15 Minutes With… Mia Palencia

Emmilyn Yeoh speaks to Mia Palencia, Composer, Lyricist and Music Director of Mud, The Musical on her latest production.

A scene from the musical, set in 1880

How was the process of creating the music for Mud like? Was there a struggle with using limited Malay language in order to appeal to wider international audience?

It was quite a unique process as I was not physically in Malaysia! I was approached to compose the music while I was at university in Tasmania, so we did everything online — doesn’t technology just make things so convenient now? I don’t recall a struggle with the lyrics; the focus was more on trying to encapsulate the spirit of KL and turn that into a sound that could be enjoyed, universally.

Favourite scene in Mud and why?

I love the dulang scene. It was a great opportunity to experiment with Oriental sounds and create a piece that would provide the audience with some insight into the harsh lives of the people who worked at tin mines. This was drawn from looking into traditional Chinese folk songs.

What was your first experience that had you thinking that being a composer and writing music is what you wanted to do?

The buzz I got from performing my original music for the first time to a big audience. I had already been singing jazz with Double Take for a few years before I had the opportunity to play my own songs. At the time, the singer-songwriter scene was still new and emerging in KL. Knowing that I could tell my stories in the form of music, and that they could mean something to other people in their own lives was very life-changing for me.

What were the most challenging scenes and why?

The transition from the despairing fire and flood scenes to “Stay”, where the villagers rose from their adversity to rebuild KL again was probably the most challenging for me. Everything from the choice of chord to the time signature in a piece of music needs to help tell a story convincingly.

The story of Mud is about love, hope and dreams. What should the audience take away with them after the musical?

I would hope that the audience would leave with a deeper understanding of how this amazing city was born from such humble beginnings. I would be extremely flattered if they get hooked on one of my songs either!

Mia Palencia

With Mud, were there any constraints in terms of the musical instruments available for use and how did you work through them?

No, in fact it was quite the opposite. I was encouraged to experiment with Malaysian traditional instruments and sounds. We had a great music team and some wonderful traditional musicians who brought all my ideas to life.

What is the most challenging part about producing a musical that will appeal to the Malaysian crowd?

The most challenging part is producing an original musical, versus a crowd favourite. Musical theatre is a tough scene, and it is understandable to take the safer route of performing musicals that people already know and love (such as a Schwartz, Sondheim or Gershwin). However, there are so many good stories about this beautiful country that is Malaysia, and I want to believe there is an audience out there who wants to hear those stories and listen to new music that comes with it.

Is doing musical theatre a very different experience as to being a musician?

In many ways, they are quite similar. If you want to succeed in either (or both), you need to be resourceful, continually inspired and have bucket loads of perseverance.

What does the future hold for women in theatre?

The sky is the limit! I dare say there has never been a better time in the world for women to aspire to and succeed at anything they want in any field. It’s time to act on your wildest dreams.

Who are the people that you look up to and why do they inspire you?

I look up to the quiet warriors in the music scene who get to do what they love to do every day and still put food on the table. Many people try their hand at music for a few years, and then the reality of life, family, and making a living forces them into different career pathways. We all have a different path to take, but I hope music will always be a part of mine.

Favourite theatre shows to catch across the world? Why?

My current favourite is Once The Musical. I had the opportunity to watch it in Melbourne a couple of years ago. Watching a cast who could sing, act, dance and play an instrument just blew my mind. Glen Hansard’s music is also gorgeous in a bittersweet sort of way.

What makes you the happiest about being part of such an amazing production?

Knowing that we have an amazing cast performing my music with so much passion, love and energy for over 2000 shows makes me incredibly happy.

Mud, The Musical is having its last three shows on the 5th, 6th and 14th May at Panggung Bandaraya, Dataran Merdeka. www.mudkl.com

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