When musicians of completely different lanes collide, you are almost always guaranteed something special. That was the case between singer-songwriter Marian Carmel, rapper and Hip-Hop mainstay Akeem Jahat, and the music production studio known as Soul Dot when they unleashed their single, ‘what are we’, earlier this month.

The track is a wistful R&B number that has since garnered over 30k plays on Spotify. It sees Marian lamenting about being more than friends but not yet lovers with a special someone. In a rare display of romantic vulnerability, Akeem expresses the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” mindset of someone afraid to change what they already have. The pair duet over the superb instrumentation and production of Leo Goh and Joyce Gim of Soul Dot, acting as the web that binds the two artists who cannot be more different.

We sat down with Akeem, Marian, Leo, and Joyce to discuss the stories behind the song and the joys of working with each other.

Introduce yourselves and tell us more about what you do.

Akeem Jahat: I’m Akeem Jahat, and I’m known to have really good raps. [Laughs]

Marian Carmel: My name is Marian, I’m a singer-songwriter and I do R&B/Folk stuff.

Joyce Gim (Soul Dot): I’m Joyce Gim, I’m from Korea and I’m a music producer and writer.

Leo Goh (Soul Dot): I’m Leo, I’m a producer and guitarist, and I have all of Akeem’s bad raps. [Laughs]

Marian: He has all of our bad takes, honestly, he knows all our secrets. [Laughs]

The single’s been out for about a week now, and it has already racked up over 30k plays on Spotify. How does that make all of you feel?

Marian: I don’t know about the rest but it’s very unreal to me because a lot of my other songs couldn’t even reach 10k within the first week. I had a song that was released in November and it hasn’t even reached 10k. I know numbers aren’t everything, but to imagine that this is the number of people that actually heard your song is nuts!

Akeem: Yeah, what she said. [Laughs]

Leo: I think as long as we keep releasing good stuff, it’s going to build on whatever we’ve released before so the numbers are just going to keep going up.

Joyce: For me, I trust that it will go up lah. [Laughs] That’s because we have two amazing artists and the song was very nice, I trust that it will go up.

It is known that ‘what are we’ describes the state of limbo between two people who are not yet lovers but more than friends. What is the story behind ‘what are we’, and what are some personal experience that each of you have brought to this song?

Marian: [Laughs] Without revealing too much about my personal life, it’s exactly how it sounds – You like someone and then you hang out a lot, but you’re just friends yet you’re doing very un-platonic things. So, it’s kind of weird.

This song describes that part of the journey which is about the frustration – you’ve had enough of it, so you’re like, “Just let me know how you feel so I know where we’re at. If it’s a no, at least I know what to do with it. Or if it’s a yes, then we know what to do with it.”

But I’ve learnt, since then, that sometimes, it’s just okay to take it as it is. It’s okay to not know and you don’t have to put pressure on something good that you have with the other person, because sometimes, that can ruin it.

Akeem: I cannot relate to all these things, to be honest. They had the song days before I got on it. Soul Dot and I share a space so Leo was the one who asked me to jump on this track. I heard Marian’s voice for the first time and I was like, “Wow! Who is this?”, and then I heard the verse, which was when I realised that it’s a love song, which is something that, if you look at my previous projects, is something I do not have. I do not know how to write love songs because I have a different perspective on those things.

So I heard the track, and I thought, “You know what? What if we try to help the guys who are facing difficulties in that department? Somebody’s gotta represent those guys.” [Laughs] So, yeah, I’m just really grateful to these guys who let me be a part of it and let me write it like I did.

Marian: It was so fun, though! We didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did. Cause when Soul Dot and I were writing it, I wrote a verse and we wrote the chorus, and then we didn’t really know what else to add. So, Akeem happened to be in the studio and Leo was like, “Akeem! Come!”

Akeem heard it and thought it was really good, and he said he’ll be back with a verse. And the next time I came, he already had everything out. When he wrote it, I realised it was so different cause I thought he would be writing from the angle that I was writing from of simping over someone and them not reciprocating, but it turns out he was writing from the person that people simp for.

This track is a collaboration between three unique musical entities. How did this partnership come about?

Akeem: Ultimately, it was Soul Dot that produced everything and they had the vision for this, so I guess they should tell us how this happened.

Leo: [Laughs] I knew Marian before we started collaborating, so she came to me when she wanted to do her song ‘Rose’, and I’ve been working with her ever since, so it’s been a while, since 2018.

On the other hand, Soul Dot consists of myself, Joyce, and another friend of ours called Kun, and we’ve reached a point where we wanted to make more songs. So, we’ve been producing for people and doing commercial work as well, and this year we decided to be more creative. It just so happens that Akeem takes a room in the same space that we’re in, so it’s very convenient.

Joyce: The funny thing is that we’ve shared a space for so long, but most of it is us saying hi to each other awkwardly when we see each other and nothing else.

Akeem: It was like that for three months. But I was curious about what they were doing because Joyce is on the piano and Leo is on the guitar and I thought what they were doing sounded cool.

How was that wall broken, then?

Leo: We needed some help with the lyrics for a song that we were working on, and the overall flow of the track wasn’t going that well either. At that point we were working with Fingerfunk, so, Hisham from Fingerfunk and Akeem go way back. It was late at night but Akeem happened to walk by and Hisham gestured for him to come in and help, and he was gracious enough to lend a hand. Subsequently, when we started ‘what are we’, we naturally approached him again.

Akeem: I think I am quite fussy, and I wouldn’t just agree to just get on a song. So, the main reason why this happened is, and I am not selling these guys, it’s my personal feeling, they actually impressed me during the sessions. So, I feel that if I didn’t get on this song, I would feel left out.

Soul Dot actually knows what they are doing on a technical level. We are talking about two different artists with very different sensitivities, so for this to happen, it’s not an easy thing to manage – Leo and Joyce are fucking patient. They allow us to be artists in our own right. As producers, Soul Dot is different from the others that I’ve worked with.

Joyce: For me, ‘what are we’ is the first step to making my dreams come true. Because I’m from outside of Singapore, I want to combine the multiple cultures in Singapore and lift it up. And we don’t want to restrict it to only Singapore, either, we want to go bigger – we want to go on the Billboard charts, and we know it’s possible especially when you have such great talents.

Marian, you are no stranger to romantic, velvety ballads. How do you get yourself into the headspace to write and perform such melancholic songs?

Marian: I turn off the lights. [Laughs] No, for real, I can’t record vocals with the lights on, for some reason.

Leo: Especially for sad songs, no light at all. It’s just her in the darkness.

Marian: Yeah, I will just close my eyes and just sing. I don’t know why, but it feels like I’m singing to an empty room. It’s a lot about trying to get back into the headspace of when I wrote that song. And, because I write sad songs most of the time, I will literally come out out of the studio sad because I had to relive that moment.

After reliving those difficult moments, how do you get out of that funk?

Marian: Literally after every sad session, I go, “Haha! Sad!” [Laughs] I just start joking it off.

Leo: And she snacks a lot.

Marian: Yeah! Every time I go to their pantry, I’m like Kirby, you know, and I just consume everything. It gets to the point where they’d tell me to refill all the snacks I ate. [Laughs]

Akeem, you are a mainstay in Singaporean and Malaysian hip-hop, a genre that is known to be strong and hard-hitting. How does it feel, in contrast, to perform such a gentle and vulnerable track such as ‘what are we’?

Akeem: I am just really glad I did this project because a lot of people misconstrue that Hip-Hop has to be hard all the time – that it has to be this “gang” thing, or this toxic masculinity thing. So, it’s nice to actually be part of a project where it shows another side of what rap can actually do – it has opened more doors for a lot of other writers. Now, we no longer have to deal with a guy who wants to be a rapper that thinks they got to act hard and tough. People are so used to the gold chains and whatnot, but there are parts of Hip-Hop where you sing about your everyday life.

What I’m doing, is exactly what Marian is doing, but a rap version. I’m just expressing my vulnerabilities and issues.

Like you previously mentioned, this song is very different from the other tracks in your discography. How did you bring out this different side of yourself?

Akeem: It’s always been there, it’s just that I was waiting for the right moment. So, with these people, it happened.

Soul Dot, the production and instrumentals on this track is a sweet blend of R&B infused with electro-pop and jazz elements. Can you share what the production process was like, and what influenced the instrumentals of this song?

Leo: I started this song because I heard Chai’s ‘Color You feat. Sam Kim’. Chai is a Korean artist who sounds a lot like Marian. I wanted to do a song that sounded like that, but, of course, it turned out totally different.

Marian: It was so crazy because it’s the same track that two other people have sent to me at different points in my life to say that I sound like this person, but I didn’t hear it.

Akeem: For the first part of my verse, I asked them if they could totally remove the drums – and it’s very abnormal for a rapper to do that, but I insisted that I wanted to do it over the keys only. And they did it. Everything I asked for, they gave it to me like it’s room service. It’s the most easy process.

Leo: [Laughs] But it’s also because they are so easy to work with. They really trust the whole process and they don’t try to micro-manage.

Akeem: Yeah, and that’s because I believe in their music as well. The next time I’m out of the country and people ask me which Singaporean artist they should check out, Marian Carmel and Soul Dot are the ones I’d recommend.

It seems that all of you have had a great time working on this song. In one word, how will each of you describe this project?

Marian: Comfortable.

Joyce: Bibimbap, because each of us are colourful on our own but we came together to create a delicious dish.

Leo: Random. It really happened by chance.

Akeem: Sincere. I have never worked with people who gives a fuck about what I do, and these guys actually give a fuck about every single thing whenever we work.

What are all of your plans for the rest of 2021?

Akeem: Take over the world! [Laughs]

Marian: Soul Dot and I working on a full-length album, so do keep a lookout! I’m also part of a show that’s coming out called Hometown Heroes, and I’m representing the East side. So, if you want to see how I fail at most things, you can watch that. [Laughs]

Leo: We’re also working with some young artists, and we also got a few new tracks on the way.

Akeem: For me, more music, more art. That’s all I’m going to say.

Photos courtesy of Akeem Jahat, Marian Carmel, Soul Dot, and Cross Ratio Entertainment.