Amelia Ray

Tell us more about your musical journey and what inspired you to start writing songs at such a young age.

Amelia: I grew up drenched in music, enveloped by singing and dancing at home, family functions, on road trips and in church. There was always a variety of music, too: doo-wop, gospel, country, soul, jazz, disco, funk, pop, blues and, of course, plenty of rock and roll. As a kid, I could just as easily rattle off the lyrics to an Alabama or Jethro Tull song as I could a Jackson 5 song.

My mother tells me I started writing my own songs when I was about five but the first song I remember writing was a Debbie Gibson-inspired song called I Saw Him Again. I would have been about eight then. I had started taking organ lessons and picked up the guitar a year earlier so I had some confidence when I started composing. George Michael was – and remains – a huge influence. I love his melodies and production quality. I was in high school in the 90s, and there was so much great R&B music everywhere then. I soaked all of that up. Around that time, I also discovered early R.E.M., Liberace, Traffic, Carmen McRae, Basia, Diane Schuur and The Smiths. I taught myself bass and drums by playing along to Blood Sugar Sex Magik (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Rage Against the Machine. And I spent weeks learning how to play Rush’s 2112 on guitar.

I never stopped writing and by the time I was 16, I had a few songs I thought I wouldn’t mind performing in public. I learn songs very quickly by ear so I was able to flesh out a set list with covers of songs that were popular at the time and start playing gigs.

photo: Matt Granz

How did your move to France influence your music and the albums Music for Autistic People and ON?

Amelia: That’s a really good question. I’d never before thought about how having lived in France was reflected in Music for Autistic People but it certainly is. The first song, Full-blown Ascension – my second song to George W. Bush (the first being Who’syerdaddy? from 2001’s Mr. Gibson Scores Again) – was inspired by an assignment I had given to my students. In 2002, I moved to France for a year to work as an English language assistant. When the invasion of Iraq occurred in early 2003, my students were scared, confused and full of questions. As the resident American, I was expected to have all of the answers. I told them that I was just as scared, confused and full of questions as they were, and suggested we write letters to help sort out our feelings. Some of the students wrote letters to Iraqi schoolchildren, some wrote to politicians, I think one even wrote to Mother Teresa. It was a really sweet experience. I decided to write a What are you gonna do when they come for you? letter to the U.S. president. It’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written.

I was living in Madrid when I released ON. The first song on that album, The Arsonist was inspired by a horrific story I’d read in El País. A Romanian man had petitioned the Spanish government for financial assistance to return to Romania with his family. His request had been denied, and in response, he set himself on fire in the middle of the street and later died from the burns. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the man taking a lighter to his t-shirt. I stared at that picture for a long time, wondering how anyone could witness that and not immediately drop whatever they were doing to go stop, drop and roll that person. “The Arsonist” is written in the voice of the photographer who took that photo. In it, she or he is promising the subject of the photo that if they’d just keep still for a moment, they will both be immortalised on film.

Can you share more about your experience in experimenting with different languages in your lyrics, as seen in Ana no potable and Beste meneer Decleir?

Amelia: I taught business English for a while when I lived in Madrid. One week we were studying idioms and my students were teaching me the Spanish equivalents of English expressions like “a penny for your thoughts”. Some of the Spanish idioms were such beautifully, crafted and antiquated poetry, I couldn’t help but repeat them over and over. I thought it would be fun to make a song using some of them. That’s how Ana no potable came to be. I wanted to write something fun in response to Ana Botella’s comical tenure as mayor of Madrid. So I strung some expressions together and then filled in the blanks with a story.

In 2006, I moved to Amsterdam for a few months to study Dutch. I discovered the film Karakter in the university’s media library, and became an instant Jan Decleir (the legendary Belgian actor) fan. On 14 February 2023 (Decleir’s 77th birthday) I released Beste meneer Decleir. It tells the story – in grammatically incorrect, heavily English-influenced Dutch – of my learning the language through his films, several of which – including Mira, De zaak Alzheimer and Daens – are referenced throughout the song.

It’s daunting to write songs in another language, even one in which I am fluent. But I don’t worry too much about getting everything perfect. If it feels and sounds good to me, I’ll generally go with it. 

photo: Veera Hulkkonen

Tell us about your collaboration with Jake Wood on Hambone Says and how it explores race relations and role reversal in the U.S.

Amelia: In July 2020, my longtime friend and collaborator Jake Wood texted me, stating he had “an opportunity to record a video, preferably with political commentary.”  I never met my paternal grandfather because he was murdered by a white man in Butler, AL, after my father, who was still a boy at the time, refused to address the man as “Sir”. While under quarantine and witnessing the nation seethe with collective indignation and unrest, I felt my family history come bubbling to the surface. I wanted to transmit the exasperation, confusion and fury I saw in the streets and felt in my soul.

I decided to try to make racism look as ridiculous as it is. To see a Black woman dressed up as an overseer with a white man dressed as a field hand playing a tambourine in the background is pretty absurd. To hear the Black woman singing racist lyrics, using terms that have traditionally been used to denigrate Black people, is even more ludicrous.

Hambone Says uses several musical genres to detail a history of racially motivated killings. The lyrics allude to recent events such as the murders of Breonna Taylor (“Knock, knock, ’Who’s there?”) and Ahmaud Arbery (“People get robbed while running every day”) but also reference the 1967 Detroit riots (“Motor City madness, hot summer night”) and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre (“Some spade in Sumner didn’t know his place”). The entire third verse is based on George Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural Address. I scoured the internet for references to the first usage of various derogatory terms used to describe Blacks – particularly in the U.S. – and listed them in chronological order, along with a list of some of the atrocities suffered by Black Americans at the hands of White Americans in chronological order. The goal was to use the terms to reference the events in the context of popular music of their era.

The biggest challenge was reflecting the different styles of music with only vocals and a pandeiro. Jake Wood and I worked hard on making subtle rhythmic changes to denote a change in era and genre.

The Quarantuned Music Festival and Europe for Ukraine are remarkable initiatives. What drove you to organize events that bring artists together for a larger cause?

Amelia: Thank you very much. I was scheduled to perform a concert in Reykjavík in March 2020. When the world started shutting down, and artists started streaming concerts, I noticed they were mostly individual efforts. I thought it would be nice to have a collaborative event since all musicians were suffering the same fate. So, I called on friends and strangers I found online, and with about three days’ advance planning, on 21 March 2020, I hosted the first 24-hour Quarantuned Music Festival from my hotel room. In addition to musicians from all over the world, the festival included visual artists, a spiritual advisor and a chef. Viewer donations were distributed amongst the 26 participants.

I founded Europe for Ukraine in March 2022, after the latest attack on Ukraine began. I had a vision of the European community standing together, shouting for peace. I wrote a song called Hands in Hearts with lyrics in several European languages. The goal is to have musicians from 50 European countries contribute to the recording of the song. I am actively seeking funding to complete this project, which is a recognition that our neighbours’ needs mirror our own, and an acknowledgment of our responsibility to each other.

photo: Iaenzen Polímata

Living in Finland, how does your current environment influence your creative process and the themes in your music?

Amelia: Being surrounded by quiet nature has had the effect of slowing me down. I am more patient, and don’t rush as much to get things done. Of course, the world was on lockdown and I have aged a bit, too. But I think the Finnish environment bears a healthy dose of blame for the shift in my perspective. My arrangements don’t have to be as grandiose as they did years ago. I still enjoy a massive horn section and complex drum patterns but I also appreciate space and silence. I guess being stuck in snow for months out of the year can do that.

How do you see your role as an artist in the current global landscape, and what impact do you hope your music can have?

Amelia: I see myself as a documentarian. I observe, take notes, refer to past evidence, analyse and interpret. It’s a form of thoughtful communication, one-sided, though it may be. No matter how many aspects of the story I can see, the information will still be filtered through my lenses. So it won’t be objective. But at least it’s documented. I hope that my music will make people curious, and, if I’m really lucky, to dance every now and again.

One last question – what do you prefer: watermelon or melon?

Amelia: Give me a juicy cantaloupe any old day.

More about Amelia can be found here.
Interview: Sofia Hussein for Dinya
Cover photo: Peter Westra

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