‘I enjoy every bit of the struggle’: Local band Shirly Temple’s journey navigating Singapore’s music scene
The musicians encourage Singaporeans to offer more support to local creatives.
Displayed along a flight of stairs is a prized collection of acoustic, bass and electric guitars, ranging in size and colour. Fluorescent lights illuminate the place and the deep bass of the latest shoegaze tunes reverberate through the speakers.
The stairs lead to a recording and rehearsal room, as well as an outdoor balcony overlooking a view of Yishun’s industrial areas. Named Cocoon by Rockarolla, the music studio serves as an outlet for musicians to hone their craft.
This includes local alternative-pop quintet Shirly Temple, who visits the studio weekly to work on musical projects.
Sat upright with his legs crossed on the balcony’s sofa, the frontman of the band introduces himself as Abdul Malik. He sported a collared button-up and dress pants, wearing glasses with tinted yellow frames – a sight that one would be familiar with if they scrolled through the band’s Instagram page.
The 30-year-old describes their sound as modern, with some influences dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Frank Sinatra, P. Ramlee and Julian Casablancas are a few of the globally renowned musicians that Shirly Temple’s music takes after.
“I guess it’s like a rojak of inspiration, and I listen to a lot of Bollywood songs as well. I think in one way or another, they have musical influences on us,” he says.
Guitarists Elza Cheok and Hailrul Hanafiah (Didi), bassist Muhammad Afi (Epi), and drummer Daniel Shao complete the rest of the lineup.
Some of the members met through mutual friends, while others were fans of Shirly Temple in their earlier days and were eventually offered instrumental roles in the band. Malik, despite being the only original member standing, firmly believes that this is the “best lineup for Shirly Temple”.
The band has enjoyed their most promising year yet, making appearances in multiple events including Esplanade’s Rocking the Region 2023. Earlier in March, they opened for United States indie band Summer Salt’s Singapore concert which was held at *SCAPE.
Not known to everyone, working behind the scenes to coordinate these gigs is 27-year-old Haikal Fadzil – Shirly Temple’s manager of four years and counting.
As a diploma graduate of the Arts Management programme at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and longtime friends with frontman Malik, Haikal was given a shot at handling the band’s social media, bookings and logistics.
Besides his educational background, it was also Haikal’s innate love for music that gave him some confidence to rise up to the task.
As for frontman Malik, he started to tap into his creative side upon realising that he had taken a strong interest in singing around 13 years ago. He perused videos of Frank Sinatra on YouTube and attempted to mimic the rich baritone that composed his discography.
According to him, however, he was restricted from setting foot into a music career as his family held the belief that “music couldn’t bring (him) anywhere”.
Regardless, he sought out other ways to do so. Malik found the chance to start learning chords on the guitar through casual gatherings with friends who happened to have a guitar on hand. As he grew familiar with the instrument, he began to write his own music – which led to the creation of Shirly Temple.
But the challenges did not stop there. Over time, priorities shifted for every band member as they transitioned from adolescence to adulthood.
It became increasingly harder for the band to meet for their usual jamming sessions as they entered the workforce. They had also needed to fork out money from their own pockets to fund professionally produced music projects as they longed to achieve international acclaim.
When inquired about the cost to produce a full-length album, Shirly Temple’s manager Haikal winced as he is familiar with how hefty production costs can be.
“Off the top of my head, I would say 15 thousand (dollars). It would be a comfortable amount to record, for marketing, merchandise, social media marketing and equipment,” says Haikal.
Over the past few years, they had managed to pool a sum of money towards a band fund from previous gigs and sponsorships. To further aid themselves with funding, the band has recently applied for the Media Talent Progression Programme by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.
They confessed that they were not aware of the option to request for grants for a long time, and wished for these avenues to gain greater visibility among creatives in Singapore.
Apart from financial constraints, Malik faces internal conflicts when it comes to creative endeavours. As the songwriter of the band, he experiences bouts of writers’ block. Every so often, he also gets a feeling that the material he writes is “never good enough”.
However, the frontman seems to find delight in the face of these adversities. Malik views every challenge as an opportunity to gather the valued opinions of the other band members and close confidantes to find a solution.
“I struggle, but I enjoy every bit of the struggle,” he quips.
Additionally, their main source of motivation is derived from the influx of messages they receive from their supporters on social media.
Malik recounts the time when a fan expressed how Shirly Temple’s music kept them going amidst their suicidal thoughts, which incited an epiphany that their work had actually started to resonate with listeners.
“When we received (these messages), we felt like we were doing something right for once. That’s when we told each other, ‘You know what? Let’s give it a shot.’”
Although the dream of most musicians is to reach worldwide recognition, the thought of pursuing music full-time is something that weighs heavily in Malik’s head as multiple factors come into play.
“We believe that change is constant. You always have to look back and (assess) how it is now, how everyone is with each other. Everyone has their own commitments, so to leave it behind and pursue (our goals), there are a lot of things you have to think about,” he reasons.
His reservations toward the band’s differing priorities do not make him completely closed off to the idea of being full-time musicians. Rather, it is the perception that Shirly Temple lacks support within Singapore’s music community and from local consumers.
Based on personal experiences, Haikal explains that there is not only a sense of exclusivity among the local music scene, but also a stigma associated with locally-produced music.
This is exemplified by the way many Singaporean consumers fork out hundreds of dollars to catch their favourite international acts live, but may hesitate to set aside a small sum of money to support an obscure home-grown artist who plays similar genres of music.
The band also rues the loss of music publication BigO, who announced its closure earlier in August. Based in Singapore, the independent magazine was known for spotlighting up-and-coming musicians in the region.
According to a Straits Times article, Stephen Tan – co-editor of BigO – had remarked that the community is “probably more fractured than it ever was”.
Haikal shared: “You could do all the right things – marketing yourself, distributing your music everywhere. But if your own people do not support you, that’s very hard. And I think that’s the saddest part too.”
Reflecting on the current situation of the local music scene, Haikal suggests that the music community should offer a helping hand to one another.
This could come in the form of recommending newer artists to play for a gig that would be best suited for them when the opportunity arises. He reasons that it would give them a chance to “build their repertoire” as a performer.
The band also urges consumers to extend their support to local talents by streaming and sharing their music, buying merchandise and attending their live shows.
“Because if we don’t change the mindset of the locals, then how are we supposed to penetrate the international music scene?”
Moving forward, Shirly Temple’s short-term goals include playing at bigger music festivals and eventually getting signed to a record label.
When asked about long-term goals, Malik assertively declares his refusal to divulge them. As a highly superstitious individual, he fears that saying it out loud would jinx them.
“I guess I can tell you all the other dreams – I want to play for a bigger festival, I want to give back to society. I just want to make people happy, to be honest with you. But I have an ultimate goal that I unfortunately cannot say. Until I achieve it, maybe we can come back to this question again,” he jests.