Christian Bautista is a handsome dude; it’s a fact. But he contorts his face. A lot.

The pre-eminent pop balladeer is not trying to ruin his face though. He winces when there are things he realises he should’ve stuck with earlier in life, such as finishing his piano lessons. “I have co-written a few of the songs on the new album… I record the melody on my phone and…,” he stretches his arms as if handing out the device, crouches, and with a sheepish smile, “I ask my brother, who plays guitar, ‘pwede mong alamin yung pwedeng chords nito?'”

Christian Bautista during the press launch for Kapit at the Universal Records HQ

It didn’t matter if the questions were serious or “showbizzy” as Bautista answered each elaborately. You can’t catch someone off-guard when he is refreshingly unguarded anyway as far as pop stars go. He refused to get specific about the “hugot” sources for some of the songs, insisting that listeners should be allowed to project their own personal interpretations. Pressed further, he concedes, playing the showbiz card half-seriously, “Tungkol ba sa kaka-engage lang recently? Yun ba?”

Christian is now in the producer’s chair as well. Bautista says unlike his previous albums, he would simply go in and do what the producer orders. With Kapit, he is now the main decision maker, not only for the backing tracks but his own performances as well. It is a task he clearly relishes. “There would be five takes for one song, and choosing the best one is hard. Or I would do a take, get some sleep, come back the next day and go, (winces) ‘parang hindi tama yung that particular note’ and do it again.'” You get the sense that he probably would have done things differently at the peak of his career, but it doesn’t matter. He is in control now.

Christian Bautista in Spryta Studios between taping episodes of E!’s Soundtrip

In a sense, you could say he is starting over, and brilliantly too: the title cut/first single is as heart-wrenching as ballads go, but the sonic production is in-the-now, and Bautista’s soaring tenor sounds even clearer than ever, with a hook that is instantly memorable. Recorded in Sonic State studios, the album features collaborations with Morissette and Jennylyn Mercado, plus Gracenote‘s Eunice Jorge playing violin on one track. In addition, 6cyclemind guitarist Rye Sarmiento made musical arrangements; this is probably the closest Christian will get to rock-related textures however distantly (barring the 2005 single “She Could Be”).

He took over the hosting job for Rico Blanco who is currently on sabbatical.

The album isn’t reinventing the wheel as far as his career path is concerned–“I know my core, that is, as a pop balladeer” he clarifies–but it does introduce fresh colours to his palette.

BillboardPH caught up with Christian in Spryta Studios a few days after the press con between taping episodes for E!’s Soundtrip with Stefano DeMedici. Christian took over the co-hosting gig from the on-sabbatical Rico Blanco. “Ngayon lang ako naging kulot,” he tells the staff.

The tonsorial change is also likely due to his Music Museum gig tonight, Sept 29.

Reminded about his “innovate or die” comment during the press con, he points to his attire and half-jokingly says, “Well… I’m wearing skulls now…” BillboardPH mentions that the interview will not have “showbiz” aspects. Mock indignantly, Bautista scoffs, and says, “Ok, this interview is over!” and rises momentarily before easing back into his chair.

Below, Christian talks about the album, changes in the music industry he adjusted to, and exactly what he means by “innovate or die.”

Photos by Psylocke Antonio and Kara Bodegon; text by Francis Reyes