With her new EP ‘Tigre,’ Barbie Almalbis finds her way back to her roots

With her new EP ‘Tigre,’ Barbie Almalbis finds her way back to her roots

“‘Yung mga pinagdadaanan ko, nakatago sila in song form.”

Photos by Kitkat Pajaro

 

I’m a few minutes into my interview with Barbie Almalbis when her cat, a scrunchy-faced white fluffball by the name of Vernie, makes a run for it and exits the house through the open door. In the chaos that ensues, Barbie excuses herself to help collect the cat, saying, “She’s outside? Baka mag-adventure.” 

“Careful,” she later calls to whomever has finally caught the runaway pet. “She might scratch you.” 

It’s a fitting distraction, since we’re talking about “Tigre,” the EP Barbie has recently released, whose title track happens to be about Vernie herself. “It’s a song about loving a mean person,” she laughs. “Like unrequited love.” She co-wrote Tigre, the song, with her husband, visual artist Martin Honasan. “We started writing songs together just this year after 13 years (of marriage),” she recalls. “I had my guitar, I had this chord progression going, and then he suggested (we write about Vernie).”

Named after the singer Vernie Varga, Vernie is Barbie’s first real pet, adopted from her sister-in-law only half a year ago. “Sa umpisa parang hindi pa namin mahanap yung (timpla) niya,” she says of her cat. “Sometimes she’d be very sweet, and then sometimes she’d just randomly scratch you or bite you, so we didn’t know how to care for her at first.” 

Tigre: Barbie’s cat Vernie is the inspiration behind the EP’s title track.

“Tigre” marks the first time Barbie is releasing new material in the five years that have passed since her last full-length album, “My New Heart.” Recorded in just two days at Tower of Doom — her last two releases have been home recordings — the EP came together as a series of collaborations, which the singer-songwriter had learned to embrace from days spent singing worship in church. “I used to write mostly on my own,” she muses.

The resulting songs are the kind that whirl in your ears and tug at your heartstrings, by turns moody and uplifting, with spirited guitars and vibrant vocals — the kind that you immediately feel as though you were always meant to hear. There’s Ghost, for instance, which Barbie describes as being about her moral faith journey. “As the song progresses it talks about getting to know God in different phases in my life,” she says.

 

“I’ve been digging and still trying to write but I wasn’t really able to write a lot. The last few years, parang medyo journey siya into finding that creativity again.”

 

And then there’s the lead single, Cover, co-written with her friend Michelle Lim-Rivera as a surprise to the latter’s husband (and Barbie’s keyboardist) Nikko Rivera on their wedding. “We couldn’t talk about it,” Barbie recalls. “Secret siya for like a month.”

“No, six months!” Lim-Rivera, sitting right across from us, interjects. “We wrote it January pa.”

“No way,” Barbie says. “Really? Oh, wow.” Turning to me, she adds, “We had a secret thread and everything. We had to make fake lyrics for him! Kasi gusto namin na part siya ng kanta. He was part of arranging the song, recording it, and everything. Hindi niya alam tungkol sa kanya.”

The five-year gap between albums wasn’t a conscious decision for Barbie. Through it, she says, “I’ve been digging and still trying to write but I wasn’t really able to write a lot. The last few years, parang medyo journey siya into finding that creativity again.”

Doing the collaborations, she adds, has helped a lot. “At the same time, me and Martin really talked about art, the artistic process, and na-inspire din ako sa mga maraming artist ngayon na parang sobrang free,” she says. “The audience is very open to anything, right? So that inspired me also to go back to writing for its own sake. Not thinking, not being weighed down by anything. That’s my mindset while writing new songs lately.”

 

“When I was young, I just wrote songs because it was fun. It’s finding my way back to that unburdening process. It really set me free to make something that I’m very happy working on.” 

 

It’s allowed her to open herself up to experimenting creatively in a way that she hasn’t entertained in quite a while. This time, there’s little to no pressure. “Before this became a job, writing and music have always been a part of my life since high school,” she recalls. “I didn’t know that I was going to do it this way or as a career. Writing, guitar, those were hobbies.”

I ask her if gaining an audience changed the way she made music. “Of course! Even if you don’t want to,” she says, “somehow there’s always that difference.” Criticism is important and helps with growth, she adds, “Pero human ka, eh. Pumapasok din siya sa mind mo, heart mo, eh. You have to fight for that integrity, that you’re going to be continuing to make art for the right reasons.”

Ultimately, “Tigre” has been a process of finding her way back to her roots. “Going back to a time when a song didn’t have to be anything, you know?” she clarifies. “Like, when I was young, I just wrote songs because it was fun. It’s finding my way back to that unburdening process. It really set me free to make something that I’m very happy working on.”

“Being able to find, to retain that sandbox,” she goes on, “that place where pwede kang gumawa ng kahit ano. That’s what excites me.”

“Did it take you long to find that?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she responds. “I’ve found that music is a way that I can actually reveal what’s in my heart — things I wouldn’t (say out loud). If you look at my songs from the beginning hanggang ngayon, ang dami kong mga confessions dun.” Laughing, she quips, “Hindi ko sinasabi na tungkol sa akin talaga ‘yun.”

“As in, lahat. Andun lahat,” she goes on in earnest. “‘Yung mga pinagdadaanan ko, nakatago sila in song form. I’ve always felt that in songwriting I have to be vulnerable and be able to share what’s really inside. So hindi na ako nagtatago.”

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