IT’S my first time in a musical and I can’t really act,” revealed singer-songwriter Foo Bihzhu, better known in the local music scene simply as Bihzhu, frankly and self-deprecatingly. She has paid her dues, of course, with the release of her debut album Nightingale Tales three years ago, a musical smorgasbord featuring six songs of diverse genres. But acting is a different ball game all together, and she’d be the first to admit it.
The Penangite has been cast in the local production of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, produced by PAN Productions. “It’s just a bit part!” said Foo with a laugh during a recent interview, sharing that she plays the part of the mother-in-law.
“The music is challenging because it’s Sondheim and he’s known for writing challenging music, but I feel really lucky and excited!” she said of the musical, which runs from May 9-25 at KLPac in Kuala Lumpur.
The songstress found herself in the spotlight when she was chosen as a feature artist in Julie’s Biscuit’s nationwide “Share the Love” campaign. Her contribution, single The Heart Way, stole people’s hearts and before she knew it, the tune was featured in Penang’s global tourism advertisements.
Even on the international stage, Foo’s talent has not gone unnoticed. Last year, she won the SONY Song of The Year award at the Voice Independent Music Awards 2013, the independent music awards platform of Southeast Asia.
She’s come a long way, too. Back in secondary school – a private Chinese school in her hometown of Penang – Foo was the odd one out: the creative person in an environment that encouraged uniformity. “I was once disciplined by a teacher who asked me ‘Why do you want to be so different?’” she recalled with disbelief. “I was thinking, ‘Are you even listening to yourself?’”
It was during her university years, though, that the songbird managed to spread her creative wings. “I felt at home in an educational environment for the first time in my life,” she said. “I met people who are still my best friends now.”
In 2005, while still in university, Foo and her friend Ywenna Carollin became the pop-jazz duo Rhapsody. “We were quite active in the indie scene,” reminisced Foo. “But we broke up before things really took off.”
She then joined reggae band Layan Sound System, but progress stalled when the band leader left for Ireland. She soon re-collaborated with Carollin and quit her job as a writer for a men’s fashion magazine. However, she was left high and dry again when her former partner relocated to Singapore in 2010. “For about half a year, I didn’t do any music at all. I just focused on my freelance writing gig to feed myself,” recalled Foo.
In early 2011, she decided to go solo. “I used to have a fear of not being able to write music, and I can’t play any musical instruments, either,” confessed Foo.
When she was in a band, she would write the lyrics while someone else wrote the music. “It was a mental block,” she said, “But in 2011, I had an epiphany of sorts. I felt it was a spiritual calling: I would be carrying sound, love and light as I sing. It gave me the impetus to not be afraid of the things I cannot do!”
Nightingale Tales, which mixes jazz, pop, and even reggae, was her first attempt at songwriting. “I wrote what I like, and that’s how the first album came about.”
Her second album is slated to be released later this year. “You know how people say the second album is the hardest? I’m feeling it now!” she said in stitches. “The first album was very eclectic, but the second album will give a clearer sense of who I am. But I will still be exploring a lot of sounds. I’m very fluid and I like different things, so I want to express those different facets of my personality in a clearer manner.”
The bubbly Foo is completely grateful to her parents for their unwavering support – even when she quit her job, which might worry most parents. “I called each of them to tell them I had quit, and they both had the same response: ‘Oh OK, is that spiritually the best thing for you?’” she shared.
Her parents also surprised her by funding her first album. She had initially planned on taking a loan from a friend. “They saved me from debt!” she said with a hearty laugh.
With success comes the fans. “I was lining up to pay at the cashier in China House (Penang), when I suddenly heard someone call my name. It was a couple, and they asked me ‘Are you Bihzhu?’ They were like ‘Oh my god I love your music!’” said Foo excitedly, on the first time she was recognised.
“I’m not a cool celebrity. I was like ‘WOO!’”