“You can know your identity but you need to release it to understand it – because you then realize, actually, we are all something very similar.”
Singer-songwriter & Performer
On her creative process, the importance of identity, and the role of women today.
Within a quiet, sun-basked home, nestled in the palmy Balinese village of Mas in Ubud, a subtle hint of momentum lingers in the air for a young musician. There is a sense that something special is beginning as she prepares a maiden tour, only a few months after the release of her first Live E.P.
For Sandrayati Fay, the release of Bahasa Hati (translated as “Language of the Heart”) has been a brave journey of self-exploration – an attempt to nurture her own space to understand, and express the truth of her heart within an ever changing and carefully curated world – all while sharing the experience publicly on social media.
It is, in retrospect, a process still ongoing, but a milestone nevertheless and a culmination of growth over the years where she has enchanted her listeners in venues and events across Indonesia, including the Bali Spirit Festival, TEDX Ubud, Folk Music Festival, and internationally at the ASEAN Human Rights Forum, and the Asia Pacific Music Meeting in Manila and Seoul respectively.
It was an afternoon replete with questions. In the spaces preceding her answers, she is both quiet and contemplative – presently aware of the transient nature of life around her. Responding with wisdom, she recounts finding her identity in her upbringing, and shares perspectives on the powerful role of women in creating positive change, as well as why she thinks Indigenous values are just what is needed in today’s modern world.
Sandra, tell us a little about your upbringing and how music began to play a part in it. Was there a point in particular where you knew you wanted to be a musician?
My mother used to sing to me when I was in her womb, and I really believe that it planted a seed of song in me. Being Filipina, she sang and wrote songs when she was younger as well, and while I grew up, my father played guitar and wrote songs too.
I think the energy of song has always been present in my family and I’m very grateful for that. Every time we had parties in our house there would always be music, and even if nobody was into music, my dad would just whip out the guitar and it would often end up having people share poems or songs at our community within Bogor.
It was an international community with big trees, and families from all over the world lived there. Our school would nurture music a lot actually. They would teach us a lot of songs and we would have to perform it in front of the whole school on Fridays.
There was always support from everywhere – from friends and family who kept asking me to sing, but I was terrified to for so long! I would never want to because of shyness, because it was something I knew I loved to do, but to actually do it was very scary and I can still relate to that now! My sisters also have very beautiful voices and we all love to sing as well. So it was very much weaved into me from the womb.
Then there was pop culture which I was super into. I would go to Jakarta in the weekend in the malls and listen to all this pop music, and there were the American Idol shows which I would watch all the time. All of it definitely influenced me seeing all the different ways that music can live in the world.
Pop culture was definitely a part of my life, and I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t expect of me. They see me as an indie musician or grassroots, but I grew up going to malls! I loved Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Eminem and Pink. Those were my top 4 pop artists!
What were some of the early challenges you faced when trying to establish yourself as a musician here in Bali, and how did you overcome them?
I feel like I’m still in those early stages in the moment! But something that’s quite interesting was that when I came back from the states, although I wanted to do it, I didn’t really have a specific intention of coming back to do music here. I got invited from so many different people to come play and that was really my foundation of starting out here in Bali and it wasn’t so much my own music.
First off, playing with Nosstress felt so real and it felt like a really important seed of what I wanted to create – the core for me was in that song (Kita). But then I started playing a little bit with Superman is Dead, Devil Dice, Iwan Fals and did some stuff in Ubud with Prana and Sawung Jabo and Navicula, Ayu Laksmi – all these various different artists here.
I did get some feedback from some of my friends later on saying they were confused with what I was doing, saying things like “You’re playing with rockbands, that’s so not your style! Are you too nice to say no?” But it was really my choice. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to say no, rather it was because I didn’t know what or who I was yet.
“It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to say no, rather it was because I didn’t know what or who I was yet.”
Because of that Nosstress song, which was my core, people saw that as Sandrayati – but I support these all these people too, I support Superman is Dead and all what they fight for as well like the “Tolak Reklamasi” movement. I contribute to it, and I feel honored to contribute to what they’re doing.
I was really in my starting phase, and that was really challenging because some people within the community of musicians here were saying that they already knew what Sandrayati was. She was a folk musician who sings these sweet songs and cares about the Earth, which is true, and those are aspects of me but I also have so much more that I want to explore, and I felt like I was tied down a bit.
Also at the time, I didn’t feel like I really had started a musical career, and some people in the scene already saw that I did, assuming I was already a musician with a career and had fans here and there. It was like patchwork, and I didn’t see these patches weave together yet because I had never released anything.
I hadn’t released a full album. I don’t even have a website or a music video – all of which the people who I collaborated with have, along with their teams. So that was a big challenge for me because I still don’t really know what I am.
I’m still experiencing that, but that’s why this movement with the E.P had to start, and I really felt like it was starting something. It really feels like tailing the soil and making sure that there’s really healthy soil there to plant the seeds.
As a singer-songwriter, what’s your process of bringing out a song into reality? Is there a particular space where your songs are born out of?
Yes, there is a particular space. The situation always changes but that space is always quite similar every time; the essence of what’s happening in that space. For me it always begins with inspiration from anything really. It’s a matter of keeping this doorway of inspiration open and then that space is always available.
If I’d like to, I really can just weave some words together, a melody can come out and it’s there, but it exists for a moment and then disappears into the ethers. If we don’t actually take my phone out right now and record it, or write down those words, it disappears. So is that bringing a song into reality? Not yet, but it did in some form.
This is my process that’s quite challenging because you have to have commitment and focus and desire for that song to be born, and that’s really something I’m learning. My process happens very naturally – it’s just intimacy. You feel it in you, and you allow a song to be what it wants to be.
Now I’m in a different mindset, where I know I want to do music for my life and commit to it, and the details of how to bring a song into reality become a bit daunting because I’m not too familiar with recording. I get overwhelmed with having to make guide tracks and making things on tempo; all those details. But now I can feel that when you make a commitment to something, everything flows.
So many times when I write songs that I love, I record them on my phone and then they’re just there, lingering and waiting to be born. They’re like eggs in a nest, and I can go back into the nest of my phone, look through these eggs and bring them out when it’s time!
There are so many depths to bringing a song into reality but it comes down to the choices to make it happen. I pray that one day that all those choices will just be something I “know” and it won’t feel like a choice anymore to make a song. It’s going to be in me, and I’m not going to be overwhelmed anymore.
How do you relate to your songs after they have been performed or released for the first time – have you seen them grow and change? Have people’s reactions changed the way you see them?
Interesting question. The first time that I watched people have a relationship to these songs from my live E.P in their own way really changed the way I myself see the songs. The songs have a life. They desire to live and they live with everybody now. In a way it’s like letting go and really letting them be what they want to be.
It’s interesting when somebody says that my song brings something into their life – it feels like it has nothing to do with me. I don’t ever feel proud, it’s something that’s just cool and it’s an experience that I just observe and see objectively.
Most of the time when I write my songs, I don’t really understand them. It’s not like I’m analyzing them as they go. The meaning even changes for myself. There is one example when I was working at a women’s retreat. I was singing and I would read the lyrics before I would sing the song, and every single woman related to those lyrics.
It changed it for me entirely in terms of both why and how I was singing the song because, in that space, it wasn’t my song anymore. When I sing that same song now, it’s even more different than it was in that space – it depends on the situations. Every time a song is sung it actually grows and never stops.
I used to think that it would be so boring to see musicians on tour playing the same song over and over again, but I don’t feel that anymore. I let it grow, and see that these songs have never been sang in this place before, and now these tones will reach that wall, and that person and that shoe. These tones touch everything and grow because it sees something new. Now I’m actually excited to do other versions of my songs!
What is the story behind the title of your live album,
It’s weird. I don’t even know how that came up! I was writing it in my journal a lot. I had no idea what it meant or why – those two words just came out.
I feel like Bahasa Hati is really a place of truth for me because language and communication comes in so many forms, and something that has held me back for a long time is not always knowing how to communicate what feels true for me.
Sebenarnya, lebih enak kalau campur bahasa saya, dimana ada sedikit Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Inggris, dan Filipina (In truth, it’s better to mix up my languages. When there is a little bit of Indonesian, English or Filipino.) That’s actually where I feel most true, and its not really possible in many cases to mix it up with many people.
I felt like I was always searching for just one place where I could just feel like I was speaking without any hesitation from the heart. It’s kind of symbolic of just me embodying being from many places.
“I felt like I was always searching for just one place where I could just feel like I was speaking without any hesitation from the heart.”
Stepping back and seeing it from a different perspective, I just thought “What if we just speak with our heart? What would happen to the world if people just knew what their hearts were feeling?” I really believe in people’s hearts, I really do. I trust it in all people.
Bahasa Hati was also a challenge of wanting to step out of being this folk singer-songwriter thing. I have a background in theater and I want to dance, speak and move! I love performance, and I was feeling a little limited by my own perceptions of what I have to be, so Bahasa Hati became an exploration for me.
How do I speak with my heart today and how do I show that to the world on Instagram today? I created that hashtag #BahasaHati for a little while before the E.P release. It was a such a fun exploration, and I really do feel like people started to understand me a little bit more.
I see the spectrum of what we can express in so many different ways, and music is always a part of it. Even if it’s dance, there’s music in your body. Even if it’s poetry, there’s rhythm in your words. Music is always part of it and is the foundation of Bahasa Hati. Music is a tone, and so many tones exist within a tone. Everything that is physical is vibration, and that is music too. So when we look at it existentially, that’s our Bahasa. That’s our language.
You’ve included two of your own poems in Bahasa Hati. Are there differences in your mental approach to writing poetry and writing your lyrics to music?
Yes. There are differences. I write a lot, I write everyday. Sometimes it’s poems, at other times it’s not. Sometimes from writing, there are words that really pop out and they end up being lyrics, but lyrics usually come out when I’m with an instrument or with the music. When I’m just writing, I’m not thinking about lyrics. But when I have a guitar I usually start with improvisation and melody would be there, and the words would come to the melody and I end up writing them.
Who do you look up to and why?
My mother. She’s got a heart of gold. She gives so much without really thinking about it – she knows how to trust and go and helps out so many people. She works with indigenous people and communities all over Southeast Asia. She has a training in Law so she really has a strong voice in giving people the rights that they need and that they deserve. She makes it happen and I don’t really understand how she does it – I see her on her computer and phone, talking in her meetings and travelling. It’s all a blur. But I just know that all of that comes because she is very much “in her head” all the time. There are so many people that I look up to, I could go on and on but my mother is the first person who really comes up. And all mothers I have so much honor for. They know how to give, and I trust that.
What are the specific habits or rituals that you’ve developed either in your work or daily life that have helped you grow?
Something that really shifted things for me that helped me grow, in which the lessons I continue to carry into my daily life now has been the choice to be celibate. I was celibate for 8 months and just made that choice to be completely on my own; being so young too, a time where our hormones are going crazy. It was really a choice I made to be close to myself and love myself.
I later on discovered that it became an exploration in my relationship with nature and how I experience intimacy. One example is the ocean. My relationship with the ocean was really strengthened in different ways in having that practice of deep listening to everything around me. It all became really alive when I was celibate because I was making the choice everyday to listen deeply and to love myself.
The choice led from different sexual traumas and from having been active for a lot of my life and not being in my own space. Now I know that I can I have access to this space, and I know that my relationship can deepen even more with all the elements that are around me.
Elemental sensuality are the words that came up. We are born out of a very intimate and violent experience of leaving somebody’s body. We are born into this way of being sensual, and yet it’s such a taboo isn’t it?
It’s interesting – there’s a poem I read this morning, about how we all have these shells and some people are brave enough to actually poach though and see clearly with their eyes, their inner and outer worlds. That says a lot about life. We have to make that choice to break through the shell. We can have it on us all the time if we don’t choose to break through. So that choice of celibacy and intimacy gave me that point where I can break through that shell.
Besides that, I don’t really have rituals that I have everyday. I like to stretch and meditate, and improvise my singing just to hear my voice and how it changes, where it lives, and how it moves through my body. I like to play and dance!
We tend to pay more attention to people’s successes and the things they’ve done right, but we often don’t take into account the important “failures” one has to encounter and learn from along the way. What has been a particular “failure” of yours that has taught you a big lesson?
I think failure is subjective. For some people, something can be a failure, and for others it’s not that bad. I think every single time I perform and sing a set, there’s always something that goes wrong – either I miss a chord, or I didn’t hold my finger down on that string long enough for example.
When I was playing the weekly gig at The Orchard, Fendy and I were doing a jazz standard, and I completely went off key on the bridge. It was a failure. I’m really hard on myself – that’s something I’m working on too. I can never be satisfied with a show because of a “failure”, or even if I didn’t even feel an emotion as fully as I could have felt and expressed.
But I trust myself enough to fail. There’s kind of an inner knowing that I can trust myself. Because I know I can learn from that, instead of focusing on the failure.
“I trust myself enough to fail. There’s kind of an inner knowing that I can trust myself.”
How do you deal with fear and self doubt?
I don’t really know! There’s never one way for dealing with that. The way out always changes. Sometimes I really need reassurance from other people, and I’m not too proud to say that, but that’s what community is right? We need to support each other.
Another way can be praying. That really helps for me. When I’m praying, I call on a lot of the people that I love. When I’m alone and feeling afraid, I call on my grandmothers, I call on my mother. I call on people that I know are supporting me even though they’re not physically with me. That helps a lot.
Where do you usually go to for new ideas?
What places, sights and sounds can stimulate your creativity?
Waterfalls. I feel so at home when I’m by a waterfall. It doesn’t necessarily stimulate my creativity, but it’s what gives me space and reminds me of who I am. I go to the waterfall to create a space for the stimulating.
But there’s never really just a “go to” right? I watch the news and a lot of the things that I’m inspired by are experiences that people are going through in life right now on a large scale. Collective experience, suffering and just a lot of dark shit in the world; it inspires me so much to create. It’s a stimulus for me to see how I’m relating to the world.
Outside of Music, what makes you happy and fulfilled?
Banana pancakes! And I love seeing thriving gardens; you walk into someone’s farm, and they’re planting, cultivating and sharing and cooking the food together – that is so vibrant and fulfilling to see! Not only that but sharing music and spaces of love to create.
What does identity mean to you, and why is it important (or not important) for one to find an identity?
There are so many layers to this, but there are two main parts to it. We have bodies, and we have to meet ourselves here. Where we are, where we come from, our history – it means something, even if we don’t know why. Every identity is some sort of knowing, and a meeting of yourself, in relation to the world. It’s so significant, because to know this individuality is what makes a collective very strong.
Identity is important for that knowing, but to let go of it is when you really know what it means. To really let go of needing to be seen as this “thing”. “I am a woman, you must see me as a woman!” You can know your identity but you need to release it to understand it, because you then realize, actually we are all something very similar.
Growing up with so many different “identities” has been very challenging for me. Only really recently over the past year have I started to merge my worlds. I have so many different worlds. I have my world in the Philippines, my world in America, my world in Indonesia. Who I am here, there and different spaces. That’s with anything you know – the world of your family, the world of your friends. But for me it was really quite drastic.
Here, I feel very Indonesian, but I’m still a foreigner. There’s so many triggers for me and I have to tread lightly, because I’m “weird” ! It didn’t really make sense to be anywhere that I was, when we look at it from a very mainstream lens.
It was only when I took a bilingual writing class in college that I realized something. The teacher was encouraging us to write in many languages, and in the academic world, it’s not very accepted right? It’s quite controversial to be so bilingually expressive. Depending on the field of course – it’s changing a lot now, and she’s a part of that change. We focused a lot on identity in that class and the significance of expression.
Even for me, I never really even wrote in Indonesian or Tagalog before, and I realized that there are parts of me that I cannot express in English. I had to meet myself there. That really was the starting point for me in asking the bigger questions. Coming back to Bali has been a very strong choice to be in a place of not too much judgement of myself in terms of where I identify myself, where I don’t, as well as knowing my place.
It’s very interesting in the moment because I feel like we’re identifying so much more because we can. We identify Trans-gender, Gay, Woman, Man, Latina, Black, White, Asian. Everything’s being identified for the sake of individuality and the honoring of this individuality.
Now we can see that you deserve to be identified because so much of the time, in mainstream media you haven’t been, because you’re the minority. There’s this huge movement happening right now where this identification is “alive”.
It’s important, but I’m feeling that in some cases, it’s too important, and letting go isn’t. We’re actually all on the same team. It’s important that we’re all identifying and then choosing to bridge and relate, rather than demand respect because you are in power now from being identified.
It’s such an intricate balance, but I wanted to touch on that because it’s important to not over-identify. Knowing your relation with yourself, and understanding each others relation with each other’s history as well. Black history is very different from Filipino history, Balinese history is different from American, so we have to know our place.
But can we just be? And not only focus on these boundaries that we are in? Can we let go of that and identify ourselves as a human race? As a human being?
“There’s this huge movement happening right now where this identification is “alive”. It’s important, but I’m feeling that in some cases, it’s too important, and letting go isn’t.”
You’ve worked with young indigenous groups and musicians in recent years and had the chance to immerse yourselves in their culture. What in particular makes the indigenous arts important in today’s world, and how do they have the power to create change?
There’s a remembrance that is very strong in Indigenous communities that you can’t really compare with anyone who’s grown up outside one. There’s something that’s just innately “here” that they can just have access to, and I do believe that we all have that, but it’s just different when you’re coming from an indigenous community.
That remembrance is a doorway that can lead us to understanding something that has long been forgotten, and this lives in the song of indigenous people. It has traveled through generations.
I’m still exploring my relation to Indigenous peoples and I’m so lucky to be invited to experience life in villages in Indonesia because of the work of my parents. But I’ve noticed something in a welcome song from Sulawesi. With it’s melodies and intonations, it sounds Native American! It’s Earth song! So it doesn’t matter what tribe you’re from, people from all over the world are singing similar tones during similar times. It’s that remembrance of how to be in community that makes Indigenous song important, and it even relates to this heart space!
I think this idea of being indigenous sticks to this image of women and men in weavings in the forest. The indigenous now don’t need to be people walking around naked – that was their time and we’re in a new time now. In some ways, Bali is an island that is still running on it’s “indigenous” ways. There’s a thread where everyone’s still doing the rituals that their ancestors were doing. Within all my Balinese friends, I forget that they are indigenous and their values are already changing the world, even though it’s not in mainstream culture.
People are still in ritual, and Indonesia has so many indigenous cultures that are still alive, and of course it’s hard because money is changing everything. From my own experience, I’ve can say that I’ve been learning from them and that’s changed something in me, and that has affected people who hear my songs. I don’t really know my role yet, but we’re sharing and learning.
What do you think is unique about the role of women in bringing about positive change in today’s society? What specific qualities of Womanhood are an essential part of this change?
We live in a patriarchal society that is just taking and taking, from the earth and from each other, and not giving enough. When we look at in existentially, there’s a lot of taking and not enough giving. It’s the moon and the sun, the dark and the light, the inhale and the exhale. Women symbolize the exhale. But it’s completely out of balance right now.
There’s a quality of expressiveness that women have; a way of relating to humanity that is very feminine. It lives in men too – I’m not saying that it’s only with women, but it’s a feminine energy that is sacred that lives within everything, including all men and women.
A woman carries that in her and the role that women play in this shift is incredibly important. It’s not about switching roles. It’s not about a woman needing to live in a man’s world and taking over. I feel that the role of women is to come home to yourself.
The magic that happens in a woman’s body when a baby is coming in is a physical example of the energy of creation that can be accessed as well. In matriarchal societies in indigenous times, women were honored for that. Women were honored when they bleed, and the process when you bleed every month, you’re releasing and cleansing. Not just for yourself, but for the tribe. You’re fertile, you create visions and dreams when you’re menstruating. This honoring is still alive, but it’s been completely oppressed over time, and the role of women is to come back. To reconnect to the earth and to each other. That’s what we’re really missing; our communication that’s honest and real, to see things as they are.
“It’s not about switching roles. It’s not about a woman needing to live in a man’s world and taking over. I feel that the role of women is to come home to yourself.”
I think that honoring the blood and knowing your relation to blood is very important, and it’s going to be different for every woman. When you start bleeding – this is something that happens to every single woman and is something that nobody teaches or talks about, you have all these emotions that come up – it’s an entire process.
In my experience, I learned so much about myself when I learned about my blood. I used to want nothing to do with it. It was dirty, and when it happens, it hurt, I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t go to work or do these things that I wanted.
But it takes you out of this time clock that we’re all in. It brings you into realness and that is a gift! How do we learn to honor that? It’s such a huge step into womanhood – when we can give ourselves space and only you make that choice. It’s an individual path, but it relates to all. It’s a natural cycle – we bleed with the moon, and it’s a direct connection we have to the cycles of the earth. It shows us this balance.
What book have you recommended the most to people?
Anastasia by Vladimir Megré ! And the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
What’s one piece of advice you would give your 18 year old self?
All you need is love, and wisdom! Gotta have some wisdom.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years time?
Trusting. I see myself really trusting. No more holding myself back. And that will lead to just being able to share a lot of music, and travel. I want to travel with a team of strong musicians and just have a momentum of energy there.
If you would like to get in touch with Sandrayati, you can contact her at:
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Instagram : @sandrayatifay
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