“I love singing, I love it when I sing with a crowd, and I see them enjoying my music,” says Karmela Kartodirdjo over a cup of coffee in a cozy Kemang cafe.
“It gets me high when they sing the songs I have written.”
You might not have heard of Karmela, better known as Lala, but if you’re a fan of Indonesian pop music, you’re bound to fall for this little lady in a huge way.
With a laidback style, genuine demeanour and a crystal clear set of pipes, this Indonesian-Pinoy girl next door is well on her way to becoming the next big thing.
After spending two years making her name in the Philippines on the Warner Music label, the singer-songwriter returned to Jakarta last year to break into the Indonesian music industry, under the management of Sony.
“Both places are like my home, but I got to have a music career in the Philippines, and I also want to have one in here — I want the best of both worlds,” Karmela says.
In recent months, she has performed regular acoustic sets at Poste Kitchen Bar; toured around Asia with fellow Southeast Asian artists; served as a musical ambassador for Coca Cola’s “Open Happiness” project; wrapped up a musical comedy film; and is now working on her own album, with the first single due out in a few weeks.
Karmela writes songs about “personal experiences, people who are close to me, who inspire me”. Her new single, “Hasrat Cinta” (Passion), is a cover of a hit song from 10 years ago by male singer Yana Yulio.
“Because I’m a new artist here in Indonesia, we want people to know me first, so we gave them something they might be familiar with,” Karmela says, adding that while the song is “very pop” her musical roots are country, blues and alternative.
“But I’m very comfortable with pop. After that I’m working on my album, and will get to do more of my own songs… I want a lot of people to be able to sing my songs. That’s my goal.”
Indonesian artists she particularly looks up to are Rieka Roslan (“she has an amazing voice”) and Glenn Fredly (“I love him”).
At 24, Karmela has considerable entertainment experience under her belt. She began writing songs at 15, acted in sinetron when she was 17, co-starring with Bunga Citra Lestari, Raffi Ahmad, Arifin Putra and Laudya Cynthia Bella in SMP (Senandung Masa Puber).
Despite her acting forays — SKJ (Seleb Kota Jogja), her film with Cinta Laura and new Sony band SKJ, out next month — Karmela is focused on her music.
“I hope I do more albums than I do movies. I want people to know me as a musician, and then acting will be an extension of what I can do … Music is in my bones,” she says, adding that her main source of inspiration is her father, Eko Muhatma Kartodirdjo, famous in Malaysia during the 1960s as one of The Grim Preachers.
“He’s actually the reason why I play music. Since I was a young girl I would listen to him play the guitar and the music he listens to, like the Beatles, and all of that old stuff.”
Karmela is surrounded by songbirds and strummers. Her elder brother Marco is in the acoustic band Mike’s Apartment and is married to singer Imel, while she has been dating J. Mono, pop rock group Alexa’s bass player, for nine months, after meeting him at a television performance.
“We hang out with a lot of musicians. [J. Mono is] also in the industry, so we do a lot of things together. We relate to one another … He’s actually more experienced than me in the music industry, so he gives me a lot of advice.”
Getting to grips with the Indonesian music industry is a top priority for the singer.
“In the Philippines, the music industry there and the culture are different … It’s a challenge, but I’m having fun, because I’m learning a lot,” she says.
“[In Indonesia] a musician can also be seen as a celebrity, an artist … [but] in the Philippines, most of the musicians there are true musicians by heart.”
Karmela notes that “local music is really booming” and has observed a “gap” between the Indonesian audience and the output of local musicians, especially due to the archipelago’s diversity, hence she says “artists have to make more of the music audiences want to hear”.
“People are still listening to dangdut, people listen to Madonna, to Bon Jovi … it depends on what you give them … the more you give, the more they eat. People follow trends. That’s a characteristic of this country,” she says, adding the sale of RBTs (Ringback Tones) have become an important way of measuring an artist’s success.
“For my local album, we’re going to make it Indonesian, the aim is to localize myself again here as an Indonesian, because there is a difference if they see you as international or local, in terms of business too.”
In October, she and Imel, both representing Indonesia, hosted and performed at the Sing Out Asia concert in Usmar Ismail film building in Kuningan, Jakarta.
Sing Out Asia, which Karmela has been associated with since 2008, brings together top young talent from several ASEAN countries, and seeks to inspire fellow youths across the region, musically and through community work. After the Jakarta performance, the Sing Out Asia performers travelled to Japan.
“We got to perform at a bar and that night they were having female singers from Asia, so Imel and myself, and my friend Julianne, she performed with a guitar — she also performed [at the Sing Out Asia concert in Jakarta] — we did a production number, it was really fun.”
Upon her return, Karmela focused on her musical collaboration with three other Sony stars, Ello, Ipang and Beery from St. Loco, as part of Coca-Cola’s global “Open Happiness” campaign.
The only female in the quartet, Karmela represents the “pop female” of the quartet, to the others’ “pop male”, “rock male” and “hip-hop head”. The single, Buka Semangat Baru, was recently released, with an accompanying cheerful music video that regularly screens on TV.
“Every country has its own version … basically we’re trying to make people feel a new spirit again, because there’s a lot going on in this country,” she says.
“The concept was that we were at a circus, at a carnival … It was a really fun shoot, we did that in Bogor … there was a lot of green screens so we had to use our imagination.”
The Coca-Cola tour enabled Karmela to see more of Indonesia, which opened her eyes further to the range of ways people across the archipelago express their love of music.
“The characters of people are really different. In Yogyakarta, people are really calm. They’re so Javanese. In Makassar it’s different. They’re so excited and they always want to take close-up pictures. In Medan or Surabaya, people there are really into music. If we just sing a few songs, they get really hyped up.”
One month ago, on location in Yogyakarta, she completed filming SKJ, which is in the vein of Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do.
“It’s about a band called SKJ that just got signed by Sony, and their journey, because they’re originally from Yogyakarta, so their journey from Yogyakarta to Jakarta, being a band, and there’s a contest…” she trails off, smiling, realizing she didn’t want to ruin the ending.
In the film, Karmela and Cinta Laura were the band’s fans and supporters, and her character has a romance with the SKJ bass player. She enjoyed working on the film, and was full of praise for her co-star.
“[Cinta Laura] is wonderful, I had a really great time working with her, she’s a pro.”
Besides her music work, Karmela makes time for other activities, such as teaching herself the piano and fitness.
“I’m into sports. I enrolled myself in a gym and I’m joining Muay Thai. You need a lot of energy to do this, for example, Alexa have gigs almost every day, and if they don’t keep their bodies fit they can drop.”
Karmela also enjoys going to gigs and is looking forward to the upcoming concerts of Kings of Convenience, Paramore (in Singapore) and Imogen Heap. She hopes one day she can open for a foreign act, and perform at rock festivals.
In the meantime, Karmela is dedicated to making her dreams come true, one day at a time.
“I hope I get to be a part of the music industry here, and be accepted, and people get to enjoy the music I deliver to them, and get to know me through my music.”
“Hasrat Cinta”, the first single of Karmela’s upcoming album, will be released soon. Follow the singer on Twitter (http://twitter.com/LalaKarmela) for more information. SKJ will be released in cinemas in April.
2005 – Bersama – Album, vocalist for band Inersia
2007 – Stars – Debut solo album under Warner Music Philippines.
2009 –”Buka Semangat Baru” – Coca-Cola single with Ello,
Ipang, and Beery of St. Loco.