Music by VICE

Amber Mark Knows a Thing or Two About Using Music as Therapy

The New Yorker talks moving forward from grieving her mother's death on her debut EP, with next month's bossa nova-inflected 'Conexão.'

by Alim Kheraj
Apr 19 2018, 3:30pm

Image courtesy of PR

While writing her second EP, Amber Mark was faced with two harsh realities: that writing a follow up to any debut can drain you and, specifically, that there’s no easy way to follow a release about the death of your mother – the hardest thing anyone has to go through. “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” the 24-year-old New Yorker says of her upcoming EP. We’re meeting over coffee in a west London hotel, on a typically grey, wet afternoon. “I felt that the material needed to be better, more meaningful and that people needed to, like, cry more.”

Being real, that’s pretty hard to achieve, considering gut-wrenching debut 3:33AM centered on Amber’s interior world collapsing after the death of her mother Mia. While touring last year, Amber wore her mother’s clothes on stage, and she is even credited as a guest feature on “Monsoon”, which integrates snippets of her speaking into the song’s final refrain. Amber herself has said that the record acted as her “own seven steps of grief”. But what happens with step eight? In other words, how do you even begin to create an entirely new universe, separate from the one in which you used to be buried?

This new EP, Conexão—due out on 4 May—delves into that question by exploring intimate relationships instead. Lead single “Love Me Right” is an affront to a non-committal fuckwit of a now-ex-boyfriend, matched with soul soothing pianos and subtle beats, while “All The Work” is a clubbier fusion of loungey Ibiza rhythms that push Amber’s vocals down in the mix, layering them up in endless loops. These musical choices place her just outside the now brimming R&B-pop and dance music market of acts like Tinashe, Lion Babe and Janelle Monáe, stripping her of some of the youthful vigor of high-tech production techniques. Her sound now shimmies like Anita Baker’s dusky soul, with the stinging emotional bite of Sade. She makes it stand out, even if the description I’ve just given might have you wincing at the idea of MOR easy listening.

Face-to-face, Amber's sort of as soothing as her music. Arriving a tad late, she orders a coffee, and, though not exactly beaming with joy, seems contentedly distracted by the weather. “It’s really beautiful,” she says, her dark eyes glancing out of the huge windows behind me. I make a face. “I mean architecturally,” she adds, before her mouth twinges into a half-smile. “But I do like the rain, I must say.”

Soon she’s talking about moving home every few years as a child with her nomadic mother, relocating everywhere from Germany to India, Nepal and Miami before going to high school in New York. This global attitude permeates the songs on both 3:33AM and Conexão. The former was indebted to India and house music. The latter widens its scope, vibing with Brazilian bossa nova and loungey R&B. “I'm glad you caught the Latin stuff,” she says. “I studied a lot from bossa nova, and I used to listen to it a lot as a kid because my mum would play it. I even wanted to learn Portuguese in high school so I could sing in it.” Rather than pilfering samples and cultural musical signifiers, you can tell that Amber delves the sonic histories she’s exploring. That use of bossa nova, for example, isn’t an aesthetic lunge into the Latin explosion in the Top 40—instead, it feels nuanced, careful.

You hear Amber deploy the genre’s emotional arsenal on something like title track “Conexão.” It’s a song all about intimacy that exudes the rhythmic sensuality and longing of bossa nova pioneer and founding father João Gilberto, as well as his and his daughter Bebel, both of whom were huge influences on the record. And then there’s a thrumming cover of Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride”, which began life as a gift for her sister and that slots gently into the EP’s ‘boy problems’ story arc. Sade herself co-signed Amber’s version: “I got an email with a note from her saying, 'Wishing you all the success. I love what you've done with the song,’” she gushes. “That was some life goals.”

Coming out from under the dark subject matter of 3:33AM wasn’t easy, though. Amber struggled to match the emotional levity of writing about the loss of a parent, with Conexão. “I was just throwing songs away because they weren't deep enough or good enough,” she accepts. “I wanted it to be bigger. Eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that, after writing for a few months, nothing was ever going to be more meaningful than that EP. It had to do with losing my mother. I just realize that nothing, emotionally, will ever top that first record. And I think nothing should, really.”

Still, when Amber found herself writing a bunch of songs about her relationships she recoiled slightly. “I'm very against talking about love. I mean, it was what wanted to be writing about internally, but my mind was like, ‘Ugh, this is so cheesy.’ It really took a lot for me to accept it, but I wanted to be honest with myself.” In person, you can practically see how she toys with those sides of herself. One-on-one she’s shy and a little nervous, laughing awkwardly and often a bit unsure whether her answers to my questions are right. She’s engaged with our chat, but I can see her eyes every so often darting back outside to take in London’s drabness; it’s like she’d rather be sat alone with her coffee to soak it all in.

This behavior manifests itself in how she makes music, too. Rather than team with numerous songwriters and producers, Amber works in her bedroom, isolating herself. It’s partly, she admits, a defensive strategy to avoid embarrassment—it’s where she feels most comfortable. “If I'm alone, I don't care about fucking up because no one is listening. I can do a hundred takes, get it the way I want to and not feel like people don't think I'm good enough,” she says. “I get so insecure about studio sessions. I am doing more of them and the reason is because there are so many people I want to work with or that I dream of working with. I don't want to walk into sessions feeling like I'm going to throw up.”

Amber’s proclivity for self-doubt is not rare among artists; they can often drown in their own insecurities. She shares how she had to check herself when she feared that people might accuse her of using her mother’s death as a selling point. She also negates her clear talent for producing and songwriting by suggesting that she doesn’t “approach things in the normal or right way”. Her art is just her “messing around” with a computer. Talk about downplaying things.

Watching her perform live is another story, though. On stage one night in March opening for Jessie Ware at west London’s Hammersmith Apollo, the songs seem to reverberate through her. During “Monsoon”, the 5,00-capacity venue practically hums with the memory of her mother, a blanket of loss and acceptance settling over the audience. Amber, meanwhile, is floats around the stage, closing her eyes and singing out as she dances. It feels like she’s expunging her heartache and melancholy by sharing it us.

That’s the thrilling nature of her music. Music this intimate can cut through, or compel you to turn away in discomfort at its closeness. But Amber makes those unsettling feelings yours, too. The grief embedded in her work is no less relevant to you, because grasps at every moment of loss you’ve ever encountered, flicking through those memories like a rolodex. Even now, as her material moves on from her mother, the depth of that feeling remains. It makes Conexão and what Amber does next feel just as riveting as her debut – simply, her work shows how, after insurmountable loss, life can go on. It’s why she turned to music in the first place, she says to me in that hotel restaurant. “This all started so I could release those feelings for myself. I still have moments. But I think in the long run I am happy.”

You can find Alim on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Amber Mark