For crafting tunes sung in her native language that have amassed millions of streams from listeners across the country, dwta is the perfect embodiment of a breakthrough star who has built a legacy for herself and the community she represents: a Bicolana in the strictest sense of the word, whose work serves as a “bridge” to connect people from varying backgrounds.

“Growing up surrounded by Bicol’s vibrant culture and rich traditions truly shaped my music,” the recording artist explains. “Through my songs, I want to share the beauty of Bicol with listeners, both those familiar and those new to our region. It’s about bringing a piece of home to those far from my hometown and letting others experience our culture’s warmth and richness. Bicol is a huge part of who I am, and writing songs that echo its spirit allows me to express myself in a way that feels deeply personal.”

It is when she sings and writes in her mother tongue that dwta fully reveals her most authentic self, realizing that “language holds a unique power to convey emotions and stories in their purest form.” Back then, the award-winning artist just wanted the world to understand her message — the pain and frustration that come with adolescence and the light and beauty that it radiates along the process. Thus, she wrote and delivered her songs in English or Tagalog with the mindset that it might be the most convenient route to achieve her goals as an artist.

But later on, she realizes that writing in Bikol is what her heart truly desires. “My perspective changed when I joined in a songwriting competition that required us to write a song in Bikol,” the “Santigwar” singer-songwriter shares. “This made me create one, and it was during that process that I discovered the beauty of the Bikol language when sung in its sincere expressiveness.”

Fast forward to 2023, dwta or Jhasmine Villanueva in real life, continues to make a dent in the Philippine music scene with her mythical brand of folk-pop, attaining success as a crossover artist with jam-packed shows and critically acclaimed hits under her belt. She is currently signed with Sony Music Entertainment and is gearing up for more projects and collaborations with fellow artists, brands, productions, and other creative collaborators this year. 

In terms of music releases, dwta has always been committed to celebrating her roots while fostering a rich tapestry of individuality that she hopes will inspire the community or audience that she seeks to uplift. Her signature hit “Padaba Taka” has crossed more than 11M streams on Spotify alone and earned her first Awit Award for Best Regional Recording. The song chronicles the experience of loving someone unapologetically despite their differences. From cooking Bicolano dishes to going on a Mayon 360 road trip, dwta expresses her appreciation for her special someone by writing down all the things on a checklist that she hopes to accomplish in the near future.

And then there’s “Santigwar,” a stripped-down track that heavily draws from the indigenous healing practice known as pagtatawas. The lullaby-inspired jam somehow enables dwta to infuse local traditions into her songwriting as an homage to her heritage, with the intention to use it as an allusion to the “sickness” or feelings that she finds unfathomable during that confusing moment in her life. These songs are cinematic and narrative in nature, but what makes it more compelling is how the Albay native introduces the nuances of her cultural upbringing to the mainstream audience with poetic effortlessness and sophistication, while never letting fear and judgment hinder her work. 

Additionally, she is also deeply involved in every aspect of her art, taking full control of her sonic direction and the visual elements that it conveys. Villanueva points out that she is dedicated to every note and every word of it, ensuring that they resonate with her audience on a personal level. 

“Beyond writing, I’m involved in the production, from arranging the music to capturing the essence of the song in every recording,” the budding folk artist reveals. “I also conceptualize and create materials for my singles like cover art, canvas, lyric videos, and music videos. Every piece that I release carries a part of my creative mind because this is an extension of myself, and I immerse myself fully in the process to create something that truly speaks to people.”

A version of this story appeared on Billboard Philippines’ Acoustic and Folk Issue, dated February 15.