And we don't stop! Earlier this month we chatted with the award winning singer-songwriter Amahla to discuss the challenges of 2020, creative practice and a future of black joy.
Going back to your song, ‘Old Soul’, you consider your place within the lineage of great black artists and I wondered how you would define your style at the moment?
I always say ‘soul’ because I feel it’s specific enough for people to understand what I do but also vague enough for it to encompass anything. I am going through this process now where I make three different types of music, I make ‘singer-songwriter’/guitar-bass kind of music, I make RnB in a more contemporary sense and then I make more ‘traditional’ songs and they don’t necessarily fit together that well. Right now, I’m trying to understand that my voice is the one thing that threads all those things together. I don’t know if that’s a cop out or not but I just feel like it, as a word, especially when you’re looking at African-American Music represents so much more than music. It represents politics and literature and food and that’s what it means to me and that’s what my music means to me.
The next question is about your songwriting workshops. Is this your first time running workshops this year, have you done them before, how have you found running them and being in that creative community?
Yeah, for the last two years I did a few courses about how to help young people specifically tell their own stories because that for me is a really important thing. A lot of the music education space is really well intentioned but it is very white, very middle class and very classical and that does not necessarily fit with somebody like myself who grew up in Hackney and went to a state school. It’s a very different way of approaching music and it also approaches music without context whereas black music is all about context, that’s what it means. The workshops feel like they’re more like conversations because it really is just us picking apart music that we like and looking at different styles. I like country music, I love it but I didn’t know that much about it, now I know much more, and I know much more about jazz, I know a lot more about indie and I think it’s a really important thing to discuss. For me, songs are people’s actual stories and lives and looking at them as that, I think, is really important. I’ve really enjoyed it.
About being a facilitator, is there anything that’s surprised you in the last few months about this role you’ve taken up?
I’ve been surprised at how well it can work digitally. I don’t feel like I do as well over the internet but I think we’ve all just had to adapt and zoom is amazing for this. The sound is amazing, I can talk, I can pull up a Youtube video, audio clips and it works so well. There was one point where a girl who attended was flying back and forth from L.A to go and see her family and she still came! It was so cool, it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world or what you’re doing, you can still access it and that’s definitely what surprised me the most about how accessible it can be.
I wanted to ask about ‘Dorothy’s Verses’, you delve into your family history a little bit on that song- I think you speak about your grandmother- given that context and the ongoing Windrush scandal, I wondered how difficult it was to write that song?
It took me a few years to really write that song, I remember having chords and I decided that I actually wanted to write a song from the perspective of my mum. After six months I was like, ‘but I’m not my mum and I don’t know what she was doing in 1982!’ Initially it wasn’t a song, it was an interlude and it had watery sounds and lots of atmospheric ‘oohs’ and it was just the chorus at that point. So, I thought if it’s just a chorus then it could be a song and it wasn’t really until I started writing the verses that the story began to come through. It was really hard because it was a year into my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and I’d only written one other song about it before and every time I played that song I would cry. I knew that I needed to say what I wanted it to say but I couldn’t say it in a way that affected me too much, so, even in the lyrics, ‘he was lucid, poised with envy’ it’s not really me, it’s just this story. The Windrush scandal as well, I feel a bit guilty because I don’t feel like I’ve been properly able to engage with it because it’s so close to me. Every time I read something about it or watch something about it, it makes me so emotional that I find it hard to mobilise that into something because it is so close to me and my family. I find it hard to express how I feel about that whereas other events, that perhaps impact me and not my parents, I find easier to talk about.
What is it necessarily about writing about your parents or grandparents’ experience that’s a little bit uncomfortable? Is it that you don’t want to tell their stories that they should be the ones to say for themselves?
Not necessarily but that’s something I’m definitely aware of. I’m just aware that their stories are so much a part of who I am that even if I am writing about myself I am writing about them.
There’s an urgency in your music when you talk about ongoing systemic issues and I was wondering how you balance talking about the personal and the political in your songwriting?
For Consider This, I just graduated university, my dissertation was about police brutality in America, I’d also just finished running a campaign on decolonising the curriculum in my department and so I was very much overwhelmed with everything, and I think you can hear all that in the record. It was a lot of like, the world is just crazy right now and then Trump happened and then Brexit was happening and it was all a bit mad. So, I think it came from that and I’m really proud of that record because it is really like a product of its time. Now, it’s really interesting because we’ve had a pandemic and for the first six months of the year I didn’t write any songs at all. I didn’t really make much music, I was working and I was volunteering pretty much throughout the pandemic and then in August all of a sudden, I had stuff to say again. I’m learning now, because I’m pretty much writing new songs everyday, that perhaps the themes aren’t as poignant as they were when I was writing fewer songs. I wrote a song yesterday and it was just about a boy and them not being very communicative and me just being like ‘alright, leave, I ain’t got time for this anymore’ and I’ve spent the last two days thinking about it and I don’t actually think I can write a song about that. I don’t actually think I can sing a song about that for the rest of my life. So, even this morning I was thinking, how can I change the song so that it means more to me.
Do your songs usually begin with a central idea like a chorus or one particular phrase and then expand out or do you sometimes start with the verses? How does it usually work?
It really is quite varied and it normally depends on the context of the song. So, if it’s a ballad then usually it starts from a place of emotion because I’m either sad or angry or I need to be a bit rambly about something. There’s already an idea of what the problem is in my head and then when I sit down to play chords or get a drumbeat up then I already know how it’s meant to feel. Sometimes when you’re writing a different song and you’re starting with chords, you’re driven by how that makes you feel rather than driven by what you have to say. Then you have to close the gap. Here is a great melody but now how do I attach meaning to it? What does it mean to me and how can it mean something? That’s what happened with the song I wrote yesterday. It’s really great melodically and musically but now it needs to have that depth.
I noticed that you did some work with the Roundhouse and I was wondering how you found being in that community and what it did for your artistry?
The Roundhouse completely changed my life. I went to a university where there were no arts courses, It wasn’t creative at all and I really needed to be. I wanted to sing but I didn’t really know how that worked, I didn’t know anything about music or the industry. I joined the Roundhouse and auditioned for this project called the Music Collective, which was a group of 13 musicians between 16 and 25 and we just went there, wrote songs and performed every week. That was where I learned to hold a mic and how to project my voice and how to work with musicians and how to work with a band. They showed me that it was possible because I had no idea that it would be before at that point. The staff are just so supportive of everybody and the young people that attend are just incredible. It’s a huge family. If I go on tour, I’m calling them like ‘come on, we need to go right now’. It’s a really beautiful thing and they’ve supported me for the last three or four years. I have a lot of time for the Roundhouse.
What’s been your biggest creative challenge so far and what creative challenge are you looking forward to next?
The creative challenge that I’m going through now is definitely about brand because I write songs, and I sing them but I’m not particularly interested in fashion or videos or taking cool photos of myself and that’s all part of the job. So, I’m now having to go through a process where I’m trying to make sure that sonically everything is cohesive but also visually everything is cohesive and that is very difficult for me because that’s not where I thrive. I would happily wear black for the rest of my life, aha!
I’m going through a period now where I’m writing a lot of songs everyday- they’re all quite different in style and content- and I’m excited to see how the songs I’m writing now will form projects that I will release over the next year. Normally I start a project in my head and I write the songs that I think should be on the project whereas now I’m writing so many songs that it could be anything. So, now it’s about finding which song is going to create the record.. I decided in August that I didn’t want to write songs that will make me sad because this year has been so stressful. I want to be able to go out and perform and bring energy and joy. That’s an important part of the songs I’m currently making, which I really like and it’s a lot more fun to perform. But I’m also aware that the favourite songs that I write are just me on my guitar in my bedroom so it’s finding that ‘in between’ where they can sit alongside each other.