Creating Her Own Destiny:
By Adrian Brown

Long before Anggun Cipta Sasmi toured with Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair, her life had began normally in Indonesia, singing and dancing like all other Indonesian children. There was always music in her parents household, "Its just a part of the culture," she says, "When a baby learns to talk and walk, then the parents will teach the baby to sing and dance. It's a part of the culture, everybody can do it." Anggun continued to explain, with an air of fondness for her distant homeland.

I had called Anggun early last June 4th to make arrangements to meet with her later that day, she wanted to hook up and discuss the photographs we were going to do the following afternoon. When I reached her on her cell, she was out and about somewhere in Paris, shopping for a refrigerator and bed for her new apartment. That sounds like fun I said—thinking all women liked to shop—Anggun explained in a lovely English lilt, that although excited about her new apartment, shopping for major household appliances wasn't her favorite way to spend the day.

We arranged to meet later for a drink, at the Hotel Costes—a magnificently decorated hotel near the Jardin des Tuileries in central Paris. Anggun entered the lobby of the hotel a few minutes early, chatting away on her phone. "Have you been waiting long?", she asked with genuine concern as I approached her.

The hostess seated us at a small, round cocktail table in a fabulous courtyard busy with potted plants, darting warblers and people chatting over late afternoon drinks. Anggun wore a mossy green tank top, black pants and strappy low heeled sandals. Her shoulder length hair was parted down the middle, and gently enveloped her face. The four terra-cotta coloured walls rose majestically around us as several men at surrounding tables craned their necks and lowered their sunglasses to get a look. Perhaps because they recognized Anggun from her music videos, or maybe just because she is so strikingly beautiful. Immediately likeable and a consummate professional, who appears unjaded by her rising international fame, Anggun spoke and moved elegantly during our meeting. And my professional demeanor battled my natural male instincts to flirt—I was after all, in Paris.

So how did you move into a professional career, from singing and dancing at home? "My father always made it clear to us that we had to go to school, but this is a formality. He said that you have to shape your way of thinking, but then you have to find yourself, what you want to do for the rest of your life. And I always knew I was going to be a singer, I knew that I was going to be in the entertainment business."

At what age then, do you remember thinking that? "Well, I started performing at seven, I had my first album at nine, so I think a little before seven." She laughs, as if surprised by her own answer. "People don't actually take you seriously, but when I was that age I wanted to grow old, faster, so that people can take me seriously, and I was you know, this serious kid." Anggun laughs again, almost cheekily, while remembering her own youthful spunk.

By the age of nine—and with two years of experience behind her—Anggun's talent, love of music and first recording (a children's album), firmly began to shape her young dream, and she was well on her way to becoming a child star, adorned by all who heard her. Her artist father fed her creativity with poetry, and although a Muslim, she was sent to Catholic school to learn English and Christianity—her parents wanted her to make up her own mind about things. During her teens she recorded five chart-topping albums that solidified her popularity as a rock singer—previously citing Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Megadeth as major influences. By 1990 she had toured extensively and received Indonesia's most popular artist award. Three years later she was ranked number 1 in the Indonesian charts and her videos were airing on MTV Hong Kong. By the age of nineteen, Anggun had sold well over an impressive four million albums and had founded her own record label to produce her music.

It was now a week later, and I was calling Anggun from my home in Toronto. Our photo session last week had gone longer than anticipated, and we ran out of time for the interview. She was attending the opening gala for Pearl Harbor after our shoot—her management at Sony Music France thought it would be good publicity for her to go—and so she dropped me off in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in her rush home to shower and change.

At a very young age, Anggun had achieved the kind of success in her chosen career that most don't earn in a lifetime. The hard work didn't seem like work, and Anggun—full of passion and vigor for performing—felt extremely lucky that people believed in her and what she was doing. Why then—in 1994—would she give up all of the success she had achieved and move to Paris—a place that didn't know her—to begin again? "Because when I was nineteen I had my own record company, and I'd made five albums over there. I had done all this touring and had the feeling that I'd done it. So what was the next move for me, I mean, I was only 21 and I felt like I was bored already. And I didn't want that, and so I guess because I was still young, why not go somewhere. Things were happening here and in America, and I wanted to be part of that. I also wanted to go to a country where there was a history; Indonesian culture is very heavy, so I wanted to have the same kind of air."

Anggun's first stop in the pursuit of an international career took her to London—a place that she just didn't connect with—and she soon arrived in Paris. "Everybody was talking about Paris, the new melting pot of music, so I thought I'd drop by and take a look, and it was just love at first sight." Anggun looked up Erick Benzi—a producer and songwriter known for his work with Celine Dion as well as a host of major French recording artists. The connection between the two was instantaneous, and they began working together immediately on a CD that would become entitled "Au Nom de la Lune", (In the Name of the Moon) and be released in June, 1997. A short time later, Anggun—an international version of the album —was released worldwide, with the single, "Snow on the Sahara" prompting sales of over 1 million copies in 33 countries. More than 100,000 copies sold in the USA, where it ranked 19th on the Billboard Borders Breaker Charts. "Snow on the Sahara" earned gold in France, with widest play of the year for a single. Italy fell madly in love with Anggun and the Swatch watch company picked up the tune in a promotional ad campaign.

The following years saw Anggun became fluent in French, tour with Lilith Fair—in 1998 which included a guest appearance on the Rosie O'Donnell show—and MTV included her on it's CD Fabulous Women along with Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan and Cheryl Crow. Late last year, Anggun released two versions of her second CD co-written with Erick Benzi, Desirs contraires, the French language version, and it's international counterpart, Chrysalis.

Where did the title come from? "It was just my state of mind when I was writing the songs. I was in the studio and the songs were the chrysalis. I like the mystery of a chrysalis; you don't know if it's going to be a yellow butterfly, or green or red, or just a plain butterfly. But then, there are no plain butterflies, every butterfly is unique, yeah, Chrysalis. And it's the fact that I like metaphors, I like second chances, I like that."

Anggun took a more active part in the writing of the latest CD, Chrysalis, for which she penned all of the English lyrics. Explaining that although she had always written songs, and was deeply involved in all of her albums to date, she had always considered herself firstly a classical pianist and a performer; she preferred to leave the writing and producing to the professionals. But now it was becoming more of a necessity to write her own material. "I think it is very natural for an artist to want to have artistic control in whatever she's doing, but it is very hard at the same time because I'm hard on myself; I could kill myself with critics. It's really hard, because I get the feeling that I'm naked. When I was singing somebody else's songs, it was much easier because it's not my story; I just do my job as a singer. But these songs are about me."

Are they really personal? "They're personal, but they're not autobiographical."

The lyrics for the song "Look Into Yourself" talk about wanting to change, believing in yourself and that dreams aren't made to be erased. "Exactly."

So does this song describe any specific event in your life? "Well, yeah. Like everybody I have ups and downs, and I have lots of downs, and that was a song to cheer me up. That song actually... I wrote it down when I was... this thing happened in my life and I was extremely, extremely negative and I just wanted to... but I'm not telling you what it is." Anggun laughs charmingly as she deflects the question.

I'm not going to ask you. "Okay, good. But it was just funny for me to think that it was a positive song out of something very negative, and I wrote it in a very negative state of mind."

In this same song, you say "look into yourself, and be the master of your destiny." Then in the song you've titled "Signs of Destiny," you say, "I know that we are meant to be together, believe in destiny." Do you believe in destiny, that everything is planned for us? "Yes, I come from a country where we read the palm, everything in our hand is writing. But there's the left hand and there's the right hand. There is what could happen, in the left hand, and then there is the other possibility on the right hand, and I do believe in that. There is a destiny that is already written, but it has two ends and you're the one that has to find out. So there's not one truth. That is what I like."

So how do you approach life? "Now I'd like to actually learn about Buddhism, I've talked to people who are Buddhist, and you know, doing yoga and reading books... it's actually very simple, love yourself so that you can love others, that's all. But I'm no expert, I have so many questions."

I especially like the song, "A Prayer", it seems so hopeful. Who are you singing to in this song? "...God. But, I don't know, I was born Muslim, but I went to Catholic school and now I'm approaching Buddhism, and I don't know." Anggun continues, "I think to believe is really important, I need to believe that there's something up there, the highest high. I like to think that way."

Do you think prayers are answered then? "Yes, I do believe that. But the thing is that you don't know when."

You have to be patient? "Exactly. And sometimes the answer doesn't actually... you don't have the answer the way you want it. It will come in another shape, or in a person, or in an animal. And you say, ah yes, this is it, it makes me feel better. My father always said be attentive, pay attention to signs."

You've been in Paris six years now, and appear to be a modern, young Parisian woman. At this point how important is your Indonesian heritage to you? Are you tired of people like me asking you about it? "No, I'm extremely proud of it, the fact that my hair is black and that I have all of this inheritance in my blood. But the thing is, I don't want to sell this, especially in my music, I don't want to do something obvious. I don't want to do traditional Indonesian music; I'm not interested in doing that. I want to introduce Indonesia in very subtle ways, like wearing a perfume. You can smell it but you can't see it."

So how does she feel about Paris now? Anggun explains to me that although it is her home, and she does love living here—she is still discovering new parts of this fabulous city—it's been six years and it's time for her to move on. I sense that her hunger for adventure and new discoveries is strongly rooted and she says she believes that change is good. "It's time for me to learn another new culture," she says. "I want to learn to speak another new language, maybe Italian." Though she has no developed plans at this time to move, her career has taken her to Italy and Sweden many times, and she has acquired a strong liking for both places. She describes to me excitedly her attraction to Italy and the enthusiasm and passionate nature of its people. But then at the same time, how she loves the Scandinavians as well. "There's so many artists, painters, sculptors, and the music's amazing. It's such a small country, the weather's so rude and the people are so creative. It's interesting to live... to be able to live in so many places."

With obvious Indonesian and other cultural influences throughout her music—Spanish guitar on "Valparaiso" and tabla on "How the World"—I ask Anggun about her ideas regarding instrumentation and writing. "I love breaking rules, I don't want to go by the book," she says. "Music has no frontier, and what I like is really to combine all these different sounds and cultures." She describes to me how "Over Their Walls" on the first CD has a Chinese feel to it—though she's not Chinese—and how the same song features banjo as well, how normally these two things don't get along.

I'd read somewhere that Anggun liked Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—a sensational Pakistani musician and performer who was picked up by Peter Gabriel's Real World label before his death. Anggun began to tell me of her deep respect for him and slid into how she also loved the music of Indian singer, Sheila Chandra. Her reply was richly textured with excitement and obvious artistic respect. Anggun told me a comic story about her attendance at the Real World tenth anniversary celebrations in Bath, England about a year and a half ago. How Sheila Chandra was standing only about two feet away from her, and how much she wanted to go over and talk with her, but she couldn't—she just stood there. Then Sheila performed one song that blew Anggun away, the party ended and Anggun ended up not talking to her. "It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, I know it's so stupid.... I can't believe it."

So why didn't you say anything? "Because I was... I was just being a stupid fan." With great candidness and sincerity, Anggun laughs aloud at herself for not talking to Sheila.

Anggun's last two CDs were the result of working with Erick Benzi, and I ask her if she plans to continue working with him in the future. "Maybe not. As I said, it's always good to move on. Two albums with one person is a lot. I think he is going to be around, but maybe not as much as before." Anggun talks about how he actually suggested this to her, because she now knows more and more what she wants, and the excitement in Anggun's voice is a clear reflection of this rediscovered confidence in herself. This is why she's spending time in Sweden, branching out even further and meeting Swedish artists and producers.

When I ask Anggun about other composers or musicians she would like to work with, she tells me about how she met Brian Adams at the Vatican during a show for the Pope. A month later she was in London and Bryan invited her over to where he was doing some writing with a Swedish musician that Anggun knew from working with only a year earlier. They said that they had a song they were thinking about doing for her. "I was so flattered, but at the same time he's doing his own material, he's actually recording his new album."

Only 27, Anggun has proved twice already that she can succeed in the pursuit of her dreams. With a powerful, soaring voice that listeners compare to that of Annie Lennox, a newly discovered desire to write more and more of her own material and a lively hunger for life experience and love, Anggun should find endless fodder to feed her passion for music, writing and performing. She has already begun the writing of her next CD—with her new Swedish friends—and has projects with Indonesian musicians and Deep Forest, a massively popular contemporary French group.

With all that said, I wished Anggun continued success and thanked her for her time. She thanked me kindly for the interview, and off she went to eat the pasta dinner she had been cooking at her friend’s house during the course of our conversation.