Habsah Hassan plops three hefty folders filled with songs down as she takes a seat behind her desk.
My eyes grow wide in amazement as the 68-year-old songwriter tells me nonchalantly: “A friend helped me document the songs I’ve written over the years. We’ve managed to gather about 800 of them here so far. But there’s actually more – over 1,000.”
I take in my surroundings and notice that a cabinet spanning almost an entire wall of her office is jam-packed with trophies. And I look back at the folders before me.
Habsah is irrefutably one of the country’s most prolific and productive songwriters. And get this, songwriting isn’t even her full-time job!
She recalls falling in love with the written word as a child growing up at a police quarter in Singapore. “There was a weekly radio programme which featured content contributed by various police divisions, meaning, the police themselves would write and perform the radio dramas. My father was a policeman and he and his division would often participate,” she remembers.
“After rehearsals, they often left their scripts lying around, and I would collect them and read them. That’s how I first learned to write a script.”
As a teen, Habsah actively wrote and submitted radio drama scripts to radio stations and poems to magazines and newspapers.
Midway through her Sixth Form, Habsah – who by now had created some buzz for herself as a writer – was offered a part-time writing job at Radio Televisyen Singapura.
She worked there for a year before moving to Melaka, where her family had relocated to a few years earlier.
Still, she continued pursuing her writing dreams in Malaysia, accepting a full-time position at Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in 1973 as a broadcast assistant where she produced radio programmes.
The following year, Habsah found her calling as a songwriter. She attributes the start of her songwriting career to composers Datuk Ooi Eow Jin and Din Osman, whom she met at RTM.
“Din first approached me to write songs, as he knew I wrote a lot of poetry,” she says.
Habsah, who had never written a song until then and had no formal music education, took up the challenge. It didn’t take long before she penned her first hit, Terkenang, for Bintang RTM 1975 winner Zulkiflee Ahmad.
The following year, she wrote Teriring Doa and Suratku Yang Ini for the debut EP of Datuk Sudirman, who had just won Bintang RTM 1976. She later became one of the legendary performer’s regular lyricists, penning notable hits such as Merisik Khabar, Salam Terakhir and Terasing.
Habsah hasn’t looked back since. Her body of work has grown over the years to include songs for Salamiah Hassan, Datuk Sheila Majid, Datuk Siti Nurhaliza and Misha Omar.
She won the prestigious Best Song trophy at Anugerah Juara Lagu (AJL) twice for Menaruh Harapan (Zaiton Sameon) and Cinta Beralih Arah (Aishah).
Her most recent work is last year’s Andainya Takdir (Anuar Zain), which became an instant hit.
Interestingly, songwriting has always been something she did only on the side. The lyricist kept her day job and worked at RTM for 11 years, before starting her own film and TV production company.
Some of her most popular work in films include 1985’s Ali Setan (production manager), 1990’s Hati Bukan Kristal (producer and scriptwriter) – which won Best Film at the Malaysia Film Festival – and 2000’s Soal Hati (producer and scriptwriter).
Tell us about your songwriting process.
I have no formal music education. I only write lyrics, I don’t compose. So usually, when I’m asked to write a song, I am given a melody. I will listen to the melody over and over again until it grows on me, until I can hum it.
Then I will create a backstory in my mind. All my lyrics have a story behind them. For example, in Andainya Takdir, the story I had in mind was a woman who finds success in life but forgets her family along the way. (Incidentally, the music video has a similar storyline.)
So when the melody is already in me, and I have the backstory, I’ll sit down and write.
I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration. In all my years of writing, inspiration never comes to you. You have to go and get it. The writing process can range from a few hours to a few days.
I’m very particular about my choice of words. Everybody can use the same set of words, but the way they are placed is very important.
You’ve written for so many artistes – both big and lesser-known names. How do you choose who to write for?
As far as I’m concerned, I don’t write because of the artiste. I write because it’s my passion.
Most of the time, when the composer comes to me with the melody, I don’t even know who the artistes are. If I like the melody, I’ll write. If I don’t, I’ll say I can’t.
I will just ask if the singer is a man or a woman, and his or her age because I need to write lyrics that are suitable for the singer’s age.
Both your songs Merisik Khabar and Menaruh Harapan were strong contenders at AJL 1987. Were you surprised by the results?
I was so confident Merisik Khabar was going to win because of its melody and the lyrics came deep from the heart. Suddenly, Menaruh Harapan won. I was a bit surprised, but I think it’s because the words to Menaruh Harapan were more positive.
You were one of the first people to work with Sudirman. What was your first impression of him?
I thought he was going to be big. He had talent, and on top of that, he was very focused and he worked very hard.
There are some others whom I’ve gotten to know where their motivations have to do with the glamorous or monetary aspect of showbiz. That wasn’t Sudirman’s concern. It was all about the music for him.
Many of your songs deal with pain and sadness. Why is that?
I always lend others my shoulders to cry on. My friends call me “the public complaint bureau” (laughs).
So, I happen to hear a lot of sad stories. People seldom share their happy stories. Sadness is part of life, it’s something you can’t get away with. Everybody relates to it. People take happiness for granted, but people take sadness seriously.
What are songs you personally loved but never became hits?
I love Semut-Semut Di Titian Usang by Salamiah Hassan. It’s a motivational song about a group of ants working together to cross an old bridge. Another one is Kadang Kala, also by Salamiah, which talks about being a bird, flying freely.
Also, Kau Yang Tersendiri by Jay Jay, is a song about people with disabilities. They are very special but they don’t know it.
Some of the lyrics in our local music industry now tend to be more conversational. Do you fear that your approach to songwriting may not be as relevant?
It’s a trend. You can’t run away from that. That’s part and parcel of the evolution of music. You can’t say this is not the right song or this is the right song. As long as you write a song and treat it as a work of art, it will be relevant all the way through.