When I caught Shelma Shalindri’s debut performance in Jakarta last August, I was immediately enthralled by the sheer beauty of her voice and music. Her lilting soprano caresses the ears like a long-lost friend while her songs — written and performed entirely on a ukulele — cut straight to the heart in their bareboned simplicity.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the ukulele as overtly precious, earnest, or twee (although by all means, let Eddie Vedder prove that it can very much rock); however, Shelma makes the instrument sound graceful and even occasionally grand, a testament, above all, to the strength of her songwriting.
“The vocal/ukulele thing kind of just happened,” Shelma explains. “I bought my first ukulele in 2018 with my first paycheck thinking it would be easy to play. As time passed, I got the hang of it and became comfortable playing the instrument. I found later that this minimal approach allowed me to become more intimate with my listeners, and that’s all there is to it.”
Shelma’s music seems to fit right into the current landscape of the Indonesian music scene. For the better part of the 2010s and onwards, acoustic-oriented acts such as Adhitia Sofyan, Endah N Rhesa, and Payung Teduh were no longer relegated to the “indie” bracket; they were steadily becoming mainstream, building on the momentum set by their forebears such as Sore, Float, and Efek Rumah Kaca throughout the 2000s.
In the past, the likes of Adhitia Sofyan and Endah N Rhesa would write and perform in English by and large as a form of rebellion against the Indonesian major label system that typically did not allow its signees to release materials in English. These artists’ materials were also reflective of their cosmopolitan leanings and affinity for 2000s-era Western folk-tinged adult alternative pop.
Shelma, on the other hand, is part of the new wave of singer-songwriters that offers a specifically Indonesian aesthetic and perspective; for starters, her sound is largely indebted to kroncong, a Portuguese fado-derived genre that flourished in Surakarta, where she hails from. Meanwhile, her songwriting does not solely focus on matters of the heart (or the self) either; in fact, it’s mostly preoccupied with observing others and their actions, and how these impact her or how she perceives them. In short, Shelma revels in capturing snapshots of mundane life moments and paints them as arresting, contemplative vignettes, all set to a sole ukulele.
This is already evident in “Cerita Penutup Pekan” (“A Story to Close Out the Weekend”) the opening number of her 2022 debut, Catatan Si Pelupa (Notes of the Forgetful), a moving retelling of watching children play at the park. On Catatan, this is how Shelma tends to position herself: the keen observer, the realist motivational speaker, most notably in “Istirahatlah Sebentar” (“Take a Little Break”), or both, as in “Jalani Saja Satu Hari Ini” (“Just Go Through the Day”).
“For the most part, I’m inspired by everyday life and people in general,” she says. “My friends and family, my favorite musicians, fictional characters, works by my favorite artists and illustrators since I love going to art exhibitions a lot. Even random strangers that I passed by for 15 seconds on the street. I’m not very good at responding to other people’s stories and experiences, so it all goes into my music instead.”
Across The Culture (ATC): What was the turning point that made you go, “I need to be doing music full time”?
Shelma Shalindri (SS): It was actually after my album was released. Once it was out, I had given up on doing music altogether and thought I would just focus on my 9-to-5 job.
But the response to the album was really good. It allowed me to meet all these people who ended up being my friends. It inspired me to do music seriously. I came to realize that doing music was what made me feel alive.
ATC: How did Catatan Si Pelupa come about?
SS: I used to do a lot of covers on social media during the pandemic. The person who ended up being my producer came across them and offered to produce my original work, but I’d have to have 8 songs. I only had 2 at this point.
I immediately said yes without thinking twice. Eventually, I came up with five more songs about three months later and my producer chipped in another. The entire album was recorded live and completed within about six months, including the mixing and mastering. But it would take another year until the album finally came out because I needed to convince myself to put the album out.
ATC: Catatan Si Pelupa is such an interesting title. What went into the decision to have that as the album title?
SS: All of the songs were based on my journals. For the album, I picked some notes that were near and dear to me, that I could relate to, and turned them into songs. These notes are my way of remembering certain life events or phases since I am a forgetful person, which is why I got into journaling in the first place. I thought Catatan Si Pelupa would make a great title for the album. I proposed it to my producer and label and thankfully, they agreed.
ATC: Speaking of songs, your songs tend to be very observational and occasionally motivational. Is this intentional?
SS: Not necessarily. In fact, I would say 95% of my music is very personal. But yes, my songs are mostly about everyday life, so I just want to present them as truthfully as possible. I think that’s why people have been responding so positively to my music because they find something that they can relate to in it.
ATC: “Istirahatlah Sebentar,” in particular, seems to be a real crowd favorite and also has the most plays out of all your songs. Why do you think that is? What inspired you to write it in the first place?
SS: I’d burned out at work and confided in someone who wasn’t being very supportive and instead saying things like, “You should be grateful [for still having a job].” It made me blame myself even more when I was already fatigued and worn out.
I came to realize that in moments like that, I’m the only one who can sort myself out. Then the line “It’s okay to feel down / But don’t stay there too long / Though it’s fine if you do” came to me just like that.
People have come up to me just to say how much they relate to the song, or how it keeps them company in their low moments. I remember someone saying that the song made them feel like being patted on the back by a friend. That made me feel good.
ATC: Having a song called “Cerita Penutup Pekan” as an album opener is quite an offbeat move too. Any specific reason behind this?
SS: The sequencing is definitely intentional. I position myself as something of a narrator over the course of the album, reading out stories from my notebook. The song is sort of the introduction of a character — the little child that the song is about, who is actually me — and this character goes through a journey from one song to the next.
The album closer, “Tak Akan Usai” (“Won’t Be Over”), also signifies that the character and her story will continue to have an arc long after the album stops playing. It also reflects my hope for my creative process — I want it to carry on beyond this album.
ATC: Has there ever been any external pressure to use other instruments? Or are you sticking with just the ukulele for the time being?
SS: I would say there’s more inquiry than pressure. People would ask, “Are you not interested in adding more instruments?” and stuff like that. It doesn’t bother me, though. My producer and label are respectful of my creative space anyway. I’ve thought about [adding more instruments], but I’m good with just the ukulele for now.
ATC: Do you think not coming from or being based in Jakarta gives you more of an edge, especially with the type of music you’re doing?
SS: I’ve been able to reach a wide range of listeners as an independent artist thanks to streaming, which probably would’ve been the case anyway had I been born or based in Jakarta. Streaming is a blessing for someone like me who hasn’t been doing music for a long time.
However, I would say that a specific challenge of being a musician in the streaming age is really knowing what I want to do musically as well as developing and maintaining the essence of my sound. That said, I believe that every artist and their work have their timing and will eventually find their place.
ATC: You’ve recorded for a movie soundtrack, you’re booked for gigs here and there, your music is well-received in general. What’s next for you?
SS: I’ve written a few new songs, but I don’t know if they will make it to the next album. I still have my main job too, so I only get to be creatively productive at certain times. But I just want to keep writing more songs and have more people listen to my music. I want my music to be useful for other people and a positive force in their lives, that’s all.