Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Amahla's new EP Where do we go from here? is out now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Amahla and would like to find out more about her work, visit her excellent offical homepage. You can also keep up with her on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I love dreaming, my dreams are more and more a source of inspiration. They rarely make sense, but my mind doesn’t stop. It keeps on working out all my daytime thoughts so the moment I wake up is often the most inspiring part of my day. All of a sudden my mind has worked out things I hadn’t quite decided before I’d fallen asleep.
I had the chorus melody for my song "Apathy" for a while and couldn’t think of the words. Then one day I went to sleep and all the words came to me just as I woke up. Sleep is magical!
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I often have a strong idea of what I want to say before I go to the studio to write, it helps anchor the music and conversation. You can always go in with ideas and not use them. Sessions where everything sounds a little underwhelming because nobody had a clear intention are the most frustrating.
There’s a demo on my last EP called "Was It Something I Said?" that I wrote over Zoom with producer Mack Jamieson. I wanted to write a song about my family and we ended up writing a song that reminded me of all the times I've spoken back to my Aunties, which in Caribbean families is gonna get you in trouble quickly! ‘Was It Something I Said?’ they’d ask after telling me off … oops!
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Since making music has become my full time job I have to be able to be creative all the time and that is draining. I don’t believe in writer's block but I do believe you need to live and experience life to become inspired enough to make art that moves you. So I try to fill my life with art, literature, plays and friends, the more I experience the more I can draw upon.
Since lockdown books have been more inspiring, I've been able to find escape in fiction. I’m currently reading Blindness by José Saramango - which ironically is also about a pandemic, but of a milky white blindness, eeek. It’s a Portuguese translation so he arranges words differently which as a writer is interesting.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I almost always come up with the choruses first and write the first line of the verse last - that first line needs to hit right and that takes a bit more brain power!
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Lyrics are so important to me, I always try and say things in ways they haven’t been done before. "Bold" was my first attempt at writing a love song, one of those songs you want to get married to.
I think it’ll take me a few more attempts to master it but I’m really proud of this one, it lists all the emotions you go through before you tell someone you love them really simply. Simplicity is key.
“I’ve been overthinking, you’re always on my mind
Memorising what i’m going to say, my words underlined
Deep in this condition, i’ve put in the time
And patiently i’m awaiting your reply”
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
For me the best lyrics are the ones where you say exactly what you mean. On "Do Something You Can't Take Back" I took my feelings about Black Square Tuesday when people put up black squares in solidarity with the BLM movement.
At the time looking back at diary entries and didn’t cater my message to any audience, I just said what I wanted to, that good intentions aren’t enough, often that’s the hardest thing to do.
“It’s the rise, the weight
The loss, the names
I can’t hide
Do something that you can’t take back
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Writing a song changes every time, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It keeps me on my toes!
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I think control is antithetical to creative expression, it’s precisely the opposite. Music is freedom and songwriting is your search for that.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
If the melody or music is pulling you into a different direction to the idea you had in your head you just have to go with where the music takes you. Your idea will come out when it’s ready, it’s just not the right soundtrack for it.
I wrote "Old Soul" that way, the chords told me what it needed and the melody and words just poured out of me.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Part preparation, part mindfulness and part chaos. (laughs)
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I know a song is complete when it communicates everything I want it to lyrically and musically. I’m going with my gut more and more, when it feels complete, it is.
My song "Commandments" took lots of demos, but after Charlie Perry completed the production we knew it was ready!
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
If you love it just as much a day later, a week later, a month later, it’s a banger. Time is important in gaining perspective. Refinement is important but you have to make sure you’re not losing that spark that you had in the beginning, that takes persistence and restraint.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I’m heavily involved in all parts of the music creation and promotion process. I self-managed myself at the beginning of my career and it taught me so much about the industry.
If you’re self managing you have to think of your career as a business from the very beginning, as you grow you gain partners but inevitably you’re at the center always, the work doesn’t lessen. You’ll need to get to grips with spreadsheets, networking and funding applications. It's not easy but it’s definitely an invaluable experience.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I’m always excited once I’ve released a record. I released my last EP Where Do We Go From Here? as we were coming out of lockdown into Summer and it was great because I've done all I could do. What happens next is completely out of my hands. It doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to everyone who is listening, you’ll have your own interpretations and memories, that’s a beautiful thing, always.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Being able to express an emotion that lots of people have but can’t express through melody is truly a gift. Singing hits you in a different way to other art forms because it’s embedded in what it means to be human. You don’t need anything but your voice and you can completely change someone’s mood or intention.
As much as making music is lots of fun it’s also very important in communicating new ideas to an incalculable amount of people. Music is powerful and I feel privileged to be in the position to pursue it.