depending on effects from the instruments. So, no electric guitars but rather sound that is more organic and natural.

So, how did she end up in Indonesia and on the distant island of Rote, of all places?“Ransom Collective really impacted my life. It was fun performing with bandmates and getting into the local scene and creating with them music people really enjoyed. It gave me experience and there was a network that I would be able to tap into for my solo career later.

Here Lili is playing the guitar but she played the keyboard and sang vocal back-up for The Ransom Collective. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

However, when the pandemic hit the Philippines went into strict lockdown and The Ransom Collectives took a break because we could not do gigs or even meet. My sister Muriel went to study in France and was expecting to work remotely with us and I came to Indonesia expecting to holiday for about a month. In Bali I met Arief Rabik from the Environmental Bamboo Foundation who are creating bamboo villages. As I am very much into sustainability and the environment I did a bamboo course with them to learn more about bamboo. Arief has a resort in Rote and recommended that I visit it. I always like an adventure and had no idea what Rote was like so, I just packed up and went out there with a friend of mine. I thought we would stay for about two weeks so, I only brought my backpack and left my luggage in Bali but then one thing after another happened: at Ramadhan the flights were cancelled, then there were problems travelling because of COVID and actually, I was quite happy being on a beautiful island learning more about bamboo – eventually nine months passed.

Lili riding the waves in Rote, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

One day, I moved to another resort on Rote and went into real holiday mode learning to surf. The beaches there are so pristine, the water so clear and the corals so alive and people are so friendly. I had never lived on my own before and I love nature but had always lived in a city and there I had the chance to live in nature – and surfing is such fun.

One night Arief’s family on Rote organized a bon fire night with another Indonesian-Portuguese family who also have a resort in Rote but it rained so we ended up at Cindy’s eating dinner and then her son Maximillian came in after a long day working on his house and joined us. I was not looking for a relationship especially as I thought the whole situation on Rote was just temporary but flights kept getting cancelled and I ended up spending a lot of time with Maxi who taught me to surf better and he showed me around Rote taking me kayaking in the mangroves and on sailing trips to other islands and we built a cob oven which is a sort of clay oven for Cindy and slowly grew close. I taught him how to play the ukulele but he does not sing. He took such good care of me. He is a great guy… and slowly I fell in love…”

Lili, a flower of Summer, the name of one of her songs in her new album Sunchild, to be released in August. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

All these things of course, inspired Lili’s creativity enormously. One of her favourite songs in her new album, is Sail Away something she had actually written before coming to Indonesia. “It’s a song of empowerment,” Lili confides, “about finding your identity and independence. I wrote it in the Philippines in 2015 imagining this kind of adventure and I ended up doing exactly all that in Rote as if my soul already knew what I wanted. It’s funny because the song ended up resonating with me so much years after I wrote it.”

Lili’s upcoming album Sunchild is a selection of catchy melodies using a diverse set of instruments to create the sound she wants – and it is a happy, joyful sound celebrating her new found self. Some of the songs in it were begun years ago before Lili went to Indonesia. “They were only partly finished because I did not know the words that would fit and now years later after so many experiences in Indonesia when I return to the music I have the words.”

Now she has the words because her spirit has grown. Lili is a girl who has grown into womanhood and thereby also developed as a songwriter. She has a gentle soprano voice that gently lulls the listener. In Sail Away she sings that she is: “off to the horizon, on to the rising sun” but reassures her listeners to be patient because, “I’ll be back from the sea, a better me. Just wait and see…”

Lili in Indonesia writing and singing about island life. Photo courtesy of Lily Gonzales.

Lili wants to make her base in Asia dividing her time between the Philippines and Indonesia because she sees them as home and feels they provide the best opportunity for her growth as a composer and musician. So, she intends to learn Indonesian in which she recognizes so many Tagalog words and also looks forward to meeting Indonesian indie pop musicians. Two of her favourites are The Mentawais who surf Java and whose beach vibe music resonates with her own, and the other is singer/composer Vira Talisa whose jazz style with indie vibes appeals very much to Lili. “She’s my age and also an artist who began in a band but I admire her because she began making solo music far earlier than I did and since she writes in English I can understand her lyrics.”

From Lili’s coming new album Sunchild, her favourite song By the Sea (to be released on Friday) is one she composed on Rote and in which her playful, dulcet tones drip islands and sunshine – unabashedly happy in an ode to love by the sea led by a ukulele… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

For more information about Lili’s new releases checkout: www.just-lili.com