By DOM GALEON
In an over sized windbreaker, KZ Tandingan walked into the Manila Hotel like any ordinary young woman. Accompanied by her fiancé TJ Monterde, she looked uncomplicated, unassuming yet warm and friendly, with a hint of shyness one wouldn’t expect from an OPM sensation.
To anyone who really knows her, this isn’t a surprise. Born in Digos, Davao del Sur as Kristine Zhenie Lobrigas Tandingan, KZ discovered the joys of music at a very young age. “I started singing when I was young,” she says. “I would sing anywhere in exchange for a simple packed lunch or a small prize. Back when we were in an acoustic band— we were all very young then—we would be content with sharing ₱500 among the five of us.”
It’s a childhood not different from that of many Filipinos who have, at one point in their lives, considered music as a vocation. Not everyone, however, gets to have a shot at turning this dream into a reality. For KZ, that opportunity came in 2012, when she joined the first season of The X Factor Philippines. Immediately getting nationwide notice after she sang a jazzy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she became one of the early favorites and a leading contender in the reality-TV singing contest.
In October of that year, KZ became the first champion of The X Factor Philippines. But even then, nothing seemed certain in her career as a singer and performer. Her greatest challenge, she says, came from a misguided notion, propagated by the local music industry, that Pinay singers had to be of a certain type.
“Breaking the mold of what a female singer ought to be in the Philippines was the most challenging part of my career. Before 2012, the only Pinay artist who didn’t quite fit in that mold was Ate Yeng [Constantino], but even she had a tough time,” KZ says. “I was forced to fit into that mold—you had to always be in a gown, kailangan bibirit ka (you had to be a belter), you had to be able to reach those high notes, you had to be prim and proper when you performed. But those are the opposites of who I am as an artist and as a performer. It was truly a struggle. Should I listen to them or should I listen to what my heart and my mind tell me?”
Thankfully, KZ found the support system she needed to be the artist she had always wanted to become, the artist she has always been. “It helped that I found the perfect team and the management that, for the first time, told me that whatever it was that made me different, I should embrace it. It’s what makes me who I am. After that first meeting with Cornerstone Music Philippines, the direction of how I see my music and the trajectory of my career changed,” she says. “That was the biggest struggle: Should I force myself to look and sound like other singers or do I stick with who I am? Even now, it continues to be a struggle. There are still many people who don’t understand that there isn’t just one kind of music, one face for singing.”
KZ was a victim of a kind of control talent agencies and networks— in short, the OPM industry as it is at present—think they have over their artists. It’s a kind of control that throttles personal creativity, that stifles the artistic sense talented singers develop on their personal journey to be successful. It’s a problem that persists not just in the music industry.
Nevertheless, the Davaoeña has powered through. “When I was starting in ASAP, I was put in a group called ASAP Champions. There were Angeline Quinto, Jovit Baldivino, Ate Yeng, and then myself. Back then, we didn’t just perform one song. I found it difficult at first because all of them could belt, even Ate Yeng whose style was more punk rock. We were wearing gowns in almost every performance. In the first few lines of the song, I would be able to follow this direction. But once I got into the zone, into the song, I would start moving to the groove, kicking and stomping—mukha na akong lasing (like I was drunk),” KZ recalls, laughing. “It wasn’t visually pleasing for some people, especially not for TV, but I didn’t really care.
This wasn’t the only hurdle the 27-year-old had to overcome. Being a woman singer, a Pinay OPM artist,also had its difficulties. Women, KZ says, didn’t always have the same opportunities as their male counterparts in the industry. “This wasn’t just true for art,” she adds. “But I am happy that we have started to evolve. Now we see that women have the same capabilities as men. It’s still difficult but now even women have started to change. They no longer just do what society says they should do.”
Faced with all these challenges, there was a point in her life that KZ felt overwhelmed, suffering at one point from depression. “This is the first time I’ve ever talked about this, but I have been there,” she says, adding that this is something she wants young people to realize. “It was, perhaps, some five years ago. I was suicidal. Before that, in my mind, I always thought that ending one’s life because of problems was a dumb solution. But when I found myself in that situation, I understood why people would turn to it, believing that it was the only way.”
During that time, although she continued to be quite active professionally and her song “Mahal Ko o Mahal Ako,” which was later continued in her 2017 album Soul Supremacy, continued to be among the most requested and played OPM hits on radio, KZ was battling her inner demons. She was missing her family in Davao, particularly her younger brother. She also had to deal with bashers online while also navigating the daily realities of what she said was her first romantic relationship.
It’s difficult to imagine that someone like KZ, whose performances echo a kind of fierceness or even defiance, had moments of weakness, moments she considered just throwing in the towel. How did she manage to go beyond that?
“It’s important that you have to have somebody you can trust, someone you could open up to about these things,” she says, holding back tears while throwing a quick glance at TJ, the man she trusts more than anyone else in the world at the moment—and, with hope, for the rest of their life together as a soon-to-be-married couple.
To future KZs out there, the singer, rapper, jazz musician, and performer has this to say: “Never give up on your dreams. You will not always succeed, but every rejection you will receive is a redirection to where you are supposed to be. Wait patiently. And while you wait, stay hungry and always be ready.”
Photography: Ronan Capili assisted by Vincent Gregorio and Dean Andes
Art direction: Rey Ilagan
Styling: Myrrh Lao To and Jan Raroque
Makeup: Mac Igarta
Hair: Mark Familara
Videography: John Alvin Neri and Christian Carl Quides
Shot on location: The Manila Hotel, Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila
Contact number: (02) 8527 0011
Special thanks to Kim Tan