Amy Ahn's Voice of Silk Will Sweep You Off Your Feet
This multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter talks about growing
up around music, gaining the confidence to take her songs to the stage,
and the reason why her life is dedicated to music.
Raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles, CA, Amy Ahn is a classically-trained harpist, singer-songwriter, composer, and arranger. She holds a BA in Harp Performance from The University of California, Los Angeles and a MM in Harp Performance at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Between being a sought-after classical harpist across the country, Amy has found a place for her soulfully sweet voice to shine in her debut EP “Mangoes,” released June 1, 2018.
&: Can you tell us about your musical background?
aa: Ever since I was in my mom’s womb, I was exposed to classical music because she was a student at the San Francisco conservatory when she was pregnant with me. My mom’s a classical pianist. And then I guess my second primary influence is church music because we were always at church and I grew up singing at church.
But how I got into playing the harp was one of her friends at church played the harp and whenever we would go over to her place, apparently I was always found next to the harp just trying to play songs when I was five.
And you sing as well. Did church influence that, or did you train in both?
I always just sang in church. I first publicly sang probably my junior year of college. I never identified as a singer, I never really had this confidence to sing elsewhere but then I had been this closet songwriter and so my junior year I was like, “You know what? I feel like I should share these songs. No one’s going to sing my songs but me!” That’s when I started making more friends who were writing songs and that was my first time trying to write songs with other people, too.
Was there a moment when you felt like you wanted to jump into being a musician full time and go to conservatory?
I have to say I knew when it came time to apply to colleges. Also, I grew up not being very ambitious. I was very in the moment. I never, ever thought about what I’d be doing in the future just because I was so preoccupied with what I was doing then and there.
But when it came time to apply to colleges, you kind of need to know what you want to do. I realized if music wasn’t there, I’d feel really lifeless. I think that’s when I realized I can’t live without music.
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Before you went to college, did you think of yourself as just a classical musician or did you identify as an artist as well?
I think it was easier for me to identify myself as an artist before calling myself a classical harpist because I never thought I was good enough as a classical harpist. I was just super hippy about it!
I listen to so many different kinds of music because the songs my dad would listen to in the car were so strange and my mom too, her loving classical music and then Korean folk songs. And then I really loved R&B and soul so it was just so eclectic.
I never practiced even an hour in high school so I didn’t feel I was worthy to say I was a classical harpist. I was just like, yeah I play the harp.
Do you think your background gives you an advantage in the classical world as opposed to those who may come with only one primary genre?
It’s hard to compare because I found that everyone has such different goals. I think the lie is that you can only be a solo performer or a renowned concerto soloist or an orchestral musician. Ironically, I found that a lot of my classmates really inspired me because they had eyes for outside of the system.
So yeah, I think I’m at an advantage to prioritize my identity as an artist because regardless of genre, we’re just here to make music and touch people. As musicians, we are given this gift to touch people and change how they feel. And if they’re having a sad day, somehow by performing or playing something we can change that for someone, I feel like that’s the whole purpose of it.
Like letting people express what they don’t know how to express.
So your debut EP Mangoes just came out. Can you tell us about it?
Yes! I have yet to perfect the craft of songwriting for myself but if I’m going through something and feel like there are truths that need to be heard in this world, I like putting it in the form of a song. I put together a three song ep, very very small but quality wise very very big and put a lot of heart and effort into it.
Every song is really different. So if I were to describe it sonically, the groove is like Emily King, the soul is like Corrine Bailey Rae, my voice wilts a lot, and my classical background comes out with a string quartet that plays in one of the songs, which I’m super excited about.
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What do you feel inspires you outside of music to create?
Life! The human existence, human experience. Sometimes it’s something I’m going through, I need to channel or express what I feel by writing a song.
Other times I think people need to hear a truth that might captivate them or even teach them something. I feel this moral responsibility, not only as a musician but as a human being, as a friend, to always share.
It’s awesome that you so naturally are able to translate life and human experience into music. I’m sure you’ve fought for that.
Even if it comes more naturally for me than others, for me the fight is to share. I’m always like, this song is for me!
I’ll share the background of the first song of the ep. I wrote it when I first started dating my partner and it starts off how I feel, which is in over your head and everything, but then the song builds off into not just how I feel but what I believe is my responsibility in this relationship, which is to love. The song ends on 1 Corinthians 13, paraphrased by me with what is love on God’s standards and what is love other than how you feel.
Whenever the relationship was going through a rocky time, I would sing this song to myself or listen back on a scratch recording I had to remind myself that love isn’t always about a feeling or feeling a certain way. Even in times that are crappy, you choose to be loving and let yourself be loved.
So, because my songs are often autobiographical, it is hard to share because they are so personal.
What would you say to other musicians to encourage others to share their work?
It’s as simple and powerful as there’s only one Amy Ahn in this world. Yeah, we could all be singing the same thing but the way that I sing or play it is going to be so unique to me and people are going to miss out if they don’t hear it.
And I think being as arrogant enough to say that is a beautiful confidence that is so necessary for everyone to know.
There’s only one you, so why not.