Inspired by the likes of R&B giants Justin Bieber, Usher and Rihanna, Ismail sets out to redefine the pop genre and explore the world of music beyond his comfort zone.
At just 21 years old, singer-songwriter Ismail Izzani has made it big with his hit singles like “Bidadari”, “Demi Kita” and “Sabar”, which first kicked off his career four years ago and has now garnered over 47 million views on YouTube. Even with a huge following on social media, Ismail is incredibly humble — often saying that he still has plenty to learn, both in his career and in life.
As a self-proclaimed mama’s boy, he feels very grateful for the support he has received from his mother throughout his career, and owes all that he has achieved to her. Ismail also considers himself an experimentalist, and is ever keen on trying new styles of music while still keeping in touch with his own sound.
“A lot of people are afraid to break out of their comfort zone,” says Ismail. “But for me, I think it’s worth the risk to just try. I want to grow up in my music, and to always try to discover the best side of me.”
His relationship with music is unbreakable. Within minutes during our shoot, he asks to put on songs from his playlist to get into the groove — breaking the monotonous beat of the instrumental tune in the background. As he warms up, Ismail blossoms into the bubbly, fun, and energetic person that he is.
We sit with Ismail to talk about the music industry in Malaysia and how it has changed as new young artists are constantly emerging.
I consider myself an adventurous guy. I love exploring new things, and I don’t like to feel like I should be placed in a box. Even when it comes to music, I can’t settle on just one thing yet — I still have a lot to explore, and so I’m grateful that I’m still able to every day.
For music, I think there’s still a lot to explore. It’s both a universal and personal experience, and it’s different for everyone. In life, I still feel like I’m young, so I have a lot of things I still want to do — go out with my friends, go café-hopping or explore the world, and make my mum proud.
Oh yeah, I love coffee. I like to try out new cafés when I go out, whether it’s with my friends or by myself. I’m not a huge coffee expert, so I’ve never really thought about making my own coffee. But I do enjoy a cup of coffee. Hopefully I can learn to make my own — a good, fully automatic coffee machine would be best so I can make all kinds of coffee.
I really love R&B. But in Malaysia, R&B has never really been very popular, which is why I chose to go for pop music. Exploring music can be really hard, so what I’m doing right now is making music, and posting it up on YouTube and Spotify. From there I discover other people’s music to see if there are any new genres for me to explore. Sometimes I listen to Korean songs or even French songs, because that’s how I figure out what I want to create next. People know me as a pop singer, but I don’t want to just stay in my comfort zone. I’m trying to bring more fresh music locally, whether it’s through pop music or other genres.
I know this can sound cliché, but my inspiration comes from my mum. My mum used to be a singer, and at first she didn’t know that I could sing. I kept it a secret for three years — I just sang on my own and even won a singing competition at school when I was 11. I didn’t let anyone other than my friends know about it, mostly because I was shy and I didn’t want anyone in my family to find out. Then one day, my mum found the medal in my room and confronted me about it. She has been supportive of me ever since, which I am extremely grateful for. I’ve faced a lot of challenges not just as an entertainer but also as a son, because not everyone gave me the support back then. My mum is the only one who provided it 200%, so my biggest inspiration has always been her.
I grew up with a lot of English R&B songs. It’s all thanks to my sisters. Every time we were in the car, they would put on music by Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Usher. I remember there was a lot of R&B. (laughs) So, I listened to most of those artists growing up, but the best of the best for me has always been Justin Bieber. One thing I really admire about him is that he’s an artist with a story. Ever since he was a kid, people have used him and he has gone through a lot — went into a dark place and got out of it, and now he’s standing up for himself and he’s also gotten married. It’s like everything has aligned for him, and I find his story very inspirational.
What I like about Bieber’s ‘style’ is that he never had just one. For example, with Chris Brown, he will always be Chris Brown. You will always be able to tell his sound. But with Bieber, each of his albums is different. So, I feel like I can learn from that — how I can change my own style of music. It’s always worth it to try, it’s always better to take risks. Bieber tried doing R&B with his album ‘Changes’, but it didn’t take off. But still he didn’t give up, and with his latest album ‘Justice’ he grew even bigger, because it mostly has his pop songs. Some people may have liked his R&B music, and some people prefer pop. So, I want to be experimental like that, too.
I think in Malaysia, we can’t change the fact that rock and ballad are still the two mainstream genres of the local audience. I like to look at it this way — as Malaysians, we want to try eating a lamb chop for a meal, because we want to taste it. But at the end of the day, we still can’t go a day without eating rice. So, people will try to listen to other genres like R&B and hip-hop, but eventually they would still prefer the genres that they’re used to.
I have my songs that I’ve put out and I do get the listeners, but at the end of the day it’s still difficult to sustain because they have their preferences. Many of the older gen now like Dayang Nurfaizah and Faizal Tahir have been making fresh music, which is awesome. And with things like Anugerah Juara Lagu, I feel like that could be a great opportunity to bring in new artists. But the judges are the same every year, which makes that difficult.
I think older people believe that we don’t have enough experience to do the things we do. But the thing is, we change with every generation. Every era is different. I haven’t really been in a situation where people talk about Gen Z a lot, but from what I’ve seen, we do face a lot of things that we eventually learn from. We live in the world of social media, which can be really hard because it can affect us mentally, and make us stressed or depressed. With social media comes people’s expectations about where you might end up, but I believe the most important thing is where you want to be.
Dealing with the challenges in the music industry is hard. My worst year as a singer was 2018, when I was facing some backlash. I’m someone who can’t turn a blind eye from negative comments — I always have to see them, and it got really bad for me. But at the same time, it made me a stronger person. For some people, when they get certain comments, they like to respond and start unnecessary fights. But for me, silence is the key. All I can really do is work on myself to be better. When you make mistakes, learn from them. If not, keep making mistakes and learn again. It’s not wrong. We’re still young, so we have yet to know what the world is like. But that’s how we learn.
I think it really depends on the person if they think that way. What I hold on to is that fame is not everything there is. I understand that certain people feel it’s great that they can garner a following on social media. I mean, that’s good for them. But what I would also ask is — can they see a future in that? You’ve reached the goal, so what’s next? I believe you need to have a passion to go along with it. For example, if you want to be a famous actor, then you have to go to classes to learn the techniques. You have to work your way up to earn your opportunities in movies. Back then when there was no social media, people had to physically scout out talents. It took a lot of work. So, I really hope that those who have become famous on social media get to see beyond that. As long as you stay true to yourself and your passions, you can grow.
Right now, I’m working on a full-length album. I told my label that I want to explore outside of Malaysia. There are a few producers that I know from the US, so I want to hopefully give that a try. Whatever it is, I don’t want to just be here. I want to keep experimenting with my music and learn elsewhere. Maybe if I do get to work overseas and give it a try, it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m successful or not. I’ll be happy either way, because at least I can say that I did it. I don’t want to be 30 and have never ventured out of Malaysia. I don’t want to waste my years.
It’s definitely going to be easygoing for Malaysian listeners — mostly pop songs, and one ballad pop. I know it sounds like I’m playing it safe, but I don’t want to ‘ruin’ my first album. (laughs) I want people to be able to enjoy my songs. I also have a few projects coming up. I recently made a song with an Indonesian artist, which will be released next year. So, hopefully next year will be my debut in Indonesia.