Interview by Charlotte Lucas
We chat with award-winning singer-songwriter Amirah who is on a mission to unite people through her music.
As an innovative artist, Amirah fuses traditional instruments and music with contemporary pop to create an East meets West sound she calls “Global Hybrid Music™”. One of Amirah’s greatest gifts is her ability to breathe new life into traditional music, making it sound vital and fresh to the ears of a younger generation.
Your latest singles ‘You Are My Land’ and ‘Tell Me’ represent very sophisticated cinematic pop. What influences you to create such inspiring music?
Growing up in Malaysia and being biracial really influenced my sound as a singer-songwriter. I was raised in Malaysia, which is a diverse melting pot of cultures and influences. In addition, I am biracial – my mother is Malay and my father is Indian, so I saw the beauty in both these cultures through music, fashion, celebrations, and foods. I also loved playing classical music on piano and cello and was greatly influenced by Yoyo-Ma, Debussy, and Rachmaninov. I also adored the Javanese gamelan. All of these influences are what inspired me to create a sound that combines these different worlds, the East and West, along with the dramatic sounds of cinematic music.
Your songs seem to include a lot of political references as you describe the situation in your homeland. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
My first single, ‘You Are My Land’ is about the devastation I felt for my country which was overcome by corruption. I was literally in tears when I composed this song on the piano. I can recall all my emotions and thoughts at that moment. I struggled to watch my homeland, the country I loved so much, crumbling right in front of me. I also thought about the heartbreaking effects on people who had to flee their countries and leave their loved ones behind. I thought to myself, at least I still had a place to call home, and am still able to be with my family, and how lucky I was to have that. I had to compose ‘You Are My Land’ to express the overwhelming emotions that I was feeling. I am so touched and humbled that so many people from around the world resonate and feel the same with their own experiences from their own countries.
‘Tell Me’ is my second single, which was originally composed in Malay and entitled ‘Katakanlah’. This was a song I composed during a conflict between religions in Malaysia. I felt I had to speak out and compose a song calling for unity. I asked questions in the lyrics about how we view and identify ourselves as people. Are we our name? Our face? Our religion? Our race? I feel sad when I see people hurt each other simply because of the color of their skin, or because they subscribe to a different religion. We are all the same, we are all one, and I think it is important that we remember that.
How do you find a balance between being a musician and an activist? Where is the border between those two activities?
Honestly, I do not find any separation between the two. I believe that it is important to write the truth, to write what people are not saying, to write what needs to be heard, and to write what can help make a change in the world. Whenever I go to the piano to compose, I always look deep within myself and simply compose what is truly in my heart and what I honestly want to say. This is usually related to unity because it affects me so much. Whether it is a song about interracial relationships, about being human, about my country, or about my mother, they are all songs that are meant to unite us as people.
Your music is based on many exotic and unusual instruments, what inspired you to do it?
Growing up in Malaysia and being surrounded by a juxtaposition of cultures greatly influenced my sound. At home, my father was always playing old Hindustani songs and my mom would often play Keroncong music. I had quite a few Chinese neighbors so I would often enjoy watching the Chinese Dragon dances. I also enjoyed watching the kompang performances at Malay weddings. I loved the exuberant music and colorful performances at my family’s Indian weddings as well. I enjoyed attending the Rainforest Festival in East Malaysia and was starstruck by the intricate sounds of the sape. I adored the sounds of the Javanese gamelan. I just loved the diverse celebrations around me. I thought about how these beautiful traditional instruments are often forgotten and not continued by the younger generations. If we don’t continue to learn them and incorporate them into our culture, who will? I didn’t want to see these elements of culture disappear and be forgotten, so it was natural for me to include them in my music.
2020 has been rough for all of us, how did it impact your music?
In terms of how the pandemic impacted my music, there was definitely a delay in the making of my album. We had to find new ways of working remotely to finish the two singles for release. It was also the first time that I had to record my vocals without my producer. We had to figure out how to overcome a lot of technical challenges. However, there were also many opportunities that came with it. More people are within reach or open to working remotely so it did not matter where one was located as much. People are more connected than ever and are consuming media, music, live streams, and entertainment more than ever before which is a positive thing in some ways. As an introvert, I found this new way of working beneficial to me.
2020 has taught us the importance of unity, especially with the social divisions and the political turmoil that we are facing right now. The message of unity could not wait any longer. If we cannot unite in the face of a global pandemic, how are we going to unite in facing other global challenges that may be coming our way?
Despite all the unknown that waits for us in 2021, what are you planning regarding your music? Any new releases?
I am really looking forward to releasing a few more singles this year which feature collaborations I have done with other East meets West artists. I often share behind-the-scenes updates and videos on my website amirah360.com and my socials Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube at @amirah360, so I encourage fellow listeners to check them out. I would love to connect with other people who are passionate about unity and multiculturalism.