There are few words that truly encapsulate Ang Bandang Shirley’s sound. Sure, one can say indie rock, pop rock, or even just plain indie. However, these descriptions are just bits and pieces of a band that has defined Filipino indie music of the 2000s and beyond.
Currently composed of members Ean Aguila, Joe Fontanilla, Debb Acebu, Paolo Arciga, Kathy Gener, and Miggy Abesamis, Ang Bandang Shirley (abbreviated as Shirley) have achieved what few artists can ever dream of – creating music that is truly timeless, both personal and universal, both familiar yet constantly evolving.
That’s why when they announced the release of the deluxe version of their 2012 album Tama Na Ang Drama (Enough With The Drama), the warm reception was instant. Within a day of announcing a double vinyl pressing of the record with an accompanying gig, the tickets were already sold out.
It’s almost difficult to grasp how a band that has largely stayed in the indie scene still maintains a strong fanbase, 20 years into their career. Today, the band’s listeners are not just the millennials who witnessed Shirley’s career since the start, but also a new generation of Gen Z listeners.
“The stories in Shirley songs are universal,” shares Fontanilla, when musing over why listeners still gravitate to the band’s music. “It’s something that anyone can experience at any time. The songs [develop] different meanings at different stages of life. It’s classic, in that sense.”
Fontanilla’s sentiments ring true for many listeners. Their most streamed song, “Nakauwi Na” (Coming Home), captures the yearning of feeling at home in a love that stays. The music video for track is set against a backdrop of a man running through the streets of Manila.
This is a key factor in understanding the longevity of Shirley’s music. Their songs have always revolved around the Filipino experience. “Maginhawa” from their Favorite album is a prime example of this. They cleverly play around with the street names within Teachers’ Village in Quezon City like Malingap, Matalino, and Mahiyain to write a song of a couple looking back at their relationship. “Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye” (Block the Runner/Tag/Street Games) from their debut record Themesongs uses Filipino street games as metaphors for the frustration of a couple not entirely sure what they are in relation to each other.
Gener says that that’s one of the reasons why their music has persevered over the years. “Our writing is more internal…personal. Nakita nila (The audience sees) the sincerity of the themes of the songs.”
Arciga, who recently joined the band as their new bassist, shares what it was like for him becoming a fan of Shirley when he was in high school. “When I became a fan of Shirley, I was in high school. It marked a time in my life, especially in my formative years. [Now], when we play [together], I see the younger me from 10 years ago. When I see the audience, pinagdadaan nila yung pinagdaanan ko dati” (They’re going through what I went through before).
“Nagugulat kami na hanggang ngayon (We’re surprised that even until now), we get invited to gigs [organized and attended by young people]. Our songwriting [is simple]…it’s always looking inwards, internal, at nasasakyan pa rin ng mga bata (the kids are still liking it),” Gener continues.
The band recounts that when they held their Tama Na Ang Drama deluxe edition release party last September 23 at Jess & Pat’s in Quezon City, they were surprised to see a crowd of young people singing along to all of their songs and filling up the small restaurant. Until today, they’re still invited to perform at a number of shows organized by Gen Z-run production houses. They share that they’re still touched by the sentiments, even if they haven’t released any new material in a while.
Admittedly, the themes that Shirley write about aren’t novel. They write about loss and love, just like many Filipino artists over the years. However, what sets them apart even today is the magic of writing poetry with conversational Filipino, the wordplay they use to make the songs exciting to listen to, and the ever-catchy melodies that they intertwine with their music.
While the heart of Shirley has stayed constant over the years, Aguila reveals that this period in their career has been a major transition for them with the pandemic and the departure of a few members, especially key songwriters, from the band’s original lineup.
“After all these activities, I feel like we can write new material together,” the band’s chief singer-songwriter says. He explains that before, the songwriters would more or less write the songs themselves before turning it over to the rest of the band for the musical arrangements. “I want that the band can give their inputs. As much as possible, everyone contributes to a small part of what happens in the song.”
While Shirley’s music resonates with many because of its nostalgia, there’s a sense of maturity that continues to build with every song that they put out. “We’re getting older. When you see the albums, [it’s a result of us] growing as people,” Gener says.
Fifteen years later, the reflection of that growth has stayed strong. Aguila shares that listeners can look forward to new material from the band later in 2023 or in 2024. “Sobrang excited kami (We’re very excited) to make new material.”
Ang Bandang Shirley have captured the magic of everyday Filipino experiences and set them to the soundtrack of our lives. They have constantly stayed true to themselves, and even until now, both old and new listeners find comfort in their sound. As Shirley continues to evolve, there’s no question that Filipinos will keep coming back home to the band that they’ve known, loved, and grew up with through the years.