Amber Lewis

Photography by India Halsted

Interview by Karen Yoon

Can you introduce yourself?

My name’s Amber Lewis. I am a senior in CC. Yeah, that’s me.

Can you describe your creative process?

As far as music goes, it was different when I was at NYU before I transferred, because I had private songwriting lessons. For that, it felt kind of weird if I wasn’t working on something consistently. But these days sometimes I’ll just write a song in the night; it just happens. Happened the other night. Sometimes I’ll go months and months without writing a song. And for poetry, that’s really changed this semester, because I’m in a writing workshop and we’ve had to keep a consistent writer’s journal and have at least a poem to show per week, and that’s been really helpful. I just write a lot about things I see and use that to write, which is also very therapeutic for me.

As both a poet and musician, how do the two mediums intertwine?

I mean lyrics are really just poetry. There are plenty of songs that are corny and not necessarily poetic, and that’s fine too. For me, I try to look at my lyrics the same way I look at poetry, sometimes I write a poem and it becomes a song.

How do you choose the instrumentals for that particular piece of writing?

Sometimes, I’ll write a poem, and it doesn’t need to be sung, but this feeling or landscape or space I’ve created could be instrumental. And when that happens, I write piano things. Over the past year, I’ve written a small piece for string quartet with a piano in it. And I feel like I’ve created a very specific feeling in space that could be music.

Where would you say that your passion for creating art began?

It’s how I’ve always been. I’ve always had to make things. Even before I was constantly making music, I was always singing, even before writing lyrics. And my dad went to Pratt, he’s an art guy, always been very artistic. My grandma is a painter, a fine artist, that’s how she makes her money. I grew up spending a lot of time in her studio, looking at her paintings. It was always understood that I would create.

You highlight your bilingual childhood in your music video for Puddles. How has being part of an intercultural household shaped your work?

A lot of my work has to do with identity, which is usually defined in terms of relationships with others and myself. And I think that being biracial and having two pretty distinct cultures in either of my parents- my mom is from France, grew up there. My dad is Jamaican, born in Brooklyn, raised in Yonkers. I’ve always been trying to find out where I fit in between those two. And I think a lot of my poems have to do with that; although more recently I’ve tried to branch out from only speaking about race.

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I noticed a lot of your work explores relationships, particularly with queer undertones. Can you expand on that?

The first song I thought was pretty good was Lampshades, and that was about a girl. And it’s pretty obvious because I use “she” pronouns. It’s a choice to use those pronouns in a love song because people assume so much about who you are. And it’s intimidating to know that the second you sing that, people already have this idea of who you are that might not necessarily be who you are.

How do you navigate the arts scene in New York City as a queer Black woman?

I write mostly folkish-indie music with some bedroom pop flares, and there aren’t a lot of mainstream Black women who do that. It’s a recapitulation of growing up in my neighborhood, where I was the only Black girl in my entire grade. I’ve found myself in another white-dominated space, and sometimes I feel out of place. With poetry, everyone is writing what I’m writing. I don’t feel so out of place, and I haven’t had any uncomfortable experiences with that.

How do you feel being part of the Columbia arts community, another white-dominated space?

It’s more of the same, you know. But I’ve felt more part of a music community at Columbia than I ever did at NYU, because it’s really hard to find a space where you can ever be heard since there are so many voices there. But here, I went to two events, and suddenly I know everyone who does music on this campus. I feel like I’m fairly active in this scene on campus, and it’s been a positive experience so far.

How has your process of creating changed after transferring from NYU?

I felt like I had more time to write music at NYU, because it was literally what I was studying. But I’ve had way more time to perform here and actually be heard. So, it’s nice that I’ve been having more time to share with people. And I’ve been writing more poetry which has been really cool. I applied to this Advanced Poetry Workshop on a whim, and I got in. And it’s been nice to gain some confidence in that.

How do you feel when you perform in front of an audience versus when you’re sharing work in your poetry workshop?

I am never as nervous singing a song in front of people, and I’ve sung in front of a decent amount of people. It doesn’t really phase me. But when I read a poem that I wrote to 2 people, I shake. It makes me really nervous. Because it’s a different state from when you’re singing and writing and playing a guitar. Even those two realms of performance have been very different for me.

(For Context: Amber released her first EP in 2017 on Bandcamp.) How would you describe “Back Home”?

It was a proud moment for me, the first time where I put together some amount of songs I actually liked. It’s about my first two years after leaving home, and the things that you think about. It’s nothing new, but it’s about what happened to me.

How did you decide to paint your own album covers?

I like painting, and I had this one that was kind of significant to me. It’s just of a house that I saw from across the lake when I was in a vacation house while in Michigan, and it just needed to be the cover of an album. And from that point on, why pay anyone else to do it when I can do it? I’ve always been a person who makes it all by herself, so it just seemed to be in the same vain.

What are you working on now, short-term and long-term?

For my poetry workshop, I am working on a poetry chapbook with 10-15 poems. I might paint a cover for it, don’t know what of or what it’s titled. I just wrote a song Monday night for a performance next week. I would also love to record with CU Records: a few new songs and a few old ones off of Back Home for a new collection of sorts, maybe an album. I also want to record this one quartet, because all I know about how it sounds is based on Logic. I would love to hear it live.