The graceful, understated voice of Amber Maya appeared on the second volume in our Oneiric Escapism series; her latest release, Shade - produced by James Risbey - serving up a mellow yet simultaneously and contrastingly leaden vibe; akin to a quiet late-evening on the beach, where, with the air too perfect a temperature for tempers to truly flare, a much more contemplative, introspective mood reigns over all. A Lonely Ghost Burning caught up with Amber, who spoke of Bajan obstacles and expectations, her fascination with people, and just how much it means to her to be an active artist.
... it felt as though, for singing, you either had it or you didn't have it, and as far as I was concerned, I didn't have it.
Amber: My background is not really that long – I didn’t really start any kind of musical endeavours until I was eighteen. I always loved music, I always loved singing, and I’ve written poetry since I can remember – I’ve always loved writing – but for whatever reason, being a musician or singing was never something that I was ever pushed to be. I think I was thought of in my family as the dancer – that’s what I did – so much so that when I eventually did get into singing, I told my mum and my sister and they just laughed at me; they thought it was the most hilarious thing that I would be wanting to actually pursue music and actually wanting to sing. I think it was always something that I wanted to do but, I guess because of the history of it all, I just never felt as though I could.
I got into it when I was eighteen. I was auditioning for a performance arts school – it was like a triple-threat school, so you had to sing a song in the audition – and I think at that point, when I prepared for the audition and when I sang, I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’m actually going to maybe go to this school and possibly do this thing that I secretly wanted to do for so long.” That was the turning point for me; where I was like, “Okay, maybe I should go to a voice coach, and maybe I should really get into this.” And I did. I went to this really influential person for me in Barbados – another singer, Marisa Lindsay – and she just really helped me get over all that that was blocking me from actually feeling like I could do music, and then, from there, I started turning my poems into songs. I got a guitar and taught myself how to play on YouTube and yeah, that’s where it started, so that’s my background.
Amber: It just didn’t seem attainable because I had never done it – the best way I can explain is that it literally wasn’t what I did. Everyone knew I loved music; I always had huge music collections and everyone knows I’m a music enthusiast, but I don’t think anyone really knew that I would ever want to do it myself. I think that’s because I was very shy about it, which probably all just came from me feeling as though it was never what I did. For whatever reason – whether this is true, or not – for me, it felt as though, for singing, you either had it or you didn’t have it, and as far as I was concerned, I didn’t have it. I think as well, with growing up in Barbados, there are amazing soulful and huge, big voices, and I’m not really one of those voices. Not being that made me think that what I had, and what I didn’t even know I possibly had, wasn’t it or didn’t qualify, for whatever reason. I never grew up singing in any pageants or competitions, which are things that people might do – it was just never my track. It was a secret goal of mine.
I went to Marisa Lindsay – who is also a vocal coach – and I really can’t stress enough how much she helped me transform and change my view, like, just because you’re not Aretha Franklin, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to offer. The first time I went to her, I had a session that was like an hour long and, I mean, it’s a vocal session, so you’re meant to sing when you get there – I didn’t open my mouth at all. I couldn’t sing, just because I was so scared. [laughs] So, it wasn’t a huge and sudden switch where I felt like I actually could pursue it, but that’s where it all started to turn around. I think I just had to force myself in spite of self-doubt or feeling as though I couldn’t just be like, “I wanna do this; I’m gonna do it.” The first EP I put out was a long time coming for me, so that felt like a really big achievement. It was a long time to that point; to be like, “Hi, world. This is what I do.”
Amber: That you could even ask me that and I can be doing this interview with you – that’s a little bit mind-blowing to me, because when I think of that self I was just talking about… It really feels amazing. It feels incredible to be, I guess, actually seen in this light. I’m constantly recording and writing and planning shows and stuff now – it feels really amazing. And I’m really happy you asked me that, because it also reminds me to remember that it’s amazing even just to be at this point. Yeah, it feels really great.
Amber: I think my preconceived idea was that there was that expectation, for sure, and I don’t think that anyone necessarily put that on me; that’s just what I believed. When I actually got into singing and first started pursuing it, I think, then, the expectation was to be a pop singer and to really go in that direction. That’s not really what I necessarily love to do myself – to be a pop icon isn’t necessarily the dream for me, but I think that would have been the expectation, rather than being the big soul singer that I probably thought the expectation would be.
Amber: There are definitely people I looked up to, for sure, but not in my style of music. That being said, my influences and the kind of music that I like is quite diverse – probably because of the fact that I’m from Barbados; we have a lot of reggae, soca and calypso as well as a lot of jazz and R&B and soul. There’s no one in my style of music that I can really say, “That’s what I wanted to be like”, in Barbados, but there are definitely amazing artists who are inspiring, like Marisa Lindsay. I can’t truly say that I can pinpoint one person in Barbados who shaped that other than Marisa, and she’s kinda like a jazz artist.
Amber: I think so. Of course, now whenever anyone thinks of Barbados, the person they think of is Rihanna. Other than her, there definitely are some amazing artists from Barbados who are doing a lot of great work, but there’s no one really on that huge scale. Most of the artists that you would constantly be exposed to in Barbados are the Calypsonians, who in their own right, definitely are on a world stage. But, I think the answer to that question is ‘yes, it would make it seem further away’. I think it seemed that way even for dance, because the arts aren’t really pushed as much as they could be, I don’t think. We have a really rich culture, for sure, but to actually pursue a profession in the arts; I think it seems very difficult; at least, it did to me.
Amber: It’s changed a little bit for the stuff I’ve done recently. With the Shade EP that I’ve done with James Risbey, who produced and composed all the music – I’m still working with him right now on more EPs we’re going to put out – basically, he’s made a beat for me and sent it to me, and I’ll write melodies and lyrics over that beat. For the most part, I’ll just listen to it a few times and then when I come up with the melody, I’ll just sing gibberish, essentially. Most times, I just kinda come up with lyrics based on however it’s making me feel at that time, like, I’ll just start singing something. Most of the time, when I’ve been working in this way, the first melody that I come up with and the first thing that I say is generally the hook, and that melody usually stays. I have tried to scrap something, like ‘Higher Low’ on the EP. It was just the first thing I came up with, and I was like, “No, I think it should be something different.” But then it just kept getting stuck in my head, and we kept it. That’s how it’s been with this stuff.
With my previous stuff, when I’m writing with the guitar, I will just be playing and, I guess it’s the same; I’m just making it up as I go, like, I’ll play a riff and open there. Melody and lyrics kinda just come based on whatever that music or song is, as opposed to – and I have done this, but it’s not really my usual process – writing something before and trying to fit it somewhere. I don’t do that as much, because I find that when I do that, it just feels a bit weird; it feels a bit forced… But – [laughs] – I shouldn’t say that, because that’s what I’ve been doing today. I have the lyrics, and yeah, I am trying to make them fit; I’m trying to find a melody, so we’ll see how that goes. [laughs]
Amber: It’s been a little bit challenging just because I’m used to doing it all by myself. I think the bigger challenge is – I think this a shyness thing again – getting to a point where you’re fully comfortable to be really vulnerable with someone. James and I have done a few writing sessions and now, it’s definitely better. I think it’s about finding that connection as well; finding that place where you can feel comfortable to come up with something authentic and honest. I still can find it challenging depending on what it is we’re writing about. It is really good though. It’s really great to bounce off of someone and then to have someone else’s story kinda come into something that you do. I’m enjoying that part, for sure – where someone else can bring their own stories to the songs – because I feel like I just write about the same thing all the time. [laughs]
Amber: Usually pretty quickly. Creativity, in general… I always try to be creative in some ways; even if I’m not writing, I’ll be doing something else in some kind of creative form, whether it’s dancing or art or something in fashion. Music-wise, most of the time it’s pretty quick. For example, getting beats from a producer; most of the time, when I really sit down with it, most things come together in less than an hour. That’s not the rule of thumb for everything though, because sometimes it does take a bit longer.
Amber: Someone asked me that this week, as well. I think there definitely is. I’m mainly a contemporary and hip-hop dancer, so in my music, personally, there isn’t a huge crossover – I’m not making tracks that I’m dancing to or, like, “Oh yeah, I have a whole choreography in my head for this song.” It’s not really like that for me, but I think it’s more so that, just being a dancer – being in my body, for lack of a better expression – when I hear something, how it makes me feel as far as the groove of it or how I respond, definitely plays a role. I wouldn’t know how to pinpoint it. I think the best I can say is just, like, feeling a groove of something. But, I’m not sure that’s any different being a dancer or not being a dancer, because I feel like anyone, dancer or not, probably will hear something and that will affect them in a physical way.
Amber: Specifically for music, I use it as a journal, of sorts. What motivates me is just whatever I’m experiencing or whatever I’m seeing around me, as clichéd or stupid as that sounds… I’m motivated a lot by the more depressing or heartbreaking things that happen. I really like observing other people and hearing little bits of conversations. When I can see what’s around me and can really tap into that, that really motivates me.
Amber: I think doubt can be a huge block for any kind of creative expression to come out, and I can get a lot of that sometimes. The more that I write, and the more that I’m doing this, that has gotten better – you get more comfortable and your walls start to drop a little bit. Judgement, as well. Self-doubt and judgement – like, stop judging what you’re doing and just do it.
Amber: Definitely more so with music. I don’t have that self-doubt or judgement of what I do in dance, for example. I think it’s all to do with my personal history with both of those things. I grew up dancing – doing it since I was four – so, I guess, I’ve gotten to a point where I know that just because you don’t do a move perfectly, it doesn’t mean anything about you as a complete dancer. That’s the same with any art-form, but I think because I am newer to music, and also because I really, really care about it. That’s not to say I don’t care about dance and other creative forms as well, but I hold it really dear to me, and I think that can make it a little bit worse sometimes.
Amber: It definitely does. I’d say I probably find it quite draining; especially if I’m writing deeper, personal things, which I tend to do – like a flood of letting everything out. It’s draining in the sense that it might be a long process, and it’s been a long journey to get to that point, but after processing and getting through that, I think it’s definitely an exhilarating and weight-lifted kind of feeling as well. I have always used writing as my outlet for my own things so, for me, I guess, it’s maybe like when someone else has a long conversation with a friend and feels like they’ve got something off their chest.
Amber: There hasn’t been lately, because I’m trying to write a lot more; I’m trying to write regardless of my mood. There are those times that even if I wasn’t planning to write, I will just need to, and I think that’s a reflective kind of mood; sort of sombre. I’d like it to come out of somewhere happy and joyous, but I wouldn’t be being honest if I said that was the case. [laughs] I’ve been trying to do that; trying to challenge myself to do something happy, and it just doesn’t connect with me.
Amber: I don’t know if I’m so much trying to get anyone to necessarily see anything from my perspective. I think, if anything, what I’m hoping for most is that something I do can strike a chord with someone else; that someone can relate in whatever small way to whatever I have communicated. I can’t honestly say that, when I’m writing, I’m hoping that someone will think ‘this’ or feel ‘that’. I, honestly, am just hoping that it can spark anything; I don’t need it to be the same thing that it was for me. When I’m writing, most of the time I’m getting something out that I have experienced in some way, and then that’s where that ends – from thereon, it’s whatever the listener receives from it.
Amber: It is; it’s kind of hard to tell at this point because it’s still early days and, I guess, it’s hard to know unless people tell you. [laughs] That being said, I have had people say – I mean, not in many words – that they can relate to certain things. I think what’s a really big compliment to me is when people say that one of the songs made them feel ‘blank’ – whatever that thing is, and I have had a few of those. When people describe, just in one or two words, how it made them feel; I think that’s really the same thing as what I’m hoping for. It obviously has resonated with them in some way for them to feel anything from it. I hope I’m being successful at that. I’ve had a few people say it, but not hundreds or anything. That is the goal though – to have people feel something.
Amber: Yes, and also vice-versa; based on knowing me and not my music first. From hearing my music first, I feel like people kind of expect me to be sad all the time. [laughs] I guess it’s more melancholy, or mellow even, the music that I make and like, but that’s not to say that I’m completely a one-level-mellow sort of person all the time.
I think as well, some people, knowing me before knowing my music, were probably surprised at the kind of music I do make, because maybe they would expect something a bit more poppy. I’ve had that one more so than the first one. People are like, “Oh, so are you gonna do a hip-hop track?” [laughs]
Amber: Yeah, it is a little bit. [laughs]
Amber: Recently, I’ve been daydreaming about being at home in Barbados; being on the beach. It is getting warmer here now, but I’m daydreaming a lot about travelling at the moment – I was doing a bit of that today. [laughs] On my social media feeds, old friends from Barbados are always posting photos of the beach and beautiful paradises, so that usually finds its way into daydreams. I’ve been daydreaming a lot about places I’d like to go, and doing lives shows. I haven’t done many of them yet, at all, so it’s the next thing that I’m gearing up to do. I find myself thinking about that a lot.
Amber: Just a matter of getting ready for them. There’s not really a reason per se. I think, when I started, I did my first EP which was very acoustic based, and then, not too long after that, I got going on this (Shade EP). So, I think it’s also been a time thing, and I didn’t really put the shows in place that well before, but now I’m really prioritising doing that. James and I will be playing the live shows together, so that’s good.
Amber: The first things I think of always just seem like the most clichéd things in the world. [laughs] I’m going to say this because it’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot recently; I’m always fascinated by… like, when on a bus, or in the city or something, I’m always fascinated by – it happened yesterday – all these people were crossing at one of those diamond crosses, and I was like, “Where do all these people come from?” Then, I just start making up stories about these people’s lives, and I find it so fascinating that, just in that moment, all these hundreds of people are swarming the streets. I think I’m fascinated by realising that – [laughs] this sounds so stupid – there are so many people, and I’m fascinated by what their lives are like, or making up what their lives are like, even; imagining what people are going through. I think about that a lot.
Amber: I feel like I’ve gained a greater awareness of things. I feel like being an artist, for me anyway, opens a part of your mind or makes you become, or try to become, aware of things. I guess, because you’re looking for inspiration, being an artist has really allowed me to perceive in a different way, and the more creative that I am, the more I realise myself doing that. What would I call that? A greater awareness? … That’s what it feels like, or a desire to understand or see. I’m always trying to see or hear things – I really feel like I’m looking for that, maybe more so than I would be if I wasn’t an artist; I’m on the hunt to hear little tidbits or see things and feel inspired by them. So, it forces you to open your eyes or your ears. Me, anyway, and I’m thankful for that.
Amber: The only fear that I can think of is the fear of failure, which I think is where a lot of self-doubt and judgement can come from. I feel that was a big fear for me and something I’ve had to confront. You’re gonna fail sometimes; it’s not going to be perfect every time.
Amber: [laughs] Apparently, that question. Oh my gosh; what’s making me smile so much at the moment are videos of those little teacup pigs. [laughs] I really would like one… I’m not completely sure if it’s the most ethical thing, actually, but I am smiling at that so much right now. You should look them up… I guarantee that you’ll be smiling. [laughs]
Amber: I wouldn’t want it to define me fully, because I don’t think just the music itself is necessarily the fullest representation of my complete self. I would like it to define me quite a lot, because it is my experience, especially with things that I’ve written; they are products of all that I have done, so maybe, let’s say, eighty-five-percent.
Amber: [laughs] Yeah, I was trying to think of how not to answer it too vaguely. Definitely the music is a huge part of me because it’s coming from my experiences, but I want there to be room left for other things; it’s not all of me.
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