The duo gives us a taste of their new pop sound and the songwriting camp that nurtured it all
On our Zoom call, I find Leanne Mamonong and Naara Acueza, more commonly known as the duo Leanne & Naara, together in the same room. It comes off as a surprise when you think about social distancing guidelines—but not when you consider their long history of friendship and the necessity to keep things going. They, too, have welcomed the transition to online gigs and Instagram lives, frequenting benefit gigs and fundraisers not only to keep their momentum alive but to support members of their tech crew who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic. If this crisis has afforded them anything, the girls say it’s a newfound balance between their personal lives and work—welcoming more rest instead of fulfilling the demand to be physically present for multiple gigs a week.
With their highly anticipated debut album underway, they’ve been rolling out teaser photos on social media taken by oft sought-after photographer Shaira Luna—whom we collectively gushed over—and whose moody and cinematic aesthetic almost fooled fans into thinking their imminent release would be another slow and tender one. On the contrary, Keeping Me Up goes full-on pop. Entirely produced in a songwriting camp they attended in Stockholm, Sweden last year courtesy of their label Warner Music Philippines, Keeping Me Up is the duo’s first foray into an indie-pop sound, a refreshing and surprising shift from their usual laidback and easy-listening releases that carried traces of folk (Rest), alongside bossa nova and jazz (Again, New York and Back).
Keeping Me Up builds its layers little by little, as pop music does, beginning with a reverberating piano that sets this atmosphere of anticipation. Snappy percussions line the verses and build up in the chorus until the wobble synths (akin to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Julien, much to my delight) elevate the song into a dance track, possibly catching long-time Leanne & Naara listeners off-guard in such previously uncharted territory.
There are even touches of shimmery chimes sprinkled throughout the song, faint but charming nonetheless.
All things considered, the single is an absolute earworm. The repetitive post-chorus is the part you might soon find yourself singing and harmonizing with in the shower (don't say you haven’t been warned!). What ultimately stays the same is the way the girls complement each other’s vocals—Leanne’s signature husky tone cutting through Naara’s delicate and soothing timbres. Naara offers me some trivia about their recording session, saying her voice was pretty hoarse on the day itself due to their incessant travel at the time, but that definitely ended up working in their favor by lending the song some sultry textures.
The only other track on their discography thus far that’s possessed even a tinge of this groove is last year’s Destination, whose producer Brian Lotho also plays a huge role in putting together their upcoming album. “What Brian did was pattern everything to the recording of Keeping Me Up. It became the standard for all of the songs in the album,” Leanne says. Both girls experienced bouts of hesitation choosing to release it as their lead single given how big a jump it would be sonically but Naara says, “Some of the songs are not too far from our music before. It’s just another version of us.”
Leanne was the particularly reluctant one, saying there was “a lot of push and pull when it came to deciding if we were gonna go for that whole pop vibe. Not only were people used to our acoustic sound, I too had a difficult time with the transition, but then I eventually got the hang of it. When we were in the process of making the album, I started to love it the more I listened to the song. I also had a newfound appreciation for pop music.”
Their Stockholm experience definitely marked a turning point in their career, letting them out of their comfort zones. I’d figured the camp taught them to be stricter with their songwriting process but, as it turns out, it’s allowed them to be more open to things they haven’t tried before. Leanne says, “I think one of the most challenging parts when you’re writing is thinking of a catchy hook. When we would write songs before, we didn’t really think about those. We just write whatever we feel, we let it just flow out of us naturally. With this, though, there was more freedom in a sense that we were able to let go. It’s okay even if it’s repetitive as long as we enjoy the process.” Experiencing a more technical approach and adhering to the pop standard and its penchant for repetition were things they didn’t think they were capable of doing, but ended up successfully pulling off anyway.
Lyrically, Keeping Me Up seems like your typical pop song recounting the sparks and uncertainties at the onset of a relationship, even leaning towards innuendo. It doesn’t particularly hold the same agile sweetness as Again or the piercing weariness of Rest characteristic of their earlier songwriting, but its charm still lies in relatable introspection. “With this one, we were more open to try a different approach, to be more modern and mature. We didn’t want any restrictions. If we felt like this is the direction that we wanted to take, we’d go ahead and do it. It doesn’t have to be too deep. We can just enjoy the groove, the music.”
Leanne offhandedly mentions her worries about potential purists who might not appreciate their new direction, while Naara seems to take on a certain aloofness about public opinion. At this point, the girls both seem at peace knowing they enjoyed the entire process of making their album and are proud of the work they’ve done. Making music together for almost a decade has positively changed their dynamic, even subduing Leanne’s control freak tendencies as the ate of the duo, with budding K-pop stan Naara playfully referring to her as unnie, which translates to “big sister” in Korean.
“We respected each other’s individuality as artists. I guess that’s why we both shined in this album. We were proud of each other and supported each other. There were times when I couldn’t deliver what was needed during recording and Naara would be there to cheer for me, and I would do the same for her. We’d just help each other out and bounce ideas off each other,” says Leanne. “I think Brian [Lotho] was a big help, too. He was the glue that held everything together and was a great source of ideas,” adds Naara.
This transition to pop can be a welcome one for many or a drawback to some but the duo can only hope their new music gives listeners the same type of joy they felt while making it. They teased that Warner has a lot of promotional activities up their sleeve in support of the new single and their forthcoming album, so it’s best we keep our eyes and ears peeled on their socials. If Keeping Me Up were any indication of the soundscapes the rest of the album contains, we’re in for quite a ride. For now, Leanne & Naara can rest assured that we’ll attest to the single’s catchiness in our shower concerts and bedroom dance parties.
Stream Leanne & Naara’s latest single, Keeping Me Up.
Words Bea Mata
Special thanks to Warner Music Philippines
Art Alexandra Lara