When songwriter Ezra Kong greeted me just before noon at his rented work and living space in Petaling Jaya, there was a hint of tiredness on his face.
“I was finishing up a few songs yesterday and slept only at about six this morning,” the soft-spoken 31-year-old shares. “Those were song requests I received since last year and I could finally send them out.”
Even without a pressing deadline, Kong says he typically works till 3am each day, seven days a week. All this busy-ness has to do with the fact that Ezra, along with songwriting partner and singer Hael Husaini, have become among the local music industry’s most sought after songsmiths.
Interestingly, less than five years ago, Kong reveals he was in a totally different line of work – human resource.
The songwriter talks about facing a number of detours before finally finding his way into the local music industry.
Dreams aren’t just dreams
“I remember listening to the radio as a kid to Backstreet Boys and wondered how do they make these songs? Like how do you write songs out of nothing? So I tried to write my own lyrics and melody,” Kong recalls falling in love with music as a child.
“They didn’t sound nice,” he says with a laugh.
In university, he devoted as much time as he could to his music dreams, playing guitar as part of a band besides single handedly writing and producing the band’s mini album. “Music was the main thing, my studies was the side thing,” Kong, who majored in psychology and counselling at a local university, says cheekily.
“We hired a producer (to produce the mini album) but the work was so bad that I decided to do it myself. That’s how I started producing.” Unfortunately, the album was eventually shelved.
Kong also tried producing Mandarin-language songs for a friend who was an aspiring singer. He sent out his work to Chinese radio stations but nothing came of it. “My Mandarin wasn’t great so the lyrics turned out really bad,” he recounts with a pinch of embarrassment.
Pursuing a music career proved to be tougher than he had imagined and after a while, Kong stopped trying. “After college, I gave up on that dream. My friends also said it won’t work, and I think it got to my head.”
After graduation, Kong landed his first job at the human resource department of a well-established company. “My department was in charge of taking care of foreign workers in particular. Matters pertaining to work permits, for example. It was a good job. The pay was good for a fresh graduate.”
But less than a year into his job, Kong felt unfulfilled. “I wasn’t frustrated at my job, I just wanted something else more – music.”
He took a break from working altogether and devoted five months to improving his skills in music production. He says his parents were incredibly supportive of his music pursuits. “It’s very rare. Of course they are worried, but they let me do my thing.”
Once he was ready, Kong put himself out there again. “I would take videos of scenes from Transformers for example and put in my own background music and sound effects. Then I sent it out to studios all over.”
To his surprise, a local studio specialising in crafting jingles for children programmes hired Kong.
“I thought if I couldn’t do pop music, creating jingles and background music was also OK,” reasons Kong, who worked on an animated series that aired in India during his three-year stint there.
But little did he know, Kong’s employer would become a big supporter of his pop music endeavours. He was introduced to established local composers and could even utilise the company’s studio equipment to produce pop songs.
Over time, Kong drew closer to Audi Mok, Omar K, Faizal Tahir and Mike Chan, songwriters responsible for some of today’s biggest local hits. They collaborated with Kong on Assalamualaikum (sung by Faizal), which gave him his very first songwriting credit.
It became a commercial and critical success, placing second on the prestigious annual song competition, Anugerah Juara Lagu (AJL), in 2016.
Kong and Omar in particular started working together more regularly. “He was my first writing partner. I wrote my first 20 to 30 songs with him. After my company closed, I decided to go into making pop music full time and started a studio with Omar.”
After two years with Omar, Kong decided to try producing fully on his own and set up his own studio, which he describes as a “scary” move.
Along the way, Kong met Hael Husaini, one half of the musical duo Azhael who was just starting to dabble in songwriting then. Kong and Hael joined forces and what happened next surpassed their wildest dreams.
In 2017, Kong and Hael was responsible for two of the biggest songs of the year. Toe-tapping break-up anthem Pematah Hati raked in 24 million YouTube views and catapulted its burgeoning singer Nabila Razali to stardom.
Then there was the spellbinding Jampi (performed by Hael himself) which clocked in 31 million YouTube views to date. What’s more, the song took home AJL’s coveted top prize, Best Song, last year.
Hit song after hit song have since followed - Ayda Jebat’s Temberang (20 million YouTube views), Hael’s Hajat (17 million YouTube views), Datuk Seri Siti Nurhaliza’s Anta Permana (14 million YouTube views), Elizabeth Tan’s Police Entry (11 million YouTube views) and the list goes on.
Early this year, the writing partners continued their winning streak and took home their second AJL Best Song win for Haram, a duet performed by Hael and Dayang Nurfaizah.
Naturally, songwriting jobs have skyrocketed particularly since Jampi’s success. Kong and Hael have been working around the clock to deliver the goods yet can’t seem to catch up with the overwhelming demand.
“People who request for songs may not end up getting anything. That happens quite often. I don't want to give them a mediocre song and then it doesn't work,” he says.
The songwriting duo is highly selective. They typically work on three to four songs a month but ultimately, only one song gets their stamp of approval and is delivered to the artiste.
Kong adds he is incredibly hands-on, producing the songs from start to finish on his own, everything from recruiting backup vocalists to playing the guitar himself.
Another possible reason for Kong and Hael’s string of successes is their belief that being a songwriter means more than just writing a song – it is about crafting a persona. “For example, Hael is a bit dark and naughty and Nabila is strong and sassy,” he explains. “It’s important to create a persona because it helps pop music relate to people.”
Asked what he does when he faces a writer’s block, Kong replies: “If get stuck, I just listen to songs and learn the melodies. And I try to improve my Malay and read more pantuns.”
Kong keeps an ear out for the latest songs climbing the charts both locally and internationally, and names artistes like P. Ramlee, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Incubus, Coldplay and Rihanna as his inspiration.
“My goal is to get my quality to be on par with the standards in America while still respecting the local mould,” he talks about his hopes for the road ahead.
While Kong is open and warm throughout our interview, he exudes a shy and introverted demeanour. Asked how he is coping with this newfound fame and celebrity life (his Instagram account has swelled to 22,000 followers), Kong mulls over the question.
After a long pause, the hardworking songwriter simply responds: “I’ve never had the time to think about that.”