A NEW PLACE TO CALL HOME, WITH BILLY OTTO
CH-V SPEAKS TO THE MALAYSIAN-AUSTRALIAN ARTIST ABOUT THE ROAD TO AUTHENTICITY AND THE SOUNDS IT MAKES.
Billy Otto has overturned many complicated truths in his quest to meet people eye to eye, ruled by a deep conviction in his lifetime few dare to adhere to. For some, the allure of a live-by-the-sword mentality is lost in the way it leads one into unkempt human places. But the Malaysian-Australian artist does so with a proud curiosity that errs between foolish and all-knowing, with an overflow of the kind of art that burrows beneath your skin.
In Kuala Lumpur, the VOID HQ’s Sophie found the musician, who prefers to identify as an artisan of sorts, to discuss his latest release, and unravel humanness as an art form itself.
SOPHIE: I just listened to the new single, “The Sound”, and it felt to me like an exploration of a transitional space – a lingering between one state and another. So I wanna know, what season do you feel like you’re in right now? Where’s Billy at in the scheme of life?
BILLY: I feel like as a 34-year-old, I’m finally coming home to Billy, like finally starting to actually break free from my program. Growing up as a very conservative Christian – I was once a Christian minister – I didn’t have sex until I was 30. I’ve gone through periods of my life where I haven’t masturbated for years… I was so [out of my body that] I was becoming this Ned Flanders archetype who was proclaiming and herding this gospel that I didn’t even really know was like, truly true.
And so, as a 34-year-old, I feel like my life is becoming art. Like I make art. I’m an artisan. But like, I feel like I’m blossoming and unfurling as a piece of art. And that feels inspiring to me. This ageless eternal spirit of creativity that’s sexual, that’s beautiful, that’s relational, that’s energizing. I’m fucking creating so much shit every day. The channel is really clear.
SOPHIE: I’m wondering for people who maybe aren’t at that point yet, or even for your younger self, what are some moments that have really defined what coming home to yourself truly means?
BILLY: Part of it is that I’m a kind person and I love giving words of affirmation, but have said so many really disturbingly hurtful things to myself.
My whole life I’ve been so fucking critical of myself, even though I thought I was being “loving.” [Now] I celebrate that I’ve just got this vessel and it’s fun and it’s beautiful in its own way. That’s coming home to me, being comfortable with silence.
You know, I’m a musician, I’m a songsmith, I make music for a living, but just really being okay with doing nothing. I’m very German-Malaysian in the way that both sides of my ancestry are cultures that do shit. We engineers, asking, what’s the outcome? But I’m learning to be comfortable to be bored with [myself], and not feel like, okay, have I gone to the gym yet? Have I sent that email? But really sitting with me and just observing. I think that’s coming home to me.
I think a lot of my Christian paradigm was very much about always being out there trying to serve the church or trying to help other people. And for so much of my life, I tried to save the world. But coming home to me is this idea of I’m going to war for me.
SOPHIE: I love that. I also spent time in that Christian paradigm by choice. I placed myself in that community and it taught me a lot about the idea of universal love. I feel like, as a collective in this moment, we really are focused on this idea of self-care and self-love. I think a lot of the messaging we’re faced with around universal love either swings between two very extreme worlds of either you’re an island and you need to take care of yourself or the world is in turmoil and you have to abandon yourself to be part of positive movement or change. What have you discovered about the balancing act between the two?
BILLY: It’s a great thing to bring up. Within the religious world, you have a lot of broken, traumatized people trying to help the world. These broken systems and these perpetuating cycles… And I think that it is a really delicate dance. What I’ve come to is that we should actually err on the side of coming back to self. But it is always both. And I think if everyone – like if Donald Trump was prioritizing his true self, if Putin was prioritizing his true self – if these “great” leaders of the world were actually prioritizing themselves and coming back to that, I think there would be change. I think there would be cultural renewal.
SOPHIE: When you get into periods of scarcity or fear or lack, how do you identify those periods and then what do you actively do to walk away from that space?
BILLY: I honestly find scarcity with my gifts or scarcity with finances, it’s all the same kind of thing. I had to catch myself today when I started thinking in [terms of] scarcity. That thinking of, “This is what I gotta do, but can I do this? Can I afford this?”
If I didn’t have meditation, I don’t think I would be here today. And I think coming back to the void, to the CH-VOID…
SOPHIE: Sneaky plug!
BILLY: *laughs* But it’s everything there. When else in your life can you come to a place where you’re just in this egoless, non-judgmental space? I’m part of this universal flow. I’m part of this mainstream consciousness. I’ve even found that with music, for example.
So much of music feels so narcissistic. As a musician now, it’s like the wild, wild west. Everyone download my song. Like everyone subscribe to my Spotify. Labels, look at me. Festivals. Triple J, why aren’t you playing me? Y’know?
And that’s something that you have to, as an artist, come to terms and be like, This is work. But when I’m on stage, man, I could be in front of a thousand people and I can honestly tell you that I could just cry looking out to see people and their eyes. Because I see myself. I see this beautiful broken collective story.
I remember there was this one time that I played the Beach Hotel back home, and out in the front row, I see these football players and I just held this dude’s hand. And I was just like, Man, I fucking love you. You know? And I just told him that, and he held my hand for the whole verse. And he told me that he loved me.
That wasn’t even this thing of trying to be rock n’ roll. I generally felt this compassion and empathy of serving people. And that’s how I see music. The reason why I don’t just go, “Oh, I just made this little thing for myself,” is because I feel like that is still not giving the world your greatest gift. I have this gift so that it can be food for the people.
SOPHIE: There’s something that I’ve really noticed in the last few years, probably more-so since Black Lives Matter with that being the biggest social movement any generation has seen on social media. I feel like this period of time has fostered really progressive forward movement, conversation and openness. But then in other spaces a really deep fear of getting it wrong. And an unwillingness to open your mouth or do something in case you perform it clumsily or say the wrong thing and get canceled. How do you find the courage to try, imperfectly, to do something from a heart space?
BILLY: I think sometimes the way that it can be perceived for my journey is like, “You’re a charismatic dude and that’s just what you do.” And I’m like, man, I was the kid in Year 1 that was still holding my mum’s hand: I didn’t wanna go to school. I didn’t have any friends. I was the brown kid. I’ve been in a place where I’ve been like the quiet fucking kid. As a 34 year-old, people can sometimes deceive me as being this sort of trauma porn.
“He’s just playing on his daddy issues” or “He just needs attention.”
I’ve literally had those words said to me about my podcast – “You’ve always wanted attention. You couldn’t get it through the church, you couldn’t get it through rock n’ roll. So now you try to get it through this.”
I’ve realized, though, it’s about authenticity. Kids know what that is. I know what that is. You don’t need to have a fucking PhD to understand what authenticity is. I know when I’m being authentic to my quest and to my core. I fucking know when my smile is real, when my hugs are real. It’s a ‘Don’t think, just feel’ thing for me. It’s like thinking with the heart.
I feel the cost is just so high if you don’t follow [your truth]. Whatever that looks like – whether it’s in music or what I post or what I share – I want that thing to be the same energy and the same truth when I meet someone random on the street. And when I’ve been aware of that consistency and that alignment of how I treat people and how I treat myself online and project online, then power starts to happen.
SOPHIE: How do you recharge yourself when you’re in a position where you feel like you’ve lost your authentic energy?
BILLY: When I’m back home, I just go surfing by myself. I have a really strong yoga practice. Back in Byron, I had a veggie patch at the property that I was living on and cultivating the soil just felt so beautifully nourishing for myself, you know?
Sometimes when I’m at an event or in a situation where I don’t think I’m being my authentic self and mind’s just doing this glitchy thing, I can tell straight away I really need a reground.
You’ll probably find this pretty funny, cause I’m a people pleaser, that’s part of my shadow and I know that’s part of yours, too. When I’m just back to being this Ned Flanders, this like happy guy trying to be normal, sometimes I fucking just need to get into my van and play metal.
SOPHIE: When you’re a people pleaser, when that bottleneck explodes, it’s actually really unpleasant.
BILLY: Oh my god, yes. And the way it leaks through like your relationships, it’s a fucking mess. We were never taught how to manage that. When it comes to being a man, I didn’t have the ceremony that taught me when I was leaving my boyhood behind and coming into my manhood. I didn’t have a rite of passage. I wasn’t taught how to see my anger or how to embrace it and how to let it flow through. And so I think in our twenties or thirties, we’re only just coming back to this kind of knowledge now.
SOPHIE: By no means am I asking you to speak on behalf of all men, but I would really love understand, from your perspective, what the biggest blocks for cis-hetero men look like?
BILLY: One of the biggest ones is mentoring. I think boys learn a lot through modeling. We observe more than we initially communicate. I feel like the feminine is more of a speech-centered, communication space.
Luckily through the church, I actually had some really powerful mentoring when I was like 13 or 15 that had a really incredible impact on my life. I’m lucky that I did have some beautiful conscious men within my youth group that really saw a leadership potential in me. They saw my searching for significance and me trying to be a man and came around me and helped me to open up and asked me how I actually felt and let me fucking cry on them. You know?
I was taught not to cry as a kid in my family. But there were these certain few crew members in the church that really acknowledged that part of the masculine. That was really fucking powerful for me when I was like 15. And that forever left an imprint of another side of the masculine that I found really alluring.
We were never taught how to talk about emotions, especially when it comes to mental health. I don’t know any guy that hasn’t experienced anxiety and depression.
SOPHIE: It’s super interesting to me because I think there’s a lot of focus on the feminine collective and the way we are marching through this fire trying to burn away old structures, and things that don’t serve the feminine. But at the same time, in the past three years, I’ve lost some of my close male friends to suicide. And that conversation has to be part of the feminine healing, too. There’s a collective heartache but I don’t feel like we have quite been able to make space to consider both in the same breath. I feel like in a lot of ways they stem from the same core.
From your perspective, how can men best be allies to other men? And how can women best be allies to men in terms of mental health?
BILLY: For people that are reading this, I think a great place to begin is wherever you are. Like the gold is in the mess. The beauty is in the grit. In the Western world, we’re so scared of death and pain. We don’t see the animals we eat get killed, at a funeral we don’t see the dead person’s face. We hide pain. We have to acknowledge that we come from a culture that just doesn’t hold space for this.
But to serve other men, I know that for me as an individual, if I had one week on this earth to live, I find it really important for me to acknowledge people. And I mean everyone – men, women, trans, anyone. But I love remembering names and I’m known for knowing names of random people, whether it be at a 7/11 or an Uber driver. I love this shit because I feel like when I was acknowledged as a young person, I felt seen.
That’s how I feel like I can hold space for guys.
But one of the questions I ask – I think I’ve even even asked you, Sophie – is just like, how’s your heart?
The Indigenous word Dadirri is fucking powerful. Because it just means deep listening. We’ve all been shitty listeners. How can I really sit and really honor the sacredness of someone else’s story? Whatever is coming outta that person’s mouth is the voice of God. How do I reference that? How do I engage with that? How can I serve that story and celebrate it and acknowledge it.
And obviously social media fucks us up.
SOPHIE: Deep listening speaks to so many different cracks that we’re seeing right now. Do you find that having come to this place in your life, you are saying no to certain relationships or experiences that you would’ve accepted readily before?
BILLY: *laughs* Sophie, I’ve actually like slit the throat of so many fucking things that I don’t wanna do anymore in my life. Saying no to bad ideas or small ideas that are no longer serving me a hundred percent. I used to say yes to every gathering, every opportunity. I felt bad saying no. But now I’m just kind of like, Nah, that sounds stressful. It was something that I definitely learned when I was living in Berlin. There were opportunities: there was a love interest, there’s a lot of drugs, and just so much going on in one place.
Which is one of the reasons why I enjoy being in a place like Kuala Lumpur where I can really curate my existence. And there’s less temptation in that way. Learning to say no has taken me a lifetime.
SOPHIE: The reason why I ask that question is because I think, for all humans, there’s this fear of what you lose in the process of listening to yourself. I think we really suffer collectively from our fear of change because we’d prefer to stick with the certainty of shit that we know rather [than face potential] of suffering.
BILLY: I personally am sick of the shittiness that I do know, so I’m willing to risk changing for a different kind of shit.
On a personal note, as a case study for my journey during the past five years, I had a pretty well paid job as a pastor. I was living in Chicago, I had a good car, I was getting flown around the world. I kind of was a bit of a seventh day adventist poster boy. I was speaking at these camps in Sweden and I was going to the Philippines and Brazil with all this shit. And I was scared to walk away from something that I was just giving lip service to because of my stability. The idea of going from being a poster boy to a pariah was really like fucking anxiety inducing for me. This isn’t a victim speech or anything, it is just kind of funny.
To come away from that, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was the best thing that I’ve ever done. And it’s become a really clear memorial to me. When I follow my intuition, it leads to deeper heart abundance. And I can write the songs and make the art that I can now because I say no to one door and the other ones open. It’s kind of like the anguish and the grittiness of what I went through led a whole new fucking valley of healing and opportunity. And being able to riff and write as an artist from this space now is something I never would’ve been able to reach if I stayed in safety.
And that’s why I think comfortability is the biggest fucking trap.
I just don’t wanna be that deflated, emasculated, fucking sanitized Billy that I used to be. Every day my mum fucking giggles at me cuz I’m 34, not married and don’t have a house. She just laughs.
But for me, let it flow through, baby.
SOPHIE: God, I think it’s hard trying to measure your life by any measure of material success.
BILLY: The elusive measure has been given through Hollywood and through Rupert Murdoch and through the measure of what it means to be beautiful. It’s so weird. It’s just this fucking big machine that’s trying to stay alive, but it’s just fucking falling apart. What is beautiful now? What is successful now?
Right now I’m hanging out with the fucking biggest rockstar in Malaysia. His name is [redacted]. He’s in a huge band, I’m actually in his house right now. He says to me, “Billy, the people that are fucking really killing it are the people that live across the street living in these slums. They live on the ground. They just have a simple life.”
SOPHIE: I do feel like we’re starting to kind of pull that veil away between where we are and where we wanna be.
BILLY: Sometimes I just feel so overwhelmed and grateful that I could be incarnated in this time just to be a part of that. We’ve all come here from different places, different countries, different cultures. We’ve all come from different beliefs, but we’re all part of team human. We’re all human beings. And this same circuit of love runs through us all.
Fucking profound, eh? That’s why people are spitting this shit from everywhere. It’s on these huge arena stages, it’s in Ubers, it’s the same shit on repeat and you feel like you just wanna get your phone out all the time and just record everything. And you wonder why are we all speaking this universal language of love? Is it just me? What’s going on?
SOPHIE: It’s definitely a choice to focus on that unity rather than the darkness. You can live comfortably on either side of that coin but there’s something to be said about actively walking around in the world celebrating and intentionally recognising our connectedness.
BILLY: I’ve been a conspiracy theorist, I’ve been on all sides of the chats. Like I fucking can talk about all that shit. But for me it’s like theories keep on changing about shit because life’s always changing. But heart is heart, love is love, art is art. I want to err on that side of just seeing God in people and God in everything, you know?
SOPHIE: I know we’ve gone over time but if someone’s new to your music, what tracks should they start with?
BILLY: Listen to “The Sound.” And then there’s a song called “Magic,” all about the idea that if you can see magic in yourself, you can see it in everything.
Your name has a Greek root – it means wisdom, right?
BILLY: Queen Wisdom. Love you, man.
SOPHIE: Bye, darling.