Alisa Amador first started performing when she was five years old, as a backup singer in her parents’ Latin-folk band, Sol y Canto. She grew up on tour, surrounded by music. When she was 10, she began learning how to play the guitar. In 2020, she released several singles and was featured on NPR’s tiny desk concert. Now, she is preparing to release her first EP, Narratives, which will be available on September 17.
Read on for our interview with Alisa Amador, where we explore her musical influences and the inspirations and songwriting process for the upcoming EP.
I know that you grew up playing in your parents’ band, but what drew you to songwriting? What about music was so special to you that you had to pursue making it?
Alisa Amador: I played acoustic guitar; I can’t say that I played classical guitar. My dad is a classical guitarist and I did not play classical guitar, but I played a guitar like his: a nylon string acoustic. But I was really playing folk songs from the seventies and “The Monster Mash,” when I first started playing guitar. Songwriting came to me later on. First I started playing as a child and I really liked playing guitar. But then I kind of plateaued and I didn’t see where there was for me to grow. When I was a teenager, a really important person in my life started struggling so much with mental health in a really painful way. And that’s actually how I started writing songs. I felt so distant from that person who I loved so much, and there’s this pain that’s so hard to articulate when someone you love is going through illness, and so 15-year-old me tried to articulate it through songs and that’s how it all started; I kind of got hooked on processing whatever is hard to articulate through a song.
When you go to articulate those feelings that are hard to articulate, what does that creative process look like? How do you find that idea and nurture it?
Amador: It’s kind of like a dream state. I don’t exactly remember how it happens, but I know that I’m always trying to be as honest as I can. I guess it tends to start with some sort of guitar groove, and then from there, I shut off my conscious brain and just say words, and that’s often how I find out what the song is gonna be about. I don’t tend to sit down and say “I’m writing a song about this.” Instead, generally, I’m practicing and I get completely sidetracked playing a new groove, and stream of consciousness processing something. And so the melody, the guitar part and the lyrics tend to form all at the same time, kind of simultaneously with the core thread guiding it is always being really honest, which is not everyone’s technique. A lot of songwriters have a specific goal in mind or want to tell a specific story that isn’t their own, but so far in my life, I have not been able to do that. Instead, I try to maybe hide a little behind poetry, but it has to be honest. So, I’m learning not to hide.
There’s a line in your bio—”the minor second at the end of each verse is intentionally at odds with the lyrics, illustrating the tension of wanting to be open, but being too jaded to trust”—to me, this says that you have a strong theoretical handle on music; what kind of purpose or thought exists behind the music that you incorporate into your songs?
Amador: Yeah, you got it, definitely. I think that music has this incredible power to make you feel something before you even know what you’re feeling. It can circumvent the brain and go straight to the heart. You feel the song before you understand it, and I think that I try to honor that reality and how music reaches you so immediately before lyrics or words might reach you. Hopefully in my songs what I’m always trying to do is reflect that. What I’m writing is also what’s present in the music arrangement. In that specific case, in “Nada Que Ver,” what I’m saying is at odds with what I’m playing, which is exactly how I felt in that moment. When you want to trust somebody but you know you don’t trust them. And so the tension between wanting to trust and also really having had too many experiences where your trust was violated where you don’t feel comfortable with the feeling of wanting to trust. And so in the guitar, I was like “I don’t feel comfortable saying this, and so musically, what am I gonna do to not feel comfortable playing this?” And it ended up being this minor second. And I love how minor seconds also vibrate, there’s a strong vibration in your ear, so it worked well on that one.
Vocally, you have a lot of texture and range—have you ever had vocal training or is this a natural ability?
Amador: I’ve studied for years, since I was 10 years old. I’ve studied vocal health, vocal technique, with breaks in between, but every few years I go back to it because I feel like there’s definitely always something more to learn. I’ve studied the voice a lot. At this point, in terms of my technique when I’m singing songs that I have written, I really try to check any technique brain at the door and trust that I’ve studied enough, worked enough at vocal health and technique to just feel now and to not worry about the shape or the pitch or the tone, and just focus on the feeling. And sometimes that means I run out of air while singing, and honestly, if it’s a really emotional moment, doesn’t really matter that you’re out of air and that your voice is shaking, it just doesn’t matter. The older I get, the less I’m trying to judge myself about any of that stuff and just take away all obstacles from just feeling and channeling the story, the emotion, so that the sound of what you’re sharing can hold space for everyone.
The upcoming EP has so many elements of jazz and blues and folk and pop all blended together where every track feels different. For the first track, “Timing,” the verses are small and the choruses are big and supplemented by horns—did you hear that kind of full instrumentation in your head when writing the song? How did those puzzle pieces of the full, finished song fit together?
Amador: I remember that when I was writing it, I thought “I’m so excited to bring this to the band.” I don’t know if I immediately thought horns, but I probably did. The chorus has so much space for background vocals and horns; it has space for a whole groovy party. I knew when I wrote that song that it needed to be big and funky and fun and that it could have all the instrumentation and it wouldn’t be over-done. I tend to be pretty sparing in my instrumentation and in my arrangements, but that one had space for all of it.
In “Slow Down” you do some scatting toward the end—I know you said you don’t think vocally about the way you sing, but with moments like that, was there thought behind how that fits into the song or was it a natural, almost subconscious decision?
Amador: So far, most of my production ideas originate from live performances of the songs. And it’s only like a month before we go into the studio that we come together, play the songs as we play them live, and think about how they can go into a recording that gives it the same life, and sometimes that means making some changes. That song originally had this scat. And so I knew that I didn’t want to take that one out. There are other songs in the album actually, on “Alone,” when I’m performing it live and I’m not with my band, I scat when there usually is a solo, and I knew that in the recording I wanted a keys solo or a bass solo, but with “Slow Down” that scat felt like an instrument in its own. When I’m coming up with that kind of material, I am just singing, but maybe I’m kind of thinking of an instrument. Some sort of instrument that doesn’t exist in any physical world, some sort of cross between a trumpet and an organ and a bass and a piano, and just kind of letting all those instruments inspire what I have to share. I’m definitely very vocally inspired by saxophones. It changes a little every time I perform it, and when we recorded it and we were mixing it, I knew that there needed to be something to set it apart. It couldn’t just be, “and now, Alisa’s scatting.” Something that would treat it more like an instrument solo, so we put this filter on it that sounds like a really old microphone, the kind that radio announcers used in 1925, and that gave it the right kind of smokey jazz club, trumpet sound. Nostalgic, kind of dreamlike sound for it.
“Burnt and Broken” has this acoustic riff that moves throughout the song, and to me, that riff sounds remarkably similar to “Blackbird” by The Beatles, but the final chord is very different, especially with “Blackbird” in your head—was this an intentional similarity? What does it do to the song, in your mind?
Amador: You’re the second person ever to catch that! Talk about getting sidetracked when practicing another song; that’s probably how that happened. I wrote it my senior year of college and I was just playing late at night in my room and probably playing “Blackbird” and then got sidetracked and started writing this song about rape culture on college campuses and toxic masculinity and processing that. It does take this turn, and the other person who mentioned it to me really brought to my attention that it seems appropriate in a way. Not that “Blackbird” is a toxically masculine song, but taking something that seems familiar and changing it is an appropriate reflection. The title of the album comes from this song. What I’m doing in this song is taking this aspect of existing as a woman in my personal experience, noticing how all of these parts that I had just thought were just part of living were actually really negative and toxic things. Like “oh, it’s just your fault that he did this.” That ongoing narrative of “what were you wearing that day when that bad thing happened? What did you say when that person treated you that way?” And always putting the blame on the woman in the situation. But also, zooming out and saying “wait a second.” These interactions and these experiences that are being normalized are not actually what’s acceptable, or what’s kind, or what’s respectful. And so taking what you think is familiar and turning it to see the other angle of “this is not ok, this is happening and it shouldn’t be considered normal.” I think that going from this familiar space into a whole other angle really works in that song, and heaven knows how I got to the “Blackbird” line to start that song, but it carried the story well. It just happened.
“Nada Que Ver” is sung entirely in Spanish—do you think about writing differently when you decide to do so in Spanish? Is it different from when you write in English?
Amador: Yes, absolutely. I think about writing differently in several ways. One is that my vocabulary is simply more limited. Even though it’s my native language, I live here full time. I have so many more words at my reach in English, but also phrases and contexts—there’s all of this cultural information that you’re soaking in all the time when you’re living in one space. I’m missing a lot of the information in Spanish. But in a way, it’s kind of cool because it forces me to write songs that when I translate them in English, they sound like poems; they don’t sound like stories, because I’m missing a lot of vocabulary, again with the focus of honesty. It’s a totally different way to tell the story when I’m telling it in Spanish. It feels even more directly connected to the heart—I can’t hide very much. I have fewer words to pull from. And so I just have to tell it exactly how I feel it and pretty close to how I think it, immediately. Less judgment, fewer words and it ends up being a good limitation for telling a story.
“Together,” which is the last track on the record, was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest—what inspired that song? And what was it like to be featured in such an interesting way?
Amador: That was a crazy wonderful surprise and an honor. The song “Together” came about from this conversation I had with an incredible musician who had developed a neural condition that completely prohibited them from being able to play their instrument. As this person was telling me this, I felt so much pain and was so worried about them, because I had seen them play and they were incredible and I knew how important it was to them. And yet, they were just naming all the ways that they were coping with that diagnosis, and it had everything to do with friends and community. That was just such an impactful moment for me, especially when you’re working a job as an artist. You can get so attached to your art or the thing you do as what you are, when really, at the end of the day, what makes us who we are and what gives us life is feeling connected to each other and just moments of connection and love, as cheesy as that might sound.
I started writing that song just thinking “wow, we are all living with this pain, and somehow we get through it by being together, and how powerful that is.” Life can be getting you down so bad and then you get together with a friend and you complain about it and you cry about it and you scream about it, and then you somehow feel so much lighter and able to go back into that hard world and keep going. In the context of the pandemic, it felt like this whole new meaning of the song. What is togetherness when we can’t be physically together? What is connection when we have to be apart? I knew that it needed to have as many singers on it as possible. My friends and family all came together so beautifully for that video. There was no other way that I would want that song to exist in the world. And then NPR featured it and it kind of took a life of its own. And I’m just really honored that this song I wrote alone in my room became something that can lift people up.
Moments of hope are tremendously important to surviving all of the difficult moments in life, so that song brings me a lot of hope every time I get to play it.
At this point, you’ve released a few tracks in 2020 and this debut EP is coming on September 17—where do you want to go now that Covid is lifting?
Amador: I just want to play these songs live as much as possible, and play in front of physical human beings as much as possible. I’d love to bring my music beyond the Northeast and get to all over the country this year and hopefully get to tour outside of the country by next year, and just keep recording and putting out music, because I have a lot of songs. I can’t stay quiet anymore, it’s time to just share them. Sharing this album as much as possible and touring as much as possible, and also learning how to take care of myself and my bandmates in that context.
A way to describe my album, Narratives, is kind of like rewriting cultural narratives through song. Each song is looking at how you think you’re supposed to be and saying “what about like this?” Here’s a love song about loving yourself and rejecting a coupling culture; here’s a love song about not wanting to write a love song. They’re all flipping a narrative. The idea coming from me is flipping the narrative into a more loving and respectful way of living and thinking than what we’ve been told we have to be like. That’s what I’m trying to say.
It feels really right. I just know that I’d be lying to myself if I wasn’t a musician, so I’m just in for the long haul.
You can listen to Alisa Amador’s latest music here.