Cromwell Ojeda finally dropped his solo project’s debut album last month with a launch show as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s Dubai weekender
Cromwell Ojeda is worryingly prolific. It’s hard to see how the Dubai-based Filipino multi-instrumentalist and producer manages to juggle all his ongoing projects (as well as holding down a full-time job). He’s been in (and is currently part of) a ridiculous number of bands over the years, from UAE indie veterans Sandwash and Juliana Down to dream-pop trio Parallel Sound System and his punk outfit Tsinelas, among others.
He’s probably best known, though, for his solo electronic music project Muhaisnah Four (named after the Dubai district where he lived in the early 2000s). “Starting out, I really wanted this to be a project that I could get into and compose music that I like with no holds barred,” he says. “Just throwing out whatever I’m into at the current time. It’s a project where I can do anything with total freedom.” That makes it hard for Ojeda to categorise Muhaisnah Four’s music. “In terms of the [genre], it’s more what people tell me,” he says. “They’ll say, like, ‘I didn’t know there was a synth-pop band here’, or ‘I didn’t know there was a chillwave band here.’ So I guess I’m in those categories. Like, the synth/indie-ish scene.”
Last month, as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s Dubai Weekender, Ojeda (and friends) played the launch gig for A Memoir, Muhaisnah Four’s debut album. As the title suggests, the record is, he says, autobiographical. Ojeda cites “Home”, the opening track, as a good example.
“Like all the expats here, I know that [although] you’ve made Dubai your home, you’ve brought your family here, you have your friends here, you’ve met your lover here… even though you feel at home here, you still need to go back to your home country at the end of the day,” he says. “But enjoying and cherishing every moment you spend here, that’s the main core of that track. It’s a dedication to this city where I’ve been living since ’94.”
The record’s been a long time coming – he’s been talking about its release for a while and was confident it would drop much earlier – and he’s still considering tweaking a few things here and there for the release of the final batch in a few weeks time.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” he admits. “It was last summer when I decided I was going to release it, so I told myself, ‘I need to finish this album. I have, like, 30 fricking songs already.’ They just kept piling up. It was frustrating, you know? I’d even go back to my old songs and change them. I get a bit OCD on producing.”
Not just producing by the sound of it. He’s heavily involved in every facet of the release. “I wanted this album to be really conceptual and to make sense – every detail of it. So for the packaging I worked with a good friend of mine from the Philippines, Teejay Ralph Villahermosa. He did the illustrations for the album. I told him the concepts and the art direction, and I showed him the reference images and everything. I worked really closely with him. I need the design of the album to connect to the feel of the music.”
The design, he says, is “like a futuristic Dubai. A neon city. You could say it’s a new-wave version of Dubai.” That all makes sense when you hear Muhaisnah Four’s synth-pop sound. As does another facet of the artwork; the ‘deer-headed man’ that’s become something of a personal symbol for Ojeda.
“It was just random,” he says of the character. “Every time I do my own artwork – I’m a designer too – I love using deer and organic animals, blended with the digital design. I love that cross of organic and digital. I think I also brought that same mentality into the music. Everything’s electronic, but I want it to be organic too, so I have analogue synthesizers… Everything can be done, now, in a computer, but I still want to keep that raw feel to it; I want to play the guitar parts, I want to have analogue hardware that I actually play on the recording. And the same with the live set-up.”
That live set-up is another reason the album took so long to materialise. Ojeda likes to make sure all his songs can actually be performed live, which means shifting from his studio mentality – where he’s playing all the instrumentation – to explaining to a band how the tracks should work. And he usually prefers for the live songs to be quite different from the recorded versions.
“Live, I wanted to have a more raw, organic sound to it: Live acoustic drums, live electric bass guitar on top of my synthesizer bass, so somehow that adds a different feel,” he explains. “I like options. Because there are endless possibilities for what you can create.”
For his Weekender gig, Ojeda invited one of A Memoir’s vocal collaborators – UK-based singer Melisa Le Rue – to come and sing on all the tracks with vocals (half of the 10-track album). He was also joined by violinist Sofija Dugic, drummer Leo Ehrlich, Maxim Dannete on bass, and his brother David – “my go-to guy for guitar stuff”.
It hasn’t been easy putting a band together in Dubai to perform Muhaisnah Four’s music. “I always say this; there’s a lot of amazing musicians in Dubai, but at the end of the day it’s about chemistry, building a band,” Ojeda says. “You have to click, you have to understand the concept of the music and the show. That’s what’s kind of hard. I think it’s the first time a synth-pop or chillwave album has been released here in the UAE. Because here’s it’s usually acoustic, or metal, or rock. You don’t have much diversity, you know? So I wanted to push the boundaries of people releasing stuff here.”
As one of the UAE’s most-gifted musicians and composers, it’s a fair bet he’ll continue to do so in the future as well.