All that Rozz-matazz

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It has been five years since Rozz first lit up Bagan’s stage with his electric takes on classic torch songs and Broadway numbers. With undeniable panache, Rozz fluidly melds the worlds of the masculine and the feminine.

WHO DID PEOPLE WATCH Before Rozz (BR)? Where did we go out at night? The answers are lost in a hazy mist; it’s hard to imagine a time when Penang had a happening live music scene that wasn’t dominated by zombie bands regurgitating chart toppers in hotel lobbies.

That changed when Rozz and his sequins swept into town.

For starters, Rozz is a performer who can actually sing. His classically trained vocals have been honed since he was four years old and later, on and off Broadway. Music and the stage are his life, and it’s a life he’s worked hard for aft er years spent working for a petroleum company. “To be honest, when I came back to Malaysia (from the US) I thought that I’d never perform again. After graduating, I did Beauty and the Beast and Fantastiks for three months in the chorus. Th ose three months gave me nothing, I couldn’t experience New York the way I wanted to and I happened to run into this producer who asked me if I’d like to headline a new show. It was a fun time.”

Back in Malaysia, the turning point came when a friend of Rozz opened a chic watering-hole and asked him to perform. “Th at fi rst night back on stage I thought, ‘I don’t want to work in an offi ce anymore.’ I handed in my resignation the next day. It was serendipity, being in the right place at the right time.” Five years later and Rozz is still very much the magnet for Bagan’s clientele drawn by his powerful performances and versatile musicality.

What’s the difference between your shows in New York and in Malaysia?

Everything was set up for me in New York, it was all choreographed, I wasn’t a personality; I was just a character that sang and danced. But here it’s my show. I have 100% control over what I want to perform. It’s very, very different. I know music and I arrange all my songs.

As a performer you can’t connect with everyone, do you choose who you want to connect with?

Actually I feel that it’s my audience who have chosen me. I’ve never designed my show to fi t anyone but when I pick songs I pick what I like and what I like to sing.

Listening to how passionate you get when you talk about music, I have to suppose that you are a perfectionist. Are you?

Preparation is so important, I find sound or video clips which I may want to incorporate into my show, and send these to my band, and their job is to do their homework by listening and learning these bytes. I think it’s the least one can demand, for them to listen to these. If we’re not adequately prepared, the show just won’t go the way it’s supposed to. I probably have a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Did your first band fall into the not-adequately-prepared category?

I think with my first band, we just got to a point where we couldn’t be creative with each other anymore. I wanted to move in another direction and they didn’t necessarily see eye to eye with me.

There are many, many things you have to consider when you have to manage your own career.

Sounds like you need a manager.

I do have a manager who manages me, but I’m too anally retentive to have someone manage my show. Every set I do is different, even if I sing the same songs it’ll never be in the same way. I think that’s why even if you had watched me perform years ago, you’d still want to come back now. There are certain crowd favourites that I do even though I hate them, but most of my stuff has changed and evolved.

Go on, name a song you hate.

Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You – it always gets requested.

But you do it with such feeling.

Oh yeah, I used to love singing it, but it just invites comments. Some people say, ‘But you do it so differently, can you do it the way Whitney does?’ People are so used to listening to copycat Filipino singers and they assume that’s the way you’ll perform as well.

Rozz has become a regular at No Black Tie, where his unique sound and tribute medleys a la Streisand, Madonna and Carey have been enthusiastically received by KLites.

“In KL, there’s stand-up involved and I do more talking. My show in Penang’s not set up like that. Bagan’s more of a venue for people to come and chitchat and I’m just background music, I don’t even expect applause from the audience! I am thankful if they even notice one song.”

Ivan Sim.

“ People think I don’t do anything from Monday to Thursday and then I dress up in my cute litt le outfi ts during the weekends, get drunk and sing a few songs...”—Rozz

Do you feel like a big fish in a small pond?

No! But I wish Penangites would appreciate their own better. We have so many great musicians here in Penang who are always passed over for some out-of-town act. I only started gaining recognition after performing in KL, including two film offers. Penang musicians don’t want to support their own. It’s very cliquey, it’s just something I’ve come to accept.

Cliquey? How?

Jazz musicians just want to hang out with jazz musicians, they don’t want people to cross over, they think that the music’s not pure. It’s all this silly bullshit. People should just come together and support each other. Maybe that’s why we don’t get so many gigs here in Penang.

Do you get a better reception in KL?

It’s different, I’m treated special. Musicians want to come and meet me, but in Penang, they just don’t care. It’s really weird. I don’t expect adulation but I would like to be respected by my peers because I believe in collaborating with others to produce good music. I want to be recognised for being a good artist and not just someone who went to Yale, why is that even important?

I suppose it makes you sound credible. Many Malaysians think being a performer isn’t a “real” job.

People think I don’t do anything from Monday to Thursday and then I dress up in my cute little outfits, get drunk and sing a few songs. They don’t see the preparation, the rehearsals, the time and effort we put into the show. When we’re not performing at Bagan, we also do other events, we’re always working. This is far more challenging than when I worked in my previous 9–5 corporate job.

Rozz spoke candidly about his drag act which was frankly a relief; it’s been the proverbial elephant in the room. As he sat across from me in shorts and a T-shirt, I’m reminded of what a mutual friend observed, “Oh Rozz is just a guy who loves to play dress up.” I’m conscious that while he performs as a woman, he doesn’t want to be one. While his onstage appearance is just part of the act, Rozz refuses to be pigeonholed. “People also say ‘Oh Rozz the drag artist.’ Rozz is not a drag artist, Rozz is a singer. I am a drag queen but first and foremost I am a musician and a drag queen second,” he emphasised.

So why the drag aspect in your show?

I think people respond to it. When I’m in drag a different persona comes out and I’m a lot braver than when I’m not. I really separate it from who I am. I think my drag persona is a lot more interesting than me. I think a lot of drag performers seem harmless to most people. It wasn’t a conscious choice to incorporate it into my performances; when I fi rst started at Bagan I was androgynous. But I began to realise that people relate to me a lot easier when I’m in drag. I think I come up with much better lines when I’m in drag!

Since we’ve got the drag thing out of the way, have you always been so open about your own sexuality?

Yes, I brought home my first boyfriend when I was 15, my parents were always supportive. But I do remember my father asking me later about marriage, I told him, “Oh I don’t think so papa.”

Are you involved in local LGBT issues?

I am interested in setting up a company that promotes the art of transgendered people. Transgendered Malaysians have so few career options, whereas gay people can live in hiding and lead relatively normal lives. Transgendered people can’t, they’ve got no choice. God, I sound like Mother Teresa! For the record, I hate children!

Charitable aspirations aside, Rozz remains focused on his music and a studio album – supposedly the “holy grail” of any serious musician – is still some time away. Rozz brushed this suggestion off , “I’m in no rush to record. I’m not drawn to the fame or the money. For me it’s all about the feeling of performing on stage.” It’s a simple admission that contrasts sharply with the modern music industry’s hype; it explains how a man in a dress has captivated audiences so consistently for five years.

In short, it’s about soul, not sell-out; it’s all about the music, dahlingks!

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