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bittymacbeth's Beauty For Ashes: A track-by-track guide

bittymacbeth's Beauty For Ashes: A track-by-track guide

Before we invite her aboard the Bandwagon Riverboat II, bittymacbeth (real name Beth Yap) will be hosting a pretty special event of her own. 

Next week, the funk-soul songstress will finally be launching her incredible debut solo album entitled Beauty For Ashes at the intimate Esplanade Recital Studio, and she'll be bringing along a few of her musician friends to back her showcase performance as well!

Her talented six-piece band comprises of Teo Jia Rong on drums (TAJL.A.B), NAzty Keys on keys and Moog (The Good Life Project), Feng Lee on guitar, Daniel Chia on saxphone, Deric Tay on trombone and Ong Shi Chun on trumpet (Sapporo Safaris). bittymacbeth's carefully selected ensemble promises to sound just as large as the singer's voice, and they're absolutely determined to do the record justice.

But besides her outstanding backing band, she'll also be joined by opening acts Ariane Deborah and Shak'thiya Subramaniamm, alongside special guest performers such as Dru ChenZeeaura, Benjamin Kheng (The Sam Willows) and Inch Chua!

The album launch will undoubtedly be an all-star affair, but make no mistake, bittymacbeth is the star of the show. Her freshman record is a dazzling look into her phenomenal skills a a songwriter, bassist and vocalist - displaying the kind of musical technicality and thematic maturity far beyond her years.

We recently caught up with the lively and literate Beth Yap to dig deeper into the meaning underpinning her songs, and bittymacbeth was more than candid with her responses. This is easily the most in-depth and thoughtful track-by-track guide we've ever done with an artist, so grab a cuppa and learn about the personal processes and intimate inspirations behind Beauty For Ashes.


'Californian Dream'

I wrote this while on a school trip to San Francisco for a three-week game audio workshop. The chorus was written in Singapore, when I was messing around on my bass for ideas for the hook. I then wrote the first verse on the red eye flight to San Francisco from Tokyo, hence the lines "So I woke up to // A different place // A stranger's face" (it was never intended to be sexual in nature).

I wrote the pre-chorus on the rooftop of our hostel. I climbed up the fire escape in my pajamas and I could feel the wind blowing and hear the leaves rustling and see the colours of autumn slowly coming through in the trees, hence the lines "Feel the gentle breeze // carry autumn's leaves". I finished the rest of the song during bus rides around Californian and in the band room of the church next to our hostel.

To me this song is about release, taking a step back to breathe a little bit. Singaporeans are always so task and goal-oriented, it's not good to centre our lives around work. I'm not saying you have to get a plane ticket now and abandon all responsibility (#wanderlust) but we need to learn to pace ourselves, definitely. Occupations don't define us. 

The song mostly alternates between Emaj7 and F#maj7, and I love the slight out-ness it has (you can also hear this progression in songs like 'Frontin'' by N.E.R.D). But in the pre-chorus there's a subtle modulation, you are tricked into thinking that the song is in Bmaj instead when the chords go Emaj-Dmaj-C#min7-Bmaj C#min7 D#min7.

'Vandal Miss Joaquim'

Having written songs before this one like 'Haters', 'Comfortable' and 'ROLBOL' which were more in the veins of funk, soul and jazz, I wanted to challenge myself to stay true to my jazz roots while writing a song that was poppy and specific enough to the theme of eco awareness to be selected in the NEA Eco Music Challenge. 

It got through to the finals and Ruth Ling picked me as her mentee. She helped me refine the song which I had composed and arranged, adding in that refrain at the end where the line "This vandalism // has got to cease". She thought of the chord progression Amaj7/B Cdim-C#min7. Although I didn't win, I had a great time recording and producing the song together with her. I'm very thankful for all she's taught me.

The title is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion put forth by my father, who always thinks I need to use lots of witty one-liners and idioms in my writing. The play on the name of Singapore's national flower helped to shaped the imagery of the song: our world is beautiful, like a work of art, and we have to treat this "masterpiece" with care and respect, instead of trashing and vandalising it.

'Comfortable'

This song sets up the rest of the songs for the theme of the album being a revolving cycle of ups and downs in our lives. The lyrics contemplate whether it is a good thing to be free from adversity. I know it sounds crazy, which is why I wrote "I know it // Sounds stupid but // Sometimes I start to wonder // "What if my life was harder" // Would I be // Better than // Sheltered and ordinary?" 

Growing up in Singapore, a place often lauded for its safety and cleanliness, I felt that though I come from a working class family living in a HDB apartment, my life was easier compared to those growing up in other countries, like I was in a bubble. I wondered if I would be a better creative and person if I had gone through more acutely challenging experiences.

This is one of the few songs where I started with the verse. It was a deliberate songwriting exercise in trying to keep the notes in the verses close to one another (I'm mostly alternating between A and B) and then trying to create bigger jumps between the notes in the chorus, to provide a melodic lilt.

The instrumental bridge came about because I was wondering, what other flattened major chords can I use that don't just repeat the ones in the chorus (which has Bbmaj7 Abmaj7 in the key of G). So I learnt what Coltrane changes are and just applied them there, in half-time, for a dreamy feel. 

'Haters Gon' Hate'


Haters Gon' Hate came from my experience of having a friend who was ostracised for having post-traumatic anxiety issues. My close associations with this friend also caused me to be misjudged and misunderstood a little, in my opinion. However, I also found out some time later that one of the people who passed these judgmental remarks had also gone through some tough domestic issues.

So I wrote the song as a call to peace - to be slower to judge, quicker to listen and thus understand each other better. Many bullies are victims themselves but we have to stop perpetuating the cycle of hurt if we want to heal.

Most of my catchiest songs were written the way I came up with 'Haters' - I start with the chorus, with the lyrics and melody for the chorus coming together at the same time. Initially it had a plucked bassline which followed the melodic rhythm very closely but after talking to co-producer Dru Chen about adding slap bass parts, he suggested that I just slap on all the choruses.

He also changed things last minute in the studio while I was recording bass together with drums, played by Aaron Lee (SMQ) - he added all those hits in the last chorus and got me panicking because it wasn't what I had practised.

'Blank'

'Blank' is an improvisational piece I wrote on my looper pedal. Different lyrics and melodies are created on top of the same set of a cappella layers every performance. For the purposes of the recording on the album, I had the pleasure of Tim De Cotta and Benjamin Kheng filling in the blanks with their own stories, not knowing what the story the other would tell. I told them, "Just tell me a sad story".

'Alcatraz'

I wrote this, I remember, one afternoon watching The Dark Knight Rises. I was sitting alone in my room, feeling pensive, remembering all the images of the ocean in the movie, you know, where they dropped the bomb Bane made or something. Then I think started thinking about Alcatraz, the island prison in the US. 

The song is about being too introspective. I worry about the future a lot. Over-thinking made me a prisoner of my own mind, hence the metaphor of the island prison. I wrote this with the intention to make it a song with only bass and vocals. Out of all the songs on the album this is the one I wrote the earliest. Harmonically it's the simplest too, generally varying between Amaj7 and F#min7, except for the pre-choruses which are mostly Cmaj7 and Dmaj7.

'Reign of Love (Bane of Love)'

'ROLBOL' is the first a cappella tune I wrote, based on a poem by William Blake called The Clod and the Pebble. I was listening to a lot of Esperanza Spalding and she has a song which is William Blake's Little Fly poem set to music. I was also reading a collection of his works in a book my best friend gave me when I was hospitalized for an inflamed colon.

When I wrote the song I started with the 7/4 bass riff in the chorus: G D Bb F C G D Bb A F. It repeats throughout the song except for the verses and interludes. Writing this as an cappella song was a very different process from the rest because I couldn't just throw chords on to each bar, I had to write out specific notes for all the vocal lines.

So the song starts off with the baritone and mezzo-soprano vocals in octave unison, the same notes but an octave apart, and slowly you here more lines which have the same rhythm but different notes. And as the song progresses you hear more lines that have different note rhythms altogether. I wrote this very texturally and didn't want it to be a typical a cappella song where each singer is just taking care of one note in the intended chord at time, I wanted each line to be its own melody too.

This is a song about love. Exploring what its definition and its paradox - love is something we all want, but it's essentially giving and sacrifice, and when we give love and it's not reciprocated, we become upset and jaded, as if we ignore the fact to love is to give, not barter trade or sell for a profit. No returns are ever guaranteed.

'Beauty For Ashes'



The phrase "beauty for ashes" is derived from Isaiah 61:3. I made it the title of the album, with the set theme in mind, without the initial intention to 'Beauty For Ashes' the song. The idea for it first came when I a burnt hell note floating in the wind while walking home and I thought, if I were to describe it poetically, I would say that it was dancing in the wind. I then came up with a whole chorus following that first line, followed by the hook - both lyrics and melody at the same time, as with 'Haters'.

I wrote this to get myself through the ending of a relationship and a job that was draining my soul and taking time away from the things and people I loved. Essentially it's a song about hope, that though there are things we don't understand, we can trust that it will work out. It's very hard to believe it in the moment, but when I look back in retrospect at some challenges I went through, I find this to be true. So, just as I wrote in the pre-chorus, ‘Gotta keep trying even when you’re crying // Gotta keep pushing even though you’re losing’. 

I have a few songs in E, like this one, but Beauty doesn't use the Emaj chord at all. Also I wrote this after I got my Moog so I really wanted to have the Moog droppin' tha bass in the breakdown before the last chorus, and I fought for that part to be in the song although one of co-producers didn't really like it. Another Moog riff got taken out instead.

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