In a brilliant coming-of-age tale, Washington, D.C. native, AMARU, tells the story of his childhood, highlighting the euphoric moments we often associate with adolescence. Carefree moments of playing hopscotch at recess, collecting Pokemon cards, cartoons on Saturday mornings, and the unenviable question every black child hates to be asked - “You got McDonalds money?” - all serve as a backdrop for AMARU’s Childish Things.
An avid student of Jazz, chorale music, and theatre, AMARU’s broad artistic palette is on display on Childish Things. And though he seems to move with ease through each genre, it wasn’t always easy for him. Childish Things is a testament to AMARU’s artistic development. Following the release of his album, I talked to him about making Childish Things, Nina Simone’s influence on him, his artistic evolution, and more. Here’s our conversation:
Stanley: You start the album with the clip of Maya Angelou speaking, then use this really cool and familiar melody from My Favorite Things. Why was it important for you to start here?
AMARU: Well, the whole concept of Childish Things, being the first installment of my trilogy, was to take a moment to recap and highlight elements of my childhood I’ve experienced in a sort of chronological order.
During my early childhood I was raised and greatly influenced by women like my grandmother and older sister. I also grew up writing poetry, and I thought adding something familiar from my childhood as an intro to the project would be a great way to pay homage to both women and words, my greatest childhood influences.
The recreation of the melody of My Favorite Things was my way of reproducing a familiar sound that listeners would be able to identify with while giving it new life and meaning with lyrics that were specific to my childhood experience. Plus, that particular interview clip is funny as hell to me and a lot of people of color who grew up with “old school” style parents or guardians I thought would relate.
One day one of my teachers sat me down after choir rehearsal and played some Nina Simone for me and her voice felt very haunting
Stanley: I really love the clip of Nina Simone at the beginning of Wonderful (almost my favorite song) where she’s kind of critiquing the music industry, and almost foreshadowing the extreme commodification of Music that would come.
Could you talk about your relationship with Nina Simone, and why you chose to include that clip?
AMARU: Nina Simone has become a huge inspiration for me after I read up on her and started revisiting her music about 2 years ago. Initially, when I first got introduced to jazz as a teenager, I listened to a lot of vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole – artists who were considered having more melodic and sweet-sounding vocals.
One day one of my teachers sat me down after choir rehearsal and played some Nina Simone for me and her voice felt very haunting to me, and I honestly didn’t know why emotionally it made me feel uncomfortable.
I didn’t actually start listening to her heavy until like senior year of college when I was studying classical music and I learned that she was a composer and classically trained pianist. Once I began listening to her catalog more intently, I started seeing the brilliance in the way she created her own music using her classical influence.
I also fell in love with her story and how she used her voice to be an activist. It’s like all of a sudden everything I couldn’t understand about her as a child started to make since when I was older and in a different space.
The haunting voice, the creativity of her compositions and arrangements, the power in the way she spoke and performed, it all just became a source of inspiration for me all at once at a very specific time in my life when I think I needed it the most.
Quite simply this clip was a reminder for me that I am young gifted and black and that any great master should always remain teachable.
Stanley: The album plays and feels very cinematic. What was the influence for constructing the album this way?
AMARU: Essentially the entire project is just a snapshot of some of my childhood experiences. All of the songs and interludes and skits are all recreations of specific memories, so I guess the cinematic element was an attempt to kind of connect the dots for the listeners so that the project is cohesive and easy to listen to from start to finish.
I wanted to study more jazz and musical theatre and learn more about musicians of color who weren’t highlighted in our textbooks
Stanley: McDonalds Money - we have to talk about this, because I can hear my mom saying, “you got McDonalds Money?!” lol. But anyway - McDonalds Money and Maria Ave seem to speak directly to your training in music. What is your relationship with classical music at large, and Chorale Music?
AMARU: Ughh this is a loaded question.
I started formal voice training in 8th grade and sang in choral groups like the Washington youth choir and ensembles each year when I performed in school musicals. That repertoire was a mixture of musical theatre, spirituals, and mostly contemporary choral arrangements.
Later in life when I was a freshman in college majoring in music was when I started heavily studying Western European classical music. That choral and solo stuff was way more complex and required me to expand my range and develop new skills that I hadn’t fully developed.
I hated the curriculum the first couple years and the music I was required to study, because it all seemed one dimensional and super archaic and I wanted to study more jazz and musical theatre and learn more about musicians of color who weren’t highlighted in our textbooks.
On the other hand, studying and performing choral music at that level helped me to develop my musicianship in a more formal and structured way. Music theory, sight reading/ear training, and composition/arranging were the type of skills I was developing.
So, for me, my classical and choral training gave me skills that I view as tools in a tool box. Every artist has their own toolbox with a specific set of tools they have, we also have the freedom to choose how we use those tools to craft the art we want to create.
I’m not sure I have expectations for how people should listen. I don’t think I can create parameters around how people should experience art
Stanley: What do you want listeners to take away from listing to this album?
AMARU: This entire project is the first of a trilogy so it’s really just an introduction of me as an artist and musician and it gives y’all a glimpse into my background and hopefully highlights some of my childhood influences which is pretty much the foundation for who I am as an artist.
Honestly, I’m not sure I have expectations for how people should listen. I don’t think I can create parameters around how people should experience art.
What I can say though is that, In the beginning phases of writing Childish Things I knew that I wanted to create something from scratch that was listenable from beginning to end and that was relatable to folks who had similar childhood experiences.
Other than that, I didn’t have any expectations. Now that it’s done, and I put it out into the universe, it don’t belong to me no more.