Ambre McLean has been captivating audiences with her evocative, hauntingly lyrical and deeply melodic original songs for more than a decade and half as a solo artist. With a rare gift for perceptiveness and a way to tug at listeners’ hearts, minds and spirits all at the same tie, McLean is a critically-acclaimed and beloved regular on the festival, coffee house and concert circuit.
Nowhere is she at her songwriting best that with her latest album, My Heart, which was released earlier this fall on her own Northwood Records.
My Heart is the second installment of a trilogy of albums that are thematically as well as musically distinct but are brought together as a cohesive whole project through McLean’s compositional mastery, her emotive, deeply personal and compelling lyrics.
“It started a long time ago. I met someone at Canadian Music Week quite a few years ago and they asked me what kind of music did I write? Well, I write a little bit of jazz, I some country, I can do pop, I like to loop, so I do all these kinds of music. And I kind of left that meeting feeling like, ‘oh no, maybe I am supposed to be pigeonholing myself. But then we met again a little while later and he just said that my responsibility was to not do that to myself.’ My responsibility was to make music that I loved and that I create well and let everybody else figure out where to put me,” she explained.
“I kind of started from that idea. And then I realized I had all these songs that were kind of themed. They still all sound like me, but I used the words ‘my heart’ a lot. And I talk about the moon and the sky and the stars; I am very romantic kind of writer at times. And I categorized all these songs that I had written over the previous six years and they seemed to fit into three different genres or themes of instrumentation. I decided to put them into a little triplet thing and release them together, but release them, at the time I started, six months apart.
“A lot of the songs were written and a lot of the tracks were already recorded or at least on the way to being so. And also at the time I was working on a project with my husband [Matt Connell] and had written a song called Me, My Heart and The Moon, so we decided to call the first album Me, the second one My Heart and then The Moon. They are all being recorded in our home studio, which is an old church, so it’s very much a personal project. It’s taken a lot longer than it was supposed to. This second one was supposed to be done a year ago, but I had a baby in the middle, so we just finished doing My Heart over the last couple of months. We also have a lot of The Moon already recorded but there are still a few loose ends with that one. We’re planning on having that one out in the next six to eight months.”
Baby number two is the adorable Frankie, who is adored and doted on by her big brother Mickey, now six. McLean said being a mom and being a musician/songwriter are by no means mutually exclusive and both are integral to her identity.
“I don’t think I could be one without the other. I wondered about what would happen when I found out when I was having my first baby. People said to me, ‘okay, don’t get all sappy and weepy and not write your political or your angsty songs,’ which I don’t really do anyways. But I guess it’s something people say when musicians become parents,” she said.
“I do think I have always tended to view the world through the same kind of glasses and I think I just get to share that with them now. So I don’t think, in the grand scheme of things, it’s going to change my place in the world, but it’s definitely made me think about what I want to be saying in a way that they will be left with something important.”
As mentioned earlier, many of the songs on My Heart contain that combination of words within the lyrics. It wasn’t planned, but when McLean and Connell were determining which songs fit on which of the three albums in the trilogy, those featuring that lyric all did seem to be in emotional and thematic lockstep with one another.
“It’s funny because when we were putting the record together, we didn’t realize how many had the lyric ‘my heart’ in them. For this album, there are songs that I have either written for people; I wrote one for my children on there, there are songs I have written for my husband, so there are two love songs on there so I would say that they are all kind of love songs. But not all of them are necessarily happy love songs. I really thought this album should focus more on the songs themselves then the full instrumentation and production side of things. We have bells and whistles here and there, but we just wanted, overall, to scale it back and make it about the songs and the melodies,” McLean said, adding that the concept of being a mother in a tough world inspired one of the most emotionally gripping songs on the album, Sad Day.
“Mickey was around two at the time and there was a mass murder at a kid’s camp in Norway, and it happened around my birthday which is near Christmas. It all started around that and got me thinking about being a mom and what it means to go into a new year with this new little person. I want to teach them all these things and show them what a wonderful world it can be, but what a sad and horrible place it can also be. I was kind of overtaken with that idea. And then Sandy Hook happened and all these children were involved, so that song just came pouring out. It was probably written in an hour, but it was just something I felt about being a parent, thinking that children are often the ones affected and how awful it is to be putting them into these situations and these places and these horrible tragedies that we are doing to one another, and these kids are just being kids. We had a lot of My Heart already planned when I wrote that song, so that was actually a late add-on for this record.”
Nicole’s Heart is a bittersweet song that examines the changing nature of love and how it can impact our lives, friendships, our attitudes and our hopes and dreams.
“That song was about the very simple idea of going from your darkness to finding your light. It was as simple a concept as I had. And that was written during a period in my life where I was falling in love with my husband and my life was completely changing from what I thought that would be happening. I was very dear friends with a girl who was going through some things that were just as significant, but different. We were going through parallel changes and the song was kind of written for me through her and vice versa. We were both in my mind when I was writing that song. But it is a friend that I am no longer friends with and it is really a sad song because sometimes people just grow apart. This was a friend of mine for a very long time and it broke my heart, but mended my heart in a lot of ways too,” she said, with another very poignant song being Fall Away.
“That was for my grandpa. He had Alzheimer’s for about the last decade of his life and my mom and I were his primary caregivers until he went into a home. My grandfather was very dramatic but in a very quiet way. I guess the best example is that in the last years of his life, he would come very, very close to death and we would all gather and say goodbye and say how much we love him and then a week later he would bounce back and be alive for another year. That happened a few times.
“This one particular Christmas I was going to Ottawa, so I wasn’t going to stay around because I just knew that based on recent history, my grandpa was going to be around and I will see him in the New Year. And he passed away on Christmas Eve and my mom was there and my cousin was there and lots of other people were there but I was feeling quite sad that I wasn’t – that I didn’t see it coming. I couldn’t be with him for that last Christmas so I was at my husband’s family for Christmas Eve in Ottawa and I wrote that song. It was for my mom, for me and for my grandpa.”
The delightfully sweet and playful song I Can Tell is one of the compositions that balances the sadness and poignancy with pure, unadulterated and blissful adoration.
“It is a happy song, a very happy song. I wrote that one for Mickey, when he was nearly two, because he was starting to walk around at the time. We had been living at our studio at Northwood Records in Chatham and we had to plug up all the windows because it’s a recording studio and we have neighbours quite close. But we left one window open in the kitchen and there was this beautiful stream of sunlight that comes in. And my little guy was dragging around my brand new mandolin, and I didn’t realize he was dragging it across the floor. He just came in and he sat down in that sunbeam with the mandolin,” McLean said.
“I couldn’t really get upset with him because we have a hands-on rule with instruments in the house. So he dragged this thing and sat in the sunbeam until I sat down with him. So I gave him a co-write on that song because he kind of forced that song out of me. We just sat in this moment and I was falling in love my kid and I guess just reflecting on the fact that my life was so different and how it happened so fast. I never thought I was going to be a mom and I was kind of overwhelmed with just loving my life and that was the song that came out. I also ended up singing it to Matt on our wedding day too.”
With The Moon well underway, McLean said it’s going to be somewhat different than both Me and My Heart.
“We put the song Me, My Heart and The Moon on this second record because it fit better on this album that on the other ones. And it encapsulates the whole arc of the three albums – it is the song that will tie it all together. That’s because we have plans for the third on that are quite a bit different that the first time. I feel like putting that song on this album makes Me make sense and makes Ambre McLean make sense,” she said.
McLean is able to do short stints on the road, and actually recently completed nearly a three week jaunt on the east coast. She plans on playing through the Midwestern U.S. states in February before gigging more regularly in the spring and summer.
In the interim, both Me and My Heart are available in digital and physical formats. For more information on these albums, the forthcoming The Moon, tour dates and other info, visit http://ambremclean.com/site.
- 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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