“The artist-muse relationship is romantic, passionate, and complex, and I would imagine that would be a hard relationship to have if you’re not with the person,” actress Kate Bosworth said. “It requires so much of each other, you have to be in love with each other.”
While the artist-muse relationship is common, how does the dynamic change when both partiesin the relationship are artists? Musician Barbie Almalbis and visual artist Martin Honasan show us that this complexity can be simple, as they open up about how they navigate their artistic practices, relationship, and faith.
It’s the weekend right before the couple flies to Europe. Martin is exhibiting with Vinyl on Vinyl gallery at the prestigious Asia Now Art Fair in Paris. While the couple anticipates a momentous trip, Barbie and Martin welcome the LIFESTYLE.INQ team into their home with 100% of their attention.
Entering their family compound, Martin and Barbie lead us past a stocky tree. It grows through a gap in the cement, branches spreading above the second floor. The way it integrates organically seems to reflect the artists’ own processes. The space inside matches the family’s relaxed demeanor. Each room connects with touches of Martin, Barbie, and their children Stina and Liam’s personalities. Keepsakes hang on the walls, with scattered evidence of artsy hobbies and activities. In the family’s daily routine, the kids get ready for school on their own. After Bible readings and tucking Stina and Liam to sleep, Martin and Barbie unwind or do work late at night. Being night owls, the parents usually sleep in the next morning. Their daughter Stina has synesthesia, a rare gift where she can see colors when she hears music. While their son Liam is inclined to build Lego structures. Their parents describe both children as mature and independent for their age.
Married for 15 years, it’s impossible not to feel light in Martin and Barbie’s presence. They tell us their charming and uplifting love story, how the couple met through common friends in church and then began to see each other more regularly. The people Barbie had invited, invited Martin to a service. Martin jokes as he calls his wife “my spiritual Lola”. It was a while before they even started to be friends. Barbie described themselves as “kilay acquaintances”, a relationship based on nods and eyebrow raises. At the time, they were both burned out by past relationships and tribulations. Barbie remembers the heaviness of that season in her early 20s, “At that time, nothing satisfied me anymore. I would get my guitar and I wouldn’t like it. It would be boring. Could you imagine how sad that was?” While Barbie was focused on a fresh start, Martin was also busy getting out of a slump. So when the two went to church, in a way of reverence and respect, they channelled all of their energy to God and ignored each other despite mutual hard crushes.
This persisted for two years. During this time, both recall that they were single and happy. Until one fateful evening after service, friends invited them to dinner at Omakase. Upon arrival, their one friend Gigi saw her family and excused herself to join them. As they sat down, another friend Mike almost forgot he had a gig where he had to play the drums. While their friend Anne realized she was riding with Mike! So their friends had no choice but to leave some of their unfinished food, and Barbie and Martin were then thrust into a spontaneous first date. They recount it being painfully awkward, with Martin throwing the ultimate small talk with icebreakers like, “If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you bring?”
Thankfully, this experience gave the two an excuse to be closer friends. Martin would pick up Barbie on his way to church and drop her home too. He recounts one evening after dropping her off: “I still wanted to hang out with her but I didn’t have an excuse. Naisip ko: Lord, sana may naiwan siya.” When he looked back, lo and behold, her wallet was right there! So he went back to drop off her wallet. She invited him in, and the relationship continued to flourish.
It was only a few months until they became exclusive, and a quick six months later until they were married after a 4-week-long engagement in 2006. They had consulted their pastors while friends expedited the wedding with connections for logistics and organization.
During their day-to-day, the couple tells us how visual artist Martin simmers, while singer and Business Management graduate Barbie is always on the go. Martin works with highly textural applications of paint and vividly contrasting colors. His work constructs layers of close friends’ faces – starting with fragments, then painting over. The works are reminders of finitude, slowly rebuilding through art. Meanwhile, Barbie Almabis is well-known for her distinct vocal style (sweet, but never sappy) and deft guitar playing. It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-five years since the first album of the Hungry Young Poets was released. As the lead singer of this band and later Barbie’s Cradle in 1998, it’s been a long journey since she launched her solo career in 2005. Remember hit songs “High” “Ambon” and “Just a Smile”? These anthems are instantly recognizable to Filipinos, especially the Y2K crowd.
The two also complement each other as artists. While Barbie leans towards non-fiction, articles, and bullet points, Martin adds a sense of fiction. In 2013, the couple collaborated on a project called “Golden”, ekphrastic poetry where Martin painted after Barbie’s song, and Barbie made a song after Martin’s painting. He did a portrait of his grandmother that highlighted kind eyes, while her lyrics sang about praise and hope. In Barbie’s recent album with Backspacer Records “Scenes from Inside”, half of the songs were Martin’s concepts like “Kumpas” “Iyong-iyo” “Silaw” “Tigre” and “Comet”.
Through work and life, the two consistently remain humble as they credit their success to greater powers. It’s easy to see why they are such happy people. Despite being married for over a decade, the couple possess a sense of youth you can’t ignore. Together, they have gone through daily routines, major changes in careers, and life’s many challenges. While better halves in the sense of being in a relationship, each artist is their own person, true to their beliefs and crafts. Looking back on different stages of life’s transformations, Barbie and Martin reflect on leaving a well-balanced legacy as they tell the story of their intertwined lives.
(To Barbie) How would you describe your sound?
B: Siyempre it’s a collection of music that I love and listen to. Maybe my writing is confessional. I just really write from life, from my experiences — my own and the experiences of people around me — although I’ve been collaborating with Martin for the last couple of years. I love that style of writing where you have a theme in mind and it doesn’t have to be just your story. I guess when you’re younger — when I was writing Hungry Young Poets songs — your life is changing so fast during those times. Everything is new to you. Like heartbreak. Daming pinaghuhugutan. So parang daming mong gustong isulat. But there are times in your life that it’s more steady, mas predictable yung nangyayari sa ‘yo. There are times napaano mongpilitin to write something when you don’t really have something super interesting or that excites you. So na-enjoy ko yung ideas ni Martin na minsan have nothing to do with my own personal experience but it’s just a cool theme for a song – basically fiction. I’ve always written nonfiction, but with Martin, I get to write fiction. He’s the one that actually loves fiction. He loves movies. He loves reading fiction. I like reading articles and real things. I like bullet points.
(To Martin) Tell us how Barbie inspired you!
M: Very profound, mainly because of her music-writing process. Before, my watercolor paintings were very technical – grids or photorealistic. The fruits of it were always fun to see, but the process was very laborious. Parang ako nagsasaka, working under the sun. But then when I met Barbs and she finally moved here, nakita ko siya gumawa ng songs. I saw her there by the stairs and she was composing this jingle for a brand. Tas nakita ko parang ambilis. She started with syllables as she was strumming her guitar. Parang grabe ka naman gumawa, it’s so organic. Something clicked and it started influencing the way I looked at my work. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being too technical. I guess it was just what my personality was looking for — to find expression in that genre instead of the other na di pala bagay sakin.
What are some growing pains of living and working together?
B: We’re both artists, so we had to learn how to make space for each other when it comes to our process. Although thankful kami that we get to collaborate and help each other grow in their art.
M: It’s like a Venn diagram. You have your process, I have my process, and we meet at that intersection.
B: In practice, I’m an artist so I also have a direction I want to take. When I sit here in his studio and he’s not yet done with his painting, I’d say “You know the eye is a bit small” or “I’m not sure if this color works” or I give him comments.
M: And then nakatangin ako, “it’s not yet done”.
B: Yeah he says “It’s not yet done, stop commenting”! So I had to learn I can’t keep judging it. I had to turn it off and just answer when he asks me. I go here and pretend like I didn’t see. Being an artist, you have to be super vulnerable in the state when you’re writing, right? So ako rin, when we first got married parang nahiya ako to do my gibberish in my songwriting process. So I had to find my space where he can’t hear me. But automatic yan sa kanya, wala siyang problems doon. Martin always gave me my space. Ako yung nakiki-paint!
What are some quirks you discovered when you got married?
B: It’s more of understanding. One of our major differences is I’m so kiti kiti. I like being busy and tinkering. If we’re watching a movie and the movie’s kind of boring for me, I’ll stand up. I’m going to be watching but I’ll have to do something with my hands. Martin can watch a B-movie and finish it. He can watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy once a year. Extended version. He can just sit there. So at the start, he would sit in the sala and I would be like what are you doing? You’re not working. I would think I’m so busy doing things, he’s just sitting around. It was this test strengthsfinder that helped us understand each other better in that area, and where I realized that’s how he works.
M: While watching I’m thinking.
B: He’s like, “Oh no I’m thinking of the concept for my exhibit while doing this, don’t judge me. I’m working here!” Iba yung process namin sa pag-work.
M: Just learning each other’s habits. Many, many habits.
B: Things where you have to understand namagkaiba kami and make space for it. Maybe one thing is his dad’s a soldier so he’s very disciplined with time. But I grew up in Roxas city where everything is near. You can’t be late there even if you try to. You can do five things in a day. Ako yung palaging late. So if 2 o’clock, sige maliligo ako ng 1:50, kaya ko yan. Little things like that. I think it’s normal for any marriage that you have to learn to adjust. Magkaiba kayo – isa spontaneous, yung iba planner.
M: Ako yung slow starter. Siya yung on-the-go.
B: Sanay ako ganun. Spontaneous kung gusto ko magagawin dito.Si Martin gusto niya nakaplan yung day.
M: Remnants of my old process.
B: While I like surprises.
In 15 years of marriage, is there anything that pops up as a high point? Or how about a low point?
M: Praise God that wala pa kaming major regrettable fights. We can still look back and laugh at them by God’s grace.
B: By God’s grace. Sixteen years.
M: Siyempre we argue.
B: Passionate debates. But I think yung way namin is dapat #1 si God. “Susumbong kita kay God” parang ganun. We’re each other’s #2. You feel like, basta okyung relationship na yun we have so much faith for each other.
M: We need our personal space with God so that we have something to give to each other.
B: Yeah so we’re not trying to get it from each other. There have been many challenges with each other. Parang nag-baby ka, toddler siya, teenager siya. It’s driven us to our knees but God has been faithful to give us what we need at that moment.
M: Siguro biggest challenge namin is nung nag-COVID. Definitely the lowest point when I got sick.
B: Yes, for us and many people. Universal experience siya, and we experienced that.
How do you want your talents and abilities to reach out and serve others? What legacies would you like to pass on?
M: This is a bit counterintuitive because I think the legacy that I want to leave behind is that it wasn’t just about your work. It wasn’t my priority. I want people to know that art is just one branch of mine. I’m also a dad, a husband, a friend, brother. More than anything it’s how I was in my relationships. Nothing profound. That’s what I want to leave. That guy was good. Loved people! It has to be, otherwise, I could easily decide to pour everything (into work). But if you do that you sacrifice so many things. How many decades lang yung buhay natin? I don’t want to waste it on art as fun as it is, but it’s not the main thing. That’s my legacy. That’s what I want.
B: I remember talking about “calling”. When you ask somebody, what do you think is your calling? People always think it’s about your job. But there are many other things. You get to do that less frequently than being a mom or a dad. That’s also your calling. Being present in these people’s lives, the people God gave you.
M: Like how we handle our relationships – the people we met in work, our fellow artists, yung community natin.
B: You guys are familiar with the story of King Solomon? God asked him what he wanted because he was going to be king after King David. He said, “God give me wisdom on how to serve these people that you gave me.” So God tuwang-tuwa, sabi ni God He’s so happy he asked for wisdom. Solomon could have asked for riches, long life but instead, he asked for wisdom and how to care for these people. So I’m going to give you this wisdom, and all the other things you didn’t ask for. Every time growing up I would think about that story and think, “Wisdom is important” but then, last week lang, binabasa ko yun, but having long life or being good at your career, it also takes wisdom. Hindi natuwa si God because of the word wisdom. Natuwa siya because he prayed for something on how to serve others, rather than praying for things for himself. Me being such a go-getter and achiever, I like to just do things. Sometimes I’m so focused on making the next album I forget about deepening relationships. Martin reminds me, “Uy you make friends. You text ano. Uy nagcomment si ano, sagutin mo.” He’s such a relational person. But me, I like working. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but being a better friend. I’ve been doing music and I want to do it forever but right now I just want to be a better person. How to serve other people better, not just my album or my plans. That can be a legacy I think.
Martin Honasan opened his solo exhibition “Closing the Gap” at Art Cube Gallery on November 5, 2022. Also catch Barbie Almabis perform in the throwback concert TANAW in The Theater at Solaire on November 26, 2022.