Ambre McLean has always been serious about her craft as a musician and songwriter. Now based out of Kitchener, Ontario, McLean has been able to make her living from music for the entirety of her adult life, first as a member of noted indie bands Kyn and Sharon Said, and for the last dozen years as a critically-acclaimed solo artist.
A regular on the festival, concert hall and coffee house circuits, McLean’s unique interpretation of alternative, folk-pop music has captivated an impressively diverse and growing audience to which she hopes to add a few more devotees with her appearance at Ellena’s Café in Napanee, Ontario as part of Starstop Concerts House Concert Series, on Thursday, March 24.
Always creative, ambitious and innovative, McLean continues to challenge herself artistically and has begun to treat the songwriting component of her career as a more integral part of her chosen vocation and is starting to reap the rewards of this refocused mandate and the compelling results it is engendering.
She has released four solo albums and is now one album into a trilogy of releases called Me, My Heart and The Moon. Me was released in 2014, and featured the enigmatic and ethereal song Butterfly, while My Heart is expected to come out later this year, followed thereafter by The Moon.
“The second album is about 90 per cent done; there’s just a few finishing touches, like adding some strings. A lot of the trilogy has been recorded along the way, so much of the third record is done also. It’s just been a matter of getting session players in to do their parts and adding it to the final mixes,” she said, explaining the rationale for such an intensive and expansive project.
“The whole idea behind it was that I write so many different kinds of music and I love a lot of different styles. Because of this, I have such a broad demographic in terms of my fan base, and they cut across genres too. I had all these songs that I loved so much and I didn’t want to put them all on one record because I thought it would be a little confusing to people since some of the songs appeal more to 60 year olds and others to 20 year olds.
“I decided to kind of compartmentalize them and release them in separate groupings. The whole project is still cohesive and it definitely all sounds like me, but I just felt it was more appropriate to put the like-sounding songs together. The first one, Me, was a little poppier and there were songs that were more reflective of me and my life. My Heart is all the song ideas that I have written for other people, or ones that had been inspired by other people.”
Quietly over the last few years, McLean has been expanding her musical horizons and challenging herself in new ways by working in close quarters with other songwriters, including most recently as part of a songwriting collective known as The Collaborators.
“There are eight of us from across Canada and one from the United States. And the whole idea is over an 18-month period we are
all going to write songs with each other, one on one, with the idea that we generate this catalogue of really great songs by all these great songwriters who have never written together before – I mean, some of us don’t even know each other,” she explained.
“That’s been part of the focus for the last four months and it’s been a lot of fun and certainly not something I would have ever thought of doing had I not been sort of thrown into it. So there has been lots of writing between us already but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the stuff we produce, whether we’re going to put out albums with it or some of it we may put on our own records. I am not sure, but it has introduced me to some amazing people and really pushed my writing in some interesting directions.”
She has also been making regular songwriting sojourns to Music City USA – Nashville – to working with top songwriters, forging an especially close and prolific relationship with top songwriter Jon Tiven and his wife Sally.
“When I hooked up with them, I would go down every few months and we would write some blues tunes and I just got my feet wet in a really, really comfortable situation with these two people who are absolutely wonderful. I mean, Jon has written hits for practically everybody and Sally is a bass player who works alongside him and the two of them are just this songwriting mega-duo,” she said, noting that some of Tiven’s songs have been recorded by the likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Huey Lewis and Canadian Jeff Healey.
“He has some amazing production and session credits and a huge catalogue of things that he has done in the music business but he and Sally are just these really wonderful, humble people that [she and husband/producer Matt] met through a friend. Jon has such a pedigree but he is the quirkiest, funniest, neatest guy. We were basically set up on a musical blind date by someone who felt we would work well together. The first session was a little weird because I had never done it before but at the end they said they loved writing with me and welcomed me to come back as often as I could. So for the last three years we’ve been going back every four months and writing some songs together.
“It’s just one of those situations where you never know who you might meet in your career and what sort of doors it may open up for you. And Jon and Sally have taught me so much about what it means to be a professional songwriter. I mean, he gets up in the morning, has an idea for a song and it’s completely done – written and a demo recorded – by the end of the day. I have never seen anybody do that before.”
McLean said working with other songwriters like Tiven has been challenging in the sense that she now has to alter her own process to fit into a more collaborative structure, and that she has also had to become more structured and disciplined with her personal creative process. A corollary to that challenge is also the balancing act she has undertaken to ensure that while her output of songs increases, that she doesn’t turn into a ‘machine’ churning out generic, trend-influenced, cookie-cutter music.
“With The Collaborators, the whole basic idea is to sit down and write a hit. For me, I am really attracted to melody and really attracted to how lyrics and melody go together. It has always been a huge focus for me, so I might write a song that is really not a hit but I really don’t care because it meant something to me and it has its own little life. But the people I am working with, they’re all about ‘how do we write the next hit song?’ So I am trying to still bring an organic feel to that process so it’s still meaningful to me,” she explained.
“That process is a little too generic for me, a little too robotic. But I am getting better at the discipline part of it. One thing I have learned out of all this is that the people I am working with are sitting down every day to write a song – that’s what they are, they’re song-a-day people. A buddy of mine once put out a track a week for a year and I have never ever done anything like that.
“These songwriters that I am coming to know, it’s their absolute job. They have a studio set up in their home and each morning they grab their cup of coffee and at 9 a.m. they get into their studio and start writing. I think I can get closer to that but still maintain the part of me that is more organic and creatively impulsive. It’s been a really interesting way to go at it for me. Even though I am doing music as a career, it’s never really been a 9 to 5 thing until the last year where I am kind of looking at it like that because, frankly, it is what I do for a living, so why not treat it like a job in that way, but as a job that I am so lucky to love.”
Besides the growing esteem for which she is being held by a wide range of experienced and successful professional songwriters, McLean has also found herself to be in great demand for her prowess with looping technology and techniques, which will be on full display at her Napanee show on March 24. Using a looping device, McLean essentially accompanies herself, using it to ‘loop’ various sounds, rhythms and harmonies – all live and on stage. None of the looping is pre-recorded, so it actually becomes a fascinating and sometimes hypnotizing element of her live show.
“Looping really has become a major part of what I am doing now. I try to keep it a little on the down low at live shows depending on my audience, because my older crowd likes my more gentle piano stuff. But I am doing a set at a major looping festival in Toronto coming up and I had never in my life thought I would be doing that or even be considered a looping artist, but I am constantly finding stuff online where that’s how I am being described,” she said, explaining that a dozen years ago, she suffered a serious injury where she essentially lost the use of a hand for almost year and thought her days as a musician and recording artist were over.
“A buddy of mine said, ‘you know you can still make music.’ And he said to try looping, which was still really new at the time. So he lent me a looper and it just kind of went from there. I was already a huge fan of Bobby McFerrin through my dad’s interest in him. The album that had [the hit song] Don’t Worry Be Happy on it featured all sorts of looping, except no one really knew it was looping because it was studio looping, not live looping. I grew up listening to him and how he could do all these fantastic parts with his own voice and that’s where my strategy came in. How do I make my music and my shows interesting with just me.”
Well, there is little doubt that over the years calling McLean’s music ‘interesting’ is an understatement. As a songwriter and live performer, she is compelling, evocative, powerfully emotive and a treat to behold in any live setting – and picture perfect for the cozy and inviting environment at Ellena’s Café in Greater Napanee.
For more information on her March 24 show, visit http://www.starstop.ca/#!ambre-mclean/gd49l. Tickets are available at the link or at Ellena’s or Marie’s Place Music Emporium.
For more information on McLean and her music, visit http://www.starstop.ca/#!ambre-mclean/gd49l
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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