Picture this: you’re 14 years old, armed with your mother’s earphones as a makeshift microphone, singing a song you wrote in your parents’ bedroom. Four years later, that song suddenly has over 120 million streams on Spotify, you have fans in Indonesia, and you’ve traveled to different parts of Southeast Asia to perform your music.

That was the case for Meriel De Jesus, better known by her moniker mrld. “An Art Gallery Could Never Be As Unique As You” is classic Filipino folk-acoustic: mrld’s deep voice and harmonies shining throughout the song, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar, piano, and even a brassy, harpsichord-sounding riff. 

“Even now, I look back to it and I’m like wow, naisip kong sumulat ng kanta na ganun at a very young age,” she says. “It’s a blessing in disguise.”

“I don’t think [people resonated] with it [right away] because of me being young,” De Jesus continues as she reflects on why the song must have resonated with over millions of people over the past four years. “For one thing, ang haba ng title niya. It’s not a typical, one word…even though the song is very ‘shallow,’ per se, but may lines din doon that really…hindi siya ordinary in an English song.”

Her affinity for lyrics like “But let me tell you, don’t go too far / And just enjoy this artistic room of ours / This empty canvas that they misunderstood / I wanna paint you in it but I’m not good” comes from the environment in Cebu that she grew up with: Vispop.

Vispop is the biggest Bisaya pop songwriting competition, camp, and festival in the country. Every year since 2012, Vispop has cultivated local songwriters to start writing songs in Bisaya and perform them in front of the Bisaya community at large. 

Isang reason kung bakit ako pumasok sa music industry is because of Vispop. Vispop has been a gateway for where I am now,” De Jesus explains. While she hasn’t released a Bisaya song yet — she’s working on a draft right now — she’s optimistic that once she becomes more comfortable writing in Bisaya, she’ll be able to explore her mother tongue more. She even says that she’s open to submitting her own songs to Vispop in the future.

Beyond just Cebuano music, it’s Cebuano musicians that have shaped, and continue to shape her approach to songwriting. She cites her good friends like pop singer Dom Guyot and R&B singer Jolianne as people that she looks up to, as well as Vispop greats like Kurt Fick and Medyo Maldito.

As the years go by, De Jesus commits herself to continue evolving and challenging herself to grow musically as an artist. She cites her favorite song she’s released so far — “Ikaw Pa Rin” — and explains how she tried to make the notes and melodies more complex than her previous works. The demo was so far from the final product, she reveals, but at the end of the day, it’s the stories that she tells through her music that persevere.

“It’s been a huge roller coaster ride for me,” she shares, to close. As the saying goes, we can’t wait to join her on the ride.

This story originally appeared in Billboard Philippines’ folk issue, dated February 15, 2024.