It is two hours before the prestigious song competition Anugerah Juara Lagu (AJL) and singer Ernie Zakri has just been struck with an idea.
In a spur of creativity, she decides to hit an impossibly high note towards the second half of Aku Cinta, her duet with Syamel, a move she has not attempted before.
“I was doing a last minute practise session in the toilet about two hours before the actual performance,” the 25-year-old recalls the light-bulb moment.
“For some reason my brain got more productive then. I felt this was the right moment to show people (what I am capable of as) a singer.”
Ernie tells Syamel about the idea but there is no time to rehearse again with her duet partner. “I’m lucky because he trusted me.”
She takes a leap of faith. And in the span of just one performance, everything changed for Ernie.
Her explosive vocals not only dominated the AJL stage that fateful February night but conversations in office pantries and cyberspace days later.
Ernie and Syamel’s spine-tingling delivery won best vocal performance, toppling powerhouse vocalist Dayang Nurfaizah’s three-year reign.
But don’t call her an overnight success. In a candid interview with Star2, Ernie reveals she has encountered many low points throughout her career before finally hitting a high note.
Singing All Her Life
Ernie was only five when she first started singing. “When I was four, my dad was playing the guitar one day and he discovered I could actually sing,” she relates.
Her father played drums in a wedding band. One day, the band needed a lead vocalist and just like that, young Ernie was roped in.
From the age of five until 15, Ernie performed regularly with the band. “People loved me because I would sing songs from the 1960s and 1970s.
“I remember I would be paid about RM70 and I asked my mum if I could buy Barbie dolls with the money.”
Ernie says the experience taught her what it means to be a performer.
“I was a very shy person initially but by 10 years old, I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Determined to be a singer, 17-year-old Ernie joined televised singing competition Bintang RTM in 2009.
The future seemed bright for Ernie who won the competition and was signed to local music label, FMC, the following year.
She released her debut album Sinaran in 2011. Unfortunately, it was met with little success.
“FMC kept me for a long time, through my ups and downs. They never said, ‘She’s not marketable’ or ‘She’s not profitable.’ They believed in my passion and I said to them one day I will make them proud.”
It would be another five years before Ernie experienced moderate success. During those quiet years, Ernie pursued a diploma, majoring in vocals, followed by a degree in music performance.
“At that time, I was focused on finding new songs to record and attending classes. I would get invitations to sing but there weren’t many,” she offers.
She reflects on the reason she couldn’t breakthrough the music industry at the time: “I think there was that ego in me. Back then, I thought to be a good singer, I had to sing power ballads. If you can’t sing that kind of song, then you’re not a good singer.
“But as time went by, I told myself I needed to change my mindset. I could not just stay in one genre. Of course, we have our own forte but to be a good singer, I had to be able to deliver in all genres.”
In 2015, Ernie decided to forgo power ballads and try out a lighter, easy listening sound and released Ini Yang Ku Mahu.
“I was so happy. The song got picked up by radio stations. It even made it to the charts,” she remembers.
But just a month later, the song was taken down as radio stations felt it sounded too similar to Meghan Trainor’s Like I’m Gonna Lose You.
“That was the point I wanted to give up. I cried and told my mum I didn’t want to sing anymore because this industry didn’t seem to want me.”
Two months later, Ernie wiped away her tears and went back to the drawing board. The result is the R&B-tinged Jangan Marah, released in mid-2016.
For the first time since she stepped foot in the industry, Ernie was finally making headway. Jangan Marah received substantial radio airplay and raised her profile.
Ernie gained further exposure when she was offered a spot on Duo Star, a singing competition in search of the best duet partner.
Ernie was paired with Akademi Fantasia 2015 runner-up Syamel. Their chemistry on stage was undeniable, so much so, they eventually placed first in the competition.
Aku Cinta was released as a follow up to the pair’s success on Duo Star. The song later gave Ernie her career-defining moment on AJL.
Asked about her now famous whistle register (the highest register in a human voice), Ernie says it’s an ability she developed only in recent years.
“I was taught by Syafinaz Selamat during my degree. It took me four years to understand the technique for whistle register. And when I finally understood it, it’s a muscle memory, I don’t even have to think about it, I can just do it.”
It Runs In The Family
Sharing in the joy of her newfound success are two well-respected singers who also happen to be Ernie’s mother’s cousins – Anuar and Ziana Zain.
“They give me so much support. I feel so strong because they’ve been behind me all this time, pushing me forward.”
For years, Ernie never spoke about her family ties with Anuar and Ziana until Duo Star.
“People say how come they have not read about my relationship with them. I feel people don’t need to know. I believe when you stand on your own talent, you can go far.”
She never once sought her famous family members for help with her career either, no matter how difficult things got.
“They shared a lot with me. They told me who the good producers and composers are. We never talked about ‘Let’s find you a good song or find you a good producer’. It’s always just a sharing session and that’s what I needed.”
Capitalising on her AJL success, Ernie just released her new single Misteri two weeks ago.
“Everyone has gotten that feeling when we don’t want to do that negative thing but there’s something in you that’s trying to influence you to do it. So, the song is about running away from that negative influence,” she explains.
Ernie wanted to evoke a dark vibe in Misteri and enlisted the help of a Hungarian string orchestra.
She talks about taking a risk and veering from the usual love ballad: “I feel this is what will set my single apart. It’s a song people can relate to. After all, our lives aren’t just about love stories. It’s more than that.”
Her recent success has opened many doors, even acting and TV presenting opportunities, but Ernie wants to prioritise her music career.
“It’s all under consideration, but for now, not yet,” she says. “Because for so many years I’ve been struggling trying to tell people that I can sing.”
After that rousing AJL performance, well Ernie, we hear you loud and clear. And from now on, we’re all ears.