Nearly twenty-five years into his musical career, ABS-CBN’s musical creative director, Jonathan Manalo, remains at the top of his game to this very day.
In the world of music, few individuals have achieved the level of recognition and accolades that Manalo has garnered throughout his illustrious career. As a renowned hitmaker, he’s earned an impressive amount of 22 nominations at this year’s Awit Awards in a diverse array of categories, showcasing his versatility as a producer, songwriter, and artist, and has even contributed to numerous Album of the Year contenders this year alone. Even known as “Mr. Music,” it’s no surprise that he’s recognized as a highly decorated musician by his peers in the music industry.
But amidst all the titles of honor and awards that he’s become known for, what exactly do all these decorations mean to someone as accomplished as him?
By Divine Grace & Gratitude
Upon receiving such an impressive number of nominations, Manalo remains as humble as ever. “Every time that there are milestones like this coming my way, I [just] feel gratitude. And there’s no other feeling than an overflow of gratitude in my heart because you don’t plan for things like this to happen. Milestones or an abundance of successes –– you just work to give your best and then when it happens, all you can say is thank you, Lord,” he shares.
Aside from crediting God and his divine grace when it comes to his work, an important aspect that holds credit to Manalo’s many accomplishments lies in his ability to stay in tune with the variety of genres and abilities that he has as a multifaceted musician. But that doesn’t just mean it roots in his skill and knowledge in musical theory or a variety of instruments, rather it’s his unique approach to making music.
“It’s important for me to have a connection with the artists that I work with. When working with different artists, I don’t really impose my sound but I connect with the artist and get their most authentic selves,” Manalo mentions. “What is authentic to them, what is their message, what do they want to say lyrically, and what sound they want to pursue, these are all things I consider [when working with them] so I draw the energy from there, and then I create the sound from that.”
Connection As A Key
In his many years on the scene, this approach has made Manalo into a “sponge” who absorbs the very best of the artists that he works with –– including OPM legends like Gary Valenciano, Lea Salonga, Rico Blanco, Ogie Alcasid, Regine Velasquez, and Kyla –– all of whom were able to bring in different sounds and messaging in their songwriting. Though for Manalo, he doesn’t just limit himself to highly accomplished artists, but he also looks forward to learning from younger artists (like BGYO, Angela Ken, and BINI) who are new to the industry.
“I love working with younger artists because there are so many things to learn from them. Working with legends and the greats, there are so many insights to learn as expected, but it’s surprisingly the same with younger artists because you get to know how their minds work, and it’s important to understand how the younger audience also sees things,” he adds.
To Manalo’s luck, this approach to connecting with his artists and helping them is one that allows him to create music that is both artistically satisfying and emotionally resonant –– even transcending genres and styles. “A connection is important, and it’s important to help the artists that I work with to find their sound, so I guess in the last 20 years, I can humbly say that I haven’t lost my touch yet,” he shares with a slight chuckle.
Of Songwriting & Sentimentality
This marks the fifth consecutive year that Manalo has been the most nominated musician in the Awit Awards. Yet, for him, each recognition feels as fresh as the first. “You will never get used to it. The recognition, the awards, they are always a welcome thing that you’ll never get used to,” he shares. “Sobrang saya pa rin, kasi iba yung type of joy that it brings [It still makes me happy, because the type of joy it brings is always different]; it’s a sense of relief for all the sleepless nights or the burnt-out days working in the studio. But every time may recognition na ganito [like this], it charges you again and gives another round of inspiration that energizes the fire inside you –– which is the passion for music.”
His consistency throughout all these years comes as a result of his musical prowess and talents but to him, the secret formula to all of that comes from the importance of being a keen observer of life. “Songwriters and music creators need to be really good life observers because we’re the ones who tell the story of people. You have to be an empath and feel the experiences of other people, and observe all the life that happens around you because that’s the stuff that you get to write in your songs.”
Manalo notes how gifted a whole lot of Filipinos are with such a skill, given how much our people value the nature of sentimentality. “I think that’s an upside when it comes to creating art. Music is a very soulful medium, and with the sentimentality of Filipinos, it’s very easy for us to put our emotions into songs, lyrics, and melodies, and I feel that we’re very advanced in that sense,” he mentions.
A prime example of this that Manalo mentions would be the success of Juan Karlos. “Even in [the genre of] rock, we’re highly emotional as Filipinos. Like JK’s hit song ‘ERE’, that’s just pure Filipino emotion, and it goes to show that we know how to put our emotions into creating art.”
A Commitment To The Craft
While Manalo’s list of achievements is already impressive, he still harbors a dream that he considers the ultimate — which is to be involved in a project that wins a Grammy award. “Sabi nga nila, kung magdredream ka nalang [As they say, if you’re gonna dream], might as well dream for the impossible,” he jokes. “Syempre ako [Of course], working as one of the creative people in the background, being part of the team that catapults an artist to that point is something I would love to be a part of.”
The thing is, he notes that the Grammy Awards aren’t necessarily so far off from the Filipino dream anymore, given the success of SB19 making waves on the international stage. “I’m so excited for SB19 because they’re paving the way, and if ever they do get to be finalized as a Grammy nominee, they’ll bring the whole [Filipino] industry forward,” Manalo notes.
But in the meantime, Manalo stays clear about two things: hard work and dedication. “For now, I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, discover new artists who deserve a big break, mentor more aspiring young singer and songwriters to help the industry to become more sustainable, I’ll write more songs and collaborate with more people, and then let’s see what happens next from there.”
As for what’s next, Manalo teases a new and exciting project on the horizon, which is a musical theatre play titled Gusto Ko Nang Bumitaw, named after his hit composition of the same, which will also feature his songs. This project, in development with director Dolly Dulu, is set to be launched in 2025 or 2026, coinciding with Manalo’s 25th year in the industry.
In the ever-evolving world of music, Manalo stands as a beacon of inspiration and innovation in a scene that often moves by too fast. His unwavering commitment to the art of music and his profound connection with the artists he works with continue to shape the Filipino music industry for the better –– leaving a legacy that will resonate for generations to come.