What’s the story behind Siberia?” I ask.
One of the singles to come out of Ang Bandang Shirley’s upcoming album “Favorite,” Siberia quickly became a hit among fans after the release of its lyric video. It’s what you’d expect from a Shirley song — empathetic, emotionally mature, so precise in its lyricism that projecting your own experiences onto the song becomes part of the project.
“I went to New York for a guy, and then I went home heartbroken,” says Kathy Gener, Shirley’s musically involved manager, who co-wrote Siberia with guitarist Ean Aguila. “Yung last song ko doon sa last album, sobra siyang malungkot, so it was my attempt to write a happy song.” That last song was Acid Reflux, the one with the poignant punch-in-the-gut lyric, “Walang tigil sa buga ng hangin / Nasusugatan na ang dingding.” But Siberia? “It’s also my way of telling myself that I did the right thing.” The right thing being, “Pinili ang sarili; sumaya.” Tweet that line by itself. Thirty hearts, easy.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to use relatability as a starting point, what with Shirley being known as the band that writes the songs that just get you. Ask any fan: listening to Shirley is a therapeutic experience. You can tell by the live sets — the first few chords wash over where you’re standing and the venue becomes a safe space, one conducive to catharsis in the form of sway-dancing and singing like your lungs are responsible for pushing all the sorrow out of your system. Even if you put on their albums at home, it’s extremely easy to take a song and let it attach itself to a specific event or memory, empathize with your plight, and tell you, “There, there, you’re going to be okay.”
That ain’t just some heat-of-the-moment gig revelry happening there. Shirley’s approach to songwriting (love songs, especially) is one that prioritizes emotional nuance. “Everybody falls in love the same way, except there are different circumstances, or there’s a different perspective, and I guess that’s what we want to capture,” explains guitarist Owel Alvero. Take crowd favorites like Di Na Babalik or Nakauwi Na, or the recently released Umaapaw, and it’s easy to see that Shirley isn’t just peddling sweet nothings. “It’s easy to write a generic love song. But then if you’re able to write something that stands out, that is, at its heart, just really cheesy, sappy, lovey-dovey, pero mayroon siyang solid shell of real world experience, parang feeling ko ’yun ’yung ultimate.” Selena Salang, whose vocal work helps characterize Shirley’s signature gentle harmonies, agrees. “We’re very aware (of)what’s trite,” she says. “We love to listen to love songs, too. We know what’s already been said or played before. We don’t want to repeat that.”
That kind of artistic attention to detail is still effused in “Favorite,” which may be Shirley’s tightest album to date. We can credit the record’s polish to bassist Enzo Zulueta, whom the band fondly credits as the technical engineering brains behind the record. But more than that, attribute “Favorite”’s confidence and wisdom to Shirley’s experience: having made their debut with “Themesongs” back in 2008, the band has spent almost a decade developing a dynamic suited to a crew with multiple songwriters. It’s part of what makes the band so darn cool; they’re not just a band but a barkada, a creative project fortified and fuelled by a friendship that has lasted years. Even Enzo, Shirley’s most recent addition, already seems part of the family. “The fact that there are different songwriters, the fact that there are different players in the band you just wanna point out and say, ‘I get to watch that every night,’” Owel shares. Artistically requited love.
At the same time, another thing Shirley does so great is how each song is influenced by each member’s singular experiences. Drummer Zig Rabara jokes that he was single when “Themesongs” came out. Dude’s a dad now. You can’t help but feel that the music Shirley makes comes from a place of maturity and hard work and constant growth. “Favorite” is the result of a band honing a sound they’ve been trying to perfect since like, ever. As Ean says, “We write the things that we write because we want to be better.”
I ask the band if fans have ever come to them saying that their music changed their lives and saved them. They give two stories. There was a girl who gave the band a letter detailing how the band’s music helped her with her depression. In another instance, a guy messaged Shirley saying he wanted to kill himself, and didn’t.
I ask what it’s like to get those kinds of reactions, and according to Owel, one shouldn’t be deluded by messianic complexes. “I think that it becomes sort of a responsibility in a way? Not that we want to be this savior band or whatever,” he clarifies. “But there’s this idea like, if we do our best, maybe we’re helping someone. Even if we’re at a crappy gig — amp’s effing up, something doesn’t sound right — in the middle of it you just try to remember, maybe there’s someone there who’s watching for the first time, and then it’s really like a life-changing moment.”
The band tells me later on that the hard copy of the album will include stickers so you can decorate its plain cover with pictures of the band’s favorite things, as if to say, hey, you’re a part of this too. It’s not just a stroke of marketing genius, but a great way to show what Shirley’s always been doing with their music — welcoming you, taking you in, reminding you that you live in a world of love larger than you can fathom.
And that’s the point of good art, isn’t it? What Shirley’s doing. To make you feel less alone.