‘We want to change how people look at OPM’: Talking music with Leanne and Naara

Gil Cadiz
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In September 2016, singing-songwriting duo Leanne and Naara got the biggest surprise of their lives when their debut single Again rose to the top of the Spotify charts, taking the No. 1 spot in the Philippines, No. 2 in Singapore and Indonesia, No. 3 in Malaysia and No. 12 in the Global Viral Charts.

From then on, they’ve become one of the most sought-after acts in the local music scene, doing regular gigs in popular music venues and performing in the biggest music festivals. They’ve also been nominated as New Artist of the Year at the recently held MYX Music Awards 2018.

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Leanne Mamonong and Naara Acueza met in 2012 when they were freshmen at Assumption College. Their history of performing as a duo started when Leanne was asked to perform at a school event. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of using a minus one, so she tapped Naara to accompany her. The two did a bit of practicing just before going onstage, but the real connection happened when Naara started to put in her own flavor. Her blending with Leanne’s voice was so on point that, from then on, people started asking them to play at almost every event.

They’ve been singing together for six years now.

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We the Pvblic reached out to Leanne and Naara for a little bit of Q&A and they were game enough to talk to us about their sound, the inspiration behind each of their songs and their thoughts on the local music industry. Read on!

Your first ever professional gig – how and where did it happen?

Our first ever paid gig happened at Frank and Dean in BGC. Miguel Escueta, a friend and part-owner of the restaurant asked if we could do acoustic Thursdays and we were quick to say yes. This was just a few weeks before graduation. We really just wanted a venue where more people could know about our music and it ended up becoming a weekly thing.

Was getting to where you are now a struggle or was it as smooth as the sound of your music? 😊

The people that discovered us made everything run so smoothly, but it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. Right after graduation, we were signed by Warner Music Philippines for a digital distribution deal. We were then given Sir Jonathan Ong as producer and he just made magic happen.

Our first single Again was a hit and it came as a shock to all of us. The challenge was in maintaining that quality that all those people worked very hard for. At the time, we were unsteady because we were clueless about the sound that we wanted. We were unsure as to where we wanted Leanne and Naara to go and so we feel like it’s just now that we’re starting to put it all together and have a clearer vision for the duo.

How did you create the “smooth and soothing” sound your duo is known for now? Was it a deliberate act of defiance against the pervasive trend of vocal belting in OPM?

That probably played a part in the creation of the sound. It came from a place that’s used to hearing this kind of OPM that was more available then. Because of that, we started to write songs that we would also love to listen to and that we don’t always hear.

Your debut single Again has been streamed on Spotify more than 10 million times. What are your thoughts on that?

Again’s success was a beautiful surprise for everyone. It almost felt like beginner’s luck, but we knew it wouldn’t be possible without the genius that is Sir Jon Ong and the collaborative efforts of our management and our label. It’s still surreal that it’s been listened to over 10 million times even by people from outside the country. This song introduced us to the scene and to the listeners and for that we’ll always be grateful.

How would you describe your music?

Our music is the kind that you would want to wake up to in the morning. You could also listen to it while watching the sunset. These are moments where you can put off everything that’s been stressing you out and get out of your head for a bit. We think of music as something that should make you feel excited but also relax you and give off that feeling of relief. That’s the sound we create because that’s also the sound that we yearn for everyday. There’s already too much noise in the world. We just want to give our listeners the kind of sound that would “hug” them after a long day.

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Your music is largely identified as indie. Do you feel the same way?

It’s indie in a way that we have the capability to express ourselves freely. We’re not very restricted when it comes to topics that we want to discuss in our songs.

What are your thoughts on the state of the local indie music scene?

It’s so wonderful to be part of something that is evidently thriving. We only got to discover more about the scene when we started playing professionally. Seeing all these talented bands at gigs made us feel like we were living under a rock. Our only wish is for more people to discover that OPM right now is very much alive — they just need to go to the right places.

Who are your musical influences and why?

A lot of the first few stuff we put out were influenced by the music of Norah Jones, Jason Mraz, Emily King, Stephen Bishop, Fitzgerald and Armstrong, and the like. We like to listen to blues, soul, jazz, and alternative rock from time to time, so it’s like a clash of all those sounds. Lately, we’ve been trying to explore a different sound, so we listen to more artists as well.

Has anyone ever compared you to the American folk-rock duo The Indigo Girls?

Actually, no one has ever compared us to them. Funny thing that people would usually say is that we remind them of M2M.

Which musicians are you currently listening to?

Erykah Badu, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green are always going to be on our playlist.  We’ve been listening to bands like Vulfpeck, PREP, and Honne. We also love the music of Daniel Caesar and Bruno Major.

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What’s your creative and collaborative process like? Who pens the lyrics and who composes the music?

It’s Leanne who mostly comes up with the lyrics and the basic arrangement of the song. Naara then tweaks the chords and adds certain elements and movements that make the sound more interesting especially for live.

In a few words, tell us the inspiration behind each of the original songs that you’ve released so far – Again, Make Me Sing, New York and Back, and Run Run?

The story of Again happened at a point when Leanne had a hard time being emotionally present for the person she likes because she was too guarded. She becomes so frustrated and that drives her to write the song.

The inspiration for New York and Back came from a greeting card we saw at a mall once. The card said, “I love you to New York and Back” and we thought it would be sweet to create a love song out of it. It tells the story of love that doesn’t go to sleep, just like the city that never sleeps.

Run Run talks about the struggle of choosing whether to go to a place that you’ve always been fascinated about but could be harmful to you or staying within the safe zone. Sometimes the things that we love aren’t always good for us.

We rarely make music when we’re in a very bright mood but Make Me Sing is an exception. It’s simply about wanting to see the one that you love after being away from them.

How did you get signed up by Warner Music Philippines? How did it happen?

Leanne’s friend was friends with Nina Ledesma who was part of the Warner Music PH team and they were looking for artists at the time. They contacted Leanne and she brought Naara along to the meeting (funny because Leanne actually lost her voice that very fateful day). After listening to our stuff and a few meetings, we decided to sign as a duo.

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You’ve released five singles, so far. When do you plan to release a full-length album?

A full-length album might come after a year. We’re planning to release a few more singles and hopefully an EP by end of the year.

Among your songs, which is your sentimental favorite and why?

It would probably be New York and Back because whenever we listen to that song, it brings us back to the first time Leanne wrote it, the first time we tried singing it. Leanne remembers the exact way her room was and how she wrote it at around 5:30 pm when It was almost sunset. The feeling she got when she was writing it was unforgettable. The mood was just everything. It’s still very nostalgic.

What’s your most memorable gig so far and why?

So far, the most memorable for Leanne is the recent Common Ground Music Festival at Frank and Dean. The place was not totally packed but it was great because people were seated, and they had this sort of calmness on their faces. The atmosphere wasn’t toxic at all and it’s obvious that people had come there to really unwind and listen to their favorite artists. During our set, it was quiet and not a lot of phones were up, but you could see that they were listening and moving their heads along to the beat. Also, we’re a sucker for intimate gigs so that was a plus.

For Naara, it’s the Street Teams Unite Part 2 because we got to interact with our fans, some of them coming from places that are really far. What also made it memorable was we got to sing New York and Back with a fan who had won an online contest that the street teams had organized. Women artists whom we love were also part of the lineup – Niki Colet, Reese Lansangan, Coeli, Clara Benin and Keiko Necesario. It was such an empowering gig that we very much adored.

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What do you guys want to ultimately achieve with your music?

We want to change how people look at OPM. We want to show them that OPM is not limited to a certain sound and that Filipino artists are capable of putting out music that can be recognized on a global scale. Listeners ought to be more open-minded and trust that OPM artists of today can create music of high caliber. Only then will they be able to really appreciate how we are all working hard to keep OPM alive and change its face for it to survive the demands of audiences in the future.

What’s your message to up-and-coming musicians who are working hard to find their space in the local music scene?

Keep putting out music and do your best to be visible. Be very loud about your vision. Reach out to people through social media or put your songs up on sites like soundcloud. There will always be people who will listen to your songs. It might not happen overnight, but you just have to trust the process and keep the hope alive. Never forget what got you started in the first place. We also believe in the power of prayer. Just do everything you can to be heard and don’t stop even when you feel like you’ve already gotten to where you should be.

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