Alextbh: “Some people have paintings to serve as reminders, or objects; we have, like, songs.”
We talked with Malaysian queer singer-songwriter, Alextbh, about his life under the social media radar, his comeback, and his shift towards pop music with “It’s All Good.”
Words by Whiteboard Journal
Words: Shadia Kansha
Photo: Sam Attwood
Best known for his tasteful R&B repertoire, Alextbh resurfaced after a long hiatus, which we later learned was an attempt to slow down the rapid growth of his blossoming music career pre-pandemic. The Southeast Asian LGBTQ+ icon is also ready to get back on the road, hopefully to perform his latest album. In this interview, we talked about his life under the social media radar, his comeback, and his shift towards pop music with “It’s All Good.”
I saw that you were eating a lot of Indonesian food!
Yes, I did! Uh, see if I can still remember them: There’s nasi uduk, it’s the one that I tried in SEA Today News, and they were kind enough to let me taste it during the interview session with them, so that was really nice. And then I had nasi Padang, which is stunning. The most unforgettable one is still when Ronnie and Kevin took me to… Ah, what is this place called? It’s like this restaurant that’s in a mall, and it’s on the top floor…
Yes! That is a good one, Remboelan.
I’m really happy that you enjoyed your time in Jakarta!
First of all, I want to say welcome back! You’ve been M.I.A. since, like, early 2022, and I missed you! When you posted that picture in May 2023, I was like, “Oh my gosh,” like, how have you been doing? What were you up to during that M.I.A. period?
Oh my god! I think I was just retreating a bit from Alextbh, if that’s a thing. Because I felt like in 2019, when things really got into gear—like my career started going up, vertically—there wasn’t really a time where I could think about things and just spend time with my friends and do all that. So, I kind of missed all that, and I miss being around my friends a lot. I felt like there was a bit of pressure as well, being Alextbh, I feel. Because in 2019, a lot of things were happening simultaneously, and I’m still trying to process what happened. What’s really happening, you know? And when the pandemic hit, the pandemic was really huge for me, and it also kind of took a lot of those performing aspects of Alextbh away from me.
But I see that as a blessing because I get to spend a lot of time with my friends, and that’s really what I’ve been doing—just spending time with friends. They would come over to my house (my living room is practically open for everybody). Some days I will wake up and just see my friends talking in the living room, and other days I’ll see my friends sleeping on the couch, so things like that. So, yeah, I’ve been great.
So you were scaling back from the pressure of being Alextbh. What triggered you to come back after doing so?
I think I felt, like, writing the song “A Hundred Lives” really brought the inspiration back to me again because, like, before this, it was a time when I kind of just left the whole album behind just for a while because I felt like I really didn’t know how to complete the album.
And also, yeah, there was a point in time… I don’t know when, but maybe in 2021, when I felt like I was just not confident at all in what I do. And I think the imposter syndrome really, really hit me hard in 2021. I’m like, yeah, what the hell am I doing here?
It wasn’t until I wrote “A Hundred Lives,” a song that I wrote with Nisa, my friend and collaborator, that she was the one who played the strings in that song. When I heard her play, I felt like, yeah, I’m kind of reminded that at the end of the day, we’re all here as musicians making music. And we’re all just putting out things that we like doing. And that kind of made me feel a lot less pressured to think about, like, numbers and stuff like that. Because in 2019, that kind of crept into mind, like, how can we get better numbers? How can we market things this way or that way?
And I felt like that mindset kind of crept into my head a bit too much, until “A Hundred Lives” happened.
I never knew that I needed to hear those words. It resonates a lot with me, so thank you. Maybe one icebreaker question: I heard from a little bird that “tbh” does not only stand for “to be honest”. Can you share with us the other meaning of “tbh” in your moniker?
Well, I was called Alex “Tan Boon Heong” (Malaysian badminton athlete) because I’m half Chinese and people thought that that’s my name.
I don’t know; it was like a funny joke thingy on Twitter that somebody made. Like, what does that even mean? Like, Alex Tan Boon Hong. And I kind of went along with it, even though that’s not my Chinese name.
The more we know. I never knew that—and I’ve been a fan of yours since 2016!
Me neither! No one called me that until that tweet surfaced. And like, okay.
Okay, let’s dive into queer-themed questions: Because you’ve been a very vocal voice in the queer artist scene—in Southeast Asia, especially—one that is very close to Malaysians is the 1975 incident. A lot of people say, Well, even though it’s performative, it comes from good intentions, but a lot of Malaysians would say, “This is harming us and our community.” What’s your take on this?
Yeah, I would definitely say it’s quite ridiculous, and it is harming the community, especially communities that are very, very vulnerable. Because I think of a situation where a white man comes into Malaysia thinking that he can apply the same kind of principles in this country that he can do back in the States or in the UK, when that’s not the case.
A lot of queer people are not ready to come out or to tell the world that they are queer because it puts them in jeopardy. It does put them in danger, in dangerous situations. Trans people, trans people of color, and Muslim trans people are the most at risk here.
And Matty Healy making that statement on stage only worsens what the government is doing to its people right now.
So, yeah. I don’t like that one bit at all. I do think that there was an intention coming from him, but it was just at the wrong time, and it was not executed well.
Yeah, I agree.
Being an openly queer artist, does that mean that there’s a pressure to uphold a certain standard in representing queer issues and queer themes, to represent that as a part of identity in our craft? Do you feel burdened by that sentiment sometimes?
I mean, honestly, I don’t feel that burdened, really. I think I, in fact, feel more at ease knowing that I am indeed surrounded by queer artists, and we do have a healthy amount of musicians who are also queer and who are also making music. So I felt like, if anything, if I were to do this alone, it would be really, really painful, but I am very thankful that I am surrounded by musicians who are not afraid to express themselves too.
I felt like this whole journey, since 2017, has never really felt alone. I felt like the news articles would say, like, Here comes Southeast Asia’s first queer artist, but I would beg to differ and say, I feel like there are definitely queer artists that precede me; there are before me and there’s not; there’s no difference between me and them. It’s like an Olympics, you know? Someone passes a torch, and then we pass it along to someone else, or we all hold that torch together.
That is a good analogy. It’s kind of like, It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.
Can you tell us the story behind the making of your new album, It’s All Good? I heard that you got the mojo back after writing “A Hundred Lives”. Then what’s next? What happened afterwards?
“It’s All Good,” the song itself, track 10, was written all the way back in 2019. It’s not that long ago, and it’s based on the old album.
And I chose that as the title of the album as well because that song kind of made me feel like, right now, when it’s raining and your life is about to conclude its chapter, and you have a feeling that the next chapter is around the corner, and that was how I felt. I was trying to finish the album because the time between that and the whole thing being completed took quite some time, from 2019 to 2023. That was a lot of time in between, so I think having the name “It’s All Good” is kind of a good way to conclude everything. So, yeah, I wanted the album to be named that way as well, because it’s also a reminder to myself that everything is going to be okay despite the atrocities of this world right now.
Amen to that. Let’s talk about technicalities: I read that you promised a synth-drenched LP. You’re experimenting with a lot of synths, I assume, but is that the only thing that you explored during the making of this album? What else have you been experimenting with?
The album has synths glazed over in the first half part, and then, like, track number five onwards it got into, like, just me back in my Stoop So Low, You days, so it’s like more R&B and laid back, and then towards the end it transitioned to like chill Sufjan Stevens kind of vibe?
But yeah, I was just trying out different things this time around. I didn’t want to stick to just one particular theme, I think, like for the previous work, The Chase EP, which was a very dark R&B-driven EP, but I’ve always known I wanted to make something synthy-pop, so…
Yeah, I kind of noticed that because I know Alextbh is R&B, and then suddenly you’re making a pop track when Her came out, and I was like, Is he not R&B anymore? But when I heard the album and I still find these Stoop So Low, You vibes, I was like, Okay, he’s still in there.
Yeah, I’m not abandoning that sound forever because, like, it’s still a part of me.
From a songwriting standpoint, we catch a lot of time-centered contemplations, such as When our days are numbered in “Heaven’s Gate”; I miss the days when things were easy in “When I Am Gone”; I don’t wanna spend my time waiting for you on the line in “We’ll Make It”; or Need a sec, let me breathe in “The Deep”. Time flows in your songs, but you write as if you want it to stop. What inspired these lyrics?
I think time, instead of going linearly, kind of has its pockets of, like, things go really really fast and things go really really slow. So I kind of want to match that sentiment with the pace of the songs, the theme, and the vibe of the songs.
For example, “Need a sec, let me breathe”, it felt a bit claustrophobic because of that relationship because I felt like I needed some space and time, so… That song kind of had that sense of urgency to it, and then there are songs like, I miss the days when it was easy; it was more like reminiscing about the past, so when I wrote “When I Am Gone,” I wanted it to be like a reminiscing kind of song, like, some random pop song that just came out from the 70s or the 80s, so, yeah, time.
That’s pretty interesting that you noted that! I didn’t even notice that myself.
I wanted these songs to be like a time capsule to when you write songs, so it’s kind of like there to preserve the memories so that when you look back, as a musician, when you listen back to your songs, do you feel like, Oh my god, I can’t believe this happened, or you’re like, I can’t believe I wrote that?
Oh! Yeah, that’s kind of like déjà vu!
Exactly! It’s that feeling, like, huh, I did not remember this thing happening! But I’m really glad there is a song to commemorate that. I think that’s pretty cool too. Like, you know, some people have paintings to serve as reminders, or objects; we have, like, songs.
After a long and laborious album-making journey, what’s the silver lining that you want to share with your listeners?
I’ve learned that, in this album, collaboration is key, and I realized that working with so many talented people on this album is not a one-person journey. I’m quite grateful to be able to get this kind of help and to be surrounded by people who are immensely talented in the things that they do, and we all just gave our input together to make this album a reality.
In terms of, like, what people can get out of this album… Honestly, I never thought of it this far. It’s mostly just like, Let’s put this album together. Let’s write about how we feel and, like, let’s see what happens, I think. I guess that’s the takeaway, like, let’s see what happens and let’s kind of fingers-crossed, everything is good again, like, to stay true to the nature of the title of this album, It’s All Good. That’s how I hope that it’s all good, and I hope for the people that are listening to this album that it is all good for them as well. I hope that this album can bring them some kind of peace or some kind of calmness while listening to it.
Amen to that. That is such a sweet sentiment!
Alex, we’re excited to see your future! Can you share with us what to expect? What’s next for Alextbh?
I would love to get back on the road again or to perform with my band—shout out to my band.
I just love live music, and I think it’ll be great to do that again sometime this year, but, yeah, fingers crossed. Let’s make some sh*t happen!
In the meantime, not much. I’m just still doing my homework on the Indonesian music scene! Kevin and Rasyiqa (of Secret Signal) have helped me tremendously in discovering new artists, and besides being amazing artists themselves, I’ve kind of discovered like, really cool artists, and I’ve discovered Refo dan Fauna. Crack ass musician; he’s so funny. There’s a lot of different people we met up with, including Jordan of Club Vixen, Assia Keva, White Chorus, Glyph Talk, Omar from Vice. I’m just in awe of them that in Indonesia, you guys are extremely collaborative in the things that you do and everyone helps each other out, and, like, Rasyiqa showed me her music video and that everyone was involved in it, but they got their own group going on as well. That is something I would love to emulate here in KL; that’s pretty refreshing and inspiring.
Actually, previously, we invited Bayangan to Joyland, so that was a start, and it turns out there’s a lot of people that were interested in the Malaysian music scene as well here.
I feel like there was some weird tension growing up as Malaysian because there’s always, like, the Indonesian–Malaysian rivalry or whatever, like, you stole this this this and this—which is true, there are some parts of Malaysian culture that we feel like we claim so much from Indonesian culture for no reason. But, the way I see it, these days, like, we don’t really give a shit about that. We are all about collaborating and celebrating each other’s beliefs, cultures, and everything.
Before going to Indonesia, I was uncultured as heck—food, music, and everything—and I left feeling, like, I’ve learned so much, you know? More of that, please! More collaborations. Music is like the door, like, the start of a lot of cultural exposures.
You know what? I feel like the next big thing in the industry is Southeast Asian music. Because there’s so much culture coming out of this archipelago, this Nusantara, and it’s just about time before the world sees it, like, for real.
For real, for real.