I remember the cliché of a Monday morning. I was running late. In the elevator, I had a few seconds to catch my breath. And I remember a most brief prayer uttered through a heavy sigh. I prayed for a break, a pause in the grand scheme of the hustle and bustle of my peaking adulthood. As I write this, there are 3,361 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cebu. This pandemic has debilitated what state of normalcy our lives knew before the outbreak. It is not the break I wanted, one supposedly calm and restful. Instead, it is an agonizing pause heavy with the world’s collective fear, grief, anger, and helplessness. In this overwhelming uncertainty, I clean my room. I water the plants. I cook. I submit the required tasks for work. I occupy this unsettling silence afforded by my privilege, of staying home and suddenly having all this time.
Listening to Ella Melendez’s WHAT DO THEY KNOW album, time is all at once strange and marvelous. How in less than three months, my prayers are drastically different. How now, more than an hour of my parents being out of the house makes me worried sick. And how in no more than five minutes of Ella’s songs, I find well-preserved moments of my random but meaningful existence. It is Ella’s talent to tell some of the most complex human experiences with the simplest of words. Her writing, without long-winded narratives, is definite on where it takes its listeners. She goes straight to where it hurts, and stays there long enough to actually find deep-rooted joy. Ella’s album is poignant, insightful, and necessary. This is largely because Ella Melendez tells her stories so honestly. Her vulnerability shows us that beautiful kindness to oneself and others is how profound weight is lifted off of us. She arrives heart exposed and there is no other way to meet her but with tenderness, and remembering. What a gift to remember. To revisit the sacred spaces that held me so I could learn.
Perhaps it’s reading fiction almost every night that I can’t help but connect Ella’s ten songs to form a character-driven literary plot. WHAT DO THEY KNOW feels like a coming-of-age, as if told through her deepest and most candid conversations with a loved one.
01 WHAT DO THEY KNOW
There is the sound of radio static from switching channels until finally, it settles on the bright introduction of a guitar. Ella sings, “You can be anything you want to be.” I assumed an immediately upfront message of empowerment and individualism. But she goes on to sing,
“So say the characters on my TV
But they’re all reading from the same old script
It’s all make believe, don’t bet your life on it.”
True enough, our voice and identity are not won overnight. It is a lifelong process of trying to make the right decisions. WHAT DO THEY KNOW highlights that self-assurance is a tedious path. The album begins with this story of putting up walls and a general distrust towards people. It begs the questions, who do I grant access to my heart? And who would I be if I felt completely accepted, just as I am, by society?
Here, Ella paints a picture of a remarkable house. To her, it was so much more than an occupied structure. It was an entire world fueled by a child’s imagination, her dreams, and possibilities. It must have been devastating to have that taken away from you. To be a child learning about goodbyes. To wake up to the reality of impermanence, and knowing that you can lose what you love.
“But it was bound to happen
Nothing ever stays the same
And on a bright Monday morning
We left you without warning”
Hand in hand with this song’s sadness is the persona’s unmistakable growth in accepting change, and in recognizing that you are changed by that too.
Crossroads, of course, brings us to an intersection of two or more life-altering roads. I can recall varying degrees of my life’s most confusing events. For the most part, I’m utterly convinced that I am exactly where I need and want to be. I’m on a launching pad of sorts and if I just keep showing up for the work, I know I’m setting myself up for the incredible. But also, some days, eternal knots of regret in my stomach pull tightly.
“Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve turned right when I turned left…”
Perhaps the album’s most recurring theme is the full acceptance that things can go terribly wrong. It is a notably aspirational mindset to let go of things one cannot control. In Ella’s powerful words, “The sun it doesn’t shine everyday/Oh, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” No one ever comes out of this unscathed. In fact, the more fully you participate in life, the more you’ll hurt, and the wider you open yourself up for happiness. Most importantly, the less regrets.
04 STAY WITH ME
Our character falls in love. We see her open up. This song is the first stark contrast to the previous ones because of its lightheartedness and palpable optimism. It’s so interesting how there is such strong awareness that all her glorious intentions can go unreciprocated, but it doesn’t faze her.
“Be prepared to lose it all
‘Cause sometimes you get burned”
STAY WITH ME is a great lesson on truly loving. Love makes us brave. It’s willingly putting down our defenses, and somehow hold a spectacular display of unexplainable fragility. It’s presenting an uninterrupted view of your best and worst. And love, in this song, is about thoroughly understanding that to love someone is to honor their freedom, and to seek their happiness.
“But I owe it to your goodness
For taking care of me
To return the favor
And let you go, be free”
05 SOMETHING GOOD
Ella writes about her precious childhood toy, a little tiger doll. She looks back in awe of all that’s passed, and how it is still an incandescent memory that lights her way. SOMETHING GOOD makes me wonder about what moment in my magical childhood forced me to grow up? And as an adult, what magical thing have I kept from my childhood?
“Where, oh where did the years go
The purest ones are those I know
Can’t bring them back even if I wanted to
I’m all grown up, my life is different now
Still those days come back somehow
They remind me we all started from something good”
Who was I before I started being insecure, and cautious of speaking out? Who was I before the traumas? Who was I before I lost my trust? When I think about this little girl, I’m sure she is still here with me. I know plenty of reasons for her to be proud. I know, yes, we all started from something good. I know it is my responsibility to protect that.
06 EVER AFTER
“Why, oh why, do I keep myself
From loving you when there’s no one else
That makes me feel
As out of breath like you do”
It is terrible to doubt, but given past heartbreaks, it is often inevitable. EVER AFTER elaborates on our hesitation to love. It is not necessarily love that we’re afraid of, but the hurt that absolutely comes with it. Ella, without shame, sings about this moment of weakness. A moment of fear that it doesn’t work out in the end, and possibly, our subconscious tendency to give ourselves less than we deserve. However, through all these feelings of doubt, Ella also asks, “What kind of life is being free from hurt?”
07 I DON’T MIND
Coming from EVER AFTER’s questioning the pursuit of love, I DON’T MIND is what its courageous title implies.
“I don’t mind
Being lonely for so long
If there was a promise of you
Sometime in my life”
There is no assurance of a love returned in full. Even when you offer your whole self, there is no assurance that you will be met halfway. Though, our character still doubts the outcome of it all, she no longer doubts the truth of how she feels. She stops fighting it. This song is now an act of surrender. “I will try to patiently wait/ For your arrival.” As if to say, waiting is enough. Trying is enough. Ella gives in to hope. Hope can be a brutal cause for disappointment but hope, too, is indication that you believe yourself worthy of love. You are.
GINHAWA is Ella’s only Tagalog song in the album. It’s a welcome addition to her repertoire because it’s testament to Ella’s masterful command of the language. Ella is as fluent in Tagalog as she is in English. It’s certainly another viewpoint of her authentic voice. It has to be mentioned the commendable music production of the song’s contemporary ethnic sound. Apart from the technical aspect of GINHAWA is how it seamlessly fits right in Ella’s themes of acceptance and hope.
“Ang mundo’y marami pang
Iaalay, kung bukas ka
Bitiwan mo ang ‘yong pangamba
Manalig ka, magtiwala”
Acceptance and hope are amplified outside personal relationships and relates to our place in this world. Our world, in its terrifying state, may be deemed a lost cause but Ella passionately claims that as long as we’re still breathing, there is hope. This song is commentary to having relentless faith in the world, and in ourselves as its saving grace.
09 NOTHING LEFT UNSAID
These lines are so wildly striking and powerful to me.
“I will love you forever
That’s a promise I can keep”
I further appreciate this through the order of events provided in Ella’s songs. I was witness to her vulnerabilities and truths. It’s important to me how the unsteady voice of her character is so transformed to boldly declare an eternal promise. Her voice, powerful for its certainty and undeterred profession of love. I wonder, when I love, does my voice shake? When I love, is my voice loud and clear?
NOTHING LEFT UNSAID is a commitment, not just towards a loved one, but to a full life. To love when you love. To say it. To make the ones you love feel it so deeply they never forget it. Ella adds, “Time is never enough/ Can’t leave things misunderstood.” It’s no secret that we don’t get to live forever but how we love, can be our greatest legacy.
10 I LOVE WHAT YOU DO
“The beginning of forever
Is everyday spent with you”
In this last song, I LOVE WHAT YOU DO is pure celebration. It goes back to childlike wonder, and the best of humanity. That even in the most uncertain times, there is sheer determination to be happy. And to be happy is to love, and be loved.
So here is what I know. Songs do not provide the cure in a pandemic but once again, art is healing. It doesn’t serve to merely entertain and distract. Ella Melendez’s songs are quiet places to rest, and remember. In remembering, I reclaim parts of myself I’ve lost when I read the news. I thank God for people who are my home, the ones near and far. And I know the noise in my head will not drown me. I know that when I sing along to songs, the things I love about myself are still HERE. Right now, I know all the reasons to be frightened and cynical, but still, I hope.
by Therese Villarante