First and foremost, TONEEJAY considers himself a songwriter.
After all, it’s his poetic and almost diary-like style of writing that caught the attention of the Filipino indie scene. When his former band Munimuni broke into the mainstream with their debut EP Simula (Start), the term “makata pop” (literally translated as poet pop) emerged as a description for their music.
“It started out as a joke,” the artist shares in an exclusive interview with Billboard Philippines. “Someone took it seriously and it started being used. It’s more of indie folk or indie rock but with Filipino lyrics.”
While TONEEJAY’s Filipino-language writing has been the hallmark of his career thus far, he reveals that he actually started writing songs in English. It was a result of his first — and constant — influences in music, such as The Strokes and folk artist Sufjan Stevens. However, what made him change his mind was not necessarily other Filipino music, but rather, J-Rock.
“Noong college ako (When I was in college), I listened to a lot of Japanese bands,” TONEEJAY says. “Natutuwa ako kasi ang ganda at pulido ang music nila, pero ginagamit nila yung language nila” (I was struck because their music was so good and polished, but they used their own language).
The first song he ever wrote in Filipino was “Sa’yo” (Yours) in 2017, released as part of Munimuni’s first EP.
“Halata na dinidiscover ko yung language” (It’s obvious that I was just discovering the language), he says with a laugh. “I wanted to learn it so much. I started to use words that I don’t really use in real life, but that’s still okay because it’s poetry and it resonates with people.”
Admittedly, his sentiment rings true. The opening lines of “Sa’yo” immediately start off with “Ang buhok mo’y parang gabing numinipis / Sa pagdating ng madaling-araw / Na kumukulay sa alapaap” (Your hair is like the night sky that thins out / When the early morning comes / And color the clouds). While the Filipino words he uses are deep and formal, the imagery he paints through them became his signature style.
The “makata pop” sensibilities continued well into his career. However, everything changed when he embarked on his solo career in 2021. He describes that it was a complete restart of not just who he was as an artist, but who he was as a person.
“After I left [Munimuni], I started to experiment a lot. I tried to figure out who I am without the band,” he shares. This period signaled a turning point in his career. His musical influences shifted — he experimented and listened to electro pop, alternative hip-hop, grunge, and more. He delved into learning how to produce music, which led him to release his first album under the TONEEJAY project titled Beginning/End.
“The first album was more of me figuring out who I am and learning how to produce, [like] using synthesizers, learning how to use Logic (a music production software) when I’m more of a guitar musician. I was learning everything…it was a like a crash course,” he says. “It’s why the sound of the first album is kind of like the ‘black sheep’ or the middle child.”
He continues by saying that while admittedly, the record didn’t take off, he needed that experience to know himself better and to better his skills in music. This shined in his sophomore album Kasama Kita (Being With You). It’s a record that revisits his folk roots, but he marries this with the electronic sound he developed before and after Beginning/End.
However, for TONEEJAY, the biggest catalyst that has formed his sound today was watching Beabadoobee’s concert at the New Frontier Theater last year.
“It gave me a new insight. It broke the monotony,” he muses. “I realized that this is the type of music that I first appreciated before folk.”
Indie rock was the first genre TONEEJAY fell in love with. He grew up listening to The Strokes — he gushes about how much he loves Julian Casablancas — as well as the Arctic Monkeys’ releases before the AM album. “It was a rediscovery of my love for [indie rock]…I felt like myself again.”
This rediscovery shines the most in the two singles he released this year, namely “Parang Magic” (Like Magic) and his latest hit “711.”
However, it wasn’t just a turning point sonically for the artist. It also signaled a change in how he approaches songwriting as a whole.
“My lyrics are more conversational [now],” he shares. In a way, he’s veered away from the poetry-style of writing. In TONEEJAY’s eyes, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s the manifestation of his journey of rediscovering himself. “Hindi mo kailangan ng (You don’t need) deep words to articulate something profound or deep. You just have to use the exact word that you’re thinking [about], even if it’s simple. Now, I write with the intention of [figuring out] what the exact word will be to describe this [feeling or story].”
If you look closer to the lyrics of “Parang Magic” and most notably, “711,” you’ll notice that not only is the language “less poetic,” but he makes references that are incredibly specific to his experiences. Lyrics like “Balang-araw masusulat ko kaya ang kanta na bibili ng bahay sa Santa Rosa” (Someday, will I write a song that would let me buy a house in Santa Rosa) and “At balang-araw maidadala kita sa Shibuya o sa may cafe na may capybara” (And someday, I’ll bring you to Shibuya or a cafe with a capybara), are like inside jokes that let us peer into his life behind the music.
Despite the specificity — and yet, the vagueness of it all — he draws you into a world that you can’t help but feel a part of as well, where his lyrics transcend his life and become the soundtrack to your own. While this is what he’s always tried to do with his music, this is also something he attributes to indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who he considers as one of the best songwriters today.
“[Her lyrics are] so conversational. She always makes a backdrop for her songs, and gets them from her personal experiences,” he says. Just like TONEEJAY’s recent releases, Bridgers has been known for her specific lyrics to describe her life that resonate with a wider audience.
“Carl Rogers once said that ‘what is the most personal is the most universal.’ Everyone’s going through the same thing…that’s where you get touched as a listener.”
Just as Billboard Philippines wrote in a description of “711” as one of the best releases of September 2023, “There’s a reason why indie artist TONEEJAY’s ‘711’ is taking social media by storm.” It doesn’t matter that the song’s references are vaguely specific. People have taken the song and made it their own — relating it to their inner child, giving back to their family, their partners, and everything else in between. It’s the reason why the track hit a million streams in under a month since its release. What is the most personal, is truly the most universal.
While he refuses to share the inspiration or meaning behind the song — “It takes away the mystery,” he says with a smile — the idea that stayed in his head while working on the track and his future releases was “inner child.”
Even when he was recording and producing “Parang Magic” with Tim Marquez [of One Click Straight], he recounts that when he first heard the demo of the track, he was immediately taken aback. “I remember telling him…Parang pinakilala mo yung sarili ko sa sarili ko” (It’s like you introduced myself to my self).
“I realize that [with] this kind of music…I remember the child that played guitar, discovered rock music on GuitarHero, or listened to The Beatles. This whole era is the rediscovery of who I am.”