Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Let me tell you a story. It’s been five years since I last saw Kate Torralba. In 2014, with her long overdue debut album “Long Overdue” hot off the press, the singer-songwriter packed up her life in the country and left Manila for London. The years that followed were a whirlwind for Torralba — a broken off engagement, songs upon songs upon songs recorded in voice memos on her phone and this ever-changing series of destinations.
This story with Kate unfolds over a series of interviews spanning five months, cusping two decades and crossing over Kate’s birthday: the perfect time to look back on the last two decades she’s spent in music.
“I don’t really live anywhere! It’s like, I live out of a suitcase. I just go where the gigs are,” she says when we meet for the first time. “You know, sometimes you’re in a hotel, sometimes you’re in a tent or a sleeping bag in someone’s living room, or sometimes you’re in the Four Seasons somewhere very far, so it depends on the gig. But it’s exciting ‘cause you never know what’s gonna come up.”
Thanks to a handful of engagements around Asia, she was back in Manila for a few homecoming shows. In August, I caught up with her at The 70’s Bistro, one of the city’s storied gig venues where she was playing ahead of Franco. She’s known Franco Reyes since they were teenagers growing up in Cebu and her band beat his at a local music competition. “I won, but he’s the rockstar now!” Torralba says.
She took a cursory glance at the crowd building up around us and wondered aloud, “I mean, this is a Franco gig. These are his fans. I’m not sure how they’re gonna respond to my stuff.” She continued, “I don’t see any familiar faces here, so this should be interesting to be introduced to… gosh, I don’t know, what is the demographic here? I mean, clearly, people are into big, big rock music. It’s a little intimidating.”
A wandering woman
When Torralba released “Long Overdue” in 2013, there weren’t many artists in the Philippines writing the kind of songs she was — tender confessional pieces written on piano, ranging from the eviscerating but cheeky break-up track “Pictures” to the lonely, lilting ballad “Northfleet.” At the heart of it was stories from Torralba’s own life, told with characteristic wit and an attunement to her own emotional world. No one was writing like her and maybe not enough people were really listening either. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you play in Manila?’ And I’m like, ‘I mean, yeah, I could! But I’m not sure if Manila likes my stuff,’” she says with a laugh.
The next year, she moved to London, thinking she’d make her home there making music. “I launched [‘Long Overdue’] and then I left, that’s right,” Torralba recalls. “It was a leap of faith basically, you know, just being like, ‘Oh fuck it, I’m just gonna make music…’ I’m really glad I did it — took the plunge, closed shop, and then started a whole new life there. I thought that was it — like, okay, London forever, but then, you know, life’s unpredictable.”
After some years in London, Torralba found herself getting more and more bookings for performances in Asia. People would fly her in from the UK just to hear her sing. Before coming to Manila, she’d just finished some engagements in Tokyo and Singapore. “Also, I do sing at weddings and birthdays and funerals. I mean, you know, bring home the bacon. It’s funny, right? But yeah, the gigs I like to do don’t really make money, the indie gigs, but these are the gigs that I really love.”
She came onstage to play the piano for an audience of Franco fans. It’s a daunting experience opening show for listeners that might not be yours, but she took it on with ease. A Kate Torralba performance feels like sitting down with an old friend who happens to be a classically trained pianist. Even her vocal delivery lends itself to storytelling, to purposely building a narrative over the course of a four-minute song. The stories she tells melt into songs then back into stories that meander but always make their way to a satisfying ending.
She talked too much, just as she’d predicted. She sang “Pictures” with her Kate Torralband, then prefaced a new version of “Northfleet” dubbed “The Geneva Version” with the story of a bad Tinder date that had ended with her alone at a playground in Geneva. It’s in this way that she plied a crowd of rock fans and won them over — with great storytelling.
She told me the story of seeing a man who would always be standing at the back at her shows in London. “And I had to approach him because I was curious. Like, who is this guy? So I say, ‘Hi, I’m Kate.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I know.’ ‘I noticed that you’re always at my shows.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, I really enjoy it. I really love your act.’ I was like, ‘What? What act?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, you know, you do the stand-up comedy and then you do your music and then the stand-up comedy and then your music.’ And I was just mortified. I was like, ‘I don’t do stand-up comedy. I’m just talking about my life!’”
"I always cared so much about being proper and not upsetting anyone. Basically, most of my life I spent unconsciously wanting to please people and I’m just slowly unlearning that. I think I like myself more these days, when I’m starting to give less fucks about what people say.”
People have suggested she do a one-woman show. “Even Ryan Cayabyab is telling me to do a one-woman musical, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, maybe I could.’ I’ve been just kind of putting some ideas on paper. I’ve never had experience doing theater.” I insist, however, that she’s naturally theatrical. She laughs it off. “Am I? I don’t think so. Well… maybe.”
It’s just one of many directions Torralba can take from this point where she feels is a constant state of fIux. “I’m just really going through this big transition, but taking things one day at a time, one gig at a time, one song at a time. I’ve got some new material coming up. Everyone’s pressuring me! ‘When’s the next album coming out?’ But you know, honestly, it’s a huge commitment to come up with an album.” She’s considering rolling singles out gradually. “There’ll be a couple of singles coming up in the next few months and you’ll never know, it’ll just surprise you — oops, it’s an album now!”
In that regard, Torralba has been writing constantly over her time in transit. She reveals that when strong feelings hit her, melodies soon follow. “I’m feeling like crap, I’m on a train, I’m angry, and I just can’t help but hear the music in my head so I’ll hum it.” She records these snippets on her phone in voice memos, each named after the place they were recorded. A quick scroll through her memos reveals titles like “Tell me what to do - Daikanyama” or “5 Narra.”
This collection of fragments may or may not come together into a new Kate Torralba record. “I do have a concept for my next album. I don’t know if I should reveal it...” she says, pausing for a moment. “Not yet. It will be a surprise, but it is related to this globetrotting lifestyle.”
From the start, a central element that set Torralba apart was her classical piano training. It bleeds into her song structure. Her songs are built around that central relationship. “I started playing the piano because I was four and my whole family, they took piano lessons every Saturday and they were all learning the same piece, and it was ‘Moon River.’ And they all thought I was too young to take lessons but supposedly I just came up to the piano and played it by ear — it was just just freaky,” she says. Torralba continued formal studies in classical piano then flew to the U.S. to play her first concert when she was nine. “I was offered a music scholarship, but my very conservative family from Cebu were like, ‘What? You’re nine. You can’t be studying abroad!’ So it just was out of the question.”
When she returned to Cebu, she discovered Nirvana and started playing electric guitar and violin in various bands (around which time she beat Franco at a battle of the bands). “I was like, ‘Fuck this piano shit!’ I started to play the guitar and I played power chords.” Then in 1994, singer-songwriter Tori Amos released her sophomore album “Under The Pink.” “It just changed everything for me,” Torralba says. “I’m like, whoa, I can make my own music on the piano.”
Torralba’s music is inextricable from Amos’ work and legacy. Both were child piano prodigies. Both played in rock bands before they were given the space to play solo on the piano. Atlantic Records executives famously told Amos to replace all the pianos on her debut album “Little Earthquakes” with guitars because they didn’t believe the record would be marketable. Amos stuck to her guns and proved them wrong, paving the way for music like Kate Torralba’s.
When Torralba met Amos at a book signing in New York in 2017, it was an overwhelming experience. “It’s like everything coming full circle. It’s like my entire songwriting history is just — she was the catalyst. And then she’s right there. I could barely speak. I was just crying. I was crying! And I gave her a hug and there were so many things I wanted to tell her, but she just hugged me and she just hugged me... that was mind-blowing — your heroine is just there hugging you.” Torralba comes close to tears telling this story and I come close to tears hearing it.
Burning the old year
After our interview at the Franco gig, she circles the world another time. Over the course of this month, she meets Pete Buttigieg, Paul Rudd, and Florence Welch, then she turns up at a Halloween party in Manila in a Jollibee costume she made herself (we don’t immediately recognize one another). I realize in retrospect that every Kate Torralba story is too absurd to not be true.
The month after, Torralba invites me to a secret afternoon gig at a new bar in Poblacion. It’s a stark contrast to the Franco gig. Here, she can name every person in the audience, and she’s alone onstage with no band — just her, the piano and her endless stories. There are fragments of new songs. There is a mishmashed medley of audience requests (including a cover of Paramore’s “Still Into You” which she learns on the spot). She does the original version of “Northfleet” (a song I maintain sounds best on solo piano) and she has a moment with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that leaves her (and some of us) in tears.
We sit down one final time to wrap up this story after her birthday late last year. She’s in a nostalgic headspace because she’s clearing out her Manila home before leaving again, packing up nearly two decades of clutter: cassettes, decor, books, and clothes on top of clothes. “My God, I’ve had so many lives,” she exclaims mid-conversation. “I feel like Manila is the place where I kind of found myself. I became my own person. And then it’s weird to go back here and feel very disconnected from the city. That house, I haven’t actually lived in it… it’s just a place where I parked my stuff. I never felt at home there, but the objects,” she says with a genuine reverence to the fragments of her life that have come to collect in that house. Every item comes with a story that she’s giddy to share.
Within those two decades since she moved to Manila, she’s come how much her conception of her own music has changed. “I just feel like I have a little audience but the little audience gets it, and for me, that’s it. But for some time, because I put all my eggs in that basket… I put an unrealistic expectation on my musical work. I felt like, ‘Well, I’ve invested so much; it should give me something back. I mean, I should earn from it.’ And I think that was my downfall for a while because it was frustrating, and now I’ve just come to accept it’s my baby. It’s like my child. Do I birth a child so that the child will eventually feed me? It’s just not right. My perspectives on music and that trade has changed a lot.”
I ask for one final story, because I’d never seen her cry onstage as she did playing “Landslide.” I say, “Only if you’re comfortable, can we talk about it?”
“2019 was pretty brutal to me. I went through some really painful things but you know, I’ve learned to live a day at a time… and then I guess I never faced my heartache.” Kate recalls how Stevie Nicks wrote that song at a moment of upheaval in her own life while staring out at the Rocky Mountains, imagining an avalanche. “I’m getting goosebumps. How fucking beautiful is that?” she says, then stops herself. “I curse a lot these days, wow. That’s a new thing. I always cared so much about being proper and not upsetting anyone. Basically, most of my life I spent unconsciously wanting to please people and I’m just slowly unlearning that. I think I like myself more these days, when I’m starting to give less fucks about what people say.”
Few people have the gift of great storytelling — of holding your attention so well that it hardly even matters what happens in the story. It could be a saga of mythical proportions, an entirely absurd celebrity encounter, or a recollection of the most mundane moment, but for as long as it’s being told, we’re held in the grip of a story, waiting to see what comes next. Scheherazade collected enough tales and rendered them with enough wonder to keep herself alive for 1,001 nights. Kate Torralba has been traveling the world, collecting stories in voice memos and her own memory. Imagine what we’ll hear when she decides to tell them.