THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH Taufik Batisah

Taufik Batisah reaches out to Malaysia

Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011, with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994 (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011, with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994 (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011, with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 (above) and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011, with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 (above) and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011 (above), with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
Taufik Batisah with American music producer Quincy Jones in 2011 (above), with older brother Mustaffa in 1986 and with mother Normainah Bachok in 1994. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAUFIK BATISAH
-- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
-- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

The first Singapore Idol winner hopes to crack the Malay music market there with his new album

A decade after winning Singapore Idol, singer-songwriter Taufik Batisah's music career is at the crossroads.

The 33-year-old may be the biggest name in the Malay music scene here, but he has yet to crack the much larger Malay music market in Malaysia. Despite numerous radio hits and music awards, he has not become a household name there like Singapore- born artists Ramli Sarip and M. Nasir.

But that could change with his fifth and newest album. Taufik hopes that Fique, which contains a mix of ballads that he is best known for, as well as hip-hop and R&B sounds, will be his passport to fame and fortune in Malaysia.

Fique, named after the stage monicker he went by in the hip-hop scene here before his Idol days, comes six years after his last full-length release.

He says: "My previous album wasn't the strongest. We tried to promote it in Malaysia but there weren't any stand-out songs. So I tried to understand why and I realised, "you got to work on your songwriting and arrangements, and try to improve".

"If you ask me what is my achievement level, I'd say it's 50 per cent. So I tell myself to keep working towards 100 per cent."

Speaking to Life! at his record label Hype Records' studio where he does many recordings, the 1.8m-tall singer is gregarious and in a good mood.

He is clearly excited about his latest release, playing several choice tunes over the speakers and adding that the mainstream-sounding ballads are included to help sell the album while the snazzier tunes were him letting his creativity run wild.

The 12 self- composed original tracks, as well as a cover of a song by his late uncle A. Ramlie, on the new album were culled from "hundreds of songs" he came up with since the release of 2008's Suria Hatiku (Voice Of My Heart).

In between the two albums, the singer with the trademark lush eyelashes released singles, including Sky's The Limit, an English duet with singer- actress Rui En which topped local radio station 987FM's charts in 2012, and a duet with Indonesia singer Rossa, Aku Bersahaja, which won Best Song Collaboration at Malay awards show Anugerah Planet Muzik in the same year.

He also made his live acting debut in Dick Lee's Fried Rice Paradise - The Musical in 2010 and recorded a 2011 Hari Raya album, Kenangan Di Hari Raya, with second Singapore Idol winner Hady Mirza.

The president of Perkamus, the association of Malay singers, composers and professional musicians, Mr Yusnor Ef, says Taufik can become a marquee name in Malaysia. The 77-year-old Cultural Medallion recipient adds: "Taufik has a good singing voice, a good sense of melody and he can write really good songs. But in the Malaysia market, just as anywhere else, talent alone will not guarantee success. He has to find the right opportunities, do more shows and connect with the industry and media there."

Taufik, a Singapore Polytechnic graduate, is not unknown in Malaysia. Two of his songs, Sesuatu Janji and Aku Bersahaja, have charted in radio stations there.

Some of his songs have been used as soundtracks for Malaysian TV serials and he has sung at events such as the Gempak Astro Revo Concert in Johor Baru alongside Malaysian stars such as Amy Search and Malaysian Idol Jaclyn Victor. That event drew a crowd of 60,000.

His 2005 debut album, Blessings, sold 36,000 copies and was the first local English album in a decade to go double platinum here, but it is in the Malay music scene that he has made his mark.

He has 11 Anugerah Planet Muzik awards and he scored endorsement deals with brands such as convenience store chain 7-11 and telecommunications company StarHub. His wholesome appeal has seen him involved in campaigns such as the Government's recent Pioneer Generation Package scheme.

When he launched his new album at Woodlands mall Causeway Point two Sundays ago, he stayed back three hours after his performance to sign autographs and take pictures with fans, who call themselves Fiknatics.

His greatest appeal, says long-time fan Sharifah Hassan, who is in her 30s and works in the hotel industry, is his affable personality. She says: "He is always engaging his fans through his songs, shows and on social media with constant updates. He never rejects a fan's request for a quick selfie before or after shows, or when you bump into him in public."

Indeed, Taufik's brother, Mustaffa Batisah, 34, a housing agent, says his family has learnt to put up with having the singer accede to fans' requests for pictures or autographs "without fail", whenever they go out in public together.

Taufik takes charge of his social media accounts himself. His Facebook page has 141,700 likes, his Instagram (taufikbatisah) has 66,000 followers and Twitter account has close to 69,000 followers.

A short video in which he asked his fans "Awak kat mana?" (Where are you?) recently went viral and became the inspiration of the first single, #awakkatmane, off his new album.

He is reticent when asked if he is in a serious relationship and would only say that he has a special friend that he has known for a while now. Marriage, he says, is not on the cards anytime soon.

"When the time is right, I'll announce it. But for now, I don't have plans and the focus is to stabilise my career," he adds.

The youngest of three sons, he lives with his mother, Normainah Bachok, a former cleaner who is retired, in an HDB apartment in the west of Singapore.

Singapore Idol fans know how much of a mummy's boy he is. After being crowned the winner at the 2004 competition, he turned to the camera and said on live television: "Sayang, Mak" (I love you, Mum) before blowing her a kiss.

One of the rooms in the flat, which he bought with his music earnings, has been converted into a studio, complete with a piano and other instruments. "The songwriting never stops and inspiration can come anytime, so I can be working here up till 4 to 5am,"he says.

The four-bedroom flat is a step up from the two-room HDB flat he, his mother and his two older brothers lived in after his parents divorced when he was 13.

He says he took the change in his family circumstances badly."I was immature and couldn't look at the bigger picture. I felt that moving from a four-room flat to a two-room flat was negative," he says.

"But it was a positive thing because I still had my brothers and mum. We had a roof over our heads and we were not struggling to put food on the table. It taught me to appreciate what I have now."

His two older brothers are married and live with their own families.

He still has a good relationship with his father, who runs an interior design business and lives in Johor Baru with his second wife and children. Taufik says: "He is a wonderful father. He never abandoned us, he was always there for us and provided for our family. My dad, his wife, my two half-brothers in JB, my mum and my brothers, we are all great as a unit."

Singing runs in his family - his mother's sister is veteran Malay singer Maria Bachok, who duets with him on the only cover in his new album, Kenangan Mengusik Jiwa, a song made popular by her late former husband, veteran singer A. Ramlie.

But it was the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who was instrumental in getting Taufik into singing.

In his later school years at Boon Lay Primary School, Taufik became a Jackson fan and put on mock concerts in his living room, singing Jacko's hits and mimicking his dressing and dance moves.

He later got into hip-hop after discovering music by acts such as Public Enemy, Snow, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Wreckx-n-Effect.

When he became popular in Jurong Secondary School after performing at a Teacher's Day concert, he realised that music could open doors for him.

His interests then included zipping around on a skateboard and later, riding a scrambler motorcycle, which he bought with his earnings from delivering pizza.

It was at Singapore Polytechnic, where he studied marine engineering, that he became serious about music. He formed hip-hop/R&B duo Bonafide together with his primary and secondary schoolmate Mark Subramaniam, better known now by his stage name Mark Bonafide. The duo became a familiar name in the local independent hip-hop scene.

Winning the inaugural season of Singapore Idol while he was still doing national service changed everything for Taufik. He became a household name and decided to ditch his marine engineering studies to embark on a full-time career as a singer after national service.

He credits Hype Records' artist management arm, ArtisteNetworks, for helping him "deal with all the craziness". He says: "I was young and oblivious to things around me. They held my hand, spoonfed me and I was absorbing as much as I can."

Over time, he learnt that his most loved songs were ballads, especially the ones sung in Malay. So he brushed up on his Malay - using a physical kamus (Malay dictionary) and later, online translation and thesaurus sites - to help him write Malay lyrics, and also studied Chinese and Korean ballads to help with his song compositions. He says: "I did research on the different types of ballads.

"I like Korean and Chinese ballad melodies. They have distinctive structures and chords but I realised that they have many similarities with Malay and Indonesian ballads. They like to drop from major to minor a lot, which is what I love."

Taufik was not always so confident on and off stage, says Subramaniam, 35, one of his oldest friends and music partners. "I've seen him grow from a shy teenager trying to find his way to a better life to become a confident man who taught himself how to produce, record and mix songs. He works really hard at whatever he puts his mind to."

Taufik's boss, Hype Records head Ken Lim - the acerbic judge on Singapore Idol - has seen his charge grow into someone with an eye on the big picture, an artist who sees beyond the fame that comes along with a successful music career.

Lim says: "To be someone who prevails in the music business is not based on the number of Facebook likes or solely gauged by cosmetic popularity but rather, the appetite and ability to improve consistently. Those are important qualities that Taufik weighs on."

Singapore Idol may have launched his music career, but it has not been the biggest highlight, says Taufik. His most unforgettable moment was when he sang for Jackson's close collaborator, music producer Quincy Jones, who was in Singapore in 2011 on a business trip.

Jones had asked to meet local musicians and Taufik was one of those invited. Taufik says: "When I met him, he was a very chill guy. He asked, "Why don't you sing a song?" and I was like, "This is the guy who defined Michael Jackson's career, one of the best songwriters and composers of all time". So I went to the pianist and said 'Can you play Me And Mrs Jones?'" That was one of the songs Taufik had sung in the finals of Singapore Idol.

"I sang like it was the last performance of my life. He said, "Man, some people have it, some people can sing but you got something. Keep doing what you're doing". And I was like, 'Yeah!'"

Taufik is already making plans for a post-singing career. He is keen to take on more acting roles - he recently completed filming his first TV role as a doctor in Suria telemovie Demi Adriana.

In the fickle world of show business, he is aware that he may not always enjoy success as a singer. "I choose to write and arrange my own music to prepare myself for the eventuality that my time as a performer on stage will end.

"And when that happens, I want to be writing songs, producing for other people. That's what I want to do eventually."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg

Fique is available at all CD-Rama outlets.