Discovering an amazing artist can happen at the weirdest of times. April 2020 was hardly a stellar month in the grand scheme of things, so an email entitled "The Welsh Dorothy Ashby!" from DJ Format was a timely and needed distraction. Firstly, when it's a recommendation out of the blue from Matt you know to take note, and the comparison to Dorothy Ashby isn't going to be used lightly. Upon first hearing Amanda's mesmerising, soothing music, it lived up to those lofty expectations.
Fast forward a few months and an email to Amanda asking if she will be releasing any music, followed by a reply that she had signed to Jazzman Records. This resulted in a limited edition 10" in 2020 of harp jazz cover versions entitled 'Little Sunflower', including a unique deep jazz remake of Kylie's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head'. Followed by a full-length album of original compositions 'After Dark' in 2021, which has since become one of our favourite releases of the year so far. Though it is easy to use Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane when describing Amanda's music (and what icons to be compared to!) it's also important to stress 'After Dark' is very much Amanda's record and unique. A lot of the UK music industry is still very London-centric, but hearing an extraordinary musician like Amanda shows you sometimes you need to search and dig a bit further afield for the brightest diamonds.
So for this next instalment of Digging Deeper we've invited Amanda to give us an insight into her fascinating world…
Hello Amanda, please tell us about your musical background. What drew you to learn the harp and what age did you start?
My family weren't musical. I started the harp when I was 6 after seeing Harpo Marx on the TV. I fell in love with a clown playing an angelic instrument. And that was it. Its also our national instrument in Wales, so its all around us.
In one of your Instagram videos, you talk about a Lever Harp and the Jazz book you have written. For those who don't know can you please briefly explain the difference between the instruments and which is the one you play on the "After Dark' album?
There's basically two types of harp. Pedal and lever. We tend to start on lever harps and then progress to pedals in Wales. Folk musicians continue on lever harps. They are restricted with keys so the pedal harp allows you more freedom. Levers tighten the string in pitch by a semitone. Pedals allow you to tighten and loosen each string by a semitone and you can play in nearly every key
I have written many books of jazz harp, allowing all harpists to access the 'sound' from a basic level. They are on the exam boards and are hopefully giving more choice to beginners and professionals alike in learning new and modern styles, and also incorporating the lement of improvisation...a scary aspect for classical musicians.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
I grew up playing Debussy and Ravel and Bach. They remain favourites. But i also grew up listening to hip hop and Motown. Ive been on quite a journey musically from being a classical concert harpist. There are so many influences at different points that have opened my ears to experiencing different paths. I have always loved Ella and Louis and throughout my college years I got into Chick Corea, Miles Davis and D'Angelo and Gretchen Parlato. At the moment, Im listening to alot of Moonchild.
When did you start experimenting with playing jazz and improvising on the harp?
I enjoyed playing in a 'jazzy style' but it wasn't until my 30s that I became frustrated that I didn't know how to improvise, or even where to start. That is when I enrolled on a Masters in Jazz and went back to study. I didn't have a clue and it was a really difficult time for me musically. what nearly broke turned out to make me stronger and more determined.
How did you come to work will Gerald and Jazzman Records?
DJ Format heard me playing Chip Wickham's new album at the beginning of the pandemic. He got in touch and asked who I was and where was all my music. It just so happened that I had recorded the album 6 months before and it was just sat on the shelf. I sent it to him and he sent it to Gerald. And the rest became my lucky day! Two great gents who have changed my life:)
Can you tell us about the other musicians on the album?
I went to music college with Aidan Thorne on bass and Jon Reynolds on drums. Superb musicians and lovely guys who were so generous with their attitude and musicality. I love working with them and have missed playing over the last year. Chip was brought in to play on the album after I met him whilst on tour with Matthew Halsall. I played on his new album Blue to Red and he has been so kind with his mentoring and support. I must mention the producer Paula Gardiner. She is head of jazz at RWCMD and added so much to the album. It was her ears that brought it all together..An amazing an kind musician. The final track was mixed by Rebecca Vasmant with Naddya Albertsson on vocals. I also met Rebecca at the beginning of lockdown. We have become great friends and she is a huge inspiration!
Was there a concept behind 'After Dark’?
Its about a love affair and the cycle of meeting, Being in love then passions turning bitter and the Feist that follows..leaving broken hearts and feeling Just Blue. A film noir feel.
Where and when did you record the album?
In Fieldgate studios in Cardiff with Andrew Lawson August 2019.
Which other musicians have you previously worked with?
I've toured with Matthew Halsall and his Gondwana Orchestra, I recorded an album with DJ yoda and have been on various remixes with Rebecca Vasmant.
For those that have enjoyed your record, are there any other albums by other artists you would recommend?
I think if people like jazz harp, you must look at Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane, Ark Stickney and Brandee Younger.
What are your favourite records?
Moonchild Voyager, Ella and Louis, Rose Rouge St Germain, Afro Harping Dorothy Ashby.
Which producers/artists would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I would love to work with Moonchild or Esperanza Spalding. But there's so many people..where do you start?!
We read you are also a music teacher, where do you teach?
In conservatoires and also a little private teaching as well as having a Harp Column Academy studio online (based in US).
Do you plan to tour the album?
Im hoping so. It would be a dream to play at Ronnie's or Love Supreme.
What are your musical plans for the rest of 2021?
To be let out! and get on tour...more importantly to go and listen to some live gigs and recharge my batteries with soul music:) I will be collaborating with a few people and looking forward to getting the buzz again of being on stage.
'After Dark' is out now on Jazzman Records.