A voice reaches through the time-worn crackle of a tape spool, an echo from decades past: "Amy?," the voice encourages, "Are you going to sing us a song?"
amy michelle is now a stranger to the child whose cherubic face was lit by the glow of birthday candles; the little girl who leaned into the camera with a gap-toothed grin, tearing at wrapping paper with inquisitive confidence. But still the 22-year-old Irish singer-songwriter and producer dedicates her debut EP, is that all there is? to that phantom flickering on the screen: "It's a homage to my younger self," she says.
The project was born from the emotional turbulence of the pandemic, a world and a life upended. Like many of us, amy michelle soothed herself by receding into the comforting embrace of nostalgia, slotting neglected memories of her childhood into a VHS player. It's these tapes that she cut together for the visuals for "the bottom of the well," a demo she released on YouTube without ceremony in that first, suffocating month of lockdown. Over a distant, almost hymnal guitar, her voice floats above, like a disembodied whisper in an empty room. These videos of warmth and innocence are sharply contrasted with nightmarish vignettes of being stuck in a church, teeth falling out, a scream that falls on deaf ears.
She approaches writing as if she were a child. "It was really weird, watching myself as a baby, because it's like trying to figure out what went wrong," Amy explains. "I dealt with a lot of mental health issues in my teenage years, and I was just feeling really sorry for this person I don't know anymore. I started thinking about that a lot in my writing: I really wanted to try and find myself again, the person I was. When you're a child, you don't care about what people think of you. You don't care how you look, how you carry yourself or about speaking your mind. You're playful, you don't take things completely to heart all the time; you have so much love to give to the world, and you see everything in colour. I'd like to remind myself that she's still there."
The colour amy michelle chooses to see herself, and this project, is purple. Like many elements of her art, it's something that instinctively feels right, beyond explanation. Its title, is that all there is?, is "a question that has been lingering for years," she says. It was always going to be the title of her first EP before there even was an EP to name. Growing up in the Catholic Church, amy now identifies as agnostic: "I don't know where I fit, or where I'm supposed to fit, and I still don't know what I'm supposed to believe regarding God or the afterlife, or what the fuck is going on, pretty much." From wrestling with those existential questions, what better title to call the project than the greatest question of all?
The six-track EP is a telling of amy michelle's story, an unflinching confrontation of deteriorating mental health and a severed relationship. The order of these tracks is a conscious decision -- nothing she does is done lightly. "blood bath" begins with the voice of her mother, the most natural person to introduce Amy to the world. It was written from a place of guilt during her darkest time: dropping out of school, struggling to get out of bed, resisting therapy. The lyrics, she says, are everything she wishes she could tell her mother, but can't quite bring herself to say. Amy says, "I guess it's weird how I can share very delicate, heavy parts of my life with the entire world, yet I can't say them to my mum."
The track was inspired by the work of Sparklehorse founder Mark Linkous, whose dark, beautiful production on his 2001 record It's a Wonderful Life informed the whispers rushing through a sea of static that completely shifted the way amy michelle heard music. It's the same haunting feeling she gets from listening to one of her idols, Elliot Smith, whose unapologetic, honest approach to songwriting informs her own.
"I created a sort of world with this project. The order of the tracks is sort of like a soundtrack to this movie I'm making in my head," she explains. After the second track, "bottom of the well" which resulted in her discovery, the EP begins to take on the terrain of heartbreak, with each moment in time succeeding the other in a play-by-play progression. "Every time I listen back to it, it immediately takes me back to how I felt at that exact time because that was exactly when I was recording it. That's why it's pretty important to me to record it by myself and keep that authenticity, so it's a very real snapshot in time."
"the way i make things feel" is an open wound, still fresh with hurt. The guitar lurks beneath a simple surface, each sound and strike of percussion subtle with devastating effect. It opens with a sample from Gaslight (1940), which Amy and her cousin would re-enact in childhood, dressing up and copying the scenes on iMovie to show their parents: "If only I could get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things..." a man says. The woman replies, "Are you trying to tell me I'm insane?"
Its successor, "welcome to the sidelines" is a track about the alienation she experienced at seventeen in her hometown of Mullingar, which didn't take kindly to those who swam against the current. "I was the outsider, I guess," says Amy. "I wanted to be a part of everything else. I didn't understand why I couldn't just get out of bed in the morning, and just be normal and have a conversation with people and not crumble, or why I couldn't care more about the things everyone else cared about. I always felt like there was something wrong with me." It's a sentiment reflected in the sound: an eerie distortion of pop with electronic, alien inflections. The music video lends itself again to seeing the world through a lens of a child, where Amy plays twins inspired by The Shining, trying to kill each other in increasingly inventive ways.
"i don't need anyone" is a song of both weakness and defiance. It began when Amy was at a party, and at a loose end, she started singing, "I don't need anyone...," strumming some chords she'd already written, and her friend came to accompany her on the keyboard. Amy recalls, "I didn't even tell him how I felt, but he knew what was going on, and he knew what I wanted to say without me having to say it. We just started singing, 'I don't need anyone!' over and over, like, screaming it. It was a nice moment, looking back." That was how the chorus was built, and she finished it the way her music always comes together: alone, in her bedroom. It lingers between, "I don't need anyone, not you," and the confession, "I don't need anyone, but you."
The final step was to start to love herself. "a song to myself" was written four months later, and it's an admission of vulnerability and the strength that comes with accepting that, rather than trying to fight it. It's a warped, otherworldly ballad, with her aching lyrics standing sharp one moment, the other wavering and distorted.
While amy michelle naturally prefers to working alone, for is that all there is? she opened up her process to co-produce with Bernie Lister and Rich Cooper. "I had to build trust with them, first, if I was going to hand myself over. They had to understand what I was going for and who I was." She likens them to therapists, in the level of vulnerability collaborating would demand in order for them to produce something positive and resonant in her music.
Amy's relationship with music was fated, held in the cards, the stars and in the lines of her hands. From being transfixed by her father playing guitar, who would teach her basic chords, and taking to piano like it was her second nature, music was -- and continues to be -- a consistent source of confidence. The battered purple Hannah Montana guitar she first learned to play on is still in her parents' attic.
amy michelle's goal with this project is to create something that helps people escape, just as Sparklehorse, The 1975 and Twenty-One Pilots had done for her. Already, she receives messages from strangers on the internet about how her music resonates with them. That desire to provide escapism bleeds into her desire to perform, with her first live shows on the horizon. But even though her music is already building its own community around it, she says, "Even though people are going to hear this, it's not going to affect the way I write. I can still go home, and it's just me in my room again."
- Sophie Walker