Amber Mark On Insecurity, Her Next Album, and Learning to Love ‘Old Town Road’

Amber Mark On Insecurity, Her Next Album, and Learning to Love ‘Old Town Road’

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Though a thunderstorm sidelined her scheduled set at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park this past weekend, singer, songwriter, and producer Amber Mark hasn’t let the rain dampen her spirits. The artist behind 2017’s 3:33am and 2018’s Conexão EP speaks warmly and effusively as the weather clears and the sun begins to set on a chaotic summer evening.

Mark, who self-produced both 3:33am and Conexão, has steadily earned critical acclaim and a widening fanbase for her stirring alt-R&B and do-everything approach to her music. But this year, in advance of her next project, Mark is beginning to bring other creatives into her fold: April’s “Mixer,” a bouncy summer groove, was produced by “Shallow” songwriter Andrew Wyatt, while her most recent effort, “What If,” is a collaboration with Jeff Gitelman, whose credits range from work with Chance the Rapper, H.E.R., and Mac Miller.

Though additional details on her next album remain scarce, Mark knows where she’s headed with the project, as it aims to delve into a three-chapter arc of a rising artist in search of their self-confidence. MTV News caught up with the “S P A C E” singer to learn more as she awaited the Isley Brothers’s closing set to cap Pitchfork’s second night.

MTV News: Your most recent single is “What If.” On Instagram you called it your favorite song you’ve created so far. Why is that?

Amber Mark: I think just the whole vibe and the message and… I don’t think it’s the most meaningful song I’ve ever created but it’s definitely the one I bop to the most. I just feel like it’s one of those feel-good songs. Sometimes, I listen to music, and I’m like, “Fuck, I wish I created that!” And that song is one of those songs to me. I’m so happy I was able to be a part of it, and write half of it, and help with production and stuff like that. It’s pretty crazy that I get to call it mine.

MTV News: Was there a song you had in mind when you were making it?

Mark: No, not at all. [Jeff Gitelman] made this beat from scratch, and I just sang a bunch of melodies and gibberish over it, and wrote a hook, and we did the first verse. I didn’t work on it until two years later, and this guy, Lincoln Bliss, ended up writing the second verse because I had to go into the studio the following day and I was in a session prior. I didn’t really have time to write a second verse, so I just had my friend Lincoln write it for me.

MTV News: Oh, wow.

Mark: I was kinda nervous! Because he’s a poet, and I had never seen anything, and he was, like, “I’ll just try it.” And I was like, alright, you wanna try it out? I kinda expected it to not be good, but it ended up being really good. I was like, Oh, I guess I’ll use this!

MTV News: How do you know him?

Mark: He actually is — or was — a bartender at my godparent’s restaurant. And we became really good friends, and he kept telling me he was a poet.

MTV News: Having produced your past two projects, 3:33am and Conexão, what is it like to turn that process over to Jeff Gitelman on “What If” and Andrew Wyatt on “Mixer”? 

Mark: It was hard. At first I really didn’t like it. It took awhile to like any music I had done with people or even get acclimated to working with other people. But now I understand it more and I have less anxiety going into sessions. You just gotta find the right people, people that you really vibe with. It was hard having a song I didn’t write, with Andrew Wyatt, but he’s such an amazing guy and the second I heard the song, it was just a fun… Because I really try to have a lot of meaning behind the things and be really honest with a lot of stuff I have, but just “Mixer,” as a single, it was a good vibe. It really felt like a dance tune. I kinda let it go for that one and I’m really happy I did. It’s really weird. You have this mentality when you start out, No, I just wanna do it on my own. I don’t want anybody’s help. But then you just realize, opening up and compromising and things like that, you have a whole new set of ears and creativity.

MTV News: What drove your desire to learn to produce? How difficult was it to pick up?

Mark: It is still difficult. I go into sessions and I see these producers just, like, what takes me hours to do, they’re just like… I get frustrated with myself a lot, but it’s a learning experience. But when I started out wanting to do music and being an artist and writing and stuff like that, I used GarageBand and would just come up with demos and was like, oh, I’ll just show this to a producer and then we can do something with it. This was before I had put anything out. It was two years before I had put out “S P A C E.” Anytime I would go into sessions — [with] random friends of friends or whatever, anyone I could find and would wanna work with me — I never really liked what they would do. So I just learned a lot and accumulated a lot from people and there was one point where I just got really frustrated, toward the end of 2015, where I was like, y’know what? I feel like I know what I’m doing. I can do this on my own. I had just gotten Logic. That’s when I wrote “S P A C E.”

MTV News: That was the first song you produced?

Mark: That was the first song I’d finished. I had started “Can You Hear Me?” prior to that but I never finished it. I just put it out, and then one thing led to another, and then I was like, y’know what? I’m just going to continue producing on my own. And still to this day I prefer it. I get really nervous being in the studio because I feel like I’m not as quick as they are and I take a really long time to really think about what I want to write about and how I want to go about doing it structure-wise and stuff like that. So I still enjoy being on my own. I feel like I can be my weird self when it comes to that stuff.

MTV News: You mentioned to Teen Vogue that this next project will be inspired by insecurity. Where does that stem from? Relationships? Self-image? Your career?

Mark: I think it’s all of those things, really. I definitely have moments where I’m like, am I good enough? Or, self-image, physical appearance, working with other people going into sessions. I definitely have the anxiety of: I am not good enough to be here. All the time. I think that really puts a block on my creativity. I’m slowly but surely learning, and the whole album is about… It has more of a dramatic experience; it happens in three parts. It takes you on this whole little journey of being insecure and then being confident and then being overly-confident. I wanted there to be a lesson in it, and my mom is still accented in a lot of the interludes, and I wanted to have what her advice would be even though I know it probably would’ve been really shitty advice. She was always like, “Just surrender to the problems!” So, yeah, I really wanted to talk about that whole thing, and towards the end, part three is just talking about, I am enough. No matter what, I’m doing the best I can. Something I have to remind myself every day is just stay true to what you believe. A lot of people say, “Just listen to your heart and your intuition,” but sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what that is.

MTV News: Your music is influenced by a range of styles from around the world. You just got back from Europe; I was wondering if you heard anything during your travels that you’re excited to wrap into your next project.

Mark: I will say, I was not a fan of the Lil Nas X song, but we went to Paris, and it was playing everywhere, and I got into it, I really got into that song. I don’t think I’ll be making anything as close to that, but I will say that became a jam, our tour jam theme song. If I were to talk to myself two months ago, or a month ago, I would’ve probably been like, “You are crazy for ever thinking you would like that song.” But I like that song now, so!

MTV News: What was inspiring about that tour for you and connecting with those fans overseas?

Mark: Oh my god, it was so surreal. I thought there were going to be, like, 10 people at some of the shows. But all of them pretty much ended up being sold out. I think we only had one that wasn’t sold out but it was 10 tickets away from being sold out. So it was pretty insane.

The first time I went to Europe I was opening, so it was a completely different experience with the response from the audience. Being at shows where all these people were singing lyrics, I really got emotional performing, especially performing “Monsoon” and having people sing along to that. I couldn’t even sing the song, I had to kinda let them take over a lot of the time.

MTV News: From your last two projects, to this upcoming one, is there any type of growth you’re hoping people will hear? Whether in your sound or your songwriting? Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?

Mark: I’m rapping a little bit on it. So that’s a whole new world for me, honestly. And I wouldn’t call myself a rapper at all because I definitely cannot freestyle. But I get a little angry on it, to a certain extent. Production-wise, I was really interested in — it’s something I never thought I would do — into the whole trap beat world. First it just started off as a joke of me making a beat like that. Then I was like, oh, this is kinda dope. I started doing more beats like that and I ended up rapping on it. So that’s different.

There will be other producers on it as well. It’s going to be a mixture, it’s going to be a collective of me doing it as well as other producers on it. That’s the first project I’ve put out that other people have touched. That’s a little scary for me. But it still has the old, minimalistic sound that I have. Then there’s some songs that are full and big and they “go hard,” as they would say. [Laughs]

MTV News: Are there any other collaborators on it apart from Gitelman and Wyatt who you want to shout out?

Mark: Oh, Timbaland!

MTV News: Really?

Mark: Oh, that I’m working with?

MTV News: Yeah, yeah.

Mark: Oh, no, no, no. I wish! Yeah, Timbaland! The future. I’m manifesting it.

This producer, he’s amazing, he produced “Put You On”: Julian Bunetta. He’s great. He’s going to be helping me with a lot of the tracks that aren’t done yet. Even the ones that have been produced by other producers. He’s kind of doing the whole executive thing on it right now.

MTV News: And Timbaland is for the next project.

Mark: Yes, Timbaland would be great. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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