Loss, Growth and the Power of Vulnerability: Interview with Amy Montgomery
“I’m going get my piano tuned now, I’m very excited!” chirps Amy Montgomery as we wrap up our call. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is just over a week away from the release of her debut EP following two new music videos, a string of singles and touring as far away as Australia. The culmination of four years’ work, Intangible is twenty-one minutes of powerful alt rock with squalls of guitar feedback lifted by bright, fluttering synths and vocal prowess akin to Janis Joplin, Alanis Morissette and even Miley Cyrus. Raised on classic rock, Amy’s sound gives a subtle nod to the music that nourished her, but she manages to rise above her influences.
“I’ve been surrounded by music since I was born and in my house growing up. My dad is a big muso, he loves all sorts of rock music and I would hear AC/DC from no age. I picked up the guitar after my dad inspired me to; he plays the guitar as well and taught me my first few chords. I have this memory from when I was about six; we used to spend to a lot of time at the caravan site as kids and I remember one day going over to the big tent where everybody was. I got everybody to be quiet and I sang ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’,” she laughs.
Intangible marks a change in direction from the songs that kickstarted Amy’s career. The bass-driven, bluesy vocals of 2018’s ‘Tree Song (‘Branch Out & Nourish My Veins)’ have taken on a lighter feel with the soaring choruses of her most recent work.
“Everything that I’d released before, whether or not listeners or people at gigs realise, holds a heavier pain and I definitely feel that when I perform the songs. I know from performing and even writing these songs on the Intangible EP that they feel lighter. It feels like I’ve let go of some of the pain that was involved in my songwriting before.”
She hesitates. “I use the term a lot, but I don’t necessarily mean ‘let go of’ — I mean that the heavy pain has been transformed into this lighter pain and so it just comes out in a different way. The sound of ‘Intangible’ and ‘Anywhere’ especially is a really different sound to anything I’ve released, partially because we took a different route with these recordings and got them both mixed by different people [ Kyran Daniel and Chris Sheldon respectively].”
Even the casual listener will notice that the theme of mental health features heavily in Amy’s music. She confronts difficult emotions without oversimplifying them; her songwriting style is on the nose, yet her directness makes it no less poetic. Having lost her mother to suicide four years ago, music has been a lifeline for channelling pain into art. For those who know her story, Intangible’s title track is all the more poignant.
“When I wrote ‘Intangible’, I was on a boat looking out the window at the sea with my acoustic guitar. The most important thing about ‘Intangible’ is the lyrics for me. I talk about the fact that [my mum] is not here in a tangible way… I remember a day walking out the front door of my house and I looked up to the sky and the most beautiful sunset. It’s hard to describe, but I just knew looking at the sunset. I could feel my mum’s presence in the most beautiful way. In that moment, I felt so at peace knowing that people can live on in other ways if you want [them] to and you allow it. That’s when ‘Intangible’ talks about the rivers that will still flow and all of the life that is still going to go on after someone leaves this world. It will still go on, but suddenly it takes a new meaning when you reflect on that fact that maybe their spirit is running through all of the things that live on.”
For Amy, music is not only cathartic but actively healing.
“I can’t always describe how I feel when I speak words. Songwriting gives me the ability to go away and reflect on my feelings more and to articulate them a bit better than if I was just speaking out loud. Also the physical feeling you get from playing shows, a lot of that comes from connecting with other people and their stories and the empathy involved in the realisation that everybody goes through shit. Connecting with people on that level through music brings this wave of healing for me,” she shares, “That’s what I miss about playing live, the feeling in your body afterwards; I always compare it to the feeling after going to a spa, [or] a shower, getting rid of all the not-so-nice things and releasing them into the atmosphere to turn them into something nicer and hopefully make a difference in someone else’s life. It’s a helpful way to look at everything that happens in our lives that [we] might face. Instead of things coming to an end or a new chapter starting, you can look at it in a transformative way. Suddenly your outlook becomes a bit more fluid and easier to digest.”
Some songs come to Amy so naturally that she barely remembers writing them. ‘Intangible’ was one of them.
“Anyone who doesn’t know my story, they can take something, anything they like from it and I think it’s quite a universal song in that way. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about loss, especially how loss can bring good change in you and it doesn’t have to be about your head in the dumps. I can’t say that every day is bright and sunshine-y because it’s not, but it’s good to reflect on things in a different manner than you would usually.”
On ‘Anywhere’, a glittering and richly layered ballad with a whistled melody, Amy sings “ If you want to build a life that is real / Trust in yourself / You’ll take you anywhere “. The accompanying video sees her wake up in a bed in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter before being transported to a beach. Adorned in a floral headdress, her long locks trail behind her in an impassioned performance across the sand.
“I found this black bedframe on Gumtree for twenty quid. I painted the whole picture in my head, I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I did four coats of white paint and covered it in flowers and made it into a lovely princess bed. I actually wish it was my bed, I’m thinking of swapping my bed for that one!” she laughs, “I sent her [the original owner] a picture of the bed after I had done it all up and she was so surprised!”
Despite the heavy lyrical content of its eponymous track, you can’t help but feel that the overarching message of the Intangible EP is one of optimism. I wonder if this was intentional.
“I would say that’s the case with ‘Intangible’ and ‘Anywhere’. ‘Old Photographs’ has that sentiment to it as well, but because of the nature of the song, it’s looking back and acknowledging the past but then choosing to go forward.”
We agree that it is best described as a kind of healthy nostalgia.
“I don’t think enough people realise the power in the vulnerability that comes when you’re looking at an old photograph and you get feelings of sadness or anger or regret. There’s a lot of potential for growth and healing in that moment, which is a big part of this EP and my journey and realisations. When you find yourself in a place of sadness, just stay in that place to feel the sadness and acknowledge it but don’t wallow in it.”
Intangible features two live renditions, a cover and a reworking of previous release ‘Dangerous’. ‘Jupiter 4’, a Sharon Van Etten number, is the product of a ground-breaking discovery from Glastonbury last year. Amy’s version gives a huskiness to Van Etten’s original and she plays every instrument on the track. “I was drawn to it because it’s quite a painful and actually quite haunting song, but’s a kind of love song as well,” she says of her decision to include it on the EP, “I love the juxtaposition of these things that aren’t really meant to go together. It’s an awesome song.
It’s the experimental element of ‘Jupiter 4’ and wanting to keep that lo-fi feel to it rather than making it a studio track. We recorded the audio in the Harty Room in Queen’s University on the grand piano and it was this beautiful atmosphere. We wanted to release the live versions because there’s a rawness and a realness to them that you sometimes can’t capture on studio recordings.”
Like many musicians this year, Amy is itching to play live again. Her festival dates and Ulster Sports Club headline show may have been rescheduled, but a pre-recorded Sound of Belfast performance at the Oh Yeah Centre on 7 thNovember marked the first time audiences saw ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Intangible’ performed live since their release. Backed by Mojo Fury man Michael Mormecha, the virtual gig showcases Amy’s phenomenal voice and her outpouring of emotion is palpable: “I had this overflowing feeling of gratitude for being back at it and realising how lucky we as musicians are to get to do that as a job and just remembering how much I love it again.”
An Amy Montgomery show is as striking visually as it is sonically. Often performing barefoot, the stage is the one place she can express herself however she likes. “Aesthetically, I think it’s really cool to create a show and to wear one of a kind stage outfits that nobody’s ever seen before. It adds a different element or layer to the performance that everybody is hearing and seeing,” she explains, “It’s not quite an alter ego, but it gives you a newfound confidence and I know once I put on a stage outfit or my war paint and I’m barefoot, ready to go stage, that’s me in that mind set and I’m ready for it.” But why ditch the shoes?
“I just love to feel the ground beneath my feet! It’s a grounding feeling. I love performing, it’s one of my favourite things on the planet, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. It [being barefoot] helps emotionally and spiritually ground me before I go and rip up the stage.”
With her first physical EP on the brink of being released into the world, Amy wants your full attention. “With this EP, if somebody’s going to listen to it start to finish, I’m really excited for them to wholly listen with their ears and every inch of their body to the ‘Jupiter 4’ cover. Up to now, I haven’t pushed it as much as ‘Intangible’ and ‘Anywhere’ because they’re the singles off the EP, but ‘Jupiter 4’ holds so much power. If someone listens with no interruptions, they’ll find that in it as well.”
Amy Montgomery’s new EP Intangible will be released on 20th November 2020 and you can pre-order the EP via her website.