Amanda Whiting on breaking through the mould and 'After Dark' (Feature Interview)
Welsh harpist Amanda Whiting took the time to talk with Ally about her new album 'After Dark' - released through Jazzman Records - and explains led her to move over from the world of classical to jazz.
The utterly charming Welsh harpist Amanda Whiting has made a real name for herself over the past few years – working as both a musician on the international stage with figures like Matthew Halsall of Gondwana Records and Chip Wickham, as well as household names like Jamie Cullum and Danii Minogue. Yet, Amanda’s story is certainly not a typical one. Having spent years honing her craft as a classically trained harpist, she has seamlessly slipped into the jazz world. Some might question such a bold decision, but you don’t have to spend long talking with Amanda to understand how she was able to handle such a seismic change – full of life and bundles of fun if anyone can make such a monumental switch, Amanda Whiting can.
Having been inspired by the flamboyant fusion harpist Deborah Henson, Amanda decided to take up the harp at the young age of 6, the national instrument of Wales. Having grown up with the 1990s hip hop sounds of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Amusingly, it wasn’t until her partner started taking up jazz that Amanda decided to change her tack. Wistfully, Amanda recalls “When he’d come back [from his jazz sessions], he’d ask theory questions - I didn't know what he was talking about. I’d really get annoyed about it because I would be thinking, ‘How can I not understand that?’” Setting herself the challenge and having gone in with the intentions to take jazz lessons at the local college, Amanda ended up diving into taking on a Master of Jazz in harp – the first known person in the UK to do so. “It was a really big deal. A change of life, really”, she confesses, “I was I taken into my lowest point of music ever in realizing what I didn't know”.
Having spent her entire life immersed within the classical world, making this transition was initially challenging. “It was daunting”, she tells me, “the whole taking away my music was daunting. The improvising, the trying to work out chords, everything was just so alien to what I've been trained in since the age of six.”
Thinking about the difference between the jazz and classical disciplines, Amanda explains “It's a very, very different world. With the whole classical approach to music, you are playing someone else's music. But the people who wrote that music originally, like Bach, or whoever, they'd improvise the music to start with and then wrote it down, and then we regurgitate it in a very slow fashion…Whereas jazz is all about improvisation and communication in a group, and not being stuck on the page. There's no page, it's about listening to each other and having a proper conversation with music. And with classical, you want to sound like your teacher, you want to sound like your masters. The same in jazz, you want to sound like our masters, but we also want to sound like ourselves, and be an individual is really important.”
When people think about harp and jazz, they immediately are drawn to two figures – Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, with the latter being one of Amanda's prime inspirations and influences. Thinking about the pair, Amanda unveils that “Dorothy, for me, was softer in sound, more accessible and more swing, mixed with the flute as well. It was that sound that just kind of stuck water over us. And it was just so beautiful. Whereas Alice Coltrane is more textural in sound more atmosphere - lots more glisses. And I don't even know if Alice actually plays or whether she uses the harp for the texture, you know, the sound of your love the glisses. So, for me, Dorothy is the player and Alice is the atmospheric magician.”
Despite facing a daunting start to her journey into jazz, Amanda’s tenacity and character has led her to become one of the leading lights of her field. Immersing herself within the jazz world, she is now playing and collaborating with contemporary jazz protagonists such as Gondwana’s Matthew Halsall, hip hop producer DJ Yoda, the much-in-demand Scottish DJ Rebecca Vasmant as well as the lauded flautist Chip Wickham. One of the finest records to come out in 2020 was Chip Wickham’s Blue to Red, recognised by its beautiful soundscapes. The first thing you on the album’s opening is Amanda’s arpeggiating harp setting the scene. Chip and Amanda crossed paths whilst on tour with Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra, ultimately leading Amanda to play such a pivotal role on Blue To Red. “I think when you're a harpist, you're naturally drawn to the sound of the flute anyway because it's in history, flute and harp go together” Amanda explains.
Reflecting on her integration within the jazz community, Amanda reveals “I feel really blessed to be part of this community, which I wasn't really in before as much with classical, but this new world is lovely as a family”. Many within the music world recognise the importance of their community around them. This is particularly true for jazz musicians, whose livelihoods are in a constant state of flux, meaning it is often difficult to sustain themselves – particularly over the course of the COVID pandemic. However, this shared sense of struggle, experience and love of the music around them has really strengthened bonds since the pandemic’s start, even if these artists are not able to communicate through their craft at present.
“We will survive because that's what we do,” Amanda positively remarks when thinking about the pandemic, “we don't have a lot when you're self-employed - you don't get paid holidays sick pay any of that. We just do it because we love music. And I think that's really shown me this lockdown. We've been given a bit of a tough time with it and we're still standing, we're still here, we've still got music. We’ve still got a real passion for music, and people sharing music and collaborating and all of these things. It's really made me more passionate about music, because we've survived and we've survived with the actual music, we've actually filled ourselves with something bigger in some respects”.
In the face of adversity, with many high-profile gigs lost, the pandemic period has seen Amanda’s solo career take huge steps forward. Having brought out several books as well, she landed a deal with the lauded Jazzman Records. Tracing back to this time, Amanda credits her performance on Blue to Red as a big factor. “It was Chip’s album and all of the stuff around that that helped mine and come to light with Jazzman finding [After Dark]”, she claims, “after hearing Chip's new album, [DJ Format] contacted me saying ‘Well, where's all your music then? Who are you, kind of thing, where's your stuff?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, this is really embarrassing, but I don't really have much stuff recorded. But I do have a new album, but it's just sat on a shelf just waiting for the sun to shine on it.’ [After hearing it] he tells me, ‘This needs to be out there somewhere’. So, he sent it to Gerald at Jazzman. And then Gerald rang me and said, ‘I'll have it and I'll have the older one you made seven years ago. I'll have five tracks off that.’. And that was that.”
Telling the tale of a love affair gone wrong, Amanda’s After Dark is an astounding outing, full of emotion, atmosphere and swing. Unravelling the story behind it, Amanda reveals “It's just a love affair that starts with it being messed up, like all love affairs. As you go through life and you have experiences and your friends you have experiences and things you know, there are lots of things that stay with you and stories that you get told. It's, kind of, putting everything together and in this kind of black and white filmic kind of way. I had this picture of a woman walking into a bar and that's where the band the drums and bass are playing the sound of the of the cocktails, ‘Stay for One’, and then the love affair goes a bit sour and it's ‘Leave Me Be’ and then ‘The Feist’, the kind of makeup and then the person disappears ‘Just Blue’ and then it's just ‘Get Back To It’, real life and the whole cycle starts again. When you get stuck in that love affair you can't get out of”.
Cinematic in style, the record’s encapsulating writing is as delightful as its performances, with supporting roles played John Reynolds on drums, Aidan Thorn on bass, alongside Chip Wickham’s featured flute as well as a stunning remix from fellow friend DJ Rebecca Vasmant.
In isolation, After Dark is a remarkable work, but considering Amanda had never written her own body of work before, the record is even more impressive. Pressed on why this the first time she tried, Amanda explains, “I think it was just hadn't tried if I hadn't been willing to try. And I think what I've been immersed in music where I could see the dots and how the musicians responded, and how what was being translated off the page worked within a band. I think it gave me the confidence to think ‘I can do that, that's within my capabilities’…I had this film-noir feeling in my head the story I wanted to get out”.
Whether talking about music, Wales or gin, one thing is apparent about Amanda Whiting, her joy of life and sense of adventure. Not being shackled by difficulties or anxieties, her character and musicality has meant she has been able to take the contemporary jazz scene by storm. If After Dark is anything to go by, we can be sure that we will be hearing and seeing a lot more of her in the years to come.
Amanda Whiting's 'After Dark' is out now via Jazzman Records.
Keep up-to-date with Amanda via her website and socials: