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New gender, new sound Charice learns to rock

By: - Reporter
/ 03:26 AM October 23, 2016
Charice Pempengco

Charice Pempengco

Charice has been in the music industry for a little over a decade. In that span of time, the singer, who identifies himself as a transman, reveled in dazzling highs, but also languished in depressing lows.

Every so often, when he does not have to be onstage or in a recording studio, he sits down with Alyssa Quijano, his partner of three years, to reflect.

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In those sobering little moments, he looks back on his life, not with regret, but with pride. “All the happy times, the struggles, the challenges, everything—I have gone through all of those,” he said. “And I am glad I’m still here.”

It was not too long ago when Charice was dubbed “the most talented girl in the world,” the pride of the Philippines. He went from one foreign talk show to the next, blowing away Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and their audiences with his prodigious singing. He appeared in “Glee” and performed with Celine Dion. David Foster took him under his wing.

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International stardom did not seem farfetched.

But somewhere along the way, things began to change. It was no longer about the talent, but the drama and troubles in his personal life: the tragic murder of his father; the ruckus about the “edgier” hair and tattoos, which some people took as his way of rebelling; and, finally, his very public coming out in 2013, the backlash that ensued, and the discord it caused in his family.

Still, Charice has no regrets. It was a cliché, he said, but every experience he had, good or bad, had a pivotal role in his growth as a musician and a person.

“Lots of things happened to me. But I’m happy that they did,” he said. “I learned my lessons. All those things made me who I am today.”

“Those experiences gave me the motivation to push forward,” stressed Charice, who has long ditched the regulation hair clips and dainty dresses for a shorter do and a more rugged overall style.

These days, the spotlight may not shine on him as intensely as it once did, but he remains grateful that he still gets to do what he loves most. And, in his bid to rebuild his career, Charice takes the driver’s seat—he’s never been more in control of his music’s direction than he is now.

After a number of management changes, Charice now has his own company, The Mad Union Entertainment. He also has released new music, the 11-track studio album “Catharsis,” which delves into his little-known love for rock, grunge and the blues.

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At the peak of his fame, it was all about show-stopping ballads and torch songs that showed off his expansive range and vocal stamina. These days, he talks of his deep admiration for the music of James Brown, Cody Simpson, David Bowie, Silverchair and Nirvana, his favorite and the main inspiration for Charice’s fifth album.

Charice Pempengco

Charice Pempengco

While he had always been sure of who he was, it had taken Charice, who already knew that his “soul” was that “of a man” as a 10-year-old, longer to figure out what his musical identity was. This could finally be it. “Things are finally falling into place,” he said.

Charice had tried songwriting before, but never fully explored that side of being an artist, because he was shy and cared too much about what people would say. “I was always encouraged to pen my own stuff, but I was insecure. I am not the smartest,” he said.

But now, the pressure is off. “I got to express my real self; no one is telling me that what I am doing isn’t good,” Charice said. “I listened to Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ and it inspired me to write. Before I knew it, I was listening to more music and discovering new bands.”

Why did he call his latest work “Catharsis”? “It was because every song in it leads to a release of emotion in the listener,” Charice said of the album, which has a discernible pop-punk and alternative rock flavor (as in “Epitome of Beauty” and “Killing Myself to Sleep”) and touches of bluesy, country music (“Let Me Love You” and “Haunt”).

Charice has, in the past, tried to moderate his belting in favor of a nuanced, more emotive style of singing. In this album, he seemed to have re-embraced his instrument’s natural power—but, this time, he used it primarily to express angst, not for gratuitous showboating.

“I love my new sound, but when I get invited to do corporate shows and other engagements, I still get asked to do the songs I used to sing—and that’s fine with me,” he said.

When composer-producer Jonathan Manalo of Star Music, which published “Catharsis,” learned that Charice was going down the rock route, he had initial misgivings. Was the singer trying to be edgy just for the sake of it? Rock is a genre that demands authenticity and swagger that cannot be faked. But upon listening to Charice’s work, the record exec felt that the expression was sincere.

Charice knows that not everyone will get on board with his new sound, but he couldn’t care less. “It was not forced,” stressed the recording artist, who is also undaunted by the possibility of alienating some of his fans.

After all, he pointed out, many of them had already turned their backs on him, after realizing that their objection to his sexual orientation was more important than their appreciation for his talent.

“I love my fans, but I’m not scared if they end up not liking my new music. Once in a while, I’d see some familiar faces, (people) who used to love me, but now hate me. It isn’t something new to me,” he said.

As for his international career, Charice said that while there were offers, he would not force it—“if it happens, it happens.” In the meantime, he would rather focus on the local market, which he described as “harder to impress.” “I want to connect with the Filipinos who have been supporting me,” he said.

At face value, releasing a new album does not seem as impressive as touring around the world, or sharing the stage with international musicians. But for Charice, working on “Catharsis” was genuinely just as fulfilling, because it was his most personal work yet.

“Even though people around you constantly say that you can do it, it is still up to you to make things happen; you have to believe in yourself,” Charice said. “This is my first time doing everything on my own. It’s one of the biggest things I have done in my life.”

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