During last February’s FAWM (Feb. Album Writing Month) there were many artists whose works I came to know and admire—so many that my biggest thought every week as I posted a new article would be, “I wish I could write more articles about more artists.”
Among the artists I was able to listen to was Meri Amber (@meriamber) whose designated concept album for FAWM about the 90s blew my mind, all the more because this was her first FAWM. It wasn’t just the consistency and rate with which she posted her songs; some other artists were just as prolific. What boggled my mind was how awesome each song was—the quality of the songwriting, the production value, everything. Song after song, I would leave rave comments until eventually on one song I didn’t know what to say anymore, which was funny because on that same song one of my FAWM collaborators, George Slade (@gslade), left a comment that said, “Not even sure what to tell you anymore.” I thought, “Yup, ditto.”
But another FAWMer, Jules Bryant (@julesbf), playfully commented (and maybe only half-jokingly) that Meri do a FAWM master class. When I saw that it gave me the idea for this interview so as to pick her brain and find out what Meri Amber’s first FAWM experience was like, the secrets to her success, and what advice she’d give other “FAWMlings” (FAWM newcomers).
PM: For your first FAWM you chose to do a concept album using the theme of the 90s. Did any other ideas compete with that one in your head? If so, why’d you go with the 90s idea in the end?
Meri Amber: I don’t even remember what it was exactly that drew me to do a 90s concept album. I was basically nervous out of my brain about the whole ordeal and wanted to make it easier for myself. I figured, if I have a direction both lyrically and sonically, then it would be easier to wake up and not sit staring at a blank page. I tend to work very conceptually with my music and would go to a lot of effort to include small things both lyrically and sonically that people who listen frequently would be able to slowly discover and, like popping candy, get a jolt of excitement from realising. Two days per song didn’t feel like enough time to do that, so I had to do something out-of-the-ordinary to somehow make it work. Pre-planning seemed like the only option I had!
PM: In what ways did sticking to the album’s 90s theme make the process of FAWM easier and in what ways did it make things more challenging?
MA: The concept gave me a lot of direction. The first day was potentially the most nerve-racking, yet it made it easier knowing that I would be writing a song about the 90s and all I’d really need to brainstorm are things that related to that theme. I didn’t have to sit around waiting for a topic or a sound to fall from the sky. It made it more challenging in the sense that I had to research things and check they were in the right era before using them as a reference. But, overall, I would say it made it easier rather than harder.
PM: You went about FAWM quite ambitiously. Not only did you write the songs and record them, etc., but you also did nice drawings that you then used for the YouTube versions of those songs. And you were also as active on social media as ever. Was there any point in which you thought, “Oh, man, I think I might have bitten off more than I can reasonably chew”?
MA: I thought I might have bitten off more than I could chew the moment I started. I purposely planned out my other releases to avoid February (releasing my emoji single ‘I XOX U’ late January and my Postcard Singles from March to May). I also told many of my friends that I’m likely to be anti-social during the month. I honestly did push myself a lot though and in the future I’d want to take it easier. I was up at crazy hours working on the songs, not once, but regularly (think 2 am to 4 am). But, even when I wasn’t working on the songs I often found it hard to sleep. I don’t usually rush songwriting, so it was slightly traumatic and extremely stressful. Beyond which, I’m not a producer and am still familiarising myself with my recording program.
PM: Tell me about the most difficult moment/period you had during FAWM and how you got through it and managed to continue posting songs with impressive regularity.
MA: After the first week, where I had diligently pushed out a song a day I was reaching breaking point. Things in my personal and professional life seemed to start catapulting themselves at me and the lack of sleep was starting to pile up. If you read the descriptions on some of my songs around then I even mention it, which is something I’d usually be very strict against (excusing myself for work that is below par). I work as a musician for a living and I wasn’t able to get enough practice done to perform confidently, I had a marathon of performances over the Valentine’s Day period and the venues are packed during that time. I started splitting songwriting to do over two day periods rather than one and found I was able to get better sleep and perform better. But then a new stress emerged: will I get the 14 songs done in time? What if I hit a block?
PM: Did you ever get “stuck” during the songwriting process? If so, how did you break past it?
MA: Pretty much every song had at least one “stuck” point, most had multiple. I guess it’s the songwriter’s dilemma. Most people would see collapsing on a bed and staring at the ceiling as relaxation, whereas for a songwriter it’s probably a period of intense stress and anxiety as they go digging through their mind for something to turn that demon song around into something worthy to be shared. In the end, the answer seemed to be within the grunt work of repetition. Re-recording parts in a different sequence, changing a melody and seeing if it makes it better, recording and re-recording backing vocals until something adds life rather than adding clutter, going through literally every virtual instrument option in Cubase until something sounds right.
PM: Many FAWMers find that the spurt of creativity during February leaks over into other areas of life be it non-FAWM songwriting or anything else. Have you found this to be true for yourself as well?
MA: I guess the spurt of creativity leaked into the production of the songs, beyond the songwriting. I also did accompanying artworks, which were more of a form of meditation and forced breaks from FAWMing. Most of the rest of my life was relatively relaxed and un-creative. My social media posts were planned out many months in advance, I stuck to my regular set list for my gigs and I also spent a lot of my downtime enjoying other people’s creativity which would at once be relaxing and inspiring.
PM: Talk a little about the “Rise” song, a collaboration with FAWMer @marklberry that will potentially appear in Airways magazine. How did that collaboration come about? (And just how exactly does a song “appear” in a magazine, anyway?)
MA: I’m not sure how it appears in a magazine! Maybe the lyrics? Or a link in the online version? Mark L. Berry approached me asking me to create music for a different one of his lyrics and I said that I would be happy to do so once I finished the 14 I had planned out for my concept album. By the time I finished the 14, another person had already made a song for the first set of lyrics so he suggested I try creating music for ‘Rise’. I was very inspired by Mark’s other work: he’s created novels, audio books and by-jeez worked as a pilot! Just looking at his about page makes me dizzy with wonder. So I was honoured to be asked.
PM: Imagine that it’s 2016 and you’ve decided to do another FAWM. What things would you do differently and what you do the same?
MA: I hope I’ll have built my ability to deal with writing and producing songs in an excruciatingly short period of time by that point. I’d definitely plan it out like I did this year. Maybe even go into more detail with the plans. I’d potentially even take it easier and do some acoustic numbers so I can focus just on lyrics and melody for some songs. I’m not sure. I’d probably try and do more collaborations too, collaborating was one of the funnest parts!
PM: Now that you’ve done your first FAWM, what general tips and advice would you give to newcomers next year?
MA: Plan in advance. Make a scheme for your album conceptually so it flows and is cohesive. Choose the keys you’re going to write the songs in so there’s no awkward tonal transitions. Determine which songs are going to be slow/fast so you don’t drag for too long or pump the beat so much that it feels repetitive over a series of songs. Find sonic references so you don’t fall into your old patterns or hit writer’s block. Opt for songs that don’t engulf you too much emotionally if you are an empathetic writer (write those after February). Interact with the FAWM community, hearing other people’s work will inspire you and you will learn more than you would ever guess from fellow FAWMers.
PM: One thing many FAWM commenters have marveled at is the consistently high production value of your songs. Any secrets to pulling that off that you care to share?
MA: I am not a producer. I have had Cubase 8 (my DAW) [digital audio workstation] for less than half a year. I studied home recording books, YouTube and bought a Computer Music magazine. I don’t feel overly confident in my production skills, I prefer working with a producer. I was actually put under a lot of stress by people commenting that my production skills were good. I spent so much time in front of that computer trying to get them to sound slick enough to meet people’s expectations, I’ve now got a prescription for glasses that I didn’t need before! My secret is that I have no secret, I just kept trying things until they sounded okay. There’s a lot of technical know-how and ear training that takes years to acquire that I don’t have (yet). The songs tended to sound pretty terrible until the final hour of production when things started to miraculously fall into place. So if things don’t sound good for most of it, I can now confidently tell you that that’s pretty normal. Keep going!
PM: This question isn’t so much about FAWM per se as about your music in general. One of the qualities of your style of geek music that makes it so potentially appealing to a wider audience is that you harness geek metaphors to apply to people’s regular lives. So, for example, “Tamagotchi” isn’t just about the toy but also about how the boyfriend in the song is like this sad creature that needs help with everything. “Don’t Blow Up” isn’t just about Minesweeper; it’s also about how dating a highly sensitive person can be like playing that game. Is this something you do consciously or something that just kind of happens?
MA: I do it very consciously. I love geek music. I love listening to geek music. I love how people are celebrating their passions and interests, using the art form of music to bring together their community. However, I don’t like the idea of making it a novelty, or of adhering to a stereotype. I think a song has greater value when it can have both geeky references and real life emotional/conceptual/thought-provoking/even educational elements. It doesn’t need to be much. Nerd comedy music is able to be funny as well as having the references, nerdcore is able to be clever and give geeks confidence and pride whilst having the references. I think Geek Pop should be able to have social commentary, relatable stories, relatable emotions and challenging ideas, as well as geeky references.
Geeks are not their set of favourite TV shows or comics or science equations, they are not defined by how well they’d go in a pop quiz. Geeks are human beings. They have interests that they are passionate about that unite them in this group that has been labelled as it has. I quite passionately rally against the idea of adhering to a stereotype and always get worried when I see people rushing to do so to fit in. One of the lines in one of my unfinished songs is “geek is not a box, it’s a meeting place.” I firmly believe that.
PM: One question that I had early on during FAWM that got answered by a note on your wall was that you were going to release all your FAWM songs as an album. Tell us the details about that.
MA: I won’t give away too many details. I can say that the songs are likely to be cleaned up and at least some of them will be released. The best place to keep your eye on is my website www.meriamber.com, as well as on my different social media sites (YouTube, SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are my main ones).
PM: In addition to the FAWM album, you’ve also got a Postcard Singles EP coming out (you’re a machine!). Wanna tell us about that too?
MA: The Postcard Singles are a set of three eclectic singles that I recorded when I went overseas to Hungary last year. The first song is a photography-themed love song built off a rhythm created through camera sounds. The second song “Not Gonna Be Me” is a more rocky, self-determined song about pushing through and studying/working to achieve your break. The final song is a dance number built lyrically around making cupcakes and living in the moment. The songs are released as downloads on my website or as a set accompanied by three custom-made postcards I created (these feature both my photography and artwork on them). I’ve had the songs for a while now and love them. I am absolutely thrilled to finally let them out to the world!
Thanks to Meri Amber for the interview! And I had so much fun with this one that I’ve decided to do an entire series of them during next year’s FAWM. ‘Till then, rock on.