Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — BP Valenzuela has been fixating on making better decisions. In one song on her new six-song EP (released under her side-project half-lit) she asks, “Why do I make 23 mistakes for every good decision?” In another, she postulates, “Does getting old mean making good decisions?” She never answers those questions in the songs — perhaps because she is still working towards her own answers, perhaps because she’s leaving you, the listener, to grapple with time, with getting older, and with your own decisions.
She’s been thinking a lot, too, about growing up, and how sometimes you find the answer by burying the past, but sometimes you find it by exhuming the past. Earlier this year, the 24-year-old singer songwriter found herself buried in the long-drawn-out process of making her sophomore album “Crydancer,” which she’d announced in 2017 but has yet to finish. “I hate it ‘cause I’m a control freak with my own music,” Valenzuela says. “Plus it’s all very personal so if it’s not super good — if I make a beat or a draft or a song and I’m not 98 percent confident with it — I won’t release it.”
“For the past four years, I’ve tried to be everything at once and it’s really fucking exhausting — and just for my own vanity, you know. I just want to prove to everyone that I can do it. I guess when people expect more, you really kind of challenge yourself in that way. I’m just really hyper-critical of myself.”
Getting caught up in that process with “Crydancer” made her put the project on hold and rethink how she works. Now, four years after her debut album “The Neon Hour,” she’s releasing “paradigm shift.” Most of the EP was written and recorded in 2019 but the project half-lit has been up on SoundCloud for over five years as a repository for songs she wrote and recorded late at night when she couldn’t sleep. A visit to the old SoundCloud page shows a handful of rushed but deeply honest demos, imperfect recordings of her own innermost thoughts.
The new record takes that intimate, almost frantic energy of late-night songwriting and gives it a touch more polish. She wrote the whole EP on her guitar and filled in the gaps with lush production that harks back to mid to late 2000s radio rock. In contrast to the gloss and precision of her electronic production, it’s six songs that sound like they had to be written, recorded and put out in a hurry — because the feelings in them were more urgent than any technical precision. “When I was super young, I guess 10 years ago, this was the music I would listen to,” Valenzuela says. “So it’s like a love letter to that, instead of just me [saying], ‘This would sound so good!’ I don’t care. At this point, with this record, I wanna sound honest. I don’t wanna sound ‘good.’ I need to get this out.”
The title “paradigm shift” refers to a shift in her frame of mind that she needed to make music as half-lit. She had to override her tendencies to be perfectionistic, to isolate herself and overthink her sound. “I was churning out pop song after pop song, electronic song after electronic song, and I was really like, ‘Am I just trying to follow a sound?’” Valenzuela says she asked herself, “‘Where do I want to be heard? The radio? Silently in someone’s room? A club?’ I was still trying to figure it out then I realized it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes me feel good — just the fact that I wrote this song makes me feel good.”
At the same time, it’s an EP that exhumes past lives in the hopes of making peace with them. “This is kind of the record I always wanted to make. Parang it’s just a gift to myself,” she says. “I just want to be happy with myself and making the EP was a step towards that. Also, I just wanna... appease the part of me that really wanted to just make shit for the younger me. If I had this record when I was a teenager or if I made this record when I was a teenager, siguro I wouldn’t be as angry.”
Adolescence is a fascinating period to fixate on. You never know whether to remember it as an age of innocence or a hotbed of personal trauma. For people who came of age in the mid to late 2000s, it’s a time when first loves and pop-punk anthems (and bad fashion) felt completely inextricable from one another. Valenzuela says, “When you were that age, wala kang pake na naka-colored skinny jeans ka and may bangs kang panget. You don’t care! You don’t care that your parents are side-eyeing you like, ‘You’re so ugly.’ Ta’s feel mo ang ganda. ‘I look like Hayley from Paramore!’ No talaga, no you don’t! But you don’t care ‘cause that’s what’s cool to you.”
Even the music from the time had the embarrassing earnestness that teenagers feel most potently. “Kasi when you listen to that now, you’re like, ‘That’s so goofy!’ But then at some point when you were really young, damdam mo talaga,” she says.
Listening through “paradigm shift” brings you back to the headspace of earnestness sans the embarrassment. There’s a lot here for the angsty teenager to resonate with. Valenzuela says much of the record was written after a difficult relationship that had her flying back and forth between Manila and London. The opener “empty houses” is about the isolation she felt waking up in new places throughout that time. “I would sleep in Airbnbs and wake up alone. I would sleep at my ex’s and not be with anyone else for a few months, you know what I mean? I didn’t see my friends, my family, so it’s either I was alone or like completely dependent on someone. And that’s like waking up in an empty house, like you feel weird. It’s just you and this big-ass house, like, ‘Do I want this all the time? Is this what I want to do?’”
“backspace me” is an early half-lit fan favorite that Valenzuela rerecorded for the EP. Over a series of crescendos and decrescendos, the persona in the song types and backspaces a message to a crush, paving forking paths of possible futures with this person then bulldozing them in a heartbeat. It speaks to how so much of her work has to do with expanding the intimate — taking small moments and making them seem immense. It’s also very literally a callback to her teenage years. “I wrote that when I was, like, 18. So it still sounds like you’re listening to a teenager talaga. I was like, ‘Should I do this pa? I’m 24. Will it sound like I’m a baby?’ But I think that feeling never goes away — when you like someone and you try to escape it,” she says.
More of these distinctly teenage feelings arise throughout the record but you can see how they’ve been processed with the maturity and hindsight of a young adult. On “23 mistakes,” she paints an emotionally fraught relationship with genuine tenderness. “Kunwari you're a really composed person and there's one person you're really kalat for, you know what I mean? And you say this day like, ‘No na,’ but then there's something that brings you back and then you make that mistake over and over and over again.”
On “cruising on a wavelength,” her favorite song on the record, she’s sensual yet bitter yet affectionate, capturing exactly what it’s like to be fully entangled in a relationship that is emotionally draining. “It's about being with someone who's fucking exhausting. I think we've all been at that point, [asking,] ‘Does it make you feel good that I'm here even though you're the fucking worst?’ And it’s hard to say that in a loving way.”
“I want you to look at me and I want you to know what I’m feeling. And I want you to hold on to that feeling that you’re reminded of, and think about it. Think about its space in your life also.’”
While there isn’t much literature on it, there’s a popular notion of a second adolescence for queer people — the idea that, especially for those of us who spent our teens in the closet, we have to live out these teenage experiences and emotions in full for the first time in adulthood. With “paradigm shift,” it feels like Valenzuela has written anthems for that sort of awkward era in your life, informed by her own experiences as a queer woman. She says, “I can’t separate myself from being queer, that’s always gonna be with me.” At the same time, she wants her songwriting to “paint with a broad brush” and speak to anyone who’s ever had to deal with these feelings.
Making “paradigm shift” has been a necessary moment for her. She’s hyper-aware of the painful process of growth that got her to where she is and what she needs to cultivate in herself to keep going as a singer-songwriter. “‘Cause making music is hard, dude. How do you make money off of music? It’s air. You know what I mean? It’s like you’re decorating time lang, you’re decorating everyone’s time,” she says.
“I wanna finish the album. I wanna follow through on all the things I wanted to do, and I don’t know, just be present. Usually when I make something, I isolate myself and I don’t fucking talk to anyone for, like, months ‘cause I’m busy just burrowing into my consciousness creatively. But then now, it’s just, how can I commiserate with the world and still be myself and creatively honest with myself?”
To her credit, so much has changed in her since she started releasing music. Now she cares a lot less about what other people think. “I wanted to be cool, but now I just really don’t care about being cool. I just really want to be honest. And that’s what it is now: being honest to yourself is what makes you cool. And, like, people can smell that shit from a mile away when you’re trying to be someone you’re not.”
On the other hand, she is owning up to parts of herself that have always been at the emotional core of her music. She talks about how she wants her music to speak directly to listeners. “I guess when I communicate with people, it’s hard for me to communicate as if I’m speaking to, like, a lot of people. Usually even when I play shows, I see one person and I’m only gonna sing to them the whole time, ‘cause for me it’s really hard to be open. I think that comes with also being kind of queer,” she says. “When you’re growing up that way, you really want to not draw any attention to yourself, but want to connect to someone in a very one-on-one way… that dichotomy of being like ‘I don’t want to be the center of attention’ but ‘I want to hold you and hold your attention.”
She and I joke that listening to her music, whether as BP Valenzuela or half-lit, feels like being accosted emotionally, but it’s all part of her plan. “When I make things, I really want to have that connection with the listener, na parang just hold them by the shoulder and be like, ‘Remember this.’”
More than decorating time, she wants her music to force you to confront your feelings. At first that sounds like an attack, until you realize it’s a challenge — that she’s laid her own feelings of hurt, isolation, and wonder on the table and is asking you, the listener, for that same emotional courage. “I want you to look at me and I want you to know what I’m feeling. And I want you to hold on to that feeling that you’re reminded of, and think about it. Think about its space in your life also.’”
In the original bio on half-lit’s SoundCloud, Valenzuela described the project as follows: “half-lit was made in an attempt to channel my post-midnight loneliness into something else — and it is something else altogether: a way to reach other people. A way to revel in collective sadness. Suddenly I'm not as lonely.”
Does getting old mean making good decisions? Maybe not. Maybe it’s making the same mistake over and over but learning to confront how that makes you feel. Maybe it’s being able to share those feelings with someone in a song that makes you and them feel less alone.
“paradigm shift” by half-lit is out on iTunes and Spotify Oct. 30.