Earlier this year Amber Mark dropped ‘Worth It’, a strutting slice of Latin-inflected R&B. The track is a buoyant moment of self-empowerment which sees Mark urging you not to be so hard on yourself by asserting: “You think you don’t deserve it / But you are so damn worth it”.
‘Worth It’ was the first taste of the New York-based singer, songwriter and producer’s long awaited debut album (its title has still yet to be unannounced), and it has since been followed by the funk-laced ‘Foreign Things’ and woozy ‘Competition’. An amalgam of slick production, lush and wide-ranging soundscapes and acerbic lyricism, Mark is demonstrating to her fans that her first record will have been worth the wait.
For the latest in NME’s In Conversation series, Amber Mark tells us all about her upcoming debut album, the benefits of songwriting games and her “really intense Bee Gees phase”. Here’s what we learned.
Several songs on Amber Mark’s debut began life as songwriting games
When Mark was beginning work on her debut record in 2019 she attended a writing camp in Ojai, California that was organised by songwriter and producer Julian Bunetta (who’s also worked with One Direction and Fifth Harmony). “I was very nervous about [it],” Mark says. “The idea of working with a bunch of people in a session: that’s the epitome of anxiety for me.”
As the camp progressed, though, those nerves began to subside as Mark eased into the process. One evening, she took part in a songwriting game where they were split into teams and set the task of creating a song in under 30 minutes. “It wasn’t until then that I really let go,” Mark explains now. “I was like: ‘Oh, we’re playing a game, who really cares, nothing’s really going to come out of this’.”
This songwriting game, however, ended up being productive. Recent single ‘Competition’, a sultry cut of slick R&B, first started life in these timed sessions alongside another song that will feature on her debut record. “It ended up being such an amazing experience… it was so enjoyable, and the rest of the trip felt like we were playing a game.”
A “really intense Bee Gees phase” has inspired her album
One of the songs on Mark’s new LP was inspired by her listening to disco kings the Bee Gees on repeat. “I went through a really intense Bee Gees phase last year,” Mark admits. “[On] one of the songs I wrote last year, ‘What It Is’, all of the harmonies were heavily inspired by [the Bee Gees]. I love doing harmonies, so I’ll try and put in as many as I possibly can on any song, but that song was definitely very heavily inspired by the Bee Gees.”
Other musical influences on the record include Sade, A Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as German-Indian musician Prem Joshua. “I look to [Joshua] at all times, any time I’m writing. He was really popular when I was a kid living in India with my mum… and when I was starting to write I really looked to him for inspiration.”
The pandemic afforded Mark extra time to work on her LP
“I was ready to put out the album last year,” says Mark. “We were about to shoot videos throughout the summer and start doing the rollout, and then everything was put on pause because of COVID.”
As a “side project” Mark spent her time instead making beats and posting them on social media, explaining: “It really allowed me to let go of trying to have so much meaning behind everything I put out.”
But in letting go of this pressure, she conversely realised that she did, in fact, want her album to have a set meaning. Mark then honed in on making sure that her album took its listener on a journey as she herself started to ask the big questions: what is the meaning of life? Why is there so much suffering in the world? “[The album] expanded in terms of what I was thinking about, really. I started implementing [these themes] into the album,” she explains now.
Mark ended up rearranging the record “so that it’s telling a story of my life, and all these questions I’ve started asking myself”. These changes also saw four extra songs being added to the tracklist, with Mark revealing: “I don’t even know what my album would be if it wasn’t for the songs that were added.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gets a shout-out on the record
Mark was also influenced by quantum physics: while writing the record, she got lost down YouTube rabbit holes by watching videos about higher dimensions and listening to talks by physicists. These scientific influences subsequently seeped into the structure of the record both in her lyrics and in some of the samples that were used. At one point during the album, a clip from the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the legendary moment when supercomputer Deep Thought reveals that the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is, er, 42 – is sampled.
“I’ve always been such a sci-fi nerd. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been one of my favourite books for such a long time,” says Mark. “I always loved that scene from the movie and that line from the book, and I really wanted to input that into the album. I think it really struck a chord for me: these people have been asking what is the meaning of life, and for years they’ve been trying to figure out the answer. When he says the answer they all freak out, and the key moment for me is when the computer says: ‘I think the problem is you haven’t been asking the right question’.”
Creating a five-part visual anthology to accompany the album allowed Mark to live out her sci-fi dreams
Mark’s debut will be accompanied by a series of music videos, with chapter one being the lush visuals for her recent single ‘Foreign Things’ which Mark co-directed alongside her pal Satya Zoa.
“This visual side to [the album] is me pleasing my sci-fi nerdy self, and all the dreams of putting myself in those worlds. And because there is a storyline to this album… I think people will understand it more because of the visuals,” Mark says. “I always love when visuals have Easter eggs, and you get to play detective with certain things.
“It’s me being excited to direct, make visuals and make this storyline, and make me look like a Marvel character or bend water.”