Unique makes his mark

Unique makes his mark

We sit down with local music’s new Boy Wonder to talk about the weird relationship between his art and his fame.

The days leading up to the Unique shoot see the Young STAR team getting antsy. The handler of the 18-year-old singer-songwriter has been hard to get hold of, and the idea of suggesting that maybe we could ask about IV of Spades, or mismanagement rumors, is just off the freakin’ table, lest we prompt an indignant cancellation. Besides, all that noise is tabloid fodder — the real chaos of fame prompts more interesting questions.

So to prepare, I listen to his debut full-length “Grandma,” a strong record by all accounts, on loop, hoping to find some secret that reveals what Unique seems to hide with his quiet demeanor. The record came out on Spotify after news of his album launch concert, to be held Sept. 29 at Kia Theater, was announced. A weird marketing move, but Unique really does have a weird relationship with the public eye; it is often hard to tell, what with the rumors and the memes and the aloof way he carries himself, whether he’s manipulating marketing mechanisms like some cool-headed puppeteer, or getting helplessly tossed about by his own hype waves.

Iconique: The 18-year-old musician may well be on his way to becoming a legend in local music.

But I’m face to face with him at a table in iTrulli in LRI Design Plaza one dry September afternoon, while our editorial assistant and creative director flank me as my interview backup, when he says — with a glint in his eye — that he put the promotional materials out just to see what would happen. “Gusto ko lang makita yung reaction nila, na lumabas ako ng poster na, para sa concert. Tapos sasalita sila nang sasalita. Tapos maglalabas ako ng album.”

Cheeky. That’s one fair descriptor. Less generous assumptions have been made of his character — reclusive, standoffish, pseudo-enigmatic. Really, though, the notoriety is misplaced. He speaks with a tone of guilelessness, as if underestimating the weight of his celebrity. And as far as he’s concerned, the logistics of being local music’s new wunderkind doesn’t really matter, as long as he’s making music. “Minsan hindi mo mapipigilan ‘yun lalo na kapag promotion. So kailangan mo siyang gawin.” The absurdity of fame is just part of the deal.

 

Ayun. Mahiyain. Kasi pag nandito ka” — in the entertainment industry — “pag mahiyain ka, ang automatic (assumption), ‘Ay, yabang.’ Parang, unfair lang. Nandito nga lang ako eh.”

 

Still, despite his massive clout, Unique is still such a mystery to many that mystique is practically part of his branding. So we asked what he wishes more people knew about him, and he pulls out the first sentence like he’s always had it ready. “‘Di talaga ako sanay sa tao.” Then he trails off. “Ayun. Introvert. Uh. Dyslexic.” The average time it takes for a human being to pipe up during a conversational pause is 200 milliseconds; Unique takes a few more beats. “Ayun. Mahiyain. Kasi pag nandito ka” — in the entertainment industry — “pag mahiyain ka, ang automatic (assumption), ‘Ay, yabang.’ Parang, unfair lang. Nandito nga lang ako eh.”

Electric Kool-Aid tests: Unique cites the genre of psychedelic rock as a big influence in the making of “Grandma.”

One can’t help thinking, when one thinks about Unique, about the narratives of MTV and Hollywood history that demonstrate the ways fame can suffocate. Unique’s been compared to Zayn Malik — splitting from a music group at the height of its power to test the waters of solo musicianship, encountering controversy along the way. Comparisons to the Beatles are obvious (his favorite Beatles, by the way, are John and Paul), but let’s not forget that Beatlemania was also characterized by tabloid press harassment. But personally, when I think of Unique, I think of early Justin Bieber. (Lower your pitchforks for a second.) Because for all his cultural capital and extremely devoted fan base and green-tinted paisley appeal, Unique is still just a kid — an 18-year-old who just wants to make music and happens to have his movements constantly monitored by the spotlight.

So let’s talk about the music. Unique cites Tame Impala and the Beatles (of course) as his main influences while making “Grandma,” but the record is so much more eclectic than any psychedelic-rock category. There’s a mindfulness to the way the ASMR-y track M transitions thematically into the beer-swigging swagger of Cha-Ching; OZONE (Itulak Ang Pinto), showing that Unique never quite left disco behind him; Sino drives into the sunset like Up Dharma Down circa “Capacities”; Paalala: rings like the echoes of an abandoned church; even I’ll Break Your Little Heart, the record’s stylistic outlier, evokes acts like Mika and Regina Spektor with its mischievous la-las.

Green-tinted sixties mind: Part of the appeal of Unique’s music it how it evokes the sounds of classic rock.

That kind of artistic organic unity is proof of a legit creative mind, one driven by both flashes of inspiration and a solid work ethic. “Bale ginawa siya ng tatlong buwan. Every day, record kami. Tapos di kami nag-stick sa isang genre. Parang gusto namin mag-experiment ng iba-iba.”

“Experiment” seems to be the key word here, if we’re trying to triangulate where Unique is, exactly, in his trajectory towards possibly becoming a Philippine pop icon. While others might prefer to pigeonhole who he is — ex-IV of Spades member, showbiz pawn, a kid with too much power — Unique is trying to branch out. Before directing the music video for Cha-Ching!, he directed a short film that never saw the light of day. He’s thinking about painting. Before dropping out of high school, he was part of a writing collective, submitting stuff for workshopping. On writing OZONE, Unique says the piece about the notorious Ozone Disco Club fire of 1996 started off as prose, then he kept cutting words until it became a song. His mind.

 

He might have dropped out of high school to pursue his dreams, but really, he’s a wide-eyed freshman, quietly but eagerly marveling at the creative possibilities before him.

I ask Unique what he would do if there were no expectations, if he had all the power, if he could do things entirely his way, and he says he wants to make films, maybe submit to a film festival. A left-field dream, but why the hell not? He might have dropped out of high school to pursue his dreams, but really, he’s a wide-eyed freshman, quietly but eagerly marveling at the creative possibilities before him. Unique surveys that landscape the way we, both his fans and the nonbelievers, look upon what he’ll do next — with excitement, cautious calculation, and maybe a little fear.

Photos by KITKAT PAJARO
Creative direction by MAINE MANALANSAN
Produced by GABY GLORIA
Tags:
#cover #music

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