By IVENA HON
IRMA Seleman was born in a small kampung in Penang, and she grew up dreaming of becoming a pro basketball player. Today, she’s living a different dream as a singer in New York, hustling to put together her debut album.
We bet you’ve heard various similar but over-romanticised versions of this “struggling artiste in New York” story, but that’s actually what it is for the soul/R&B singer.
“It’s always a constant struggle living in New York. Be it financially, musically or anything else. “But I believe that keeps me hustling and striving for the best, and honestly, I love it,” said Irma.
To raise money for her album, Irma works three different jobs (all music-related; so no “worked as a waitress” cliche here), performs regularly around New York, and has just started a crowd-funding initiative.
“I have my own savings for the album, but living on minimum wage in New York makes it hard to to put out a full-length album,” she said about the crowd-funding campaign.
Luckily for her, she has some pretty big names behind her. Some of Malaysia’s best musicians based in the United States – including bassists Rozhan Razman and Feri Bong, drummer Arthur Kam and keyboardist Edvard Lee – are working on the album. Now how’s that for representing Malaysia?
Small town girl, big time dreams
What makes Irma’s achievements all the more impressive is the fact that she only started considering music as a career after secondary school. When she was in school, all she thought about was making it to the Bukit Jalil Sports School as a basketball player.
“I’ve had a passion for music since I was a kid, but I couldn’t really pay much attention to it because my school didn’t have any music courses,” she said.
That passion was fostered by her father, a musician who brought her to gigs regularly. So when the pro basketball thing didn’t work out, she and her mother browsed the Internet looking for colleges.
It’s the toughest place to make it in music, and most people will suffer. This is not Hollywood and what you see on TV. This is reality.
That’s when they found out that the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, US had a twinning programme with the International College of Music (ICOM) in Kuala Lumpur.
Her passion for performing grew while she was studying at ICOM and paying her musicians’ dues singing at corporate events, weddings and clubs.
Going to Berklee, however, was a bit of a challenge, as her family was “nowhere near financially capable” of sending her to the United States.
“But I took the chance to audtion and received a good amount of scholarships before I came here. And when I reached Berklee, I applied for even more scholarships. It wasn’t easy, but we made it through.”
Perhaps “made it through” is an understatement. By 2012, she had already released an EP in Boston. Then in 2014, she was sponsored by Berklee and the Close Encounter Festival to go on tour in Finland and Russia, which she said is her biggest achievement so far.
But the challenges never end in a city like New York, and that’s exactly how Irma likes it. “The scene is way bigger here,” she said, comparing New York and Malaysia. “In Malaysia, everyone knows each other, but here I meet new people every single day; I see new musicians performing at the same spot of the subway every day.”
I chose crowdfunding to raise funds for my album because I didn’t want to rely on any record labels. I want to be in control of my album’s direction and purpose.
“Selecting crowds and venues are essential. I have to know what audience I’m playing for. Promoting a show is way harder here too. There will be 30 other shows going on at the same time within just a few blocks. But music lovers are everywhere in New York and again, I just love the hustle.”
Arthur Kam, the former child prodigy drummer who’s also building a career in New York, echoed Irma’s thoughts. “It’s the toughest place to make it in music, and most people will suffer. This is not Hollywood.”
And because of that, Irma and Arthur are both working hard on her album, titled My World, for which she wrote over 70 songs, whittled down to 12 for the final record.
“I chose crowdfunding to raise funds for my album because I didn’t want to rely on any record labels. I want to be in control of my album’s direction and purpose,” she said.
But even if the crowdfunding fails, Irma vows to finish what she started. And if she ever needed inspiration to keep going, she only needs to look around her.
She said: “In New York, people are constantly moving forward. Thousands of musicians come from all over the world to pursue their dreams in music, bringing their own culture and putting together music in their own way. Here, music is art – not a competition.”
- Interested in helping Irma complete her album? Click here!