At the intersection of immigration and music comes the new melodious yet raw song, “Box Of Letters,” by Filipina American singer Alfa.Though she only began pursuing a music career in 2011, the indie folk-pop artist is steadily making waves in the scene with a growing following in both the U.S and Philippines. Already, some may have heard her music featured in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or when she opened for artists like Us the Duo, Howie Day and The Rembrandts. In her new song, Alfa tells the story of her family coming to America from the Philippines without her dad, because he was not approved. Years later, after growing up with her father in another country, Alfa hears that her dad is choosing to stay in the Philippines rather than join the family.
This fateful decision ultimately inspired the singer songwriter’s new single as she grapples with her absent relationship with her father. With each lucky dollar he gave her, every birthday or holiday card shoved in a box, Alfa unveils her journey from abandonment to hope. Over acoustic guitar chords and a sweet voice, she creates her own immigration siren song. Alfa humbly sat down with me to talk about her new single. The following excerpt of our interview has been edited for clarity.
KP: I saw that you taught yourself to play the guitar and you’ve spoken about having a musical family. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that and what that upbringing was like?
A: The thing that’s funny about anything in your childhood is that you don’t know how to compare it to anything else. So, it was just standard like when we were in the Philippines. I would always have my sister playing flute, my aunt playing clarinet; everybody kind of just played an instrument. I grew up seeing that and it actually bored me. Like, “Oh, everybody plays instruments. I’m gonna grow up and be a dentist.”
I’m not even kidding. I said I wanted to be a dentist. So, I just thought that was perfectly normal and I didn’t realize how unique it was until I came to the U.S and met a lot of other people who were like, “Oh, you play instruments? That’s so cool!” I was like, “Why? Don’t you?” It was just such a normal thing for my family that I didn’t even think it was anything special.
KP: So how did that switch from playing music with your family to booking gigs in NY and moving across the country to continue music?
A: I think the bridge between all that is that I started off being classically trained. My mom got me a piano and I voluntarily got into violin and started playing in orchestras. There’s one in NY called the Children’s Orchestra Society that was started by Yo-Yo Ma’s dad. I basically grew up playing in that orchestra and really loved and enjoyed it. That was around the time I started writing my own songs, and once I started doing that, some of my friends in orchestra were like “I want to play with you.” They started playing drums for me and then I was like, this is actually kind of fun.
Eventually when I was in high school, I’d been writing songs for two years. It’s really weird but it’s all I want to do. All I want to do is sit in my room and write songs. Not just that, but I also love performing for people and started to really enjoy playing. When I got to college, I met a guy and had a crush on him and then we started dating and he was into songwriting too! So he was like, “Hey, come up to this open mic in Jersey.” I said okay and was exposed to an open mic for the first time in my life. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’m addicted.”
Then I just started playing open mics and it spiraled out of control from there. I started playing in colleges and then it was like a college in Boston invited me or a college in Philadelphia invited me. By the time I graduated, I knew it was something I wanted to do, [even] as I majored in something else.
KP: Feels like a rom com plot!
A: Yea I know right! If only that relationship worked out.
KP: Well, new story I guess, haha.
A: Yeah, exactly.
KP: Well, I was also interested in the way “Box of Letters” also expresses this difficult scenario in immigrant families and if there were other ways that growing up as an immigrant has shaped or affected your songwriting?
A: Oh, God. Every. Single. Way. Possible. I’m still discovering ways that it’s affected my music. Right from the get go, I think there was always an awareness in my head that I’m doing this thing I absolutely love but I’m very aware there’s no one else out there really doing this on a big level in the U.S. I didn’t know about songwriters in the Philippines. Obviously, I knew there was Filipino music in my head, but I had the awareness in my head that there weren’t really any people who look like me because all the female singer songwriters in the U.S were white or black; they weren’t Asian.
I also think that being an immigrant, you have this pressure from your family to do something “normal” and stable and that certainly weighed on me in a big way. My mom always wanted us to do music because it’s the family tradition, but I think when I told her I wanted to do it as a career, she flipped. She was like, “Nooo wayyyy.” So, that took a little convincing.
KP: Yeah, I can definitely feel that.
A: Yeah, and you were talking about “Box of Letters” before and that was a particular aspect of my story because I moved here without my dad because initially he wasn’t approved. Then he just decided not to join our family, which is such a huge decision to make — which obviously affected me in so many ways. I know this is common in a lot of immigrant families where you know the parents have separated and there isn’t always a happy ending where the other eventually comes. That’s definitely one aspect of it that’s so precarious because you’re making such a huge decision to move from one country and start your life fresh in a new one. There can be these things that fall by the wayside and my father certainly was for one reason or another.
KP: I remember listening to the song for the first time, and I was not just shocked by — but taken — with the honesty in the song. How clear it is despite the sort of gentle melody it has. I know in other reviews people have mentioned how your work is very authentic and truthful, and just like wow. How do you grapple with facing the hard stuff like that all the time?
A: Oh man, I don’t. I wrote “Box of Letters” years ago and I don’t know. I want to say I first wrote it in 2017. I’ve been trying for years to write a song about my dad and there are other songs I have written, but they all felt not quite on the mark. And if you dig through my discography, you’ll find there’s a song called “Footnote” that’s about my dad. That one is not quite… I don’t think it hit the mark quite how I wanted it to.
But when I first wrote “Box of Letters,” I just remember falling apart crying. I couldn’t get through it. Then I just sat on it; it just went into some part of my brain where I could forget about it. Then, last year I was fishing around for ideas and I was looking around on my computer and found BOL and was like, ”Wow, this song is so good. Why did I abandon this?” Then I was like, “I remember now. It was horrible writing this song.” Then I just buckled up and was like, “Let’s finish it.” It was such a huge sigh of relief. I just had the feeling like as you were saying, that I had written something authentic and it felt so good because it had hurt so bad writing the song. I could just tell this was it because it had hurt so much yet I’m drawn to this song.
I think it’s funny that you say you can feel the honesty because there’s been so many people that have come to me after hearing me play that have been so moved and were like, “Hey, I heard your song and afterwards I sat down with my dad and talked about issues we’ve been having.”
KP: Wow, that’s a lot.
A: Yeah! She was like “You helped me bring up issues that I would never have brought up but finally did. Thank you so much for writing that song because we never would have had that conversation otherwise.” Uhm, I get chills just thinking about it! So I’m just fascinated by your reaction, but happy, because I think I did my job, you know?
KP: Definitely. I would say so.
A: Aw, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to listen to it.
KP: I guess on that note, do you have any other words of wisdom for other aspiring Asian American musicians out there?
A: I have so much advice. If any of them want to call me and need a mentor, give them my email address. I’d love to mentor you! Because there’s just so much, but I think one of the biggest things I could say is: Don’t worry too much about being an Asian American and being pigeonholed. I think I’ve probably thought about it too much. Just do what you do and be the artist you want to be. Being Asian American is just the cherry on top.
KP: Do you feel like the industry does that a lot? Pigeon hole you as an Asian artist?
A: Yes. Yes. I used to do a lot more college gigs where I would go to these conferences and there were only a limited number of people for these conferences. For example, this showcase can only have five singer songwriters and they would say, “Oh, no. This other Asian American girl got into the showcase. That’s gonna cut your chances.” But I feel like there’s three white guys! No one’s telling them that’s cutting their chances.
I would encounter things like that and it would definitely be a little bit frustrating to not be taken on my own merit. That’s what I would say. If you’re an Asian American artist, musician or whatever you do, just focus on the art. It’s great you’re Asian American and obviously be close to your community where you can, but don’t let yourself be pigeonholed. Focus on the art.
KP: Thank you so much for that. I just have one more question, not in the same serious vein, but I was wondering if you had a favorite Asian dish you’d like to share?
A: Don’t make me pick one! Hahah. Gosh, okay. Well I’m gonna stay true to my roots and go with a Filipino dish and go with my favorite: kinilaw. It’s kind of like a cross between poke and ceviche where it’s like raw fish — okay I’m getting hungry just talking about it — but it’s raw fish marinated in coconut vinegar with onions and whatever vegetables. I wouldn’t even say it’s necessarily cooked. It’s just raw fish that’s been sitting in vinegar for so long and I just love it. I can just eat it with my hands!