lukewarm questions: amaryah shaye

Lukewarm Questions is a recurring feature wherein musicians are invited to construct their own interviews by selecting the questions that they would like to answer.

While my rational self knows that I only started listening to Amaryah Shaye’s music this year after finding her EP, My Mother’s House, at the bottom of a Bandcamp rabbit hole, the less rational part feels as though there was never a moment when I had not heard her songs. The warmth of the guitar intonations that open “She Gets It From Her Mother” feel not like the beginning of an album but the middle of a friendship. Shaye’s music is not only centered but central, comfort knit from the lugubrious stuff of stars, rendered with heart-rending emotion. There is a subtle intensity to this music, cloaked in the gorgeous constants that are Shaye’s voice and fluency across the fretboard. It is an exquisite intensity that I feel most acutely on “Holy Roller.” The question that composes the nucleus of the song resonates long after the drum machine pattern has faded:

“I’m just wondering / if it’s ever enough?”

While this is perhaps a foolish exercise when the vast, intricate domain of Shaye’s work is taken into account, but if I were to sum up her music in one word, it would be grace. Her words lilt like the surface of the sea spreading and growing into waves, not quite water, not quite air, mostly light. My favorite genre of music is any song that reminds me of the moment in a service when the candles come out, when one bright mouth feeds an entire swarm of them. I do not know exactly what spirit it is that fills my chest in those moments, but it is the same I feel in the pockets of repose that Shaye carves throughout My Mother’s House.

The folk cadences of Shaye’s music feed into the deep house ridges of her undrthght project, a growing resource that probes the intersections of Black lesbian thought and house music. Her two releases so far, “Dedications” and “When They Come,” are songs to get lost in, surging with life and consideration. I feel immense gratitude to have gotten the opportunity to learn more about the work and convictions of Amaryah Shaye in her own words, and urge you to take her thoughts with the consideration and careful energy with which she imbues everything she touches.

Headlight Spirits: Tell me the story behind the cover of My Mother’s House.

Amaryah Shaye: For the cover, I originally wanted a photo of my mother’s house, the house she lived in with my grandmother for much of her young life. I went home Christmas 2017, just a few weeks before the album released. While there, I scoured my parents’ photo bins and albums for a good picture of that house, but there weren’t really any. I did, however, come across the photo that became the cover, which is a photo of me (or who I’m 95% sure is me, though there’s a small chance it could be my sister) on the porch of the first home I remember in Syracuse, NY, where we lived until I was about 7. It felt resonant with themes of the album that, in searching for some element of connection with my mother–someone who often feels both mysterious or elusive to me and inescapably close–I’m brought back to myself. That there’s an impossibility of closure built into whatever circuits of kinship connect us to the people, whether biologically related or not, who are responsible for much of the context of our lives in its formative years.

What is the best book you have read this year?

Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, which is a collection of short stories. It’s the kind of book that leaves you thinking long after you put it down and often, weeping.

“Holy Roller” is one of my favorite songs I have heard this year; the way that you articulate and give shape to relationships with faith is breathtaking. When did you start writing that song, and how has it changed since the first draft?

It’s so interesting you asked this question about this song because, of all the songs on the album it took the most drafts to get to the final production. The basic guitar chords and pattern were the foundation of the song from the beginning. I had the same first line “she’s just a holy roller” but had written very different lyrics for the whole song. I even tracked the vocals with a friend in the studio she worked in and basically produced a whole song, but when I was finished I just wasn’t pleased with it. I let it sit for several months before returning to it and scrapping all the lyrics except the first line, just trying to start again with less overthinking the lyrics or concern for things to make sense and more an emotional connection and trying to express whatever feeling was stirred up. It’s both written about my family and not. I think it’s also written about and for anyone who’s had very powerful spiritual experiences and community and is still shaped by that, but also shaped by a loss of that particular intensity or form of life and the different relationship to God that emerges in the wake of that loss.

How did you get into production? What equipment did you use on the EP?

I got into production during high school. I studied classical piano from age 10-18 and so was pretty musically inclined, but I also think I was often feeling creatively inhibited by classical music and getting into production was timely for beginning to express my ideas and personality musically. This was also around the time when Kanye West’s sampled beats were really taking off and that was a huge influence on my early explorations. My brothers had a church friend who had gotten cracked copies of Reason and Pro Tools and they had started making beats at his house after church, so I started going with them and they asked me to come up with piano ideas or whatever. And then I started taking a music theory course at the local community college my senior year of high school and they had Reason in the music lab, so I would do my music theory homework and then just try to figure out how to use Reason to make beats. I also started to teach myself guitar at the end of high school and was beginning to write songs.

This EP was recorded with a pretty straightforward bedroom producer setup. I used Logic for recording and producing everything. For vocals I had a RE320 microphone running through a Grace Audio preamp into my Scarlett 2i4 Audio Interface. So it was just that mic recording vocals and some guitar, and I also had an Audio Technica AT2020 that I used for some of the guitar. And then on Holy Roller, I added some drum programming using my Maschine MK3 and I just used some Native Instruments pianos for whatever keys are on the album.

How is your approach to production different or similar when you work on music for undrthght? What is the central quality that Amaryah Shaye and undrthght share?

I’m responding to these questions together because I think the approach is actually very similar but with different outcomes and orientations. In each case, I tend to start by trying to create a vibe, whether that’s chords, a melody, a drum groove, a guitar lick, a lyrical idea etc. And then I usually start playing around. For my folk songs I rarely write the lyrics first so I’m often mumbling lyrics and sounds over the top of a guitar loop and just trying to find different melodies and cadences that give more shape to the vibe of the song. And from there I’m able to begin crafting lyrics around whatever theme seems to be emerging. In both instances I try to work pretty fast to get ideas down and not get stuck. I feel like with undrthght I’m often doing a lot more experimenting with things than with my songwriting, where I have a pretty solid sense of how I like things to sound and am not particularly interested in doing a ton of experimenting there. I think a key difference for me with undrthght is that it’s very much connected to my academic work in black theology and philosophy which is often kind of abstract explorations of God and blackness that are also interested in how to explore such things without being ungrounded from feeling? How to communicate with images, whether sonically or verbally about the mysterious nature of existence?

How do you choose which stories to tell through your folk music and which stories to tell through your house music?

I think the folk music is often coming from a very introspective place of trying to work through particular issues in my personal life. I think undrthght is a much more externally interested project in that it’s rooted in black house and techno music and black queer social life and is thus very interested in expressing something for and about the significance of that social world for me and for others. I think I’m always trying imagine my friends and special experiences I’ve shared with them when I’m making house music and so put more of the sociality front and center.

I am fascinated by the intersection of Black lesbian thought and house music that you explore through undrthght. What influences, musical or otherwise, guided you to this lens?

Yes! This is maybe my favorite question. Black lesbian thought has been so central to my formation as a person. The writings of Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, the Combahee River Collective, and many others, really changed my life in a pretty literal sense. I think my favorite thing about these women is how much they would just start shit that they felt was needed. They would just start a publishing house, or they would just start an organization that they felt was needed. In many ways, black lesbian thought was my first introduction to a kind of DIY culture and spirit that I think has also really shaped my experience of house and techno music. When I first started getting into house and techno it was through these very weird, small, DIY shows put on by a collective in Nashville, TN,  TRAM Planet, which is not a place one really thinks of as having an electronic music scene. But I think, like my time in church, my time going dancing has really been a way of embodying something of the participatory ethos of black lesbian thought. There’s really an idea of the difference one’s body and energy can make to a space just by showing up as yourself and using whatever you have to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

Amaryah Shaye’s EP, My Mother’s House, can be purchased on Bandcamp and streamed on Spotify and Apple Music. Her undrthght project can be found on Bandcamp and streamed on Spotify and Apple Music. Follow her on Twitter.

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