By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Not only are her songs impressive and lasting, Cecile Azarcon, the song writer/composer, exudes an indelible impression as a person as well. At the concert in New York in April that commemorated her 35th year as composer for Original Philippine Music (OPM), one immediately senses the grace that she carries, rather royally, on stage.
I knew that night that I was going to pursue an interview with her, after having sung along her songs throughout the concert at Manhattan’s Symphony Space. Indeed, I got one.
Her family background explains that royal grace which grabbed me that night.
Cecile, now residing in Vallejo, California, comes from a family of musicians, which dates back to her great grandfather who was the church’s music director in Lipa, Batangas.
Thirty-five years in the US, she is still so much into music, as music director of the Faith Bible Church of Vallejo, and as teacher giving private voice lessons in her music studio.
Cecile’s songs are so loved by Filipinos all these years. Her first, Lift Up Your Hands, catapulted Basil Valdez to what may be deemed as eternal fame, while Martin Nievera became more endeared as a balladeer with the song Ikaw ang Lahat sa Akin. Kuh Ledesma sealed her diva stardom with the sexy and light rendition of I Think I’m In Love. Chiqui Pineda was introduced to the public with the instant hit How Did You Know which was later on sung by Gary Valenciano.
Kuh Ledesma, during the Philippine Independence Day celebration in New York recently, aptly described Cecile as a national treasure in the music industry. Indeed, she is.
Innate talent and training have a lot to do with that. Two women were mainly responsible for honing her craft in music in her early life. Cecile looks up to her mother, Minda Azarcon, as her mentor and her grandmother, Luisa Eugenio, who was her first piano teacher.
As a young child, Cecile already showed signs of being a musical genius, playing the piano by ear and starting her own compositions when she was six. Her grandmother had taught her to read notes and given her formal piano lessons when she was eight.
The training went far into her teenage years, with her mother and other music teachers as well. In college, Cecile decided to enroll at the UP Conservatory of Music to study Voice, Piano and Composition.
“I was the only one in the family who followed my mother’s footsteps,” she quipped.
Minda Azarcon, the first to be conferred a Master’s Degree in Music at the University of the Philippines, was an opera singer, concert pianist, music director, and a voice and piano teacher.
She created the music for the movies “Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa”, “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos”, and “Insiang” that earned nominations for “Best Musical Direction” at the First Manila Film Festival in 1976 and the “Best Original Song and Musical Direction” at the FAMAS Awards in 1977.
Minda could not have been prouder of her daughter who can whip up lyrics and music in a matter of minutes. Lift Up Your Hands, for instance, was made in 10 minutes. In a recently published book on OPM by Tina Dumlao, Cecile said that “when inspiration comes, I need to capture the moment. I need to be free from distractions.”
With her prolific nature, look at how the Filipinos love to sing her songs. As I write, I sing Cecile’s composition interpreted by Iwi Laurel, Special Memory…”I’ll always cherish wonderful moments you have given me. You are in my heart, wherever I may be…”
Excerpts of our interview:
1. What was your inspiration behind Lift Up Your Hands?
I remember I was on the phone with a dear friend of mine who was going through a difficult time and I said I would call her right back. As soon as we hung up, I paused to say a prayer for my friend…then the words and music started to flow…”Life, is not at all that bad, my friend”. The song was completed in 10 minutes.
This song actually paved the way to my songwriting career at the age of 19. The words and music came out in 10 minutes, I found out later on that the chorus was from the Bible in Matthew 11:28…and I did not even have a bible with me when the song was written. Lift Up Your Hands was also cited as Best Religious Song by the Cecil Awards and the Catholic Mass Media Awards. I thank God and give Him all the glory for inspiring me to write this song!
2. Was songwriting your main profession in the Philippines? Or were you engaged in other careers too?
Aside from being a songwriter in the Philippines, I was also a voice teacher by profession. I am blessed to have mentored some of the Philippines’ top singers and celebrities like Sharon Cuneta, Kuh Ledesma, Gary Valenciano, ZsaZsa Padilla, Pops Fernandez, Jam Morales, Cherie Gil, Jackie-Lou Blanco, Christopher de Leon, Aga Muhlach, among others.
3. Did you choose the singers to sing your songs, or do singers/companies ask you to create music for them to sing? In relation to this, who is/are good artists enjoyable to work with?
Sometimes, the record companies would ask me for a song or songs and they will be the ones to select the artist to record the song/s. Sometimes, the singers themselves will request for me to compose a song for them. And there are also times when I have a specific singer in mind to interpret and record my song.
In my entire songwriting career, I must say I enjoyed working with every artist that I had the chance to work with.
4. Who were your influences as a songwriter and as a musician?
As a musician, pianist, singer and songwriter, my greatest influence and inspiration is my mother. Everything she did…I pretty much did. Among my siblings, I was the only one who followed in her footsteps.
Growing up, I admired and listened to the wonderful music of Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the composers of How Do You Keep the Music Playing; Windmills of Your Mind; Summer Me, Winter Me; Pieces of Dreams; and many more. The musical and collaborative works of these icons of music have left a deep imprint in my soul and continue to inspire me.
At the University of the Philippines College of Music, I was privileged to have attended songwriting classes with the late Prof. Lucio San Pedro, composer of the Filipino classic Sa Ugoy Ng Duyan, with lyrics by the late Levi Celerio.
5. Are you still into music creation professionally?
Yes, I am still writing songs professionally. Most recently, one of my songs, So, It’s You, was used as a movie title and theme song by Regal Films. Last year, two songs of mine, One More Try and Huwag Kang Mangako, also became theme songs for GMA’s teleserye, My Husband’s Lover and Akin Pa Rin Ang Bukas, respectively.
6. How is it living here in the US?
I like it. Although it’s not an easy journey and, definitely not without trials and challenges, but at the end of the day, if you are determined and hardworking, then, you will have a better chance of a better life in this land of opportunity. I have peace and I am happy. I truly have so much to be grateful to God for.
7. How did you become a professional songwriter? Who gave you your first big break in the music industry? Can you describe the circumstances?
My first big break as a songwriter was given to me in 1979 by Mr. Vic del Rosario of Vicor Music Records and Mr. Basil Valdez, for recording my first hit song.
I had a cousin, Charo Unite, who worked as an A & R for Vicor and Blackgold Records. That’s how I got my foot in the door.
I remember waiting for my cousin at Blackgold Records one time and I was in one of the rooms that had a piano. While waiting, I decided to play and sing my newly-composed song, Lift Up Your Hands. I did not realize Mr. Basil Valdez was listening by the door. Afterwards, when he found out I wrote the song, he asked if he could record it and include it in his new album, Corner of the Sky. Not long after, I had a meeting with Mr. Vic del Rosario, and he had me sign my first songwriter’s contract. The rest is history.
8. Of all the singers who interpreted your songs, is there someone whom you think worked best with your songs?
Yes. Ms. Kuh Ledesma. Kuh is one of the few singers who would ask me for a background of the song and would ask for advice so she can better emotionally and musically interpret my song. She would, sometimes, request for me to be in the studio with her to make sure I am happy and satisfied with her rendition and interpretation. Plus, her vocal style, dynamics and range are just perfect for my songs.
I remember giving her one of my songs recently, Walking On Water, which is yet to be released, and I was so touched and blessed when she said, “I pray I will be able to give justice to your song.” She understands there is always a story behind a song. That it is not just about having a great voice, but also about being able to effectively convey the message of the song. (With photos by Oliver Oliveros and Troi Santos)