Rozella Marie: The street-savvy Sabahan musician


PETALING JAYA: The tall, Sabah-born Eurasian songstress is already there when I reach the place, hard at work behind her silver Macbook. An empty plate sits next to her.

She has been here for the past couple of hours, working on her itinerary for the month. Her calendar is fully booked: a photo-op and video interview with collaborating producer Darren Ashley, along with God knows how many scheduled practice sessions to prepare for her concert showcase for the Tiger Jams campaign.

“Have you eaten yet?” she asks cordially, giving the traditional Malaysian greeting.

This is Rozella Marie. Her career in music has shot up by leaps and bounds in the relatively short year that has passed since she moved here to Peninsular Malaysia in May 2015, leaving her job as a full-time writer to focus on music.

It’s been hard work, she notes; her solo career has necessitated that she wear many hats at any given time.

“I don’t just sing, I’m my own manager. I have to reach out to the media, radio stations, and agencies all on my own,” Rozella explains.

FMT is here to talk about her quickly-burgeoning music career as well as her collaboration with Ashley, a Kuala Lumpur-based producer and electronic artist, for her work in the Tiger Jams competition, sponsored by Tiger Beer.

Her original collaboration track with Ashley, an electronic piece named “Dark Side”, won her the distinction of being the “only Sabahan to fill the Tiger Jams top three spots”, as reported by Sabahan daily The New Sabah Times.

In the short three months since its release, the track has been played over 6,000 times on YouTube and Soundcloud and has received a surprising amount of support from prominent names in the local music scene such as East Malaysian band Relent. These people are all firmly #TeamRozella – the hashtag used in their outpouring of social media support for Rozella.

We talk about the struggles local musicians face making it in the notoriously unstable Malaysian music scene. One thing Rozella especially notes is that a lot of musicians here forget that music is a business as much as it is an exercise in creativity.

“My intention has always been to make a comfortable living doing what I love. Of course, if you like just playing in the pubs and singing on your own, that’s great. But personally, I want to do this for awhile. I don’t see why it can’t be something financially sustainable,” she says.

To do this, Rozella says, requires that one not only be musically-skilled, but also incredibly savvy with the ins and outs of the media world, as well as with marketing in general.

“Rozella is my name, but it’s also my brand. How do I sell this brand? That’s what I have to think of. Of course, I’m still pretty new at this, so it’s been a real learning curve,” she says.

In her late 20s, Rozella has been surrounded by music for most of her life.

“My dad used to be in a band, and he would perform quite a bit. I guess it rubbed off on me. I think I got my first cassette tape when I was five,” she adds, laughing. “So I became that one weird kid who’d sit at the back of the classroom, writing songs and stuff.”

Rozella then became a writer after graduating from university, writing for travel publications and the like. However, the work apparently drained her and left her unfulfilled.

“I just didn’t like it. I could do it, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I really wanted to do music,” she says. She later quit her job and started playing open mics in 2013 around Kota Kinabalu, supported financially by freelance writing jobs; an exercise that proved to be somewhat of a dead end, given the state’s relative lack of a music scene.

“It’s mostly Chinese-uncle karaoke places. Playing old-school songs that Chinese uncles listen to,” she says.

After a couple of years, she finally contacted Ashley, who has himself garnered quite the following.

“I sent him a track that I wrote. He liked it, and said why not, let’s work on it.” It was then, in 2015, that she decided to move to Peninsular Malaysia, where she has been working and performing since.

Inspiration for her songs, she says, comes from all around. She subscribes to the “vortex of ideas” theory, apparently, believing that all the ideas in the universe sit roiling around in one big “vortex” of ideas that everybody taps into at some point.

“It’s a big vortex of ideas that you have to tap into. So if you’re not in the right state of mind, and if you’re not tapped in and take advantage of these ideas, whatever that was supposed to be yours goes to someone else. It’s like when you see something someone else did, and you go ‘wait a minute, isn’t that my idea?'” She shrugs, accepting that it sounds a little quirky when heard for the first time.

“Basically, it’s all about being in the moment. And it’s not about fame either,” she adds.

“You can’t do this for the fame. It comes and goes. It’s part of the job, but it’s not you. The only way to keep this going is to do it because you like it – keep making good quality music.”