The dreamlike legacy of Odette Quesada’s love songs

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One of the most prolific songwriters of her generation, Odette Quesada helmed OPM classics such as “Till I Met You,” “Give Me a Chance,” and “Friend of Mine," that sounded at home next to the era’s most beloved English-language ballads. Illustration by BRENT SABAS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Like all early memories, 80s love songs have the texture and quality of dreams: they’re opaque and overlapping. Before the internet came and digitized all our abstract memories, pre-EDSA ballads felt like one long song, largely because they embody that same hyper-serious intensity that felt alien to kids like me. As far as I was concerned, “Sailing” was “Somewhere Down The Road” was “Through The Years” was “Don’t Know What To Do, Don’t Know What To Say.”

It was in this hazy dream soup of the 80s where Odette Quesada produced her best work. One of the most prolific songwriters of her generation, Quesada helmed OPM classics, such as “Till I Met You,” “Give Me a Chance,” and “Friend of Mine," that sounded at home next to the era’s most beloved English-language ballads. It certainly helped that her singers could mimic the American pop accent well, but there was something undeniably “American Top 40” about her songwriting. While her orchestral ballads lend easy comparison to contemporaries like Barry Manilow and 80s-popified Kenny Rogers, her knack for warm, early 70s melodies puts her sonically closer to The Carpenters’ “Rainy Days And Mondays” and The RAH Band’s “Sorry Doesn’t Make It Anymore.”

Quesada was mostly anonymous throughout the decade, standing behind more famous voices, but few can match the impact she had on the industry. Like the hidden desires and fears embedded in dreams, her influence was stealthy and profound. She wrote memorable hits for Ric Segreto, Kuh Ledesma, Raymond Lauchengco, Gary Valenciano, and Sharon Cuneta — basically more than half of 80s OPM royalty. She would go on to release her own songs, one of which — “Friend Of Mine” — would be covered by Lea Salonga and MYMP, enshrining it in the videoke hall of fame. Now she is getting a well-deserved pop tribute in the much-hyped JaDine teleserye “Till I Met You,” whose soundtrack doubles as an Odette Quesada’s greatest hits compilation. She is the Burt Bacharach of 80s OPM, and this is her “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

We’re in the midst of an Odette Quesada renaissance. Here, revisit some of her most iconic songs and let modern technology flesh out what used to be an elusive memory.

                                                 Till I Met You (performed by Kuh Ledesma)

This song won first place in the 1983 Metro Manila Popular Music Festival when Quesada was 18 years old. That’s right: someone who couldn’t legally drink alcohol beat grown-ups like Rey Valera and Vehnee Saturno with a heartfelt song about overcoming cynicism to find love again. “I never dream, ‘cause I always thought that dreaming was for kids,” the teenager wrote. It’s not quite like 16-year-old Jackson Browne writing, “don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them” in the sad bastard anthem “These Days,” but it’s still very impressive.

                                             Growing Up (performed by Gary Valenciano)

I somehow remember this theme song from the 1984 movie “Bagets” being more, should I say, “energetic” than Youtube reveals it to be. It was stashed in my memory next to rollicking Rick Springfield songs and “You’ve Got The Touch” from The Transformers animated movie. It turns out “Growing Up” sounds more like Menudo-lite. The idea of the best teen songwriter doing a theme song for the decade’s definitive teen movie leads to inevitably high expectations, but these are expectations set in the present tense. Local mainstream music wouldn’t rock for another 10 years, and in 1984, you can’t expect a major film company to be at the cutting edge of pop. Ersatz Robby Rosa would have to do.

                Don’t Know What To Do, Don’t Know What To Say (performed by Ric Segreto)

In the ballad salad of the 80s, this was virtually a foreign song, indistinguishable from Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald radio fare. It took me years to find out that this was an OPM song and even longer to realize that the woman behind two of Ric Segreto’s most invincible hits was the same woman responsible for most of 80s OPM’s invincible hits. Still, this song’s frequent inclusion in all those senti college mixtapes that featured Michael Johnson and Stephen Bishop speaks not just of its Western likeness but also of its very Filipino edification of the “torpe” (at least in pop music, if not in real life). A pretty un-macho and un-80s song, in retrospect.

                                         To Love Again (performed by Sharon Cuneta)

This is easily Quesada’s best song. It’s a four-minute exhibition of what makes her such a great songwriter: she pulls, tugs, and bends melodies so deftly that her music simulates what falling in love feels like. Love isn’t just beautiful, it’s also really painful; and what often makes it worthwhile is also what makes it hurt so much, like how Quesada’s prettiest melodies are also her most melancholic. It’s really very indie pop that way; I don’t know why a local indie pop band hasn’t gotten around to covering it yet. Attention: Outerhope or Ourselves The Elves or Some Gorgeous Accident.

                                       Friend of Mine (performed by Odette Quesada)

As a singer, Quesada is a minimalist, more intimate than grand, more Tracey Thorn than Dusty Springfield. This quality makes the original version of “Friend of Mine” the most interesting one. In this version, the singer is in a state of post-hurt, languishing somewhere between bargaining and acceptance, no longer yearning like Lea Salonga, or fragile like MYMP. The ship has sailed and the song is really about the friend zone being a Sisyphean burden, as expressed by Quesada’s languorous delivery — she sounds defeated and weary even as she sings “but then again, I’m glad.” We know you’re not, Odette. And we feel you. We always will.