The Tour de Force behind Tala
Words by Lara L. Antonio; Illustration by Tej Tan
On singer-songwriter, Nica del Rosario, and her journey in the music industry
I first met Nica del Rosario in 2012. We were castmates in our university’s theater organization’s rendition of “Spring Awakening.” She played Ilse, the free-spirited bohemian who, tired from the institutionalism of 1890s Germany, ran away from home. It wasn’t until our first table read that I first got to hear her sing. While I don’t remember that day too much, I do recall hearing her and thinking she sounded exactly like the original cast’s recording.
Fast forward to November 2019: I was at Escolta Block Party with three of seven Scene PH team members. This was pre-pandemic of course, so you can just imagine the scene: a huge crowd pushing against each other to get from point A to B. The sweat. The heat and humidity. The dancing, the drinking, the chaos, and of course, the company.
That night was already one for the books, but it was one that was made even more memorable by a song. And that song was none other than “Tala.” When Tala played, everyone – including our very own Tita B – stopped whatever they were doing – and danced. This is not the first time that this happened. I’ve encountered this before at bars, at our office, even just scrolling aimlessly on Facebook – watching someone else’s experience of the song. But, at that party, with hundreds of strangers dancing to the same beat, singing the same song at the top of their lungs, I finally realized just how big Tala had become.
When I think back on that day, I always find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that my friend, the Nica from our Spring Awakening days – someone I have known for years – is the very same Nica: AWIT-award winner, Billboard chart-topper, the girl behind the viral sensation, Tala.
While a lot of time has passed since we first met, I take comfort in the fact that in many ways, she is, unsurprisingly, still the same girl I have come to know: humble, down-to-earth, and grounded – the one whose rendition of “The Dark I Know Well” and “Spring and Summer / Don’t Do Sadness” still sends chills running down my spine.
Watch: Sarah Geronimo’s ‘Tala Nation’ tribute. Video owned by ABS-CBN Entertainment
Lara: We’ve been friends for years but I’ve never asked you this – why did you start working in the music industry?
Nica: As a child, alam mo yung pagtinanong ka – what do you want to do? – tapos may immediate answer? Ako, as a child, never [ako nagkaroon non]. Tatanungin ko yung mom ko kung ano yung pwede kong sabihin, kasi hindi ko alam. Gusto ko lang maglaro. So yung mom ko yung nagmamake-up nung stuff: “Gusto mo bang maging dentist? Gusto mo bang maging ballerina?” Whatever she throws at me, yun yung sinasabi ko.
Eventually, nung lumalaki na ako I started writing poetry, short stories. And I thought, maybe I could be a writer? I don’t know. The whole time when I was growing up, yung hindi ko naisip was that I’ve always loved music. Hindi ko siya naconsider ‘cause it was such a huge part of my life na lagi lang nandyan.
Nung highschool na siguro, I figured – this is the one thing that comes so naturally to me. Hindi ko na siya pinag-iisipan. It’s always just there. Loving music has always been easy for me. I’m not saying making music has always been easy, but the idea of music has always been such a big part of my life.
Highschool was when I decided: “Why not just pursue the thing that’s always been a part of you?”
L: Can you tell us more about your work? How did you get started in the music industry?
N: Nung third-year college, diba [on-the-job training] year yun? Everybody was going to ad agencies and news outlets, and production houses. I figured ito na yung opportunity to have one step into the career I want.
My best friend in high school – her family owns many companies – and meron silang small record label. So yun yung prinopose ko na internship ko. It’s still communication, it’s still sound production. Fortunately, they said yes. I spent a summer there. And during that summer, I met a bunch of people.
One of the people I met, works for Marcus Davis, who’s one of the biggest music producers in the country. He needed someone to write a Tagalog song for an artist. The guy I met pitched me, and it turns out the song is for Christian Bautista, and he needed a Tagalog song for his album. So that was my first professional writing gig.
L: What are the highest points of your career so far and what have been your proudest moments?
N: Proudest moment siguro, syempre that first one, the Christian Bautista [song]. That was the first time I actually felt like there could be something here and I could actually make a career out of this. Before that – everything was so unsure. I wasn’t sure if [my internship] was going to pan out.
I had no idea how [the music industry] works, I wasn’t sure if it was unforgiving, I didn’t know a lot of people in it, and our course [AB Communications] isn’t really related to music or song-writing or song-production. When that happened, naisip ko “Oh this could be the start of something, this could be the start of my career.” And I was so excited and doing that really made me realize na parang this is what I wanna do.
My next proudest moment was placing in Himig Handog the first time. The first time I joined Himig Handog, I was fifth. I don’t really join contests – I get anxious. So that was a huge leap for me… I feel like that was the first step I made in making a name for myself.
Third proudest moment I guess was winning my AWIT award. [Yassi Pressman’s “Lala” for Best Dance Recording]
Listen: “Tala” by Sarah Geronimo
L: AND THEN OF COURSE –
N: – I can’t pinpoint the exact moment [that] I feel the proudest with Tala, cause it was such a weird slow thing that just kept building up. Siguro there were two specific points where I felt na “whoa, this is insane” was one, nung pumasok siya sa world billboard charts. As in like, nag-viber pa si Sarah na parang “Uy! Nasa billboard charts na yung Tala mo.”
Tsaka siguro nung nanonood ako ng Tala tribute sa ASAP. May live feed of people dancing Tala from Visayas, from Mindanao, from other provinces, other countries. [Sarah] was performing and [in between choruses] she would just talk about how big it got, and how much of an impact it made. She was thanking people, everyone who made it explode the way it did, like the LGBT community.
Watching that made me realize how much – how big the song got because most of the time, hindi siya nag-sisink in talaga [when I] get news about it. But watching that unfold made it [real].
L: In contrast to the proudest moments, what have been the most difficult moments in your career, and how did you get through it?
N: Everytime a song or a project that I’m really excited about doesn’t happen and it’s not because of anything I’ve done… it’s usually because of circumstances [or a] dispute about the rights.
The one that I struggled with the most was when Sarah heard one of my songs, “Pakiusap”. She wanted to use it for her movie with the dog (Unforgettable). It’s a dog movie and it stars Sarah, one of the nicest human beings ever. That would be amazing to be part of. She wanted to sing my song. Sabi niya either I sing it or she sings it.
Listen: “Pakiusap” by Nica del Rosario
Nagkaroon ng dispute with ownership or rights. Ang tagal nung period hanggang umabot sa point na hindi na siya aabot sa movie. Honestly, it would’ve been easier kung sa umpisa palang [na-udlot] na siya. Kaso nag-drag on. Yun nga, everyone really wanted what was best. There was so much negotiation and compromise. Ang tagal. Di talaga siya umabot. I was really, really sad.
Stuff like that happens. Not everything pans out. As someone who’s struggling with anxiety, I really have trouble with things I can’t control. I obsess over it. I try to figure out what I can control. And kung wala, it just sinks me lower. It’s a good lesson for me that sometimes no matter how hard you work on it, some things just aren’t meant to be.
I remember Sarah messaged me, “Sorry, I guess hindi talaga para dito.” What I got from that is that some things are meant to be for others. If it’s not for that, maybe it’s meant for something else.
L: What keeps you going? As a writer, an artist, you’d be prone to burnout. How do you continue what you’ve been doing for so many years and how do you continue to be inspired by it?
N: On one hand, I have a very clear idea of the life I want to live: doing things that make me happy. I want to provide for my family and the people I love. I want to have a nice, comfortable life with them and for my dogs. Send them to college…
From L-R: Justine Peña, Nica del Rosario and their dogs
My relationships and my family keep me going and they inspire me. I want to achieve and accomplish things that would make me proud.
But there’s also the fact that – well I guess one of the reasons why I love writing music is because music… When I was struggling, when I was in high school and angsty and dealing with so many feelings, music was what helped me feel less alone… that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write songs. I want to be that for other people.
That was always one of my goals and dreams: to make people feel as comforted with my music as I did when I listened to music. When I was struggling. That’s what inspires me [and] the fact that I have this opportunity to help people. I’m not a doctor. A lawyer. People who can directly say, “I help people. I make their lives better.” This is what I can do to make lives better.
Related Viewing: Theater Couples Read Love and Erotica featuring Justine Peña and Nica del Rosario
L: Can you talk about what it means being a woman in the music industry?
N: I’m very proud to be in the music industry. Like a lot of industries in the world, the music industry – lalo na the production side – is very male-dominated. For singer-songwriters, mas maraming lalaki. But at least there’s Moira [dela Torre]. Reese Lansangan. Clara Benin. But with the behind the scenes stuff, sobrang konti ng babae.
In my team, in Flip Music, I’m the only girl in the production team. Our girls are in the admin side. When I go into recording sessions, it’s all guys. Usually girls are in accounts. Or the talents. Or the boss. The ad agency. Our CEO is a woman. But the sound engineer: 100% of the time it’s a guy. Well 99% of the time. I’m proud that I am a sound engineer.
As a song-writer. As a sound-engineer. As a producer, konti yung babae. Even as a guitarist. I know they don’t mean any harm, but I’ve heard so many times “Oh ang galing mo mag-guitar. Parang lalaki.” I know they mean it as a compliment, but it’s the opposite of “you throw like a girl.”
Kaya sobrang idol ko sina Kitchie [Nadal] and Barbie [Almalbis]. Kasi very early on, they showed that women can play the guitar. Write their own songs. They don’t need guys to write for them. They made music history. These are people I look up to and make me proud to be a woman [in the music industry].
L: What do you think the music industry in the Philippines is like right now and where do you see it going in the future?
N: It’s thriving now. The last time I saw this many bands na sobrang nag-pop, high-school pa ako nun. Spongecola days. Kamikaze, Hale. Tsaka minsan one genre at a time. May trend. But now it’s everywhere. Nag-thri-thrive yung dance scene. Yung hiphop.
I think it’s because people are starting to really have faith in OPM. “Okay naman pala yung OPM songs.” It’s not uncool or jologs to listen to. You can tell from the quality of the songs. The fact that people from other countries listen to it. I was in HK a couple of years ago, there was a group of students, and I could hear them listening to IV of Spades. I would get videos from my friends in HK: may nagpapatugtog ng Tala sa bar. The fact that we’re being recognized on a global scale also helps that.
If other people who don’t understand the language appreciate the music, then Filipinos might be missing out if they don’t like OPM. It’s only going to get better and bigger. More artists are coming out. Everyday somebody new gets discovered. Somebody starts trending because they have this great song that people listen to. I think it’s only going to get better.
L: If you were to give younger members of the music industry one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
N: It’s two-fold. One to never stop learning. And two, to not get too attached to your work. Never stop learning, for obvious reasons. You can’t ever say you know everything. There’s always something new to learn. The world keeps changing. You’re going to meet new people. Talk to people. Find out what you can learn from them. [All] these people I’ve had conversations with, I’ve always learned something from them. It helps me also to stay grounded. No matter how far my songs get, there are these people who have done greater things and I always have them to look up to. I’m never going to be the best – because nobody really is the best. And there are always going to be legends.
The second part I’m still learning – it’s still a struggle. The industry can be very fickle. And when you’re working on something, just because you worked on it, that’s not a good enough reason… [for them to produce your work]. Especially in corporate. Sobrang normal or common ng revisions. Sometimes they’re going to want to scrap the whole thing. You can’t say, “but I worked hard on this!” They’re not going to care. It’s not anything on them. It’s just how things work. Your song is just one piece of a bigger project or a bigger thing, and things are always subject to change.
Maybe just have enough confidence in yourself: it’s okay. Your brain is still there. Your heart is still there. Your skills are there. You can always write another song. Sometimes when I have a song and it doesn’t end up the way I want or somebody else takes it, or I didn’t read the contract properly and nawalan ako ng rights… I need to find the strength to say, it’s okay I’ll just write more songs. I can just let that one go. Not to get attached and just learn to let go.
L: If you were to give Young Nica any piece of advice – whether it’s about the music industry or anything – what would it be and why?
N: To young me: Don’t be so scared. Don’t be so scared because people have always supported you. Not to be scared to ask for help. I remember when I was younger, I was so terrified and hindi ko napansin na my parents were always so supportive. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have parents who essentially told me: you can be anything you want to be. We’re a Chinese family. There have literally been people who told them – bakit niyo siya pinayagan mag-music? Music is a hobby. You can’t make money – especially at that time kasi I was starting.
My dad’s an architect. My mom’s an interior and fashion designer. They’ve always been advocates of following your heart. I’ve never once heard from them that “you can’t pursue music.” They didn’t force me to do more stable careers that would’ve given me less stress and less drama. They understood that this is what I wanted to do.
I guess in all my anxiety at that time, I didn’t… I should’ve learned to appreciate it, cause if I did, I probably would’ve been less scared. I would’ve taken more chances. Taken giant leaps. I would’ve spared myself a lot of anxiety.
L: What’s next for you? What are some of your plans or any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
N: There’s a big project that I’m a part of that I’m really excited about. We can’t really say details yet, but I’m part of a song-writing team for a musical series that’s going to launch this year. It’s a digital series. I’ve always loved theater and I’ve always dreamed of writing for a musical. And with everything that’s happened, this is the closest I can get to writing a musical. It’s so fun. I’ve loved working with everyone – it’s made me so happy. It still feels like a dream come true. So watch out for that!
NICA del Rosario’s MARCH PICKS:
What are you watching now?
WandaVision! Isa sa mga favorite na napanood ko ever.
What are you reading?
WandaVision spoilers. Natapos ko na [yung TV series] so lahat ng pwede kong basahin about it, binabasa ko: fan theories, BuzzFeed articles.
What have you been singing in the shower? Current LSS.
Di ako kumakanta sa shower! Hamilton soundtrack. Paulit-ulit kong pinapakinggan.
What games are you playing now, aside from Animal Crossing?
Animal Crossing. By myself, yun lang. Tsaka NBA Playoffs. Tsaka nag-Oovercooked with friends. 80% Animal Crossing. 20% miscellaneous.
Current favorite theater production?
Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton. All time? ONCE and Spring Awakening.