Amenta Abioto works in layers that overlap and intersect — layers she lays down then pulls away, revealing something underneath. She’s gathered a dedicated following with her improvisational solo act, weaving powerful songs into being with the help of a kalimba, a loop pedal, and a voice that dances in and out with the weight of countless stories. There’s a seriousness and an urgency to her work but also an effortlessness, built on the dramatic openness of performances that are, at their heart, affirmations of both herself and the audience.
It seems she carries this openness wherever she goes. When we met up to talk about her process, her recent video release, “Plant It,” and Kileo — her new project with Dan Talmadge and Akila Fields — she was eager to share the ways she approaches the creative process. Check out our conversation below:
Eleven: You’ve been in Portland for a while now, but you’re originally from Memphis, and it sounds like you’ve lived in quite a few different places in between. What’s drawn you back here?
AA: I really appreciate that you can just do your thing. You can create stuff easily in Portland. It has been very open, and that’s good. I like Portland’s openness in terms of people just getting out there and doing their thing and not having it be weird.
11: On Opening Flower Hymns (Abioto’s 2013 record), you’ve got a song called “Five Sisters.” It seems like growing up and moving around with your family has had a big influence on you. Are you guys close? How do you think that’s come out in your work?
AA: Yeah, we’re all very close. We’ve created together. My sister Intisar, (who runs The Black Portlanders) started this project back in 2005? 2006? Something like that. It’s called “The People Could Fly Project.” It’s named for The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. It’s about African slaves who were here, but who flew off back to Africa. So it was this project about flying, traveling and dreams. We went around and documented different black artists, people who called out to us about their dreams and flight. We did interviews and things like that, traveled all over the U.S. We went to Africa, and they went to Jamaica.
Eventually, it morphed into this other thing called Flier Arts, where we interviewed all kinds of artists of all ethnicities, although it was still mostly people of color. We interviewed Little Dragon, and Cody Chesnutt, Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, even just people in the neighborhood. We were just getting the different wisdoms, the different stories. The weight of that was really important, showcasing that and bringing it out into the world.
11: When did you get into using a looper?
AA: I started using the looper when I was in the project Dopebeds that I formed right around the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, with Joseph Anderson. He had a loop pedal, and I played drums in that band. He did most of the production stuff with the computer. I eventually phased out of that, but I kept the loop pedal.
11: What’s your setup like now? For the gear heads…
AA: Yeah, for the gear heads! I use the 65-98 on the equence-sequencer, the 25-38 on the LL…(laughs) I’m just playin. I use a Boss 505. That’s a five channel looper, and then I use a Roland JDXI. Then, I have the Kalimba that I play.
11: Switching from a project like Dopebeds or your new project Kileo, where you’re playing with other people, to doing just a solo set — do you approach those things differently?
AA: Oh yeah, for sure. It’s so much more pressure solo because I’m in charge of everything: music, my voice, the performance. I’m multitasking a lot. The new project, Kileo, I’m focusing on the vocals. I’m the vocalist, so I have a chance to really go there, you know? Just focus on that, which feels really good. I haven’t done that in a while. It’s refreshing: I don’t have to worry about any kind of gear; I don’t have to press anything (laughs). I just focus on the audience. It’s like “I’m free!” There’s more freedom, for sure, but also more freedom in a different way when I’m alone. There’s a different aspect to it. I’m understanding more just within these different projects.
11: Would you say the solo stuff is more improvisational?
AA: Oh yeah. I do improvisational stuff with Kileo too, which is fun. But it’s more set what we do.
11: Is it different for you to sing on someone else’s song or sing someone else’s lyrics? Some of your solo stuff, “Wade,” for instance, is a classic hymn. Is there a difference writing your own lyrics versus singing words that already exist?
AA: Hmmm. There is … in a way. Definitely. The way I sing covers, I like to find different variations and ways of singing it. That part of it for me is fun. It’s different when I write a song. I might stick to a part that I do more than I would stick to a part that somebody else does. I won’t sing it exactly how somebody else sings it, but I might stick to the part that I wrote the first time. I’d be a bad cover artist for my own stuff because I won’t take it to a different place. I like improvising on my own work and doing something different, which makes my performances different. I want to do that, but it’s harder, you know?
11: Speaking of that, I was digging on YouTube. I found an older video of you doing a song called, “Let’s Just Say You Know Me,” which I realized would eventually become your new single, “Plant It.”
AA: Yeah, exactly! It’s all different. It was totally different then… (laughs)
11: I wanted to talk a little bit about the “Plant It” video. Was that a pretty collaborative process? Did you give them the song and just say, “Use this as inspiration?”
AA: It was crazy: they reached out and said they were thinking of doing something with nature and I was like, “Hey, I’ve got this song!” I had worked on the song, but it wasn’t recorded. So it was like, “OK, we’re doing a video? I gotta record!” I just gathered different visual inspirations and film inspirations. It was a very collaborative process.
11: So you hadn’t recorded that song before the video? With your evolving process, do you find there’s something hard about nailing a song down like that?
AA: There is. That one was pretty new and fresh, so it might not have all the little interesting things that I might develop later on. But it sounds great, and what I did there I’ll still do. I mean, I made up some of those lyrics when I was at the studio! (laughs)
11: That’s good though, I think. If your process tends to be that way, don’t you want to capture some of that spontaneity in the recording? I mean it seems like on Opening Flower Hymns you just went in and recorded it in one take.
AA: Yeah! It’s like stream of consciousness.
11: There’s something really impressive about that. If you can pull that off, that’s dope!
AA: It was fun! It was all through my loop pedal. At the time I had a Boss RC-2, so there was no mixing involved really. It was just that one channel. I couldn’t delete anything.
11: “Plant It” does seem like it’s the most produced thing you’ve put out. What was your recording process like for that?
AA: It is. I went in to the studio three times, and each time was shorter than the last. But I went in, adding layers on this part or that part, like, “Lemme bring this up, I need something to happen here!”
11: How was that compared to your older process?
AA: I love that shit! (laughs)
11: It’s nice to have that power. You’ve gotta be careful, though: you can get lost. You can keep messing with the song forever.
AA: You can! It’s OK, though. I’m good at being like, “Okay, that’s it, that’s good.”
11: One thing I was thinking about listening to your stuff — the technical term is “semantic satiation.” It’s when you say a word so many times that it becomes meaningless, which sometimes happens with loops or samples. But there’s a way in which you keep repeating something and it becomes more meaningful each time. Is that something you think about?
AA: Hmmm, yeah, I do, that’s true! It becomes like a chant, like this mantra, like this engrainment in your consciousness, this repetition. You get into this sort of trance with the layering and begin to hear different incantations, different rhythmic things. When you’re adding things, you might hear a different element of a sound that was there before, but you didn’t hear before. Like, “Oh, this is poppin’ now, more than that.” If I repeat a word, you might hear it differently. It’s a metamorphosis, that’s how I look at it.
11: What do you have going on in April and beyond?
AA: In April, I’m doing this soundscape experience with The Jupiter hotel, in collaboration with the Parallel Studio. It’s like this surround sound piece. We’re going into one of the rooms in the hotel, and there’s going to be this drink served. We’re basing our soundscape and our visuals off this drink, so it’s this whole experience.
11: Whoa, that’s wild! Have you tasted the drink yet?
AA: I have; it’s so good! It’s for Portland Design Week. But that’s a recording. I’m not playing live or anything.
11: How did you go about pairing a song with a drink? Did they give you a name for the drink or anything? Or just give you a glass and say, “Here you go”?
AA: No, we met with the mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler. He made the drink and was telling us what he put in it. Parallel Studios, the people who brought us all together, they’re doing this surround sound. I’m going to have different sounds in different places. There’s a visual artist, DB Amorin, he’s doing some crazy stuff too.
For live shows, I have one coming up at Variform Gallery. It’s a two-and-a-half hour sound experience. It’s nature based, live nature looping and stuff.
11: Nice. What’s the timeline on the new album?
AA: I want it to be out in November.
11: We can’t wait to hear it!
Check out Amenta Abioto’s upcoming events here.