North London native Ama Lou is the British R&B prodigy writing her own story she explains inside her cover feature for Notion 84!
Ama Lou knows exactly how this whole thing got started. She remembers the precise moment. Right now the 21-year-old is sat in a recording studio in East Hollywood, leaning back in her chair with the mixing desk beside her. She’s perfectly at home here, dressed in studio casual: Levi’s buckle back 501s, a grey Sunspel jumper, Clarks Wallabees, a Guyanese gold chain around her neck.
Her mind is buzzing with ideas for the new music she’s working on, but if she closes her eyes she can still transport herself back in time a whole decade. Before Drake was quoting her lyrics on Instagram, before she was touring with Jorja Smith, before Brooklyn Beckham (“Good dude. Proper jokes.”) was taking her picture. Before all of that, Ama Lou was just an 11-year-old girl sat at a kitchen table in north London playing guitar with her father. It was 2009. The Miley Cyrus starring Hannah Montana movie had just come out that April and Ama was obsessed with it. Well, that and Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad. And Destiny’s Child, of course. She was learning how to play their songs, singing and strumming along, so when she sang the heartfelt ballad called “You Ran Away” it made sense that her dad asked: ‘Oh, that’s the new Rihanna song, right?’.
“I was like: ‘No, I just made it up’,” says Ama, laughing, before slipping into an impression of her dad’s stunned disbelief. “He was like: ‘What do you mean you just made it up? You’ve just been singing it for a minute!’ I was like: ‘I don’t know, I just made it up! It just came from somewhere!’ He ran and grabbed me a piece of paper and he was like: ‘Write it down, write it down.’ So I did that and then just, honestly, never stopped.”
It was a life-changing moment. Although she wouldn’t be diagnosed for another five years, Ama was growing up with dyslexia and it was starting to cause her trouble at school. Reading didn’t come easily, but songwriting was something else. “I felt like: ‘Oh my god, this is so natural,” she says. “I didn’t have to try at all, so I gravitated to it. I would run home every day to write songs in the kitchen.”
Ama was lucky enough to have parents who flew into supportive mode. They’d always been that way, encouraging Ama and her older sister Mahalia to learn about other cultures and carting them all over the world since Ama was just two months old. “They would ask us: ‘Do you want the new Nintendo DS or do you want to go to a remote island in Thailand?’” remembers Ama. “I was like: ‘That sounds sick, let’s do that!’ That was our currency for life.” It turned out a friend of her dad’s owned a professional recording studio, so Ama went in to record her first demo when she was still only 12. “I’m a very extreme person,” she says. “When I do something, I fucking do it. By the time I was 12 I had written so many songs that my dad was like: ‘You’ve got to record these.’ Also, I think he just liked the novelty of it. I was just a kid but I went into the studio and recorded about 10 songs. I wonder if I could find those somewhere…”
At the same time Ama was also enrolled in classical singing lessons, and soon her mum was taking her off to play open mic nights around London. Three times a week, at least, from the age of 13 to 18 — she wasn’t kidding about being an extreme person. It also helped that she’s tall — 5’9 and three-quarters to be precise. Her life could have turned out very differently if she wasn’t. “All the open mics were for over 18s, but luckily I have literally been this size since I was 11,” she says. “I think the guy at the main one I used to do always thought I was 18. My mum said she used to just like wink at the bouncer and they’d be like: ‘Go in, it’s fine, no ID needed.’ I never realised that I was only getting in because I already looked the age I was supposed to be. I used to do open mics relentlessly. Go hard or go motherfuckin’ home.”
By the time she was in Sixth Form, Ama was posting music on YouTube and had already started to accumulate a professional team. Four days after she finished school for good she got on a plane to New York. “I kind of never motherfuckin’ looked back,” she says with a grin. “I didn’t have that much money but I took my guitar. I found a couple of producers and I would just go to the studio there every day. It was a growing up exercise. I spent the whole summer out there.”
When Ama got back she released her debut single “TBC”, on 10th October 2016. Although it was recorded in Stoke Newington, the song was inspired by her experiences that summer living in New York. Eric Garner had been killed by police in the city two years earlier, helping to spark the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Ama referred to his last words in the songs lyrics (“What did he say? / I can’t, I can’t, I can’t breathe”). Growing up in multicultural Stoke Newington hadn’t prepared her for the racial tension in America.
“Mate, it was a massive culture shock,” she says. “I went to a school with 1,000 kids in it and 256 languages spoken. You never ‘named’ anyone by their race. You don’t group-categorize people by their race, but that’s something I experienced in New York. I was in a group of people where I looked the same as them, but my life had been completely different. Even though England is not the best place on Earth, I was very lucky to have my little ecosystem. I was very lucky to have been surrounded by all these beautiful cultures.”
Although Garner’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement obviously inspired “TBC”, Ama says she never set out to be an activist. “I feel super connected to, without sounding too airy-fairy, my writing flow,” she explains. “It’s really whatever influences in your life come from the universe that you’re going to write about. I don’t sit down and think: ‘I’m going to write about this’. The song made an instant impact, not least on a certain Canadian teen actor-turned-pop behemoth named Drake. On 14th July 2017, he captioned an Instagram post of himself with an uncredited “TBC” lyric: “Pretty girls seem to get their way…even if they don’t have much to say”. He also slid into Ama’s DMs.
“He said he appreciated it,” she says. If it’s possible to shrug with your whole body, that’s what Ama Lou is doing right now. “We spoke a little bit about that and that was it. Nothing else. People have been like: ‘How did you feel?’ But it really felt the same as a normal person taking the time out to tell me how much the song meant to them. At the end of the day he’s still a normal person and that was the only exchange we had. I was super appreciative because obviously I really like Drake, so I was just like: ‘That’s really cool… Let’s move on.’”
To be fair, Ama had other things holding her attention. A couple of months earlier, during her first trip to Los Angeles in April 2017, she’d been introduced to Che Pope. A legendary producer who’s worked on everything from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to Kanye’s “Bound 2”, he and Ama immediately saw something in each other. “Bruv, this dude! He’s an OG of the game,” she says, jumping forward in her chair. “Me and him instantly clicked on a musical level. Our thing is juxtaposition. I love taking one thing from there and making it make sense with something that it shouldn’t do. It’s the same with him.”
While they may have clicked on a musical level, their schedules were less in sync to make work. At the time Pope was the president of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music and he simply didn’t have the time to produce her himself. However, in something of a recurring theme in Ama’s life, what could have been a setback for someone else turned, in her hands, into an opportunity to develop. “I had written these songs, the three DDD songs, and I took them to him and was like: ‘Yo, I need you to help me make these’,” she says. “He was too busy to sit down with me, but he gave me the resources to create my sound myself. He never told me I couldn’t do it. He’d go: ‘Here’s a session musician. I’ve got a meeting, I’ll see you in four hours!’”
As if the universe wanted to underscore what she’s saying, at exactly this moment Ama’s phone pings. It is, serendipitously, Pope. His faith in her meant she discovered a new ability she didn’t know she had. “That’s how I became or had the sense that I’m actually a producer,” she says. “I can hear exactly what I want, I can articulate exactly what I want and it comes out exactly how I want it. So that’s how that happened. He’s been my mentor and a big player in my game. He’s a good dude.”
At the moment she’s still writing and producing pretty much everything herself, although in the future she’d like to explore working with other producers. “I don’t necessarily have a coveting thing like: ‘Oh, I have to produce everything’ because that’s completely unrealistic,” she says. “I always love to take inspiration from other people’s minds and producers who know way more about producing than I do, so it’s not super important to me. Writing my own songs is one-hundred percent super important, but producing is different. It’s about making a landscape for the song.”
As she worked on the three tracks that would make up her debut EP, DDD (short for Dawn, Day, Dusk) Ama began to envision the EP as a short film. She’d enlisted her sister Mahalia as Director of Photography on her previous videos for “TBC” and “Not Always”, but before Mahalia would work on anything else she had an ultimatum for her sister. “She said to me that she would never work with me again if I didn’t direct my own videos,” says Ama. “She said that I’m so pedantic and specific that I can’t work with another director, because I end up being the director anyway.” This is a great example of one of those perfect backhanded compliments only family can truly pull off. On the one hand: you should be a director! On the other: This is because otherwise, you’ll clearly be a total nightmare! Ama laughs when I point this out.
“It’s definitely both of those together,” she says. “I love my sister so much. Because we’re so close she doesn’t lie to me. That’s why we work together. People always ask: ‘Is it difficult to work with your sister?’ and I always say no, it’s perfect because you don’t have any barriers between you. If you’re being a dick they can be like: ‘You need to fucking stop that right now.’ You don’t hold onto it because you’ve spoken to each other like that your whole life.”
Together the two sisters — Mahalia helping with Ama’s dyslexia — put together a treatment for the film, which would cast Ama as a runner for an LA gang. Che Pope makes a cameo appearance. Writing and directing the resulting dreamlike 13-minutes was another new challenge for Ama, but one that again she felt like she’d been preparing for her whole life.
“I spent most of my childhood watching films,” she says. “I’m obsessed with them. I love my mum so much because she never stamped that out of me. She never called me lazy. I didn’t realise that I’d need it later in life because I had so many references to pull from. DDD is influenced by about 15 different films. Thelma & Louise, Goodfellas and Violet & Daisy, which is a film with Saoirse Ronan. I loved the lighting in that one. Then there’s Kill Bill for the cuts. For “Wrong Lesson” we used that Ludacris video “Rollout”. For “Wire” it was No Country For Old Men. We started the production and I ended up doing the DDD songs as a score to the film. It became its own little world.”
She’s cagey about what comes next. She’s been based here in LA since December 2017 and she’s just moved into a new place close to this studio, so she’s feeling settled. “I love it here,” she says. “There’s no nine to five. If you want to do four sessions in a day you can do that. There’s more space so a lot of people have studios in their houses. And then there’s the weather. Waking up to sun every day is really motivational.”
In terms of what music she’s working on, all she’ll say is that she’s got “a project.” It’s not her debut album — not yet — it’s something “like an intro EP. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s new music. It’s a bit more of a body of work. Shorter than an album, but way longer than DDD.”
Ama Lou knows how this whole thing got started. What she doesn’t know, not yet, is what happens next. They say the future is unwritten, but so was “You Ran Away” until Ama Lou sat at that kitchen table and wrote it.
Order Ama Lou’s Notion 84 cover here!