A Q&A with San Mei’s Emily Hamilton
I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual covering the Gold Coast, Australia-based singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and JOVM mainstay Emily Hamilton, the creative mastermind behind the acclaimed and rising indie rock act San Mei over the years. Beginning as a synth pop-leaning bedroom recording project, Hamilton’s earliest material received attention from this site and major media outlets like NME, Indie Shuffle, NYLON and Triple J. Her debut EP Necessary found the Aussie singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and JOVM mainstay moving towards a much more organic, guitar-led sound inspired by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Cat Power, Feist and others.
A couple of years ago, Hamilton met acclaimed producer and musician Oscar Dawson at BIGSOUND, and the pair immediately hit it off. According to Hamilton, taking Dawson on as a producer and collaborator found the duo refining ideas, exploring different soundscapes and laying down the foundation for her — and in turn, San Mei’s — sonic progression. As Hamilton explains in press notes “[Dawson and I] hit it off straight away and it seemed like he understood where I was coming from, even if I had trouble conveying certain ideas in the demos I made at home.” Hamilton’s Dawson-produced sophomore EP Heaven was a decidedly shoegazer-like affair, featuring arena rock friendly hooks, big power chords and shimmering synths that continued a run of critically applauded, blogosphere dominating material. Adding to a growing profile, last year Hamilton opened for the likes of G. Flip, K. Fly, Ali Barter and Jack River in her native Australia, went on an extensive national headlining tour and played nine shows across six days at SXSW.
Released a few weeks ago through Sydney-based etcetc Records, Hamilton’s third San Mei EP Cry continues her ongoing collaboration with Oscar Dawson – and interestingly, the four song EP finds the Aussie JOVM mainstay simultaneously drawing from the harder guitar-driven work of The Kills, Metric, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the synth-driven pop like Grimes and Lykke Li. Now, as you may recall, I recently wrote about EP title track “Cry,” a track which establishes the EP’s overall tone and tone – a hook-driven, shimmering take on dream pop centered around atmospheric synths, reverb-drenched guitars and what may arguably be her most direct and personal songwriting to date. And perhaps unlike her previously released material, the EP reveals an incredibly self-assured songwriting, crafting earnest and ambitious songwriting – all while building a larger international profile.
Earlier this week, I exchanged emails with the Gold Coast-based JOVM mainstay for this Q&A. Of course, current events have a way of bleeding into every aspect of our professional and professional lives – and naturally, I had to ask Hamilton how COVID-19 was impacting her and her career. But we also talk about her hometown (which is considered one of the more beautiful locales in the entire world), and its growing music scene, the new EP and more in a revealing chat. Check it out below.
WRH: Here in New York, we’ve been social distancing and in quarantine for the past three weeks or so. How are things in Australia? How are you holding up?
Emily Hamilton: Firstly, I’m really sorry to see what’s happening in New York right now – my heart really goes out to everyone effected. I was actually in the USA around 2 weeks ago when lockdowns starting happening there. I managed to get home earlier than planned (straight into 14 days mandatory quarantine!), and Australia started following suit with social distancing, travel bans, closing non-essential business etc. pretty much as soon as I got back. I’ve got 2 days left of quarantine which is exciting — to be able to be out in the open air is gonna feel good! We have pretty strict social distancing rules here though, so I’ll still be playing it safe and spending most of my time at home once my quarantine is over.
WRH: How has COVID-19 impacted the Australian music scene? Has the pandemic affected you and your career? And if so, how?
EH: It’s hard having shows cancel and seeing venues having to close their doors. I had some shows lined up over the next couple of months that had to be cancelled, and prospects of touring in the near future don’t seem likely. I had a massive year of touring last year, so coming to terms with the fact that this year is probably going to look different is kinda hard. I know everyone in the Australian music scene is feeling the same way – and that we’re feeling the same things in music scenes around the globe. But it’s been inspiring to see so many artists pick themselves up, be innovative and find creative ways to make the best of the situation.
WRH: Most of my readers are based in the United States. As you can imagine, most Americans know very little about Australia, let alone your hometown. I think if you ask most Americans, they’ll tell you that it’s far (which is very true), they’ll mention the Sydney Opera House, kangaroos, koala bears and Steve Irwin. So as an American, what is Gold Coast known for? Where would I go to get a taste of how the locals live?
EH: It’s true, we’re so far away! I think that’s why Australians travel so much, because otherwise we’re just so isolated. I love my hometown; to me, it’s the perfect mix of city and surf town vibes – for someone who travels a lot for music, it’s nice to be based somewhere with a more chilled pace and open spaces. The Gold Coast is known mostly for its beautiful beaches, but we also have amazing rainforests with swimming holes and a beautiful hinterland. There has also been huge growth in hospitality, and there are so many amazing bars/restaurants/cafes popping up all over the place. So for anyone visiting I’d recommend checking out all the best nature spots and the best places to get a drink/feed.
WRH: Are there any Gold Coast-based artists that should be getting attention from the larger world that aren’t – and should be?
EH: The music scene on the Gold Coast has definitely grown over the last few years and there are a lot of exciting bands coming up. Eliza & The Delusionals are an amazing emerging band – they’ve actually just finished up a US tour supporting Silversun Pickups. They’re definitely on the rise and I think they’ll soon be getting that attention! Lastlings, Peach Fur, Ivey, Hollow Coves are just a few that are kicking goals and I’d love to see continue to grow in and outside of Australia.
WRH: For a country of about 27 million or so, how is it possible that so many Aussie artists, who make it to the States and elsewhere so damn good?
EH: I think being so far away can actually work in our favour in some ways! We have to be really, really good if we want our music to get out there in the world and have the means or opportunities to tour outside of our own country. I reckon that has created the kind of drive and work ethic for a lot of Aussie artists to keeping pushing and being the best we can be at our craft, to be able to break through the noise.
WRH: How did you get into music?
EH: I learnt classical piano when I was little (much to my dismay at the time!), which I’m really grateful for now as it’s such a good foundation for music. But I didn’t really get into writing songs or pursuing music until after high school when I met a group of friends who were musicians, and I just found myself getting caught up in it. It turned out I had a bit of a knack for songwriting and I’ve been focusing on getting better and better at it since!
WRH: Who are your influences?
EH: So many – but a few who come to mind are My Bloody Valentine, The Kills, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, [The] Jesus and Mary Chain, Warpaint, The Cranberries, Grimes, Lykke Li. . . They’re all pretty diverse but I think I’m influenced by lots of different aspects of other artists’ songwriting/sound.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
EH: I’m loving Cherry Glazerr, Best Coast, Connan Mockasin, Kacey Musgraves, Tame Impala, Moon Duo. . . so many more but these guys are on high rotation at the moment.
WRH: I’ve written about you quite a bit over the years. When you started out, San Mei was bedroom synth pop project. But after meeting songwriter, producer and musician Oscar Dawson at BIGSOUND, you – and in turn, San Mei – went through a decided change in sonic direction, which is reflected on both the Heaven EP and your recently released Cry EP. How has it been working with Dawson? How influential has he been on the project’s sonic development?
EH: I’ve always so appreciated your support! It means the world to an emerging artist like me to have that consistent engagement and encouragement from someone! Working with Oscar has been amazing, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve always come to him with fully realised songs/demos. I usually write and track all the guide parts at home first. But Oscar has a way of bringing out the best in my songs and just making them sound better haha… so he has never really been pushy or opinionated in shaping my sound, but I’ve learned a lot from him in terms of refining things and making smart decisions in both the songwriting and production process.
WRH: With San Mei leaning more towards a guitar-based sound, how has your songwriting process changed?
EH: Even as my sound became a little more guitar-driven, I continued to stick with my usual writing process – open up Logic, find a simple drum groove, play along ‘til I find a good riff or chord progression… but lately I’ve been trying to challenge myself in writing songs start to finish on just an acoustic guitar. I want my songs to be able to stack up when they’re played on just a guitar or piano without relying on any production. I’ve been finding that the production falls into place a lot more easily when I write this way, because the songwriting itself has to be strong, and helps lead the way in what should be built around it. I won’t be limiting myself to this process only, but finding new ways to create has been really cool.
WRH: While possessing the big and rousingly anthemic hooks that we heard on Heaven EP, your latest EP features the guitar-led, arena rock anthem “Hard to Face,” the shimmering, New Wavey-like “Cherry Days” “Cry” and “Love in the Dark.” As much as I hear Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Kills, Grimes, Lykke Li and others, I also hear a bit of Prince in there, too. What inspired this new sonic direction? Was it intentional?
EH: That’s really interesting! Admittedly I haven’t listened to a lot of Prince (I probably just haven’t put in the time to become a fan!), but it’s cool to hear that reference. I couldn’t tell you a specific influence for where my sound has been heading, but I have been focusing on strengthening my identity as an artist, and recognising what my strengths are in my writing, and just making sure I write whatever comes out of me naturally and not try to sound like anything in particular. I’m still a work in progress with that, but I think that’s what has been shaping my sound.
WRH: “Hard to Find” is one of my favorite songs on the EP. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
EH: Cool! I really love this song. I called it my bratty moment. At the time of writing it, I was in a bit of a rut mentally with my music, career, future… I kept looking around at what everyone else was doing and thinking they were all kicking goals and I wasn’t. So, I just needed to let out my frustration and have a good whine in form of a song. It’s also a good reminder of me to not be that person, because we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to others, and having gratitude for the present is so important in having a healthy mind.
WRH: How did the video treatment for “Cry” come about?
EH: The song theme itself is a little melancholy to me – it’s about longing for more in life or for a better day, of always wanting to get to that next stage in life or achieving that next goal. It’s good to have drive, but for me I often get caught up in the future and sometimes I worry that I’ll wish my youth and time away instead of enjoying the present. But I wanted the video to feel light, wistful and more like a daydream, and to focus on the freedom we can find by enjoying the present and finding joy in everyday moments. I think Dom the director did a great job of capturing that feeling.
WRH: What’s next for you?
EH: I’m definitely not going to be slowing down – I’ve got lots of more music to release, and as soon as we’re allowed to play shows again, I’ll be playing as many as physically possible. Stay tuned! 😀