Image: Agatha Powa
Having sold out her first headline show in October, just months after releasing her eponymous EP, following a stint supporting Brent Faiyaz on his world tour, it’s safe to say that 2018 has been a whirlwind of a year for Amber Olivier.
The North London singer-songwriter’s sweet and soulful murmur first came to attention when she started posting Instagram clips, gaining enough traction to start a chain of events that would lead her to release music produced by the likes of R&B crooner Brent Faiyaz and self-described “Trap House Jazz” musician Masego, both of whom she describes as “big brothers”.
But as impressive as Amber’s co-signs and credentials are, it is the woman herself who demands attention and focus. Before me in an East London café is a determined dreamer who has carefully selected her inner-circle and has already dodged the pitfalls that young women often encounter starting out in the music industry. Unlike many up-and-coming artists in the recently re-energised UK R&B scene, Amber’s story starts on the other side of the pond, meaning that – unlike many of her peers – she developed a solid base of support and creativity in LA before doing so in her hometown, London.
Describing her North London home as a “musical household” with a DJ for a dad, Amber recounts a living room cleared out and filled with DJ equipment, where she would listen to a blend of garage, hip-hop and R&B in her dad’s shows, occasionally fiddling with equipment to make music as a child. Growing up watching US hip-hop themed “dance” movies such as You Got Served and Honey, Amber found out about the likes of B2K, Bobby Valentino and Ciara.
Although her smooth vocals have drawn comparison to R&B princess Aaliyah – her mellow, murmury ambience mirroring the late singer’s sensuality and slickness – this wasn’t the North Londoner’s intention when starting out; rather, she puts this down to her production team. Pointing to other influences, she recollects childhood memories of Erykah Badu, India.Arie and Sade playing in the background. One major inspiration, however, is Grammy-nominated Australian future-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote. Following in their footsteps, Amber wants to create “seamless” work that can be limited in quantity but still timeless in quality, pointing to their two albums Tawk Tomahawk and Choose Your Weapon, which, “feels like one entire body of work when listening to it”.
Amber’s foray into music hasn’t been as sweet and smooth as her voice, however. At the age of 16, following a series of yearly holidays to LA, she moved out there by herself, staying in friends’ apartments and spending every waking moment in the studio. Referring to LA as a “second home”, she speaks of her initial experience of “dabbling with music”. Like most young girls starting out, she spent too much energy navigating through a male-dominated industry that often doesn’t protect women and help them advance on talent alone – rather than spending it on her music. She decided that she simply hadn’t lived and experienced enough to create the best quality of work that she could. Fed up and disillusioned with the industry, Amber withdrew from music altogether and resolved for a 9 to 5 job away from her craft.
Then, in 2016, riding on an LA freeway with a friend on the aux, things changed forever – she heard Brent Faiyaz. “I remember saying this guy was going to be huge,” she says, “Why was nobody jumping on him?” Before she knew it, a mutual appreciation for each other’s music and easy communication facilitated by social media led to the creation of ‘One Unread’.
Connecting with Brent, Amber says, reignited her love – and belief – in music. The pure-intentioned Faiyaz, this up-and-coming musician who was still eager to help someone else in an environment known for its individualist tendencies, gave her the push to “give it one more try”. And thus, a daughter was adopted into Sonder, the ranks of what was an exclusively male collective. Referring to her inner-circle, Amber makes a point to surround herself with “a solid base” of women, from her DJ to her PR and her mother, who has supported her constantly throughout her journey.
The loneliness and instability that comes with constantly being on the road can be daunting, and the metaphorical as well as literal journey of growth, has not been easy. As well as looking in, the artist has also looked out at her following and impact. Like many young women, Amber admits to being heavily influenced by social media as a teenager, to the point that it affected her own self-perception. Wrangling with reality and the rose-tinted filters of seemingly perfect lives had a detrimental effect that Amber is mindful of avoiding for her younger fans – she makes it a point to remain true to her “goofy self” on social media and keep her “head screwed on”.
This single-minded approach is what led to such a quick turnaround for her debut eponymous EP, which took just three months to make. The project, which oozes the fusion of R&B and melodic soul that has become synonymous with Sonder, reads as a sonic diary, chronicling the rise and fall of Amber’s relationship with a nameless, faceless boy. Opening with romantic notions of watching the sun rise in ‘Hey’ and ending with lyrics such as “you and me used to be close” in the EP’s aptly titled closer ‘When It’s Over’, it is the age-old story of love and disappointment.
Describing the development of her EP and her subsequent success as a “bizarre whirlwind of events” with “no specific blueprint”, Amber’s rise has been fast and hard. A headline European tour that included a packed Paris audience as well as selling out the infamous London venue Camden Assembly (formerly Barfly) has helped the young woman flourish into the artist she has always been. With the promise of an album in the future, there is only room for more growth from Amber Olivier.