Barbie Almalbis was at home.
The guitars in the living room, family photos on the walls, the paintings by her husband Martin Honasan, and even that parachute cutout in the corner should be enough of an indication. But if those weren't proof already, all one had to do was take a peek at what was served on her dining table.
“This is inday-inday from Roxas City,” she explains, motioning to the flat rice cakes served with sugar and desiccated coconut from her hometown. “I don’t know why they call it like that. ‘Inday’ in our language is what you usually call some girl. I can be inday; you can be inday; she can be inday.”
But Barbie was definitely not just some girl. In the eyes of many, she is the face of Hungry Young Poets and Barbie’s Cradle, the voice behind numerous hits like ‘Money for Food’ and ‘Firewoman,’ the driving force behind gig production outfit 2DiDiDoo, and more recently, one-third of #AiaBarbieKitchie.
Today, she is the singer-songwriter of Tigre, her latest EP. Barbie offers three songs that show how her music has been influenced by the new hats she had to wear in the past five years she had not released any new material: still a musician, but also a friend, a wife, a mom, and a pet owner.
In the space that is very much hers, we strike a conversation with Barbie Almalbis about producing and promoting new singles, getting over creative dry spells, keeping music in the family, and finding pet love in her cat.
On the stories behind Tigre
We know that the EP’s called Tigre and it’s inspired by...your cat?
Well, that one song, one of the singles, yeah.
Can you tell us more about it? How did you end up there?
My husband, Martin, and I decided [to write] songs together. We’ve been married 13 years but we just did [it] this year.
A few months ago, we started writing songs together parang as an exercise? Like you know, when we hang out, we write songs. And then it was just one of those nights, I had this guitar progression, and I was like “What should we write about?” and he just suggested, “About her. Let’s write about our cat.” Kasi we have a new cat. We got her November last year. Pero grown up na siya. She’s actually Martin’s sister’s cat so in-adopt namin kasi nakikipagaway siya sa other cat nila. So she needed a new home and we’re first time, like, “pet people.”
I didn’t like cats before because I just thought of them as very mataray, and detached siguro. But now we love her so much. It’s my first time to experience pet love (laughs).
Even growing up, you didn’t have a pet?
We had, like, dogs. But...
It’s your first time to get a cat?
A cat, yeah. I’m used to being around dogs but cats are always like...medyo mataray, hindi sila namamansin. Parang aloof, diba? And now I know why. It doesn’t mean they’re not loving. It’s just that because they have a [mean resting] face, right? They don’t smile. They love you, they’re hugging you, but then their face is just like that.
So the song is about kind of like loving somebody who’s being mean to you. (laughs) ‘Cause sometimes, she’ll be like, nangungulit, diba, she wants to hug you and wants all your attention. And then next thing you know, she’ll scratch you! (Laughs) And I got really traumatized in the beginning! Parang, "Okay, hindi kita papansinin for the whole day.” And Martin was like, "No, give her a chance. Don’t humanize her. Don’t make tampo. She’s not human." (Laughs)
And then later on we learned [that] may mga spots pala siya sa katawan na ayaw niyang [pa]hawakan kaya lang siya [nangangalmot]. But she’s now super friendly to anyone. Wala siyang [inhibitions], even people she just met.
So we can meet her later?
She’s just there! She’s around. She’s hiding. Mabait yun. Basta don’t touch her belly! Kasi dogs love that, diba? So pag nawiwili ka (gestures petting), "Ay!" Tapos ganun (makes slashing sounds); she will defend herself! (laughs)
What about the other songs?
One of the new things that I did with this EP is co-writing. I’ve never done that before in the previous albums. So like the first one, yung ‘Tigre,’ was with Martin.
And ‘Cover’ naman, our first single, I wrote it with my friend, Michelle and she wanted to surprise her husband on their wedding day. So we wrote that together. Her husband happens to be my bandmate Nikko [Rivera], so we wanted him to be part of the song.
So we changed the lyrics...kasi pinarinig ko sa kanya yung song; we worked on it along with the other songs in the EP para 'di niya malaman. So we made fake lyrics and then we recorded, and then I just told him, “Gusto ko, Nikko, ikaw ang star sa song na ‘to. Gusto ko ikaw, you do all the solos.” He didn’t know; akala niya wala lang. So he made this difficult solo, parang chinallenge niya sarili niya. But yun nga. He just found out (two days ago) at their wedding party na the song was for him.
Yeah! He was like, “You guys! [This] whole time!” We worked on it for more than a month.
We had a secret thread na wala siya dun and we were talking about the arrangement, we were mixing and I was asking everybody, “Ano, may suggestions pa ba kayo sa mixing?” Hindi siya kasama sa thread na yun, only for that song.
And the third song naman is ‘Ghost.’ Actually it’s more like ghost, spirit. It’s more about my faith journey; a story of getting to know God more [in] the different phases of my life. Three songs pa lang, and we’re hoping to release more singles soon after this.
What would you say is the overall vibe of the EP?
Sassy. I don’t know, happy. (laughs) Tapos na ko sa angst! (laughs more) Hopeful siguro. I mean, siyempre meron pa rin namang mga trials and everything but siguro my response to it is different from when I was younger.
On releasing those creative juices
It’s been a while, though, since you’ve released new music. Was there a sign that it was time?
Before I became a musician [full time], I’ve always written songs since high school. It was just a hobby of mine. So I don’t think about it as like, “I have to write a song because it’s a job.” So even through this time, for the last five years, I was writing.
It’s always something that I always wanna do kaya lang parang nothing was coming out that I was happy with. It was just...a struggle. I guess it’s just like that sometimes; I don’t know. It’s not just a skill eh, it’s like there’s a lot of mental things going on, like your mindset and everything.
Anyway, so I’d been writing pero wala lumalabas na I was happy with. One time I accidentally reset my phone and I lost two years’ worth of song ideas. But the thing was, I wasn’t sad. Parang it was like, none of them were good. (laughs) I was just like, exercising lang. It’s weird, ‘cause otherwise I’d be so attached to what [I’d written] pero yung two years na yun...parang wala naman akong nalagay dun na talagang gusto ko, otherwise I would remember them anyway.
Did you consider it like a dry spell creatively?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been writing since I was fourteen so it’s been a long time, so na-experience ko yung ganun pero sometimes gusto ko siyang ma-understand yung creativity and writing, na parang, ganito na lang ba palagi? Is it really not within our control?
I even talked to Louie Ocampo last year [...] when I was going though that, sabi ko, “Wala akong masulat na [kanta].” Sabi niya, “Baka mataas lang standard mo sa sarili mo.” Because you can, right? I mean, you can put things together but for you to make something that’s surprising to you, that’s something that you really love.
But thankfully, that’s why we released this EP [because] starting last year, I started to write again and ayun nga, may mga change sa mindset. And siguro na-inspire din ako sa mga music din ngayon na parang it’s so free, right?
Kasi Kai [Honasan-del Rio] of Autotelic, my sister-in-law, she lives next door so we would always hang out with her band and their friends and there’s always this vibe. Nowadays, people just are free to make whatever they want and there’s an audience for it and there’s encouragement, parang ganun.
So parang na-encourage din ako. I just want to write whatever I want, and just going back to why I was excited [to write] like when I was younger. It was just about exploring and making songs. The songs didn’t have to turn into anything. So that’s kind of where I went back to when I started writing, just unburdening the creative process. Also, collaborating helped a lot. My husband is a painter and music fan din talaga siya.
I have seven songs na but we’re releasing this first and then we’re gonna record [the rest]. Kasi iba na rin yung schedule ngayon eh. Dati kasi you’ll stay in the studio for like...'di ka uuwi. Ganun kami dati eh!
This EP, we recorded them in two days. We went to the studio and recorded the rhythm section in one day, and then I went back and I did the vocals sa second day. And that’s it. I was like, “Yes! For the next single we can do that again!" Before it would be like, one album, we had six months. We’d go back and forth sa studio, we’d come home 4 A.M. Na-realize ko draining din siya mentally. Kasi parang creative exercise siya, diba? So mauubusan ka rin ng ideas if you’re trying to fix ten songs all at once, so I like having this break na parang three songs lang and then I have a breather.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve realized that there’s more freedom now to explore and stuff. So with your songs, did you do anything new or quite experimental?
Yeah, I’m super happy with the scene now.
It’s very vibrant. [When I was making the songs,] yun nga yung mindset ko, just like having the freedom to experiment, so I’m not trying to be different. It’s not gonna be so experimental or anything like that. It’s just, having that mindset of being...free to be whatever. To express, and incorporate the things I’ve been loving, the things that I’ve been listening to.
And kasi apat kami sa band. Always naman ang process is the arrangement is really a band effort. Sobrang blessed nga ako na yung mga kasama ko sa band, si Karel [Honasan], he’s my brother-in-law, he’s a really good bass player and arranger. Tapos si Nikko rin, our keyboard player. They're musical directors for concerts and things like that, so they have a really good sense of putting things together. So mostly sila pagdating sa arrangement ng songs. Mostly sila yung bumibihis sa songs.
And will you be releasing music videos for these?
Hopefully. Right now, we just have some lyric videos that we’re working on.
Dati kasi song, music video, radio tour. Ngayon, I don’t know, it’s kinda changing kasi music videos have been around since the '80s, diba? It’s a creative thing, dapat may mga new ideas din. When you think of a music video more of a utilitarian [thing] lang, parang as a way to promote the album, I think it’s been done so many times, I don’t know if I want to watch another one, you know what I mean?
So we’re still thinking about it. Kaya wala pa siya sa priority namin ngayon. Parang, "Tara gawa tayo ng music video para part ng promotion." Parang wala pa siya sa ngayon.
On working with other artists
You’ve been mentioning a lot about collaborating with your husband and with other artists. Is this something that you’d want to do more? Do you have sort of like a wish list of artists you want to collaborate with?
Oh, ang dami! And daming super talented people in the scene. I even asked my brother-in-law Eco [del Rio], he has a new band called Bird. He’s been writing. Sabi ko, “Eco, sulat tayo.” (laughs) Kai, they’re always hanging around here. Sila Reese Lansangan, sila Ben&Ben...we would jam here a lot. I love all their music.
And Zildjian [Benitez] of IV of Spades is my inaanak. (laughs) Can you believe it? Kasi his dad was my bandmate for a long, long time. And he used to play in my band for a while! When he was 13, 14, 15, whenever we had no bass player, si Frank [Benitez] was like, “Kaya na yan ni Zildjian! I’ll teach him! Ako bahala sa kanya.” So when we have a gig, three-piece lang kami, so just me and the two, yung mag-tatay. I have a picture of him when he was 13 and on his first gig with us!
On being a musical mom
(At some point, Barbie’s son Liam enters the room. Barbie excuses herself and tends to Liam)
They’re playing PlayStation. Summer eh. It’s his first time to get a PlayStation [for] his birthday kaya it’s their thing now every day.
What have they been playing?
Spider-Man. It’s so funny 'cause he got a few games, like Naruto and Transformers but he didn’t open the others yet. Sabi niya he wants to finish Spider-Man [first]. Sabi ko, “Wow." I’m not like that, I used to be like (gestures opening presents). Wala, he wants to finish it and get a new one.
We’re pretty sure that while your kids were growing up they were very exposed to the arts and music. What efforts did you and your husband make in incorporating that in their lives as well?
Yeah, siyempre since they were young, I would always be jamming around them and it’s great. Kasi diba [yung mga] bata, wala pa sila nung mga hang-ups ng mga grown-ups, mga fears natin. They both wrote songs. So Liam was in the car and he wrote a song about his dinosaur 'tas Stina wrote a song about her cat. So I guess it’s about exposing them, like [making] poetry with them, mga kung anu-ano lang.
Now they’re taking lessons. Stina’s doing piano lessons. The thing about music with me growing up, it was my thing. It wasn’t forced upon me. I just really enjoyed it. [But for] her, the piano lessons is [a lot of] reading, diba, medyo math siya. It’s like school all over again, so I know that part is not so much fun. It’s really work. So what I told her was whenever she did piano practices every day, instead of just telling her [to] read her book [and] practice it, I told her, “Okay, I’ll let you read your book for 30 minutes and for the next 30 minutes, I just want you to enjoy the piano. Just play whatever you want.” And now she’s hooked. Parang stress reliever niya! After like, “Okay, your screen time is done.” She’d put it down and she’d run to the piano and then she’d play. Parang yun yung pampa-relax niya.
Si Liam, wala pa. We started teaching him to play the guitar. He plays piano rin pero only whenever the teacher’s there. (Laughs) Medyo work pa sa kanya. Pero yung guitar, he said he wants to perform.
He’s like, “Can I play at your gig?”
Sabi ko, “Sure!”
Sabi niya, “Do you have a gig this Friday? Can I play at that one?” (Laughs)
Sabi ko, “Well, everybody who plays at the gig has to practice first.” So ngayon napipilitan siya mag-practice ng guitar kasi he wants to play at a gig daw.
What do you think of using songs to introduce a new language to children?
Yeah, we’re actually using songs! Kasi si Stina is very good with languages; it’s easy for her to pick up. Kami dito, most of our help and ako, we’re Ilonggo or Hiligaynon from Roxas City. So she can understand it.
Si Liam has always been, like, English lang ang gusto niya. Kahit na tinuturuan namin siya, parang resistant siya to learn. So ngayon, yung ‘Overdrive’ pinapakanta ko sa kanya para Filipino song.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
Interview by Madeline Castillo and Kara Bodegon
Photography by Iya Forbes