The Songbird Returns
Evanna Ramly 
Sheila Majid
Come Aug 5, Malaysian jazz queen Datuk Sheila Majid will thrill fans with her first solo concert in seven years. To be held at Stadium Negara, it promises to be a spectacular musical extravaganza in support of Boneka, her first album in 13 years.

At the time the interview, 80% of the tickets have been sold. “It’s been a while since I held a concert of this scale,” she says. “So I’m really looking forward to it. It will be tiring but I know that when I get on stage, the vibe will give me incredible energy.”

Focus Life: What are your earliest memories of music?
Sheila Majid: There was always music in our house. I have seven older siblings – four brothers and three sisters – and whoever was the first to get up in the morning would put their favourite vinyl on the record player. We had a great collection.

We were exposed to a lot of genres. I had a soft spot for R&B but my brothers were into The Rolling Stones, Tower of Power and Sérgio Mendes. My musical idols are Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Patti Austin and Chaka Khan. The richness of their melodies continues to inspire artists today.

How would you say music has evolved over the years?
I don’t really enjoy today’s music because I’m big on melodies. I like songs that have good, strong melodies that are memorable. These days, it’s all about the beats. Maybe I’m old school but I find that everything sounds the same.

People have forgotten that music is art and not just entertainment. Music needs lyrics that are meaningful. Our society likes to associate music with bad things – alcohol, late nights, drugs, clubs – but music can also be a vehicle to bring positive effects on the youth. It can move you, even bring a tear to your eye. That’s what music is about – it touches emotions.

Has your creative process changed with new technology in the music industry?
In a way, yes – it makes things much easier. Back then, when I was recording, everything had to be done manually. The chorus had to be sung over and over again. There was no such thing as auto-tune. You had to hit that note; if not, you did it until you got it, even if it took you a hundred tries.

By the time we were through with the song, we could do a live show immediately. We would have already known it by heart, like the back of your hand. Today, there’s a lot of cut and paste, which means you’re going to have a problem during a live performance. You would be going everywhere except hitting the right note.

We used to have a lot of platforms for performances, and that sharpened our abilities and our craft in terms of how you talk to the audience, how you engage with them. My “training” was in the clubs where you had these people who were drunk. And if you got them to listen and look at you for even a minute, it would be an achievement!

Tell us about your new album.
It took me three years to complete it. But for the first time in my recording career, I had total control. I was able to make all the decisions. As such, I’m very satisfied with the result.

What was your main inspiration this time around?
The fans have always been my biggest motivation. I listen to their feedback and everything I do is for them. When my fans talk to me, I can tell they care and want the best for me. Without fans, I’m nothing.

What can we expect at your upcoming concert?
A good time, of course! (Laughs) I’ll be performing songs from the early years so it will be quite nostalgic. I’m sure the die-hard fans will know the lyrics. You may not believe this but I love hearing my fans sing along with me at my concerts.

Twitter, Facebook or Instagram?
I’m definitely an Instagram person. (Ed note: Follow her @sheilamajidofficial)

Vinyl, cassette or CD?
I love vinyl. That’s one thing this generation will never understand. Music on digital loses its warmth – it sounds meek. Listening to music on vinyl is amazing because you feel the warmth. Vinyl is making a comeback so I should consider reinvesting in a record player. We used to have a wall of records collected over the years but I don’t know where they are today. That’s a pity.

Other passions?
Reading autobiographies. My favourite is by the late Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi. I also enjoy the one by Benazir Bhutto.

What is next after the concert?
Grandchildren, God willing. But my daughter doesn’t even have a boyfriend yet! I’m already 52 so I’m no longer competing with anyone. I just sing because I love music and enjoy performing.

Meanwhile, fashion designer Michael Ong shares his journey dressing the jazz queen for the stage.

Ong was introduced to Datuk Sheila Majid in 1995. “The first concert that I did for her was the Ratu concert as well as the one in London. She struck me as a very friendly and open-minded person, and remains so till today. Best of all, she left the wardrobe decisions to us and was not fussy at all.”

In fact, she is one of Ong’s favourite people to work with. “It’s really easy to work with Sheila as she allows me to express myself. As a friend, she’s very caring and has a fantastic memory. She remembers and appreciates every single thing you’ve done for her.”

Ong custom-made all her dresses as she is petite. “She cannot wear something off the rack because they won’t look good. To get the right fit, you need to really understand her body. I even have my own special tricks to make her look taller on stage, something which I’ve relied on since the beginning.”

Another thing that Ong always makes sure of is that she looks glamorous on stage. “Daring yet tasteful, which I love. However, her day-to-day style is very simple and totally different. Just T-shirt and jeans, which she pulls off quite well too.”

Does he have a favourite outfit? “They are all my favourite but I especially love a red dress I made for one of her concerts in Indonesia in the 1990s. It was made of chiffon and duchesse satin.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 243.