Emerging from lockdown
Rising indie-folk star Amelia Coburn is itching to hit the studio after completing university
When lockdown struck, Teesside singer-songwriter Amelia Coburn was on the point of getting back to the recording studio. Nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards in 2017, she put the music on pause to complete her studies in Modern Languages at Nottingham University – only to re-emerge into a very different cultural climate.
With venues and recording studios closed, it’s not been easy to connect with audiences. But there are some compensations amid the challenges.
“Lockdown has made me more proactive online because suddenly that’s how we have to do everything,” Amelia said. “In the past I wasn’t so hot on this and there were times when I’d had a gig coming up and not even get round to promoting it online. So this has made me digitally much more aware. I’m starting to grow an online fanbase, which is good for me.”
In some ways, it’s been a return to how it all started. Amelia’s early days involved sitting in her bedroom with her uke and recording covers of her favourite songs. At the time, though, it made her self-conscious – and sometimes online gigs can feel uncomfortably similar. But, after overcoming those nerves, the experience offered a different approach and a new, broader audience.
“It turned out to be a bit more relaxed; you can chat with your audience, it’s more social, not like being up on a stage under the bright lights while everyone looks at you,” she said. “On the other hand, there can be tech problems – one time I was doing a live show and my Wifi just went so I had to restart the stream and hope that people would wait for me!
“Even when we’re able to perform in venues again, I’d like to keep doing online shows, even when we’re able to perform in venues again. Gigs aren’t always accessible to everyone – maybe people can’t afford the ticket money, or the venue isn’t wheelchair friendly. When I do it on social media people can see it easily and I can reach an audience all over the world. It must be something with the algorithms, but suddenly people all over the world have found my music. Sometimes during a set I’ll ask where people are watching from and often I’m wondering just how they’ve found my music all the way over there. It really is a world wide web and you can find new followers from all over.
“The tough thing is that now I’m finding it hard to imagine a real, offline gig again!”
Concerts in the UK during the spring and summer had to be cancelled – including a performance at the high-profile Knutsford Music Festival in June – but a return to gigging is on its way. Unfortunately for local fans, though, not in the UK. On July 24, she’s off to the Czech Ukulele festival in Prague for a first live show since March.
That’s cause for excitement – and perhaps some relief – but it doesn’t immediately ease the crisis facing musicians while the British music scene is muted by the slow return to post-COVID normality. With her language skills to fall back on, and lots of support from her family, Amelia isn’t in urgent financial difficulty – but the same may not be true of venues forced to close their doors for months, nor of the audiences that visit them.
“It’s a concern,” Amelia admitted. “You worry about whether the venues will be there, whether the audiences will be there. I’m sure that audiences will come back, but what happens if people get out of the habit of going to gigs? How quickly will people want to get back to small, intimate venues?
“Speaking with you on the phone today is the first time I’ve spoken to someone outside of my household for a long time and I think a lot of people will be finding it a bit weird to go back into the world again after getting used to their own space. I’m sure it will be fine in the end, but everything is a bit strange at the moment and there’s always something in the back of my mind about what will happen to the venues.
“Not everyone is receiving any funding at the moment, and for performers it is hard to get money from online gigs. I’ve had a tip jar at some of my Facebook Live shows and while it brings in a bit of money, it’s nowhere near what I might get for playing a venue.”
Instead of online gigs, April was due to be spent in the studio. Regulars at Amelia’s gigs would be familiar with a good chunk of her latest material – self-penned, a deliberate move away from the imaginative, stripped back covers that first brought her to wider attention – and the time was right to release a new album after a couple of years studying abroad in locations as diverse as Mexico, France and Russia.
That global experience filtered into Amelia’s music as well as her languages.
“It was definitely an influence, especially from a songwriting point of view,” she said. “I’ve never felt like a natural song writer, I’m not someone who can just go away and write a song in an afternoon. They come out slowly, every few months. But when I was abroad the inspiration was just constant.
“In Mexico I wrote a song about an experience on a beach with a creepy man; then I lived with an old lady in Paris for six months and she was a real inspiration. Everything that happened there was constantly giving me new ideas. I can see a real contrast after coming home, and I really want to be able to go back and travel around the world some more. The stories you hear, the different music you hear, it all feeds into your own ideas.”
Now, fresh from completing her degree with First Class Honours – despite having to finish the course under lockdown – she’s looking forward to releasing her own songs and moving on from her early days of recording imaginative covers onto YouTube.
“I stared out going through my dad’s record collection and making my own versions of the songs that I loved,” Amelia recalled. “Then people started saying that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to write my own music. That annoyed me a bit – it’s one way to be successful, but not necessarily the only way. There are plenty of people who make their careers without writing their own music.
“But I do think my original material is strong enough so that’s the next thing for me.”
And after years of learning from dad’s music, there’s a bit of a role reversal going on in the Coburn family. “Dad’s always saying his doesn’t need discover new bands, there are already lots of great bands out there,” Amelia smiled. “But sometimes I can introduce him to something new and he finds that he likes it. He’s started to subscribe to a few magazines and is taking an interest in up-and-coming bands again. Neither of us really listen to what’s in the charts, but I try to keep across the up-and-coming indie bands and I listen to a lot of punk, as well as the folk and acoustic scene.”
For more about the Northeast music scene during the coronavirus pandemic, check out this interview with Steve Strode from Cruel Nature Records.