And Another Thing: The unstoppable Ameriie on civilisation and sexualisation

It’s a strange aspect of our age that you can get closer to the deepest thoughts and humdrum trivialities of your pop star idols’ real lives than ever before.

Sure, pre-internet pop media made inroads into this world too – at some point in music history, someone must have asked Chuck D what he eats for breakfast, or Lou Reed whether he liked geography lessons at school. (I recall a grimacing Richey Edwards from the Manics once being asked by an inane Europop TV presenter what his favourite thing about the beach was.) But the internet has brought us closer than ever. Although the accounts are sometimes carefully PR-managed, pop stars using Instagram and Twitter have brought some of those walls down – so for better or worse, we now know what our heroes are buying from the frozen foods section in the supermarket, how they feel when they’re stuck in traffic, or what they’re watching on TV on a rainy Tuesday evening.

For Ameriie (who has gained an extra ‘i’ of late), 140 characters wasn’t nearly enough to express what she had to say to the world, and in November last year, she launched a dedicated YouTube blog channel, Books Beauty Ameriie. She posted at the astonishing rate of two videos a week, holding forth joyfully about her passion for books, their plots, characters and ideas, ranging across sci-fi, fantasy, society and human behaviour, splitting off to review her favourite teas and hair products, before eventually, three months in, conceding apologetically that maybe she didn’t have time to work on all her other projects and record, edit and post two videos every week.

Ameriie is one of those American r’n’b artists, like The-Dream maybe, or Jazmine Sullivan, whose work is revered by some in the UK, but whose wider story and back catalogue (beyond a few hits) is known by relatively few – mostly because it’s just not seen as worth the effort for the American major labels, PRs, management, tour and festival bookers to push their artist on a small island with a small population.

For those that know, they know that Ameriie’s back catalogue stretches out beyond the irrepressible, fas’-talkin’ dancefloor glory of ‘1 Thing’ to jaw-dropping ballads like ‘Paint Me Over’, ‘All Roads’ and ‘When Loving You Was Easy’; that the clatter-funk collaborations with Rich Harrison on her first two albums – which he produced and co-wrote – were as vital as NERD-Timberlake or Ryan Leslie-Cassie; that having parted ways with Harrison, 2007’s Because I Love It is an r’n’b album with few parallels in the last decade; that from the smitten pop of 2002’s ‘Why Don’t We Fall In Love’ to the low-riding G-funk of 2010’s ‘Pretty Brown’, Ameriie has released numerous singles worthy of world domination as much as ‘1 Thing’. They may also know that Ameriie is of Korean and African American heritage, that her first language is Korean, that she spent time in South Korea, Germany and across the US as a kid, that she has a degree in literature from Georgetown University, that her mother is a painter, poet and pianist – and now, they know what her favourite books of 2014 were, too.

Ameriie is currently rehearsing with her band for a tour of the UK at the end of this month, writing not one but two books, and recording not one but two albums. All at the same time. On paper, this seemed like a stunningly prolific work ethic, but then I spoke to her on Skype.


Can I start by asking about your YouTube channel – you seem to have this incredible zeal for books…

Well, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. The last two years I’ve been watching Booktube, the YouTube community that focuses on books and bookish things, basically every day. I’d get up in the morning early, and while I’m getting my tea together for my writing session – because I’m working on some fiction – I’d pop on a Booktube video. Then do a writing session, then I’d have a studio session booked from 12 or something, that was my routine. And I kept thinking, I really want to join in Booktube, but I’m not sure I’d know what to say, or how to edit, and I knew if I was going to do it, I’d want to do it all myself – I think part of the beauty of YouTube is it’s something you create on your own. And then one day I just thought ‘you know what, I want to do this’.

And you’re writing, I understand, not one but two books at the moment?

That’s right, one I’m supposed to be giving to my agent before I come to the UK, so I’m… panicking. But I’m in the process of fixing my draft right now. One is a young adult speculative fiction story, and the other is an adult one.

Can you tell us what they’re about?

I’m afraid I can’t say anything just yet, it’s still so early, I haven’t even sold it yet.

[There’s a brief digression where I say that writing books can drive you slightly crazy, in which it comes up that I have written one, and Ameriie wants to know what it’s about – to which the answer is, a small communist village in Spain.]

Wow, it’s so funny you should even mention that topic, because on a recent drive I was just thinking about the whole concept of communism, and if it could really ever work, other than when we’re dead, and we’re in heaven – or whatever the afterlife is.

Well, that’s what they’ve been trying to find out in this village…

Right, but, that’s exactly what I was thinking – it could really only ever work in a village, in a small town – the more people you add to the mix, the less likely that would be able to succeed, I would think.

It must seem an especially alien in America, where the politics are so much further to the right?

Well yes, but also because we have such a large nation, there’s just so many people. Some people look at communism as being evil, I don’t think the concept of it is evil — the concept of it sounds very wonderful, but I don’t know if when you add in human beings, and human psychology, if that would ever really work.

For a communist situation to work, to me, it only works if everyone’s doing their part. But then, some humans are more ambitious than others, some like to work more than others. If you have a system where everyone has to do their bit, to do their gardening, to fix this, to fix that – but some people would be driven by their gardening, like they’re obsessed with gardening, so you’d have a large output of food – but what if someone else is like “I’m not really passionate about anything, so I’ll just do enough to get by”, then you have other people feeling like it’s unfair, and… I just see a disaster.

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“Music is really personal, but when you write a book it’s almost like a direct tunnel to your brain – it feels more vulnerable.”

This seems to be more than just a hobby for you, the writing – is that right? You seem really fixated on this.

I’m obsessed, I’m compulsive about it. If I don’t write, I’m cranky, and I’m restless. So I try and get it done as soon as I can in the day.

So is it that the ideas build up inside you and that’s how you become cranky?

Yeah. I am very much like that. For fiction, I have a lot of ideas, but I just make sure I don’t let it distract me from the story I’m working on at the moment. I mean, I already know what I want to write next after I’ve finished these two books, but my whole thing is you have to finish – once I’m committed to it, I’m going to finish the story. So the new ideas stay in the back of my brain until I’m ready.

That’s an incredibly focused approach.

I write every day, I get up early, usually my husband and I get up at 4.30 to 5.30 in the morning, and then we either work out, or if I don’t really feel like working out, I’ll just make a tea, and I’ll write. I usually have a 2000 word count, every day, and I write just about every day. And once I hit my target, I’ll stop – sometimes that’ll take three or four hours, sometimes it’ll take eight hours.

I’m just making sure I put in the time, because it’s fun, and because I’ll go crazy if I don’t – I feel like “ahhh, I’ve got all these stories in me and I’ve got to get them out!” – and that’s how I am in the studio too, when I’m recording a song, and I’ve got harmony ideas and arrangements in my head. Once I’m in the booth I won’t come out, I won’t come out for food, I won’t come out for anything, because I’m like “I’m in here, and we’re staying focused!” And then I’m in there and I have all this nervous energy inside me, I’m tapping my keys, I need to get it out. That’s how I feel about everything, about anything creative, whether it’s writing or music.

I almost feel… panicked that I can’t get it out quickly enough, you know. The first year, when I first threw myself into it, I was writing so much, I was literally writing 13 to 16, 17 hours a day – I was obsessed, it was unhealthy. It got to the point where I went to work out one day and I realised I felt so weak, and I felt like someone who’d been on bed rest. My mum told me I was going overboard, but I felt so behind, because I hadn’t written for so long. After three years of writing so much, I’ve found my songwriting has got easier too, on the lyrical level.

Usually when my songwriting comes together, everything comes at the same time – the harmony, the arrangements, the words – but, sometimes I found I had the melody but not the words… and the lyrics just came, and I was like “whoa!”. The story was so easy to write, because I don’t have to write a paragraph, just fragments of sentences, and it came so much easier than it ever had.

You studied English at college, is that right?

Yes, I was an English major at Georgetown University in Washington D.C..

Did that support your love of writing and reading or did having to break it apart and analyse it suck the joy out of literature, at least for a while?

Ah, y’see, I love the analysing. What people call ‘over-analysing’, that’s what I love about books, and I like putting symbolism in my music too, especially Cymatika actually. That’s what I love about literature – I am like yes, the green light! Because it means this! And the yellow car, and Dr Eckleburg’s eyes! And the blood!

I love symbolism, and I love metaphor – that’s what makes it interesting to me. I loved my literature classes. At college, I think what affected me more, was just learning about different things. So I was taking a ‘Women in the Arab World’ course – and I took a gender studies class, which was looking at gender throughout history, not just sexual revolution stuff. I thought that was fascinating, that really worked my mind, as far as expanding what I was thinking about. I remember one particularly interesting course on African-American literature, which was delving into the black experience in America.

I was writing since I was seven, I would staple together books, and if I had a report to do in history, I think it was the American revolution, I remember I was like, “instead of a paper, can I write like a little book, a short novella of journal entries, of a family who was experiencing the revolution?” [laughs] So yeah, I was already into that.

One of my professors at college said “have you considered writing?” and I thought that’d be awesome, but I was too intimidated at the time. You just don’t want to come across as an idiot, and when you write something, it’s kind of like inviting someone into your brain. Music is really personal too, but I think when you write something, it’s almost like a direct tunnel to your brain and how you’re thinking – it almost feels more vulnerable. So if people read your work and they say, “Hey, this person’s an idiot”, you really feel like they have reasons for saying that. [Laughs]

Sure, like they’ve got something substantive to base their theory that you’re an idiot on.

Right!

Well, this is why journalists don’t read the comments.

Yeah, you can’t read the comments right? Oh my gosh, it must be so difficult being a journalist!

There are harder jobs – but it’s not one of the highlights.

Everyone’s a critic! Everyone’s a critic.

Well, the internet has made that happen, but it’s given everyone the chance to run their own book review video blog too right – the perils of democracy.

Ah, the perils of democracy… do you know the game Civilisation? You start off building a civilisation slowly, you figure what the civics are, you just create your empire, you can win by diplomacy or by war or whatever it is. It’s a very geeky game, but it’s really cool. And you can choose how you want it to be governed – I never choose democracy. Okay? It’s always a monarchy or a dictatorship in my country. And I love democracy of course, but when I’m playing my game, I need everyone to do what I say!

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“You have a lot of women bringing a lot of money into the music industry, but the power’s not really resting with women.”

So to backtrack a little, if you were studying gender studies in the abstract at college, and then very soon after that you were thrown deep into the music industry, I just wonder how exactly– [she starts laughing] You can see where I’m going with this – what has that inside experience been like, as a female singer in the pop industry?

Well, it was just… interesting. It has changed a little over the years, maybe – because you do have a lot of strong female executives, so I think that aspect’s changed a lot. Pop music has been a little bit more dependent on the producer, I think, than other genres of music, singer-songwriting, folk, that kind of thing. It’s very interesting that that’s the case. Most of the producers are men. A lot of the artists are female. In one sense, it’s a male-dominated field – it’s a male dominated business. What’s interesting is that women are really the draw.

I’m afraid to even be quoted on it really, but in my opinion, the biggest female artist in the world will have bigger marketing opportunities than the biggest male artist in the world. For example, all the magazines in the world which a male artist could be on the cover of, a female artist could too – and then you have all the female-specific magazines, fashion magazines and so on – there are so many more opportunities for women to have their images out there. But, because the industry is controlled by men – and even the people making the decision about what photograph goes on the cover, those decisions are made by men. So you have a lot of women bringing a lot of money into the music, fashion or magazine industries, but the power’s not really resting with women. The images are controlled by men… and I don’t know when that’s really going to change.

I think what we see in the industry is the over-sexualisation of women in music – and the opposite of that, suppressing female sexuality, is terrible too of course, or worse maybe. But I just feel like there’s a lack of balance, such a strong, overt sexuality attached to female artists – and I don’t feel like that’s going to change, because that’s just indicative of where we are in general in terms of how women are valued. That’s always bugged me, even when I was in high school.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and the thing is, I just don’t think it’s good when any singular image of women is put out there. ‘Women should be sexy’, ‘women should not be sexy’ – I think there just needs to be more variety, more options. And I think that’s important, it’s important not to make women feel – really, to make girls feel – that they don’t have to be any one way to be appreciated, or accepted. Because women aren’t any one thing, and I think when sexuality is suppressed, or it’s overly sexualised, I just think that’s problematic.

Do you think it’s still a struggle for female artists or singers to establish control over their own work and their own creativity? Are they subject to more control by people from the industry – PRs, label people, management, whoever it might be – than male pop stars?

Definitely. You have more people around you pushing for that sexual image. I’m sure there are some male sex symbol type artists out there who, if they were honest, maybe don’t feel like hitting the gym all the time, and don’t feel like they want to have to take their shirt off to be appreciated. No one’s holding a gun to their heads and making them take their shirt off, but there are always implicit messages that make artists think, “this is what they want from me”. But of course women get that way, way more.

I think the artists have to recognise that they can have that control. No one is going to make you take your clothes off for the picture – they might try and coax you into it, but it’s up to you to decide whether that’s something you want to do. The danger is that young artists think that will make people like them more, or that’s what people will expect.

I think that can only really change when it changes with the artists. But sometimes, outspokenness gets people in trouble. I don’t really know the details, but I know Kelly Clarkson went into some issues – she seems to be a very outspoken individual, and when I see Kelly Clarkson, I see someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind – but, I know recently she said there’s been some kind of backlash, people not wanting to work with her. It looks to me like there’s a situation where you have a female artist who’s not afraid to be outspoken, and the boys don’t want to play.

Punishing that outspokenness.

Exactly. There was a time when taking off your clothes and being overtly sexual was rebellious – saying, you know what, I’m a woman and I’m in control of my sexuality. It’s not so rebellious anymore. You’re not going to make men in the industry, or executives in power, uncomfortable because you want to be naked. Actually it’s very status quo – you’re not rebelling against anything that way. But speaking your mind and being unafraid to voice that opinion, that’s rebellious, that’s what makes people uncomfortable. I do have very strong feelings about this.

Well, I mean, fair enough.

But it’s not even like people have to take their clothes off to sell. Taylor Swift sells a lot, and she keeps her clothes on, and I appreciate that about her. That’s what I like about Lorde as well. But it’s just that variety and those choices that male musicians get as a basic right – I’m not saying if Taylor wants to do something extremely risqué that would be a bad thing. Nothing is good or bad inherently, it’s just when one thing becomes the definition of what womanhood is supposed to be.

I’m slightly concerned that we’ve been talking for 40 minutes and haven’t got to your music yet. Can you explain how come you’re working on two albums at once, and what is the distinction between them?

Ah, do we have to talk about music now? Okay. Well, really it was just because the songs don’t sound like they belong on one project. They’re just so different – it would sound really weird. BILI is a sonic extension of 2007’s Because I Love It. It’s very bright, the harmonies are very bright, the vocal arrangements are upbeat, and you have your hip-hop influences. I included some new wave influences as well. And Cymatika just sounds completely different. It’s heavier, it’s more dense. It’s a little darker. I played around with my vocal approach a little differently. My approach for the album was to create something that sounded very cinematic. I wanted the music to feel like it was scoring… a moment, like how music can score a movie. Also Cymatika is part of a trilogy, it’s the first, so it’s actually Cymatika Volume 1.

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“Do you know the game Civilisation? I never choose democracy – it’s always a monarchy or a dictatorship.”

Cymatika sounds like an intriguing and ambitious project – it made me think, watching some of your video blogs about books, that it almost seems like it’s an idea that has come from your love of fantasy fiction, the occult and so on, to have this three-part concept album? Is there any truth to that?

There is. I love series. I love epic stories. And the idea… Cymatika came from cymatics, which is the study of visual sound. The concept is we are all energy, everything is energy, music is energy vibration. So the words we speak, the sounds we listen to, the thoughts that run through our minds, all of that is energy, all of that affects us on a cellular level. I wanted to have romantic themes, but I also wanted to talk about non-romantic relationships, and what it means to be human – and the things we go through as human beings, not specific to romantic relationships. That trilogy definitely comes from my love of story, and just being influence by that. On the songs in Cymatika, I incorporated some of my passions, some deeper analogies, so there are different levels of meaning there.

Are you working on them both simultaneously?

Yes.

And when are they broadly supposed to come together, and come out? This year?

I think so. But I can’t say for certain. I’ve been working on some other songs, there’s some talk about an EP… I don’t really know yet how that’s going to shape up.

Will you perform them on this UK tour at the end of March?

Not the Cymatika songs – the new ones aren’t mixed yet or anything. Cymatika at one point had a lot more songs, and then I just took them off the album. I just create, and it’s very mood-based. I’m very impatient, and I create a lot faster, and I’m in and out of zones a lot faster than I am in and out of albums. Usually by the time I do a video for a song, and it’s out, I’m not even in the zone of that song anymore. Like I don’t really dwell – I’m not a dweller.

Is that because you feel that creative moment is passed, and you’re not really in the same headspace you were as when you wrote it?

Yeah, it is. And it is kind of frustrating. By the time I’m doing the video I’m usually over it. Honestly. It doesn’t mean I don’t like it, I just have a different vibe by that point. I don’t even dwell on pictures, because by the time you see it, the moment’s gone. I just don’t dwell on the thing I’ve already done. I don’t have plaques up, I don’t have pictures of projects up. I’m already onto the next thing.

I can see that in the speed you’re moving on from one project to the next. So when it comes to preparing to perform, especially a greatest hits set, which I’m presuming is what you’ll do when you’re in the UK, which of those songs are you happier to return to? Which ones do you get a kick out of going back to?

Well, ‘1 Thing’ is always fun to go back to. I mean, thank goodness. Thank goodness. Because if I didn’t really love performing it, that would be terrible, because I wouldn’t be enjoying myself. But I actually really enjoy singing that song, it’s a lot of fun. And ‘Talking About’ is another record I love to sing, it wasn’t a single but it’s one of my favourites, I like that even more than ‘1 Thing’.

And if it’s a song I don’t really feel like performing… I will still do it, because I remember early on, my manager told me, “I know how you are, you’re one of those artists who doesn’t like doing old material – but you have to remember what it feels like to go to a show, and when you see someone, you know what you want to hear.” When you go to see Prince, you want to hear his new stuff, but you also definitely want to make sure you get ‘Purple Rain’, and ‘When Doves Cry’. You have to remember what it feels like to be a fan. And that’s a really important thing that he told me. Because I am definitely disposed to being the other way. I don’t listen to my music. Once I’ve gotten it off my chest, and it’s out, I’m done. Thankfully, the majority of the songs I do, I’m really excited to perform them.

So what are you listening to at the moment?

I’ll be honest, I don’t really listen to a lot of music these days, I can go literally weeks and weeks, months even, when I don’t listen to anything, other than what I’m writing to. When I work out, I listen to author interviews and creative writing lectures – that’s what I listen to in the car. I dip in and out of what’s going on in music. I don’t find a whole lot that inspires me – I know that sounds really pretentious. And it’s not because I hate what’s on the radio, I love pop radio, so it’s not that – sometimes, it just takes a lot to get me excited. But when Jay Z, or Kanye, or Pusha T, or Drake, or Taylor Swift, or Lorde is coming out with something new, I’ll listen.

When I was growing up I would listen to everything. It would be whatever was on German radio. I went through phases in the 80s where I was loving Depeche Mode and the other new wave bands – 80s and 90s pop hits, I know all the pop hits, all of them. And I was on a big heavy metal kick in the 90s. I just listened to everything. I think it’s not a reflection of the music on the radio at the moment, I think lately I’m just so in writing mode, that all I want to do is hear authors talk.

What do you listen to while you’re writing, if anything?

I have a little playlist, it’s got some Ellie Goulding on there. The playlists are very particular – each story I’m writing, I have a particular song I have on repeat. I’ll listen to some of the EDM groups. Florence and the Machine, and Sia. Sometimes classical music or scores. But the adult book I’m writing, it’s the only thing I’ve ever written where I listen to absolutely nothing.

It’s a challenge trying to match up the right ambience with the right thing you’re writing. I think Jonathan Franzen listens to soft white noise when he’s writing?

Yeah, if I listen to something it’ll be rain. I like thunderstorms, lightning, rain. I actually really liked Freedom – I thought the writing was really funny. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but it was really hilarious, and I was kinda surprised about that, because I’d seen some of his interviews.

Amerie tours the UK from March 26-31.

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