British soul singer songwriting sensation Amahla has been nominated as one of five emerging artists for the Ivors Academy Rising Star Award – and is being mentored by none other than the legendary Nile Rodgers.
Nile, who co-founded Chic and is one of the pivotal figures in music history, is teaming up with the 23-year-old after judges were overawed by her ability.
While Nile’s worked with everyone from Diana Ross to Madonna, he’s now turning his attention to the Hackney-raised talent.
She released debut EP Consider This to critical acclaim last year and has already performed at historic venues including the Royal Albert Hall, the Roundhouse and St Pancras Old Church.
In an exclusive chat with Daily Star Online, Nile, who famously worked on Let’s Dance with David Bowie and Get Lucky with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, said Amahla is “incredible” and “writes from her soul”.
Amahla is joined by follow 2020 Rising Star nominees Carmel Smickersgill, Griff, lullahush and Mysid.
Anna Meredith, David Arnold, Fraser T Smith, and Kamille will also act as mentors this year.
The Rising Stars Award with Apple Music is the first new Ivor Novello Award category to be introduced in 10 years and honours young British and Irish songwriting and composing talent.
This year saw a record-breaking number of entries, which included 60% made by female music creators.
Nominees will receive Logic Pro X and GarageBand workshops to make the most of Apple’s creative tools and receive support from the creative services team within Apple Music’s Publishing division to optimise their compositions on Apple Music.
Helienne Lindvall, chair of The Ivors Award Committee at The Ivors Academy, said: “I’m delighted that The Ivors Academy is working with Apple Music on the brand-new mentorship programme to empower young songwriters and composers.
“Right now, there are more opportunities but we are also facing more challenges than ever, so it’s more important than ever to support and champion music creators.
“Starting out in the music industry is notoriously difficult, so it really matters that we nurture songwriters and composers at the beginning of their careers.
“It’s fantastic that the Rising Star Award with Apple Music is recognising and promoting such extraordinary and inspiring young talent.”
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown chatted to Nile about his role mentoring Amahla for this year’s Ivors Academy Rising Star Award, how he learnt from failures, and his message for other young musicians.
He also caught up with Amahla to find out what it’s like working with a legendary icon and being nominated for the award.
Nile Rodgers interview
Hi Nile. You’ve been named a mentor for this year’s Ivors Academy Rising Star award. Tell me more about the role?
“My mentee is Amahla. She touched my heart for the very first time I saw her demos. They have to do a number of videos and songs for us to choose from. Even though there were other artists where I would say ‘I really want to work with them!’ but every time I would finish my comment I’d say ‘I sure hope Amahla doesn’t know’.
“I was thrilled to get her because, when we worked for the very first time, she came over to Abbey Road, I was so impressed with her. I was so pleased with her spirit, the fact that she’s a real artist and has got such an open mind.
“She writes very passionately. She writes from her soul. You can feel that because she’s a guitar player. She writes on guitar. She writes based on what she hears and feels and translates that into music. I think that’s a very interesting process to watch.
“It made me feel that maybe I could introduce some other intellectual elements into her life that would expand her horizons.”
Where do you see Amahla’s future?
“I never predict stuff. You don’t know. The thing that’s really difficult about being a musician for life is the ability to accept failure.
“I don’t know my mentee that well to know if she can accept failure or how well she can deal with that. All I know is, right now in this current moment, she and I are having a pretty strong artistic tie. I’m helping her on some other stuff. Other people see talent in her too because she’s already been offered publishing deals.”
Her song Apathy is such a powerful song – how does she make you feel when listening to her?
“I think she’s incredible. Her honesty is I would say overly apparent. She’s doesn’t hide her emotions. Maybe that’s because being her age and being in this world at this time she feels that as an artist she can say what she wants to say, what she needs to say, what she has to say unfettered.
“It feels to me she just can say it, do it, and she doesn’t have to think about ‘who’s going to like this? I’m trying to get a record deal’. It feels much more more sincere.
“Typically when I meet young artists, some are incredibly calculating, like when I first met Madonna. She was very clear she wanted to rule the world. She even said that.
“Amahla doesn’t say anything like that to me. Madonna was driven, focused and knew where she was going. Amahla is experiencing it and letting it happen.”
She’s among a stellar roster of talented artists – just how good are they? Do you think it’s really important we nurture rising talent?
“I have two answers for that. I think that whether they want to make it, you just do it. If you’re in it and your heart’s in it, you just do it. You have a calling. You’re compelled to do it.
“I have been doing this so long, not because I have to, I could have retired after I did the Diana Ross album. The way that I live that I would have more than enough money to sustain myself.
“But I just love doing it. I wake up everyday with a job to do and I want to do that job.
“It’s important for us to nurture them. I also think at the same time they will work out a way to get it done on their own.
“This group of artists, all of which I’ve been exposed to because we had to vote on them, they’re all incredible. There’s no one that isn’t to me on a professional level – they’re all great.”
You’ve quoted as saying you can’t wait for the nominees to grow and give the world that I hope will be many of the great songs of the future – do you think we’re entering an exciting time in music?
“Absolutely. If I were younger, music right now feels as exciting as it’s ever felt to a new artist.
“Even from just what I see, having gone through different phases of music writing, right now having access to the amount of music that people have access to is mind boggling. I think that quite frankly the more the better.”
At the moment we’re all going through a hard time globally. Do you have a message for any aspiring musicians who may be struggling right now to be heard and getting their music out there?
“We’re all struggling to be heard.
“No matter how successful we get, everybody has their ups and downs. It’s just part of the business.
“Failure is a great teacher in our business. You learn very little from success because, typically with success, we can’t repeat that. It’s usually a consequence of events that we can’t really control, we just do what we do as artists.
“Sometimes these events converge and, bingo, we’ve got a hit record. The truth of the matter is on your side of the artist you are doing what you always do.
“I couldn’t believe how all of my first records were hits and then one day I did exactly what I was doing on the last record and it was a flop. I went ‘whoa, how did that happen? I didn’t do anything different!’.
“The world had changed. No one cared. ‘We want the new, we want the new, we want the new’. You’re part of the old and they had moved on.
“I had to live with that failure at my young age for a good three years. From when I released Diana Ross in 1980, I wouldn’t have another substantial hit until David Bowie, which we released in 82, but really made its mark in 83.
“I had three years, it feels like an eternity. I had nothing but hit records and then nothing but flops until Let’s Dance. And then after Let’s Dance I had a bunch of hits, then you have another cold period, then you B-52s and I had another hot period, and that ends and another cold period. Then Coming To America, boom! I had another hot period doing films. Then a cold period. Then I do video games and do Halo 2 and another hot period! These things are up and down like a rollercoaster.
“I work just as hard on the flops as I do on the hits. I enjoy those failures and the process of creating that work that doesn’t resonate with the public at large. But I have the same amount of fun.”
Hi Amahla, congratulations for your Rising Star Award nomination. Can you tell me more about it?
“The Rising Star Award is the first new category for the Ivors in 10 years. The idea is to propel and support emerging song writing talent.
“It’s just such an honour to be nominated. I’m only 23 and songwriting is such a big part of who I am. Telling other people’s stories and taking that in. Just to be nominated is really amazing.”
Your mentor is the legendary Nile Rodgers. What’s he like and how has he helped you? What have you learned with working with him so far?
“Nile can do everything. He can write a song about anything. He could write a song about his guitar strings, or somebody walking through the door, or a glass of water in front of him. He’s constantly creative.
“One of the things I’ve picked up just being around him is that being amazing is a skill, you have to practice and really take the time and find inspiration in things. It doesn’t always just come to you.
“As a person he’s really supportive and encouraging and humble, and honest. He’s just authentically himself and it’s really nice to have a mentor supporting that almost feels like family.”
When you look back on your career so far did you ever think wow what a dream it is to work with someone as legendary as Nile?
“I didn’t even imagine it as a possibility! It didn’t even cross my mind, the idea that I could work with anybody that’s done what Nile has done in his career, especially so soon.
“I think in my head I always thought in 10 years maybe when I work really hard and prove myself in the industry that I would have the opportunity to work with people like Nile Rodgers.
“But to do it now it is really incredible for my development.”
What are your next steps with the project?
“We are working on a song at the moment. It’s in its really early stages. I recently sent back some of my vocals on a song that I wrote. I’m waiting to see what he thinks!
“I spent some days with him at his Abbey Road songwriting camp. That was really eye opening, the amount of people in the room, the talent and the skill around and just being welcomed.”
What’s it like to be nominated with four other artists deemed the best emerging talent in the UK and Ireland – how exciting is it to be a part of something like this?
“I haven’t had a chance to meet all the other nominees yet but I’m really proud to be a part of a group of young creatives, especially at the time when being an emerging artist is really difficult, and being an emerging songwriter is even harder.
“Having that structure built within the Ivors Academy and supported by legendary songwriters and musicians is a really inspiring thing to be a part of and I feel really privileged to be a part of it.”
When did you get into music? Who were you inspired by?
“I wrote my first song when I was eight. I played a little bit of piano. I really enjoyed singing from a young age, it was part of my family and part of how I grew up.
“Having a lot of CDs and records, a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Nile Rodgers and a lot of Marvin Gaye just around the house. It was imbedded in me. It wasn’t something I set out to be.
“It’s took me a little while, it took me until I was 21, to say that I wanted to be a singer and do it professionally because I never felt exposed to the music industry. It was never in my head something I feasibly do. In all honest it was organisations like the Roundhouse and music workshops that I was able to go to while I was at university that opened my eyes to the music industry and the fact that I was good and getting better, and if I kept getting better it could be a career for me.”
You released your EP Consider This last year to acclaim, followed up with the track Apathy. How pleased are you with the reaction with your music?
“I am always taken aback when people say they like what I do because there was never a plan. I have made plans but there’s never been ‘I’m going to do this and this and then become a famous singer’. It was ‘I’m just going to put out the music that makes me feel something and reminds me of the music I grew up loving’. Music that has a message and is intricate in different ways and has multiple meanings but is also accessible enough for people to listen to and not necessarily take in all those things I spent ages designing in a song.
“I’m always taken aback when they say they like what I do because it’s basically been just me running to and seeing how it goes over the past couple of years.”
How do you get into the mindset of writing songs?
“I spend a lot of time observing. For me a lot of my songs are just about broad topics in society but come from my direct experience.
“I think right now I, in a similar way to what Nile does, need to go and find inspiration. It doesn’t always just come to me. If I’m in a park I’m looking at how people are moving, I’m looking at hand gestures and conversations, the way that the park is laid out, how are people meant to move around the space.
“I think a part of that comes from my degree. I did anthropology. I’m just trying to look at simple things that are complex and taking that to write that into a melody. It’s definitely the first stage. Then I usually write on guitar.
“It’s sometimes really hard to explain what a song is about because it comes from so many experiences.
“You want people to understand what you’re saying, so it often focuses on one but I’m learning that the way I use language is really important.
“If describing a song like Apathy, it’s a song about self isolation but it’s also about privilege and the ability to switch things off. There’s a lot of thoughts that go around my head.
“Trying to pin that down into a song is definitely the challenge. I think and hope that it’s coming through.”
You’ve performed at the Royal Albert Hall, the Roundhouse and St Pancras Old Church, what did you take from those performances?
“I think when when you’re in places like the Royal Albert Hall and St Pancras Old Church which are very historic it almost reminds me of the artists I loved growing up with. Like early jazz and blues, because those are venues they would play in with orchestras and big bands.
“It really is almost amazing that I get to do what my idols did but 100 years later with a different kind of perspective on it. That’s really interesting for me in terms of genre and cultural history.
“Just being able to perform in there and people thinking that this stage that I’m able to fill that space is really encouraging. When somebody sets a challenge you rise to it. I’ve definitely become a better performer and communicator and a better storyteller, which is the essence of songwriting.”
With lockdown all the venues are closed at the moment, are you looking forward to getting out there again and playing?
“I really am. I’m really missing playing live. It’s not the same from a bedroom!”
Where do you hope the next few years will be for you?
“In terms of the short term I’m looking to release my next EP in September which will be really cool. It will be the follow up to Consider This and touch on themes and social issues that are happening now.
“In terms of the big goal I would love to my music to live beyond me. I want my songs and my words and stories to represent what’s going on now but also to represent an era.
“When you listen to Nile’s music, he has a song for every occasion in life. You listen to Stevie Wonder’s music, he has a song for every single birthday, when you get married, I want my music and my songs to do that kind of songbook. If that happens then I will be ultimately happy.”
The Ivors Nominations will be announced on Monday, July 20
Winners across all categories will be announced on September 2, 2020