In Person: Sheila Majid
THEY say life begins at 40. Maybe.
And maybe that’s something that local jazz queen Sheila Majid is looking forward to.
She’s 39 this year, happily married to Acis (former member of 80s rock band Gersang), is five months pregnant and has a new album out.
“I want to be like Barbra Streisand. Come out with an album when I want to and hold a show when I feel like it.”
Hmm… Looks like everything has been planned out.
Sheila, it seems, is clearing everything out of the way to start afresh in a year’s time.
Now wait a minute. Is Sheila retiring? Are you kidding?
After all, what makes her taller than a building (at four feet eleven and a half though), and solid as a rock, is her music.
So giving up what she loves doing the most would be the last thing on her mind.
Settling down would be the more appropriate word here.
“To be honest, nowadays, whenever I put out an album, it’s not to compete or to prove anything to anyone. It’s more about artistic and critical satisfaction rather than commercial values. And of course, it’s a continuation of what I have been doing.
“My fans have been longing for a new album from me, so I would describe Cinta Kita as an album about the love story between my fans and I,” she said of her latest and seventh album, during a recent conversation.
The album was released in Indonesia last December before it finally hit the record shelves here last April.
“Warner Music Indonesia offered to produce it. So, they obviously have the right to release it in Indonesia first,” she explained.
Clad in white cotton maternal blouse, Sheila looked relaxed and jovial that evening.
Throughout the conversation, she laughed, cracked jokes and at times addressed herself as `aku’ – a sign that one is feeling comfortable with the third party.
That automatically revealed one of the secrets on how to get along well with her – keep it strictly to the music.
There’s one catch though: One has to be very careful when discussing music with her because Sheila’s got taste. A good taste to be more precise and she wouldn’t give anything just to compromise it.
Just like when she said no when she was asked to record a pop album back when she was discovered in 1982.
“I’m not saying that the type of music was bad at that time. It was just not my taste. If it’s not your cup of tea, why should you force yourself to do something that you don’t feel for?” Sheila said. When it comes to quality, Sheila’s quality control is as strict as it can get.
She once rejected a song by Diane Warren (yup, the one who wrote hit songs for Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston, to name a few) simply because it didn’t suit her style.
“I think the song she gave me was a reject and I was not going to put the song on my album just to have her name there,” she said.
According to legend, she even had a fight with Richard Marx, when the latter was here sometime back. And arguably, because of her strict quality control Sheila has a resume that is, well, taller than a building.
At 21, she broke into the Japanese, Indonesian and Singaporean market with her second album Emosi.
Her fourth album, Legenda (released in 1990) is now regarded as one of the best albums ever released by a Malaysian artiste.
In 1996, she became the first Malaysian artiste to hold a meet-the-fans session at Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus, London and Ratu, her fifth album also became the first Malay album to be sold there.
The icing on the cake would be when she held a sell-out performance at Ronnie Scotts (regarded as the jazz musicians’ Mecca) in London.
With such success, even the most humble of artistes would be on cloud nine, but for Sheila, those are just events like any other day. She knows where she stands and she’s not kidding herself about it.
“You see, my market is very niche and my followers are not the masses. If you talk about album sales, there’s no way I can compete with Siti Nurhaliza. Let’s face it. That’s the reality,” she said.
Born on Jan 3, 1965, Sheila grew up with Motown songs by the likes of Nancy Wilson, Regina Belle, Randy Crawford, Stephanie Mills and Lisa Fisher. The artiste that inspired her the most, however, was Vina Panduwinata (Indonesia’s jazz queen).
Sheila was such a huge fan that her debut album in 1985, Dimensi Baru, was modelled after the Vina’s efforts.
The effort was nothing revolutionary but it was definitely ballsy, challenging the pop-dominated music scene back then.
Thanks to the `non-commercial’ nature of the album, not a single recording company was interested to release the album, except for a small independent label called Titra Records.
“For me, at that time, it was more like a fun jam session rather than working on an album. I had no expectations at all. I didn’t even know when the album was released!” she said with a big laugh.
“I only found out that my album was released when the owner of Titra Records came over to my place and said, `eh! Nak kaset tak?’. When he opened his car boot, there were stacks of my album filling up the whole boot.
“It was so funny. Even the picture used on the album cover was taken from a magazine shoot. Anyway, what mattered to me then was, `wah! My album is ready!’ I didn’t really think much about sales or whatever,” she said.
The `non-commercial’ Dimensi Baru turned out to be a success. Songs like Pengemis Muda, Dia and Gerimis Semalam became hits. When Titra Records didn’t have the funds to print more copies of Dimensi Baru to meet the market demands, Sheila’s contract was sold to EMI.
“That was the turning point where I felt that, `Eh! This is serious business man! No more main main anymore,'” she laughed.
Sheila’s second album, Emosi was released the following year and like Dimensi Baru, it was a hit. It was way more successful that its predecessor.
The album’s first song, Sinaran (written by the then very young Azlan Abu Hassan), catapulted Sheila to international stardom when it became a huge hit in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore. The song also won her the Indonesian BASF Award for Best Female Artiste (R&B) in 1987. Sheila was the first non-Indonesian artiste to win it. A true feat for someone whose music is not `market-driven’.
“Initially, people said my music won’t sell. But after Dimensi Baru and Emosi, I realised that it was a matter of taste. There’s no good or bad music. It’s either you like it or you don’t,” she said.
When asked about the success factor for both Dimensi Baru and Emosi, Sheila’s answer was rather modest.
“Maybe, it was different. And maybe it came out during the transition period when Malaysians were more open to progressive music.”
But look closer – apart from her vocal styling – the other unique thing that probably contributed to the success of her first two albums and later works is the fact that Sheila chooses the songs she likes regardless who the composers are. In short, she calls the shots.
“I’m very open. Every time I’m working on an album I would ask for songs from everyone. If I like, I’ll take it. Of course, I must be able to carry the song-lah. I’ve never been a person who’d get songs from other people simply because they’re famous,” she said.
In 1988, her third album, Warna was released. Apart from scoring more hits with songs like Warna, Gemilang, Bahagia and Memori, the album had something that would become the seed of Legenda – her cover version of the late Puan Seri Saloma’s Jelingan Manja.
“How Jelingan Manja came about? I did a performance during Festival Filem Malaysia and was asked to sing that song. After that show, we realised that such styling was suitable for my vocal delivery. That’s when we decided to record the song and included it in Warna – just to test market and see how the audience reacts to it.
“Apparently people liked it. That’s when we decided to go with the idea of something like a tribute to the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee,” she revealed.
When Legenda was released two years later, it took everyone by surprise. In an industry where creativity is so rare, Legenda became more than a hit album – it became legendary. Almost everything on the album is perfect – from the arrangement to the technical side.
“We have P. Ramlee to thank for that. I think the album was so successful because people were already familiar with the songs and when we made it more current, it became more appealing,” Sheila said.
Legenda‘s success was also due to its attention to detail.
“We had a lot of songs to choose from but at the same time we had to be careful in choosing the songs to work on. We had to go through a trial and error process. We would programme a demo arrangement for me to try out first. We’d get the real musicians only when a song worked well.
“Nowadays, the real musicians have been replaced by computers,” she sighed.
“Music is like fine art. You can never touch a person’s feelings with computers. With live music, you can actually hear the dynamics. And when the listeners hear it, there’s no need for them to watch the musicians play. You can capture the mood. That’s music – which we’re slowly losing.
“If you listen to the music these days, you’ll definitely forget about it. It doesn’t touch you like the way it used to. Music is supposed to make you cry, laugh and more. Can you feel that nowadays?”
“That’s why when I was working on Cinta Kita, I told the producers in Indonesia not to rush it. Yes, we can programme some of the sounds but we must come back to what music is all about. I need live musicians to play. Naik bulu roma aku (I had goosebumps) just talking about this.”
Sheila took a long break from singing to concentrate on her family (she was married to her long time producer Roslan Aziz in 1989) after year-long promotional activities for Legenda.
“At that time Roslan started Roslan Aziz Production and he was building up artistes under his wings. Because of that, I decided to take a break. I wasn’t inactive though. I had two major releases actually – Khaleeda and Megat (laughs). Khaleeda was born in 1991 and Megat was born in 1994,” joked Sheila.
When she released her fifth album, Ratu, in 1996, the album received only lukewarm response.
Many thought that Sheila has lost her commercial appeal. And many have forgotten that Sheila was never a `commercial artist’.
“A lot of people thought it was too progressive. We thought people were ready. Unfortunately, people here were not ready for that kind of album,” she said.
“Our listeners nowadays, their music appreciation is… I’m sorry to say this, entah apa-apa entah (god knows what they listen to now). And here we are trying to educate them,” she said.
“Then again, look at what our radio stations are dishing out? If you play `certain songs’ on the radio everyday, day in day out and shove it down people’s throats, you would be surprised that you’re singing it too,” she smirked.
“Music is not like what it used to be in the `70s and `80s. At the end of the day, people like me who love music, just have to move on. You can’t fight all these things. Thank God I’m so lucky to have a rather good following who enjoy my music. And they are loyal too. Tu yang best sangat that I have my fan base. That’s something I’m grateful about.”
“They’ve been there – throughout my trying times (Sheila found herself in the midst of controversy when her divorce from Roslan had to be settled in court in the late `90s), the bad Press, and the many who said that I was a bad woman.
“Come on lah! With my face, aku nak buat jahat kat mana (how am I supposed to do bad things)? Masuk lubang tikus pun they’d say `Eh! Sheila Majid, kau buat apa dalam lubang ni?’ My fans have always been there. They watched me grow up, from being a young girl to an adult; got married; had children, and yes, got divorced.
“I grew up in front of the public’s eyes. That’s how the loyalty was developed. And that’s what kept me going.”
Because of all the drama, it took her another three years before she would release her sixth studio album Ku Mohon.
“My priority then was to get my life back together. That is very important. To ensure that my life is back on track and my children are well-adjusted. There’s no point going out there and singing when my life is disorganised. To sing, one needs the right mood. You can’t be singing a happy song when you’re feeling down,” Sheila said.
Described as an album of hope and a prayer for strength, Ku Mohon became some sort of a comeback album for Sheila. The album went on to bag four awards at AIM 2000 – Best Pop Album, Best Song, Best Music Arrangement and Best Album Cover.
Next year, apart from turning 40, Sheila will be celebrating her 20th anniversary in the music industry.
What does she really think of the current scenario?
“There are good things and not so good stuff. The good thing is I can see that we have a lot of talents. That day I was at Planet Hollywood and I saw Misha and Dayang perform, my heart just swelled. We have such good talents. But the thing is, we don’t have the proper guidance, management and artistes’ development. There are a lot of people out there who are just in it to make money.”
“Look at Akademi Fantasia for instance. Great, we have that talent show and all that. But what’s next for them? What happens to the promises? Yes, the entertainment industry is, after all, a money-making venture but how could it flourish? We have so many con men and we have so many people who want to become singers,” she commented.
“This is my honest opinion. I’m so sorry if anyone is going to get offended but this is happening now!”
* Originally published in The Malay Mail on June 12, 2004
Warner Music Malaysia recently released a limited edition CD boxset, comprising all her eight hit albums, including three long out of print CDs – Dimensi Baru, Emosi and Warna.