HELLO! Magazine, Issue 70, January 2012
Stephen Rahman-Hughes opens up on two of his biggest loves: music and his wife Anjali
By Sophia Goh
It’s almost four o’clock on a Friday afternoon when we meet Stephen Rahman-Hughes. The man surely must be exhausted – he’s just finished an intensive four-month shooting stint for the new television series The Kitchen Musical, and he’s spent much of the day doing interviews to promote his self-titled Malay album. But if he’s tired, Stephen doesn’t show it. Instead, he orders an extra shot in his coffee, and jokingly asks the barista if that’s going to make him able to fly to the moon. The barista laughs.
We settle comfortably into a corner for our chat. It’s been an exciting year for Stephen, and there’s much to talk about. Having played Hang Tuah in the critically acclaimed Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Musical and Merong Mahawangsa in Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, Stephen’s latest turn as the intense and highly strung Chef Alex in The Kitchen Musical, a role that required him to act, sing and dance, is certain to raise his profile even further, not just in Malaysia but in Southeast Asia as well.
Then there’s the album – Stephen’s first Malay record, a collection of eight new songs ranging from pop-rock and alternative rock to, of course, ballads – and, equally significant, the celebration of his first wedding anniversary. He met successful dancer and choreographer Anjali way back in 2002 while they were both in the musical production Bombay Dreams in London’s West End, and the couple tied the knot in beautiful Tuscany, Italy, on 4 September 2010.
“She’s one of the funniest people I know, and most people who know me know that I like to have a lot of fun. I don’t like to take myself too seriously, and she doesn’t take me seriously either,” says Stephen with a laugh. It’s obvious from the way he talks about her that he absolutely adores his wife, and he says as much.
“She’s just got this great quality about her. She’s one of those people who walk into a room and the room lights up. Lots of people adore her and I’m certainly one of them. She’s able to keep my feet on the ground. When I get wrapped up, she’s very good at making me see the bigger picture and not concentrate on the little details that might be ruining a moment for me.”
Here, the beautiful couple generously shares with us exclusive photos from their wedding day, as Stephen opens up on his new album, working in Malaysia, and married life.
What made you decide to release a Malay album?
I’ve been meaning to do an album for a while, and we initially talked about doing a mixed album, because a lot of my fan base is always saying to me, ‘Why don’t you do an album in Malay, or at least release a single in Malay?’ The idea was to work with local composers, and once we started getting material, it became evident that the songs I was singing in Malay were working really well. They were really strong songs. I recorded a couple of songs in English, but I think once we started to put them together in the lineup, [we found that] they weren’t really working and that they really jumped out. So we kept them and continued looking for composers, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of material and they were all Malay songs so we decided to go with that. For me, the initial reason I did the album was to say thank you for all the support I’ve gotten over the years in Malaysia. And it seemed to make sense to keep it all in Malay. Now the fan base can have a Malay album as a sign of my appreciation.
Was it difficult to sing in Malay?
It is tough. It kind of takes twice as long to get your head around it. I suppose, over the years, I’ve worked out a process to do it. In much the same way that I would work with Shakespeare, you have to get the text and make sure you know it, then you have a general translation, and then you have to go for the words, word by word. So I have three levels of text to work with, and I make sure I get them sent to me straightaway before I even start learning them, because for me, there’s absolutely no way I can sing a song without being connected to it. I have to know what I’m singing about. Just trying to remember it when it’s out of context is very, very difficult. I try not to do that. If you know what you’re singing about, your emotions take care of themselves, and it comes up in your voice.
How would you describe the process of working on this album?
It’s been a lot of fun. It’s taken the best part of the year. I’m incredibly busy, so when I’m in Malaysia, I try to squeeze in a recording session, and everything’s done very quickly. The time we do have is precious so we have to get to the essence of the material very quickly, and then get into the studio and record it. I tried to keep my identity as much as possible, a little bit of what the fans would recognise me for – slightly epic, slightly theatrical – so hopefully people will be able to tell that it was me.
You’ve said that you’re really committed to working in this region…
I think the region and Malaysia in particular because obviously, I’m half Malay. I think there’s definitely a Malay pride inside me that sort of works its magic. Every time I come to Malaysia, I want to do things, and I also enjoy working here. The appreciation is fantastic. People are really, really open to my ideas. Hopefully, I can influence people around me to do better work, and in return, they can influence me to do better work. I think I get a lot out of working in Malaysia. It’s very, very fulfilling.
Is working in Malaysia something you’ve always wanted to do?
Always. I think when I first came here, I was a contemporary dancer with my own dance company at the time, and I wanted to put on some shows. I remember showing some people my choreography and people sort of looking at it like, ‘Wow, this is a bit off the wall,’ and maybe people weren’t ready to see some of the ideas that I was putting forward. But I was constantly trying to do something. I got offered a lot of stuff, but I was kind of waiting for something to come up that would give me the opportunity to do my best work. And that opportunity was Puteri Gunung Ledang. Playing Hang Tuah was a massive challenge. I’d never spoken Malay, and certainly not on stage. It took me four months just to learn the script.
Your wedding photos are gorgeous. Tell us a little bit about your wife, Anjali.
I met her on Bombay Dreams in the year 2002. She was one of the lead dancers in the show, and we struck up a friendship. Actually, we were very cagey about each other when we first met. I found her a little bit guarded. She’s very cautious, and I’m different. I jump into getting to know people. She takes her time. We just kind of got to know each other and then afterwards remained friends. She was touring as a dancer, I was touring as a singer and actor, and every now and again we would come back to London and meet up. I think those years were really important for us because we really built a friendship and companionship. And then obviously we talked about having a relationship and all that stuff. Because I wasn’t around and she wasn’t around so much, it was kind of difficult to lock that down. But wherever I was, whatever I was doing, we’d always keep in touch. I fell for her, and just wanted to spend all my time with her. I suppose recently it got to the point where she was a fixture in my life, and I didn’t want her not to be. So I ended up flying her to Bali to talk about our future, and during that trip, I took out a ring and popped the question. And she said yes.
What do you love about her?
She’s just my best friend. I married my best friend and that’s a really, really beautiful story right there. The thought of her not being in my life is inconceivable, really. She’s a great cook and obviously she’s a fantastic dancer. We just have a lot of fun. It’s like, when we’re in the house, we’ll just dance around the kitchen and joke with each other. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we’re married, it just feels like we’re two people who are supposed to be together. You can’t deny that.
Does she sing too?
She tries to [laughs]. She kind of lets me do that. But what’s funny is, like this album, she’ll memorise it before I do. She sort of listens to stuff and, I don’t know, even when I was doing Puteri Gunung Ledang, she was teaching me how to sing the songs, even though she had no clue what she was singing about.
How does she feel about this album?
She really likes it. Her favourite is ‘Bertemu Di Syurga’. Funnily enough, I think it’s mine as well. It’s the first one I recorded. ‘Bertemu Di Syurga’ was like the first step of the journey. It’s just a really, really pretty song. The melody is tuneful and the words are incredibly romantic. It’s beautiful.
Do you comment on her work as well?
Yeah, I try and see everything she does. That’s important to me. And I’ll be as honest as I can be with her.
How do you both cope with the constant travelling and the distance?
Skype. I also fly her in and out as much as possible. She’s always a part of my life. We’re in contact all the time; it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. We’re always talking and she’s always giving me feedback on what I’m doing, and I’m always sending material to her and vice versa. We’re very much integral in each other’s lives.
Do you guys plan to start a family?
Someday. I think at the moment [things are] kind of a sweet spot for both of us. You have to plan it. I wouldn’t want to be spending months and months away from home if we’re trying to have children. I’d have to work it so I’d be around, and make sure I’m available all the time.
Going back to your album, what are your hopes for it?
I think it’s just for people to receive it well and enjoy it. Of course I want it to sell and do well, but I’d just really love for the audience to connect to it. Hopefully, everyone will have a song in the album that means something to them.
What have you taken away personally from making this album?
I suppose the experience itself. One thing about my career, you always take something from the experience. You always develop in some way, and you learn something. I’ve learned a lot just making the album, about tastes in Malaysia, the kind of working style, different composers, their own process… you pick up information that helps you in your own work. That’s the magic of what I do. You have some beautiful, magical moments when everything comes together and everything is in harmony. My life’s been full of these moments and this album has certainly been part of that.