Canada’s Best Kept Secret, Ambre McLean!

Ambre Maclean.jpg

Submitted by Michael Williams

MW: How did you come to music or did it come to you?

AM: I came by it by birth really. Both of my parents were singer/songwriters and they raised me in a very musical house. My mother ran a small, children’s musical theatre group out of our home. So, for many years and from an early age I was on stage performing.

MW: Were your parents and home environment rich with music?
AM: My parents listened to all kinds of different music when I was growing up. My father was originally in rock bands but joined a choral group when I was young and he was playing Carnegie Hall by the time I was seven. My mother started singing in a folk duo in the 70’s and so she introduced me to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and so many other great folk artists. My father’s tastes were all over the map, so I had music from opera, to rock, to blues, to jazz. I have really eclectic musical tastes as a result.

MW: When did you start to perform live?
AM: I started to perform onstage when I was about five or six, in my Mom’s theatre group. But, it wasn’t until I was eight that I had my first vocal performance. I remember standing on a chair. Partly, because I was so small - but also because I was so nervous. It some how made me feel more brave at the time.

MW: Did you finally study music?   You teach music...
AM: I went to a performing arts school and that is where I started my graded musical education. I got my grade 6 Conservatory piano and vocal theory during that time. I didn’t start to teach until years later though; after I had some stage and road experience. I considered myself more of a vocal coach then a teacher. I used my performance knowledge and my years of being a solo performer and being in bands to help direct younger, budding artists. I would help sculpt song ideas as well, if the student were interested in songwriting. I really enjoyed helping young people find their instrument, whether it was voice, piano or guitar. I loved helping them find tools to cope with stage fright. Stage fright is something that I still struggle with from time to time, and being a youngster is like being on stage all the time. When you are young you are still in the stages of developing your character, finding your voice and expressing yourself. So I found that some of my stage tools would also help these kids in their everyday life, generally just being a kid and trying to maneuver through it in an independent and confident way.

MW: In 2004 you released your debut; the harbinger of things to come was in the song “Fire”.
The Acapella sections of this are brilliantly naked and brave.
AM:Yeah, Fire was a song that took me to a new level of songwriting, I think; raw, truthful and literally very unapologetic. Actually, that entire EP “Just Passing Through” was that for me. I had, at that time, gone through a tough break-up. I was out west by myself sleeping on couches and living day to day with my guitar and the songs in my head. Fire, in particular, was a raw look at how vulnerable, torn and dismantled you can be in the final stages of a great love. I just wrote what I felt. I think Fire channelled most of the fire in me at that time, haha.

MW: You continued to record the next few records, continued  to surprise and feature a newly found craft of  songwriting,  became better and better with the live performances honed in clubs and festivals worldwide…
AM: I think after being in bands for years (KYN, Sharon Said.), that first solo EP felt like I gave myself permission to write whatever I saw and felt. I had always written from an honest place but until that heartbreak I had never had my entire being cracked right open, exposing what my guts were made of. I could be angry and sad and happy and melancholy and reflective - while still remaining gentle in my songwriting approach… That is what the next studio record captured with “I Wonder If…”
After the whimsical, piano ballad-y “I Wonder If…” my next studio record was “Murder at The Smokehouse”.  That next album was another departure for me. I started playing electric guitar at that time, so it feels a little raw and punchy and aggressive, while still maintaining the softer side of me. Oddly enough I wrote that record after another horribly painful break-up, haha. That relationship turned out ok though because we are now married. But during that time of confusion I poured my heart into that record. I called it a “musical novella”. It’s was/is collection of songs detailing the story of a failing relationship. At that time I was realizing it’s importance and significance, and trying to find the good and the beauty in it – all the while, completely falling apart.  The ‘Murder’ album is more like my musical diary then a collection of songs. That’s how I tend to write these days. I can be poetic but I am often quite literal. I enjoy being able to take my emotions, thoughts and feelings and writing them into a song. It’s sort of like a therapy for me, but I find that it helps other people as well. Life can be totally messed up and chaotic, and navigating through it can be so damn hard at times. I think writing music that is relatable to others is important.

MW: The Acapella rhythmically interesting side vs. percussion and piano... The looping how did you discover and your love for Acapella, the naked truth of it.

AM: My father introduced me to Bobby McFerrin when I was young and he became a huge influence for me.  That fantastic performer can create so many different soundscapes with the power of his one voice and I always found that to be so fascinating. I discovered looping about 12 years ago after I had a car accident. I was hit by a car, while on my bicycle and I broke my hand. I was unable to perform for quite a long time. It was a dark period for me until a friend suggested that I get a sampler and try sampling my voice. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship for me. I could still be creative and write all these songs even though I was unable to play my instruments. Fast forward two years and I was back to playing guitar and piano, but my love for live looping continued to grow. I had become a vocal looper. I wanted to create something a little different, in that I don’t usually use instruments in my loops, mainly vocals or sounds I can make with percussion, using my voice as an instrument. I find no sound is too weird when you treat it as such, ha-ha

MW: There are co writes with your mother on your new release “ME”
AM: It’s true, I have a co-write ‘I Was Wrong’ with my Mom(Sharon Smith) on me new album “Me.” It’s funny to me that we were in musical groups together for many years and have only written one song together. The recording of this record felt very close to home for me. My father Peter McLean wrote and played all the organ parts on it. I recorded it at home with my husband/producer Matt Connell in our own Northwood Studios. Many of my friends are players on this record. “Me” is just the first installment. There will be 24 songs in total. The next recording in this trilogy “My Heart” will be released in the spring of 2015, followed by “The Moon” later in the year.

MW: The new record and why a trilogy…
AM: I have so many musical influences and writing styles that I felt I needed to compartmentalize them. Looping has become a large part of my live show has, yet has never really been properly represented on any of my albums. I play a multitude of different instruments and wanted to showcase them all. We came up with the idea of a trilogy, named after a song I wrote called “Me, My Heart and the Moon”. Each record highlights a different facet of my musical personality. “Me” is an electric guitar, loop-heavy and pop-ish record. “My Heart” will showcase some of my more acoustic based roots/blues/folk songs. While “”The Moon” is going to showcase piano based songs that I have never recorded, let alone performed before. I am very excited to complete this final part of the album. In total there will be 24 songs. Eventually I will release the whole thing together but thought it would be fun to break it up in to parts.

MW: The CBC searchlight contest, did it help at number 8?
AM:  The Searchlight competition did help in a few different ways.  It gave me an opportunity to connect with my fans on a completely different level. I had to reach out and ask for their help in the voting process. I am not one that finds it easy to ask for things and I was so humbled by everyone’s willingness to reach out in return. It was amazing to see the network of people who gathered to support me because they believe in me as an artist. It was quite overwhelming actually. In the end I feel that what I gained most from Searchlight was a deeper connection to my fans. After all, with their help I was voted into the top 8. Not only that, I was the only female solo artist left in the competition so I feel so much gratitude to all my friends, family and fans for helping me get there.

MW: You tour across Canada regularly and from Nashville to Glasgow. 
AM: My touring has taken me across Canada from coast to coast. I have ventured in to the States as well, spending quite a bit of time in Nashville. Mainly for writing and showcasing purposes. This year I was able to travel to Scotland as part of small tour that CIMA and Scotland’s SMIA made possible for me. I have a great deal of Scottish blood in me and in many ways, I felt like I was coming home. I am very eager to get back there and do some more European touring.

MW: You are simply the best live performer in any situation I have almost ever seen....we saw the “Sing” fundraiser and you stole the show in three songs.

AM: I love, love, love performing. I rarely write a set list, but I usually have a loose idea of what I want to talk and sing about. I’ll set up an array of instruments and let myself be inspired by the night, the venue, the audience. I love the freedom of creating a show in front of people’s eyes. That is probably my musical theatre coming out a bit ha-ha. There is something magical for me in an impromptu evening. Someone in the audience might prompt a story or a conversation. I like my audiences to feel like they are as much a part of the show as I am.

MW: You have been called  “Canada’s best kept musical secret!
AM: Canada’s best kept musical secret.I’ve heard this said a few times. I guess it’s my job to let people in on the secret! I took a bit of a sabbatical a few years ago. I had a series of serious un-related accidents that kept me from performing and touring. I feel like I have started my career over a few times. I have no plans for car accidents or work related injuries so perhaps I am no longer a secret.

MW:Your live show is what has got me from the beginning seeing you, in a hall at the Cashbox Canada booth at CMW…how did you perfect your live show and did education or playing every club help that.
AM: I remember that show well! I tend to think of every show as a chance to “bring it” for lack of a better phrase. I liken every stage experience to being my first. I still get nervous, I think that feeling fuels me and makes me want to be the best performer I can be. If people are watching, then I’d better act like I am giving it my all… and I do. I feel like I am always working on my stage presence. As I change in my life, so do the things I want to talk about, sing about. Those things then alter the person that I am and how I want to portray myself. I am the same on stage as I am off stage. For me, I feel that this is very important; that everything is equally from my heart and soul. My music is a reflection of me so when I perform you get the same raw energy that I put into my songs. As a result, being on stage has always felt very natural to me.

MW: Some of your favourites you have worked with Tara Holloway…etc…
AM: Tara Holloway has been an amazing musical friend and peer. I am fortunate to have worked with and shared the stage with some great Canadian artists, Donovan Woods, Scarlett Jane, Amanda Rheaume,  East Coast’s The Town Heroes to name a few…I just love music, performing and working in this business. More to come!