What does it mean to become an R&B star? Amaal has been fixated on honing her craft for some time, and no detail is too small. Everything from her wardrobe to the way her nail polish is color-coordinated with her sneakers tells her audience she wants to be and look the part. The first time we connect at Soho House, the Canadian newcomer is in rehearsals with her guitarist, eager to perform for her New York crowd.
She demonstratively shakes “some jitters,” and we share a laugh. Why? Because this city is famed for being notoriously stingy with its applause. But when Amaal picks up her microphone, she sings the doors off the wall. Here it is just her, an instrument, and a point to prove. The foremost version of her EP Milly was distributed by Warner Music Canada and hit number one on the Canadian iTunes R&B chart. Soon after, one of Amaal’s favorite artists, Syd, and she released a collaboration — their love song, “Lullaby,” became another affirmation that the ascending singer’s work has true promise.
“I loved her music from the moment I heard Syd with The Internet. I was a big fan,” Amaal explained to The Knockturnal on Zoom. Some time has passed for growth. She is excited to prepare for new stages and to be in the thick of recording her next project. All the while, authenticity remains her focal point: “Whenever I hear a record, I like it to be very minimalistic and stripped down. If it tugs at my soul and makes me feel something, I have to jump on the mic immediately.”
The get-it-done technique for past creations is unlocking new doors. The Knockturnal caught up with Amaal to discuss utilizing music to combat stigmas, why she is glad she met Nusi Quero before Beyoncé released RENAISSANCE and the significance of finding your tribe. Become acquainted with the Milly artist making her way toward your playlist.
The “Heaven” music video acquired nearly half a million views ahead of your EP’s release. Describe your creative process of preparing.
Musically I had to evolve. When I started, I shied away from creating because I was trying to copy other things people were doing. I saw what worked for them as artists. So, I had to come back to my foundation!
Whenever I hear a record, I like it to be very minimalistic and stripped down. If it tugs at my soul and makes me feel something, I have to jump on the mic immediately. My inhibitions are gone. I begin singing, almost as though my subconscious is coming out. I get out all my melodic ideas.
Sometimes none of it makes sense at first. So, I keep singing, and then when I step outside of the booth, my team listens. In that process, we find something. Almost 80% of my songs have been built that way. When I don’t do it that way and try to write first, my ego gets in the way. I can become very critical. That has been my new process because it feels like my soul is speaking.
Your initial 7-track EP, Milly, maintained a buzz. What would you like listeners who are becoming acquainted with your sound to know about your music?
That is a beautiful question because I am a woman who has lived most of her young adult life in a place of fear. I was censoring myself constantly. That created what felt like a slow death. I was unhappy, and my music did not feel real to me early on.
Music, for me, is a form of therapy. It is like a mirror back at me. It helps me go through life. What I want people to know is that now I feel confident. I am feeling fearless. As women, so much pressure is placed on us to fit into boxes.
I want women to feel it is okay to be multifaceted. We can be colorful and do the things we love to do. We do not need to succumb to the pressures of our families or a man. No, not at all! Your voice is so important. Hold on to it.
Never compromise it for anybody. That is something I want people to take away from me. I’ve fought hard. Difficult experiences give you wisdom. You have to share them. That is my music, in short.
Please identify your musical influences.
My experiences. I think about the younger me and things I wish someone would have told me. I am a Somali and Muslim girl. Musically, it is hard to find someone who fully knows your story. I know refugees and immigrants.
My influences are Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone. They were the soundtrack to whatever was happening in the world. They were reflecting the times they lived in. They did not want to make filler music. That is crucial, but I also loved Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah.
Upon your first release, Milly was number one on iTunes’ Canadian R&B chart and number two on their UK chart. What did this accomplishment mean to you?
It was like, “Wow!” I could not believe it at first. I feel like the stars are aligning. I am on the right path. Now, I can see everything I went through was not for nothing! It was extremely validating.
What are you manifesting next as a businesswoman?
That is a great question because I want to do more than music. I hope to take this momentum and enter new ventures, such as fashion and work with beauty brands. I love makeup. I love dressing up! Then there is jewelry. I am into accessories, so I hope to become more hands-on with all of that.
“Selfish” has a vulnerable music video. How much of your songwriting is rooted in your real-life experiences?
The song “Selfish” is straight up from a real experience (laughs)! I did not share a lot of things that I was going through when I first started making music. There were a lot of stories I was not able to talk about. At the time, I was in a relationship with someone who did not want me to do music. My ex was controlling. In the end, I had to get out of that.
Going out with your girls after an ex pisses you off is typically a cure-all. Were you nervous during that car scene with them?
I hung outside the car window, and I was not nervous a bit. I am a rollercoaster girl. You’re so sweet for asking, though. I had a good grip on the car.
They actually interjected at one point of filming and said, “Okay! You do not have to do that anymore.” It was a lot of fun. I have always wanted to do that in a music video. So, I got my moment early.
Is there a personal favorite on Milly?
I love the song “Petty Love” at present. There is something about it. That track speaks to me because I play it a lot with my sisters.
Do you have plans to tour with this body of work eventually?
Absolutely! We had plans to do so. Things in the world were more complicated, but they still are. It looks like that will be changing concerning performances.
How were your recent shows in Montreal with Charlotte Cardin?
The shows were incredible. We had four days, and to have something go back-to-back [was new]. I had never experienced that before working with Charlotte. It has been a while since I was on stage.
Venues were not as open. They were small, intimate shows and were also beautiful. I absolutely love doing those. You can connect with an audience differently.
Now, to be able to have my music play in that environment with Charlotte and that many people is a [dissimilar] experience. It was unbelievable. Charlotte is amazing. Overall, it was a dream come true.
I previously attended one of those showcases. What level of pride do you take in your abilities as a live vocalist?
It means everything to me, from starting rehearsals as early as I can to being able to do vocal lessons [is useful]. I started that again not too long ago. I have always had that in my routine. I am consistent. I want to be able to grow vocally. I want to keep making it and [getting] better as an artist.
You acknowledge new happenings, but what does the Milly EP mean to you today?
I initially recorded that body of music [a couple of years ago]. When I started doing music, there was a Somali girl doing music. We also had someone by the name of K’nann. So, I did have those figures to look up to. But there was no one that I fully understood. When I got into music, it was incredible — the reaction I got right away.
There were also a lot of backlashes. Of course, when you are doing something, and you are one of the first and doing it in English, etc., there was negative energy, too. Some family dynamics changed. I did not realize it would be like that.
Unfortunately, it impacted the way I approached recording. I was absent from my music because I had dos and don’ts. Now, I let go of that shame I placed on myself. Milly was a part of me realizing I was doing myself an injustice [operating that way].
As a human and artist, I was hiding. I decided in those moments, “I am not going to live my life like this anymore.” With Milly, I remember being nervous about singing some of that stuff. Now, the way I experience it is by looking back. I say, “What was I even scared of?”
Would you say that Milly liberated you as an artist?
Big time! I definitely called it my liberating moment. The most powerful thing was seeing Somali, Ethiopian, and Pakistani girls and other women who understand my upbringing [relate to the EP]. Hearing them say, “This has been a liberating project for me,” felt like, “Wow!”
Please describe your time in the studio recording the added Milly song “Lullaby” with Syd.
It was pretty simple. It is the way of working now, and I thankfully got to meet her afterward, but initially, we recorded separately. I worked with Nicky Davey — they are friends. When we recorded for Milly, they also had a session with Syd.
Nicky Davey played two of my songs [for her]. Syd’s feedback was, “This is amazing. You guys are really on to something.” The next thing I knew, we had a session, and Nicky Davey was like, “Hey! Syd gave a lot of good feedback. Check out this song. Do you want to be on it?”
So, it was actually her song first. She already had a verse on it. I thought, “This is beautiful.” I love her! I loved her music from the moment I heard Syd with The Internet. I was a big fan. I said, “Yes, let’s do this.” We recorded it and sent it back to her.
We were going to put it out right before COVID-19 hit. Unfortunately, that got in the way creatively. There were even talks of a video, but in the end, I did not want to keep pushing it back. I said, “Let’s just get it out there.” Based on my conversations with Syd, I know she is a genuine and supportive person.
What do you want those becoming familiar with your artistry to know about you?
My music is the backdrop of my life. I see music as a diary. I do not think I would be who I am today if I was not making music. Again, it has been a way to push back on societal and traditional things that I feel listeners might also be accustomed to. It allows me to live by my own rules. My music represents being your authentic self.
In summary, beyond you veering against the cultural standards you were groomed in, do you feel your music is autobiographical?
Yes! Oh, I like that. That’s beautiful. That is well-said, and what I was trying to say — right there (laughs).
You are fashionable. What are some of your go-to pieces in your wardrobe?
I am a mixture of two moods. It is either a baggy T-shirt or [girly]. I love jewelry. So, I always gotta have earrings, a necklace, and bracelets. I layer it up. I have the studio and rehearsal look – I gravitate toward the oversized look.
Then there is the really sexy, form-fitting, and high heels moment. It is beautiful. I am expressing my femininity and what that means to me. I like pairing it out with a nice bag. Beyond that, I like the futuristic look. With Milly, that was the direction I wanted to take with the project.
I feel that was encompassed with your latest cover art.
Yes, the top I am wearing on the Milly cover is by Nusi Quero. I found him at the beginning of the pandemic. He began 3D printing. I stalked him (laughs). I said, “I am in LA. I need to see you.” He was like, “Who is this girl?”
He had just started that process. I do not know if he was comfortable with working with people. He is now growing. Beyoncé is wearing the same designer on her album cover for RENAISSANCE. SZA has worn him and Doja Cat. His work has gone through the roof. I said, “Ah! I am so happy I got to work with you before…”
Yeah (laughs)! No, I love the futuristic look. For example, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott’s time together was the most iconic. It has always had my heart.
Aaliyah had the balance you mentioned. She was the best of both worlds.
Ugh! She was so beautiful.
How are you preparing for your forthcoming show alongside Jazmine Sullivan and Tems?
I cannot believe it is happening. I am grateful. In terms of preparation, I have been in rehearsal mode. Thankfully the band and I have rehearsed so much that we have it. We know exactly what needs to happen.
It is a hometown show, and it will be my first show with this many people. For me, this is pretty iconic. I want it to be visually pleasing. I want to give everyone a show. They are two heavy hitters.
That represents growth. What is one thing Milly Amaal knows about the music business that “Scream” Amaal had yet to experience?
The biggest thing I learned about is the importance of a team. When I started doing my music, I was by myself. I did not know any better. You do not know what you do not know. I started doing music without the intent of wanting to go further.
I was genuinely invested in releasing music and showing my friends. First, I had it on Facebook. My friends would see it, and they were always supportive. I did not expect [the early recordings to go as far as they did]. I do not want to say “viral moment,” but in our world, it was one.
Artists are artists for a reason, right? You can’t be good at everything. In time, I was able to meet one or two people. I learned now that the experience [as an artist] is like day and night when you have a team. You start to see the trajectory of your career move.
Once I opened up, I started to see things happen. Quality is very important. You need key people who are aware and passionate about music. Also, this applies to what they want to do. I have learned more about the business in general.
What is en route creatively that your listeners should be looking out for?
A new project definitely — there is going to be another EP. I am working on new music.
Amaal, how do you wish to be remembered?
I wish to be remembered as a woman who never conformed. I am someone who always challenges cultural and social norms. Still, I do it from a place of liberating my listeners, especially the women. I hope they will say I am brave and fearless.