Melati ESP and Rahill Are Coming to Terms With Wrongness

The friends dive deep on their new records.

Melati ESP is the recording project of Indonesian-born multimedia artist Melati Malay; Rahill Jamalifard is a New York-based multidisciplinary artist who performs under her own name and as the lead singer of the garage rock band Habibi. Melati’s new record hipernatural is out now on Carpark and Rahill’s Flowers At Your Feet is out now on Big Dada, so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a call to catch up about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Melati Malay: So, where do I find you today? Are you upstate at the moment? 

Rahill Jamalifard: Yeah, I’m upstate. Where are you?

Melati: I am currently in Bali, and I’ve been here since August last year. We probably couldn’t be any further away from each other. 

Rahill: Truly.

Melati: If I dug a hole, I’d probably just end up in your yard.

Rahill: [Laughs.] And yet you still feel so close!

Melati: [Laughs.] OK, I have my first question: I always listen to your NTS mixes, which I love so much. It’s so nice to have them playing in the house. Particularly for me not having any proper musical training or background in jazz, to be exposed to your mixes and the sounds that you select is really quite beautiful. Do you have a method for putting these together, or is it something that just comes naturally in your mood month-to-month?

Rahill: Thank you, that means a lot — especially because it’s you. I feel like I wasn’t really well-versed or taught anything about jazz, it just sort of happened because of working at Academy Records. They have this crazy selection of jazz music, and all these jazz collectors would come in and always put me on. And I have always loved jazz — I knew jazz from old skate videos, so from very early I was like, Oh, this is cool, different music. Then of course, all that pop ‘90s stuff had jazz influence, so growing up I would hear it. I think that’s why I gravitated towards it. And so I just started collecting records. 

The NTS show is basically what I want to listen to at home, and it just happens to be a lot of jazz. It goes everywhere with it: It’s not just spiritual jazz or hard bop or modal, it’s kind of all over. So that sort of depends on my mood when I make the mixes. But mostly it’s just like that — it’s home listening, so it makes sense that you like to listen to it at home. When I’m working or making food or whatever, it’s the music that I want to listen to.

Melati: Speaking of which, you have a new album coming out in early May, right? 

Rahill: Yes!

Melati: Congratulations.

Rahill: Thank you — same to you!

Melati: Thank you. It’s kind of crazy timing, both of us releasing music around the same time, because we were talking about it when we linked up in New York. What was the genesis for starting a solo record? 

Rahill: It started kind of happenstance. I was in a studio doing other things, and then because I got along with the producer and the A&R — who was sort of allowing my band at the time to record in this studio — I was like, “Oh, yeah, I write solo music, I just haven’t done anything with it.” So I showed them a few things, which became songs [on the record].

 “Tell Me” and “Note to Self” were the first two songs that I recorded that ended up being on the record. But I didn’t know what I was doing until, like, four songs in, and then I was like, Oh, this is a body of work, and this is all kind of focused around me. The whole record is about how I feel free of all the things that were holding me down, and I didn’t realize I was writing about that. Then I was like, OK, so this is a homage to finding yourself and also accepting yourself through it all

Melati: Yeah. I totally feel that. I feel like my record similarly is exploring a sense of identity, and breaking free of some sort of past conceptions of who I should be — and that coming from how I grew up as a mixed identity, having an American father and an Indonesian mother and kind of straddling that weird liminal space between two cultures and creating somewhat of a third culture. You know, they call it “third culture kids.”

Rahill: They do call it third culture, which I didn’t even know! I mean, I’ve always known it. Isn’t it interesting that we’re witnessing the voices of that third culture now? Like, I’ve always felt sort of alone. For me, even just having my parents being Iranian, and I’m born and raised in America — I’m not Iranian enough. Then as an American, I was never American enough. So I’m sure it informs so much of your creative practice, because it always finds a way into mine, because it’s so much tied into identity. 

Which, by the way, I love your album so much. It’s so beautiful. I felt it was so emotive, and that’s why I asked if it was OK if you would send the lyrics. I read the lyrics and they are about what you’re saying — they’re really about identity and seeking freedom from these very human things that are holding us down from our spiritual ability to grow. Getting to read the words and see the translation, it so informs how spiritual it is.You can always pick up on the emotiveness of music, but it’s so powerful when I read back your lyrics.

Melati: That’s so interesting. I actually haven’t shared the lyrics yet with anyone, so I was curious — the main goal for me was for a feeling to come across, because obviously not everyone can speak Bahasa. So that was a massive tick for me to hear you say that before understanding the lyrics, there is a feeling of emotion that you can grasp. Because a lot of the music I think we both listen to is in other languages, so that means a lot. Thank you.

Rahill: It also affirmed for me how much of the music we listen to that we don’t know the language, the actual [lyrics] — [the feeling] checks out, you know? The only other time I did that was when I decided to cover “Haenim,” which is by the Korean singer Kim Jung Mi.

Melati: I love that track. 

Rahill: When I had my friend Mindy translate it, I was like, Wow. It’s just cool. I love that you have that mystery, but then even through the mystery, I feel what you’re talking about. So thanks for sharing the lyrics. 

Melati: Oh, of course. Can you talk to me more about that process of translating from Korean to Farsi? Was there an English translation in between? 

Rahill: Yeah. It was cool: My friend Mindy Seu is amazing, and she’s Korean American, so when I had this idea I called Mindy and she was like, “Yeah, totally.” I sent her the song and — it’s very much similar to me with Farsi, but she was very grammatically [formal] and using the proper words, so she asked her mom to help her. It’s funny because [with] parents, if English isn’t their first language — which it wasn’t for her mom — they kind of both needed to translate it to English. Because her mom knew the words, or the exact translation, but then [Mindy] put it into proper, grammatically correct English. 

So when I got it in English, if I was to just do it myself, to translate to Farsi, it would be really simplified. Where, my dad is like a glossary of poems. He just has such knowledge of the poetic words, which are another entire vocabulary. So I asked him to help me translate. So we both had help from our parents.

Melati: Amazing. It’s like a quadruple translation process. 

Rahill: [Laughs.] Yeah. But you speak your language, right?

Melati: So, it’s interesting I guess, because I was born and raised in Indonesia, but I left when I was 11, so my understanding [of Bahasa] is quite rudimentary. But for this record, I was kind of just embracing it, and I was coming to terms being OK with a lot of mistakes grammatically. I did share it with my sister, and she has a much better grasp on it, and she was like, “Well, this isn’t right and this isn’t right.” I’m like, “You know what? It feels right. So I’m going to roll with it.” [Laughs.] So I kind of came to terms with it being like, I’m not right. I’m a mess of all sorts of wrongness, and I’m OK with it

Rahill: Totally!

Melati: It was actually super freeing, because before I started the process of making this record, I had a massive creative block. Learning from my other project called Asa Tone — we made a record where we defined the musical palette before we started our recording, and I was like, Hmm, maybe I can take from this a little bit and narrow down what the palette will be. As soon as I did that and switched into singing in Bahasa, it unlocked a lot for me. I was able to access this sort of childlike wonder and naïveté, and this carefree feeling that I was never able to access before in my past work. 

Your record sort of embraces this childlike wonder and honesty, which really comes through for me. Is that correct to you?

Rahill: Definitely. All of what you just said so resonates. My sister also speaks Farsi better than me, and she’s always like, “You didn’t say that right.” And the first pronunciation on “Haenim” is incorrect, so I feel you really hard. It used to mortify me, and I totally embrace it too now. 

I think that is part of that radical self-acceptance — if I was to sing it correctly, or if I was to do things in a proper way, it wouldn’t be authentic. I understand that feeling of just surrendering and being like, OK, this is me. If it feels right, it’s OK, because the right person who’s going to receive this is going to feel it, not be like, “Oh, she said it with the wrong vowel,” or something. 

Melati: Totally. 

Rahill: I think un-occupying your mind by those kinds of things will allow you to take down all of the guards. Which is why it was easy for me to be vulnerable and to be really honest. I feel like this is kind of too honest of a record. [Laughs.] But the childlike wonder I really identify with. It’s the one thing that I always want to hold myself to: Am I honoring that part of me that really feels the most true to who I am?

Melati: Completely feel you on that. You mentioned that your dad has a poetic take on on life: Do you feel like that’s influenced how you write your lyrics? Or is it just something that seeps in subconsciously, or is it a very direct source?

Rahill: Yeah. Actually, it’s funny: your lyrics are very poetic and I was wondering this about you, where that came from. But yeah, definitely. I’ve always thought storytelling was important, and it has 100% to do with my dad. Everytime he has to tell me about something, he references a 10 minute long story from, like, a thousand years ago. I’m like, “Dad, did you see that tree outside?” He’s like, “The tree — blah, blah, blah…” And five hours later, I’m like, “OK, is this done yet? I gotta got to the bathroom.” [Laughs.] But he really influenced me. When I go to write — not that I can write like these poets, but I feel like they definitely have influenced the way I want to write. I really appreciate that mystery — how it’s kind of more abstract.But it has never been my style to be able to do floaty, you know? I kind of want to directly speak — but, of course, in a style that’s poetic. 

But yes, my dad was a major influence, because from the beginning, I wrote poetry. That’s how I started in the realm of writing, I guess.

Melati: You grew up in Michigan?

Rahill: In Lansing, north of Detroit. 

Melati: When was your first trip to Iran, and did you go with your family? What was your experience like connecting to the motherland, so to speak?

Rahill: I think the first time I was there, I was in the womb, and then I went when I was one. I’ve been going back every other summer since I was [young]. Our parents were kind of like, “We gotta get them out of America for as long as we can.” You guys moved to Indiana, right?

Melati: Well, my father’s family is from Illinois, but I grew up in Jakarta, and then my family moved to Australia. Then I had a stint in Singapore when I’d just graduated for a year. And then I moved to New York and I was like, Aha, this is my place.

Rahill: So you never lived in Illinois?

Melati: I never lived in Illinois, no. The only time I went to America was in New York. Which felt so correct for me. There was a lot of connect as far as the chaos and the vibrancy of a big city, which is what Jakarta is.

Rahill: You were well-versed in it. You’re a big city girl. I feel like Iran was totally out of my wheelhouse. But because I’d been going since I was really young, that’s why it’s easy for me to identify, although I didn’t live there. But I spent three months of every other summer for my youth, and I think when you’re a kid, you don’t pay attention to stuff. You feel free anyways, anywhere you are, especially when you have 25 cousins to run around with.

But then once I was understanding identity, obviously my relationship was changing with it, because I was like, Oh, this is a place that I connect to, but I’m a foreigner too. So it’s always been interesting. But I’ve always loved going there because it really helps inform who I am. I’m sure you feel the same way when you’re in Indonesia. It’s like, This is my culture, even though I stick out. Even though I feel like I’m a little bit of an outsider, I still feel very much connected and accepted. 

Melati: Do you feel like a foreigner in both places, in Iran and in America? 

Rahill: In Iran, but [also] America, unless it’s New York City or LA. When I’m upstate, I’m kind of like… [Laughs.] I feel American for sure, but then there’s definitely moments where I’m like, Damn, it is a weird place here.

You know what I really loved about your lyrics? I wonder if you are talking to that, because there’s like a few songs where you’re basically seeking refuge, or understanding that there’s a refuge to be seeked, whether that’s within yourself or… I feel like it’s an internal conversation you’re having throughout. I feel like what I connect to is that having to take yourself out of a physical realm, because that is where you’re ultimately able to just let your soul live. I feel like it’s definitely identity, but is it impacted also by just being human and living as a person?

Melati: It’s definitely both at the same time. While I’m talking about my personal experience, I’m also always considering the sort of broader human condition and where we sit right now as far as our humanity and technology. AI is very interesting to me and what the future looks like. So while it is deeply personal, I’m also so curious about what our future looks like and how we can kind of set ourselves up for taking care of each other in a somewhat dystopian feeling future. [Laughs.] I worry about these things. So it’s kind of proposing a more utopian concept for how we could move forward.

Rahill: Because it doesn’t feel dark — that’s the thing. That’s what I love. And actually I identify with that too, because people are always like, “Oh, your subjects are kind of dark, but like, you have such a childlike tone of promise…” You are pondering these things, but it’s with this belief or trust that there is a possibility there is a positive place for humanity. It feels powerful.

Melati: Yeah. There’s this one book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark, and it was really something that got me through some rough times. I mean, it’s very overwhelming to think about the state of the world. There’s no therapy that can get us through this, you know what I mean? 

Rahill: I 100% feel that. I feel like we’ve successfully ruined this connection to our spiritual self, and so in this void of that necessity, I feel like that’s this weird place of, “Hi, wake up! Wake up!” It’s a hard thing to describe because it’s like, What’s going on? Are we really that checked out to allow all of this weird… Like, the technology stuff frightens me so much. But it’s hard thing to wrap your head around. For myself and how it influences my work is that it makes me want to go to a stronger place, because I just want to know that I can withstand the strange things that are unfolding. Because if I know I’m good and my community is good, and I have friends who reflect that, then I feel better about it.

Melati: It kind of goes back to that childlike feeling of hope. It’s like a naïveté, but with some deep faith in things being OK. I also really like the idea of having these quite intense lyrics or topics being discussed in a very pop manner. 

Rahill: Yes, 100%. I love it.

Melati: It’s proposing these thoughts out into the world, but presenting them with a nice sugary, digestible…

Rahill: It’s masterful, honestly. I think it’s so cool. I also just want to tell you that my favorite song [off hipernatural] is — well, it’s hard, because I really like “E.M.Z.” but I love “INTUISI.” And I really like “ANDA KATAKAN.” It’s so R&B. It’s so good.

Melati: That was the first song that we that we made.

Rahill: No way! That was the first song?

Melati: Yeah. And once that came together, it was like, I can see what the rest of this world will feel and look like. But yeah, I was definitely challenging some Janet in that chorus. 

Rahill: I feel it.

Melati: I mean, that’s part of me, you know? I mean, I’m an ‘80s baby, so all of that comes out for sure.

Rahill: That’s so funny. I love it. “E.M.Z.” is one of the singles, right?

Melati: Yeah, yeah.

Rahill: It’s such a major — it’s so fucking good. I like “BAHASA BARU” too. I’m really not well-versed in electronic genres but there’s something so nostalgic because it reminds me of early R&B, early Björk. You also sound like you have smoky jazz sometimes where it sounds like Sade. I’m like, Damn! But then it’s over breakbeats and electro beats. It’s so good. I’m so proud. I have to see it live.

Melati: Thank you, Rahill!

Rahill: You released [in April]. How do you feel?

Melati: It’s a bit surreal because it took me so long to make this album. Reflecting back over the whole process, it’s been years working on this thing in between the pandemic and moving countries. It feels like a massive relief, really, just to have it out in the world and be like, “This is yours now.” It feels really good just to share it with everyone and hear how people are connecting with it. What they take away from it is the most interesting part, I think. It’s super nice to hear your thoughts on it and what you what you get from it. 

Rahill: I feel that so hard. Same process — part of it was recorded before pandemic, part of it was recorded during pandemic, part of it was recorded when pandemic was kind of out of the… whatever zone.

Melati: We made pandemic babies. [Laughs.]

Rahill: [Laughs.] Exactly. It’s so crazy, because I’ve heard these songs for so long now that I need to just take a minute to go back and listen. It’s just been years of working on it.

Melati: The babies need to leave the nest.

Rahill: Yes, it’s time. 

(Photo Credit: left, Yusaku Aoki)

Melati ESP is the recording alias of Indonesian-born, New York City-based artist Melati Malay. Her debut record hipernatural is out now on Carpark Records.

(Photo Credit: Yusaku Aoki)