Amber J

Interviewed by Natasha Silva

Amber JHailing from BC, Amber J, is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter. She might be new to the Toronto music scene, but she has been taking it by storm. Typically found with her guitar, Amber J creates an evolving sound that is a unique blend of Pop and R&B music. She stepped onto the city stage like, “Woah!” in 2016, and took home one of the grand prizes for her performance in Toronto’s esteemed music program, Honey Jam. In the past yearAmber J also received a grant from Toronto’s first ever Fund Me Fest put on by Z103.5 thanks to her organic storytelling and original perspective. Most recently, she has independently released her four-song EP Good Feeling, which drew an eclectic crowd to its premiere.

Capturing the essence of raw Canadian talent, Amber J is the one to watch. She has collaborated with Juno award winning and Grammy nominated producers as well as songwriters. Everyone is on the lookout for her upcoming projects.

Did you always want to be a songwriter?

Yes, but I didn’t know how to do it and make a career out of it. I thought it was more of a hobby. I’ve had a lot of in and out phases of “could this be a career” especially when I was younger.

What inspired you?

I’ve always liked telling stories and I always sang growing up. Music has always been in my family and singing songs was a way for me to tell my stories.

What was the first thing you wrote that you thought “this could be a success?”

I’ve always written and always had songs but when I was thirteen I wrote a song called “Don’t Judge a Book,” and performed it at my family’s house in Quesnel.

Would you say moving across the country and living in several strikingly different places affected your creative process?

Definitely. It’s a completely different style of music and writing in different places. What people respond to in Halifax isn’t what people respond to in Toronto. I’m not trying to get people to like my music alone. I’m mostly trying to get people to hear my story.

 Who has been your biggest influencer?

My mom. Watching her have the strength to go out and make a career for herself when she had to get an education later in life was inspiring. She doesn’t make excuses and fights for her dreams and successes. She really sets an example that if you want something you have to work for it.

What’s your favourite part of writing a song?

 The moment when you hit the sweet spot. When the melody and lyrics collide and you’re like “yes, this is a hit.”

What is your process like: music or words first? Or do they come simultaneously?

There are very few times I sit down with the thought of writing a song unless I’m in a writing room with a producer. When I’m working with a producer and they’ve given me a track, I see us as being a team. The producer was thinking something when they made that beat so I really try to hear the beat and what it’s telling me before I write.

Do you plan the arc of the song or write first, shape later?

A lot of my songs are written from an “I” perspective but are based off things that have been witnessed. Sometimes writing a song about the things I’ve witnessed is a way for me to process through the emotions connected to an event even when they’re not always my own direct experiences.

I try to be very authentic in how I write. I work through things pretty linearly and write from experiences and the songs are my way of processing.

How long does it take for a song to feel complete and in its best form?

It really depends on the song. Songs are like living creations, some can be worked on for a year and you are never satisfied with them. Others like demos are rawer and the rough edges are genuine which is a quality that can get lost in a song that’s been worked on for a while.

Would you say you write songs for a target audience or do you write them for yourself first?

Some are targeted and some are for me. I feel like everything ends up being targeted because I write about human experiences. Since we all share a lot of similar experiences there is a lot of relatability for audiences.

Do you find inspiration strikes on its own or do you go places or do things to encourage it?

I actually don’t ever go anywhere for inspiration. I write in my bed a lot with my lights off. I’ve written most of the songs I love when I’m walking around with my headphones in.

Which part of music do you like best: performing it, writing it, or both?

 Writing for sure. Performing is an area I’m working on. It’s vulnerable. I can sit in a studio and sing and tell my story and people listen to it through a speaker. But performance is in person and it’s like telling someone “this is how I got my heart broken” face to face.

Do you write in any other genres besides songwriting?

I used to write a lot of poetry and short stories. Then songwriting took shape and became my outlet because I realized I could do poetry and tell short stories within my songs.

Is there another artist you would like to do a collaboration with?

 It’s hard because it changes with the weather. There are so many dope artists I would love to have a writing session with or see how their process works.

If I had to choose, it would be Julia Michaels or Khalid. I enjoy their voices and what they have to say in their music. I find their music very raw and connect with what they’re saying.

Do you have any advice for songwriters wanting to break into the industry?

Put yourself in the room. No one’s ever going to give you a seat at the table unless you’re in the room.

What was the process of releasing your first EP like for you?

Stressful but because I didn’t do it right and it’s not a great release. It was made more for me than it was to be successful. I learned a lot from it and asking for help is the number one piece of advice I have about the process. I’m super impatient and that’s something I write about a lot. I rushed my EP because I was so excited and had been working on it for so long. I should’ve waited for the opportune moment to release it but that’s not a regret either because it was such a personal project and was really meant for me. The EP was very cathartic for me, I was dealing with a lot of shit and everything was a battle. I cut off everyone I’d been working with because things got too loud and everyone had a say about which song was or wasn’t a hit. I decided to work with only two producers, I picked the songs that were moving me and went with it.

Which is the most important song on your EP?

“Burn Brightly.” (It was originally called Staircase.) “Burn Brightly” is a metaphor for heaven and hell. You don’t know where you’re going because the light is bright on either side and the line between good and evil is very thin.

I wrote this song when I had just moved to Toronto. It was a transformation period in my life. Amber Joy came before Amber J and becoming Amber J is really a lot of what the song’s about. The bridge goes: “watch who you make deals with, you better know your worth.” Those lines signify the whole process of “I’m not going to take everything that comes my way.” That song was like past Amber warning me about all the bullshit that happened these past two years and if I had listened to what I was writing then, I could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble.

That song was a moment when I thought I could actually do this. A lot of people started coming and wanting to put a claim on my gift. They gave off this feeling of wanting to own me. I don’t think I’m anything special. I just work hard and I have something to say and sometimes I don’t know that I deserve to have that voice. I feel like I’m still nowhere but looking back on the past two years also makes me realize how far I’ve come.

What was your favourite song to write?

“Good Feeling.” It just felt good to write. I was sitting on my couch in my Mickey Mouse onesie. It was winter. I had my guitar out and I started playing this rhythm. I’m not a great guitar player and only use it to write. I don’t even know chords. “Good Feeling” is one of the only songs of mine that has a fun sound in contrast to the darker tones of the others. My songs often come off as sad even when I’m not sad. They can come off as very dark but I think the brokenness is beautiful.

What’s coming next?

I don’t know. I’m working on a bunch of shit. I’m trying to learn from my EP. There’s naivety in putting things out there and thinking it’ll do what it needs to do. I’m trying to be more mindful and ask the questions I need to ask. I’m growing confidence in believing that I have something to say and I want people to hear it. I’m writing stuff that people can relate with and I try to say it in a way that people haven’t said it. I write colloquially like I’m trying to have a conversation with you. So yeah, I’m working on writing and trying to get better at performance right now.

Natasha Silva is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on a poetry collection and a YA fantasy novel.

 

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Beni Xiao

Interviewed by Esther Chen

 

BeniX Beni Xiao is a writer and nanny based in Vancouver, BC, whose work has been featured by Room Magazine, Sad Magazine, The Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and Can’t Lit. They like to nap and snack. They are very into fruit. Their poetry chapbook, Bad Egg, was published just over a year ago by local publisher Rahila’s Ghost Press. I asked Beni about life post-chapbook, process, tips, and what’s coming up next.

It’s been about a year since Bad Egg came out with Rahila’s Ghost Press; how has the past year been for you? How have things changed (professionally, personally, socially, spiritually)?

The last year has had a lot of ups and downs for me. I’ve been working full time as a nanny; it’s a job that I enjoy and find fulfilling, but it’s been difficult to balance working, writing, and my personal life. I’ve also been in pretty shit health which hasn’t helped things. I would like to focus more on writing and my personal life but most of my life has been working (nannying) for the last year.

From a writer and author’s perspective, what was the publishing process like for Bad Egg?

I’m really thankful that my book was published by Rahila’s Ghost Press. From my end, I found the process smooth and transparent. I’ve heard a lot of publishing nightmares, but Rahila’s Ghost was a dream to work with, especially my editor Selina Boan. The editing process was very collaborative, not at all the push and pull/power struggle it turns into sometimes.

As someone who sometimes get this label/comment about my own work, I want to ask: how do you feel about being labelled a “funny poet”?

I didn’t realize I was funny until I started doing readings and people were laughing. I’m never worried about people finding me funny. I didn’t set out to be funny and they thought I was funny then, so I have to trust that they’ll still like and find me funny now. It works to my advantage though because I think people find my work more relatable or memorable because they think it’s funny. I’m cool with it.

Do you think of poetry/writing as a career? What relation is there between writing and the other kinds of work you do to earn a living?

I would like to think of it as a career. When I was in school and writing I saw myself as a writer, but now that I’ve graduated and am working full time, I definitely consider my day job as a career more than writing. That is not how I want it to be, but it’s how I’ve been thinking about myself at this point in my life. I’m currently on something of a writing hiatus. Perhaps when I can find a better balance between things, and am writing more, I’ll start thinking about myself as a writer again.

The difference for me between writing and nannying is that I get paid to be a nanny. Ha. Ha.

Do you have any tips for emerging writers regarding self-promotion and “getting your name out there” as a poet?

Go to events and talk to people, that will help you so much more than you might think. My experience with the writing community here in Vancouver is that a lot of people and organizations really want to help emerging writers, so if you put yourself there and it should (hopefully) come together. That’s what I did anyway.

What’s your writing process like?

I have a thought that I think is amusing, or that I want to think more about later. To not forget it, I write in the notes app on my phone. Usually, these evolve into poems when I do have the time to revisit them.

Describe your ideal writing environment.

I’m a billionaire who doesn’t have a day job because I don’t need one. I wake up at noon, have some tea and a blueberry danish. After breakfast, I sit down at a cute fancy desk in my living room and do some writing with a cat curled up on my lap. It’s sunny and it’s spring.

If you don’t mind sharing, what are you working on now? What do you think is next for you, writing-wise?

I would like to have my first full length book out by the end of 2021, but again, I’ve not been doing as much writing as I’d like to lately, so we’ll see how that goes. I have a feeling that whenever my first book comes out it may be very Greek myth heavy.

Esther Chen writes and draws in Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website estherchen.tumblr.com.