From Buddhism to Berlin: An Interview With Amber Mark

Before her performance at Red Bull's True Notes show, Amber Mark talks about her trans-continental childhood, the importance of a singular vision and her forthcoming album.
By    January 21, 2020

You can donate to the POW Patreon and ensure that one of the last surviving music blogs can continue to do good work. Or you can be condemned to writhe in Naraka, the Buddhist form of purgatory.  

Despite the graceless facelifts wrought by late capitalism, America’s cities have refused to become totally unmoored from the hallmarks that once defined them. In the case of Philadelphia, the ghostly traces of Gamble and Huff genius remain should you know where to look. Admittedly, there’s a certain tragedy that the Broad St. address that once housed Philadelphia International studios sits vacant. This creative mecca that produced classics from the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and Teddy Pendergrass deserves a museum on par with the Motown one in Detroit.

Yet the artists that Philadelphia has produced over the last four decades sustain an inextinguishable hard knock soul that defined the city when Dr. J was still defying graffiti. State Property might have slapped the taste out of your tonsils, but it was hard to deny that Beans and Freeway rapped so hard that they practically coughed up kidneys on the track. Soul doesn’t mean soft. In fact, it often means the opposite. You ever spend any time around real O.Gs? They’re usually bumping Bobby Purify and Brenton Wood, the Chi-Lites, The Whispers, and other bible material.

It was only natural that neo-soul spawned from Philly and New York, two places in eternal rivalry and communion. You don’t need a redundant history lesson from me about Jill Scott, Badu, Dilla, The Roots, Common, D’Angelo, etc. Coffee was sipped, ambrosia was injected into veins, good times were had by most. Around the same time, Okayplayer was formed — first as a message board for people to ponder why Slum Village wasn’t the most popular rap group in the world, but eventually as a website, cultural hub and idea. A bulwark against the increasing corporatization that has left us with Stockholm Syndrome so severe that if you say Post Malone in the mirror three times at midnight, he appears and offers you a Bud Light (the charges are automatically deducted from your CitiBank balance).

In honor of its 20th solar return, Okayplayer threw an anniversary party in tandem with Red Bull Presents, deriving chief inspiration from the Black Lily Music series that was a weekly fixture in fin de seicle Philly, and launched the careers of Jill Scott, Floetry, and Jaguar Wright. Titled “True Notes,” the show harkened back to the city’s roots by booking artists spiritually aligned with the soul movement that flourished in the later years of the last century and the start of this one.

Headliner Jamila Woods channeled the spirit of Badu with new spells, while opener Mereba deftly blended Ethio-pop and jazz with modern soul and R&B. But the highlight was Amber Mark, the immensely gifted New York-based singer and songwriter who binds the nexus between 90s R&B, Brazilian jazz, contemporary pop, UK 2-step, and vintage your-auntie-would-bug out-over it-teardrop soul. All while singing in a prom dress that reminded me of those episodes on The Fresh Prince when Ashley Banks was about to become a star — except in this case, Amber Mark deserves to replace the Tevin Campbell posters on everyone’s wall.

Not since DAWN split from Dannity Kane have I seen a talent so fluidly step between sub-genre splits. Blessed with a deceptively powerful voice, Mark lambently glides between nocturnal sultriness and double dutch playful. Authenticity debates are tedious, but there is something rewarding about an artist who insists on writing and producing the bulk of their songs. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more important or even better, but a singular vision often leads to greater originality. And in an industry where 20 people write a song to please the algorithmic overlords, there is something refreshing about Mark’s music: both old school as a Jade deep cut but able to slot in nicely next to Snoh Aalegra on the Sweet Soul Chillout playlist.

Before what was one of the best shows I saw in 2019, Mark and I discussed her globetrotting childhood split between three continents (America, Europe, and Asia), keeping her music aspirations a secret while working at the Roc Nation office, and how she has come into her own as one of the most gifted (for lack of a better word) soul singers out. — Jeff Weiss

Your Wikipedia says that you were born in a barn in Tennessee. That has to be wrong, right?

Amber Mark: I was actually born on a spiritual midwifery farm in Tennessee that my mom was into — just not in a barn. There was this spiritual midwife, I guess, that started in the late in the late 60s and my mom read her book.

Do you know her name?

Amber Mark: Ina May. My mom was set on having her kids on this farm in Tennessee and she was already in America with my brother’s father. When she got pregnant in the 80s, she was like, “lets go to this farm.” I was reading this collage photo album she made and it had all this writing about how they traded building decks for these birthing rooms in order for her to have her kids there. She had me there, well, she had my brother there first, because he’s 10 years older than me, then she had me in the 90s. 1993.

Where in Tennessee is this?

Amber Mark: It’s in Summertown, Tennessee. I haven’t been back since I was born.

Your mother was German?

Amber Mark: My mother was German, yes.

Was she from Berlin?

Amber Mark: She was from Kaiserslautern, which is a town near Frankfurt. It actually has an American army base, or had an American army base there. They used to call it “K-Town” because it was hard for the Americans to say Kaiserslautern.

You lived in Germany at one point, didn’t you?

Amber Mark: Yes, in Berlin. We lived in Munich actually when I was really little, but we were only probably there until I was 3 or 4 so I don’t really remember it. But then we moved to Berlin when I was 12 and we lived there for almost three years.

Living in early to mid-2000s Berlin must’ve been an interesting time. I feel like that was the moment when all the Americans and artistically-minded Europeans started moving to Berlin and obviously, house and techno was always a phenomenon there. What was it like being there?

Amber Mark: I didn’t like it, honestly. This is when I started getting into music. You’re in 8th grade and you’re always thinking of what you’re gonna be when you grow up. That’s when I started feeling that maybe I wanted to pursue something in music and I always wanted to play the piano or some sort of instrument.

My mom couldn’t afford a piano at the time and we were always traveling a lot so this was the first time we had settled down in years. She bought me a guitar and I had started teaching myself how to play guitar and learn basic chords. I joined the school choir and that was my first experience with singing and performing. That’s when the gears started turning about doing music.

Were you in the former East Berlin or West Berlin?

Amber Mark: I was in Pankow, so it was East Berlin. The area I lived in was not as cool. I always remember being like, “why can’t we live in the fancy cool hip area?”

It’s always interesting seeing the divide between the two. West Berlin feels almost glitzy compared to the general East Berlin grayness.

Amber Mark: It’s really funny though. When I moved back to New York and was like 17, I was working at this cafe and I’d tell people like, “Oh, I lived in Berlin.” They’d be like, “That’s so cool! I love Berlin, I always go there.” Because they’re these fashion people, you know. “Love going there, the parties there are great.” I was like, “Really? I did not like it.” But I was 12.

I feel like there definitely are 13-year-olds going to Berghain.

Amber Mark: Probably. The drinking age is much…earlier there.

Were you watching a lot of MTV?

Amber Mark: No, I was illegally watching shows on my computer. We didn’t have a TV, but I was watching American TV shows and stuff like that. Mainly how I’d hear about music was through my classmates.

I liked this story I read about your mom taking you to see Michael Jackson at age 3.

Amber Mark: Oh yeah. In ’97 we went to Munich, that was probably the craziest experience for me. We ended up somehow getting into the VIP and watched it next to Boris Becker. It was very emotional. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson as a kid.

What was the song, or songs, that you first became obsessed with as a child?

Amber Mark: My love for music started when my mom got me a Bob Marley tape and I started with that. The reason I liked Bob Marley was that anytime I would cry she would sing “No Woman. No Cry” to me. Then she saw how into Bob Marley I was so she got me a Michael Jackson tape and she loved “You Are Not Alone” so she’d always play that for me. “Workin’ Day And Night” was it for me. And obviously, you know, “Rock With U,” all of the big ones. All of the Off the Wall ones.

Your mom seemed like a very interesting person. She studied Tibetan painting in the Thangka style?

Amber Mark: She was part of a Kagyu lineage and we lived an hour away from Darjeeling when we moved to India. At that point, she was studying Thangka painting and Buddhism.

And you were in Germany up until that point.

Amber Mark: No, we were in New York actually. We moved to India when I was 9; we were in Delhi for a few months and then we ended up going up north.

What went through your mind at the time?

Amber Mark: My mom was like, we’re leaving Europe and we’re going to India. I was kind of excited about it because I wasn’t going to be in school. She was going to homeschool me. I was like,”yes! I don’t have to be at school this is cool.” But it ended up being worse because she was way more strict than my teachers were and she was very German in that sense.

She seemed pretty loose for a German.

Amber Mark: She was pretty flexible for a German I’d say. But when it came to school, she was quite strict. I just remember I used to go visit her sometimes while she’d be doing the Thangka painting. We lived in the guest house right above. Sometimes I’d go hang out with her. I don’t really remember that process of how she made the canvas and what was used, I do remember though that the way she painted was not the traditional way. She did it with, like, more abstract backgrounds.

She kept the deities very traditional and had the backgrounds more colorful or she’d paint them in space. When we went to India, she started to learn the more traditional way of having the offerings laid out; there was a certain way they’d paint the clouds. It was a very particular way of painting the deities that everything needs to be exact and they say that if you don’t paint it exactly, those flaws are going to happen to you in your next life.

That’s a lot of pressure.

Amber Mark: So my mom obviously, kept getting better and better, but when we went back to America, or when we left Darjeeling, she still kind of kept at her abstract ways.

Do you still have any of the paintings?

Amber Mark: Yeah, I have a lot. There’s one that I’m searching for that she left with someone. It’s the biggest painting she’s ever done.  It’s somewhere in Germany or Switzerland with a friend of hers that I don’t know.

Did you have any favorite books as a kid?

Amber Mark: I loved a lot of Ronald Dahl books and then I was really obsessed with this author, Isabella Allende. The City of the Beasts is like my favorite book.

So then you came to America at this point?

Amber Mark: We traveled around India for a while. We were in India for about 4 years.

Do you speak any Hindi?

Amber Mark: No. I tried to learn for a bit and they always insisted on speaking English. I think it was because they were trying to learn English. I loved being in India but I always wanted to be back in NY. So I was like, “I’m the cool Western kid.” When I was there I tried to learn Tibetan but I got as far as the three first letters of the alphabet.

Seems like a hard language to pick up.

Amber Mark: Then I was like, yeah, I’m just gonna stick to this math that I’m supposed to be doing.

You lived in Nepal too, right?

Amber Mark: We’d go to Nepal because my mom would need to renew her visa. For some reason, with Germans, I could get a 10 year visa because I was America but she could not. We’d have to go and renew it. We went like 3 times. One time we stayed for a bit. We went to the border of Tibet. My mom went bungee jumping and that was random. I wanted to go so bad. I was old enough, but apparently I didn’t weigh enough.

Were you raised Buddhist?

Amber Mark: Kind of. I mean, I was raised around it. If I were to choose some sort of spirituality I know the most about Buddhism. But that’s not saying much.

How do think that nomadic lifestyle shaped you as an adult? What are lessons you think you’ve learned?

Amber Mark: It was great at the time. I always just wanted to be in New York. Not that I didn’t take anything in — now, I look back on it and I’m so thankful I was able to experience that because I think I make the music I do because of where I’ve been, what I took in and how my mom raised me. I think it’s really beautiful to be able to absorb all these cultures. Going to India specifically or places in Asia like that. It’s like culture shock. It’s really cool. People dream of going to those places in their 60s and I was able to do it as a kid.

I think that’s what makes your music interesting. Having an MJ Cole remix is not something you expect from a regular American singer, or a Preditah remix.

You were 14 when you moved to NY?

Amber Mark: I wanted to move back to New York for a while. I didn’t like Berlin, I was having a really hard time there emotionally, and I was talking to my godparents who lived in New York.

Did you pick up any German?

Amber Mark: I spoke German when I was a kid because it was what I first learned to speak. When we moved back to America from Munich when I was younger I like, refused to speak German with her. I only wanted to speak English, I didn’t want to speak to her in German. I think I was embarrassed by her or something. When we moved back to Berlin, I started picking it back up again. Now I can hold a conversation, kind of. I understand it completely. It might take me a while to respond to you and I’ll be like, “fuck it, I’ll just respond to you in English.”

At this point, you had already decided you wanted to do music?

Amber Mark: Yes. Well, I knew I wanted to do something in music. Like, maybe I’ll do something on the business side of it or whatever. So I move back to New York and I told them I wanted to go to a performing arts high school or something that was oriented around music.

Had you seen “Fame” at that point?

Amber Mark: No, I hadn’t seen it. I wish I did. I had just heard of LaGuardia and stuff like that, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just go there.” And I didn’t even go to because I missed the admissions slot. I ended up going to the knock-off version of LaGuardia called Talent Unlimited.

I didn’t even stay. I went there for my freshman and sophomore years and I ended up moving. I guess I wasn’t done traveling, I wasn’t used to settling in one place. My mom and I, we’d move around and we wouldn’t stay in a place for more than 2 years. I went that summer to visit my brother in Miami and I said, “I wanna be in Miami. This is my vibe.” And also, my mom was a free spirit and my godparents were like, “You have a curfew and you need to be back home for family dinner.” And I was like, “Family dinner?! I’m trying to go out and drink a 40 on the stoop.” And they were like, “You’re 15. You need to calm the fuck down.”

Flashing forward. 3:33, that was your first EP? Or was it an album.

Amber Mark: Yes, no, no no. It was an EP. It’s considered an album though, I hate that. I want them to change that. I think that it’s because it’s 7 tracks.

It came out what, 3 years ago?

Amber Mark: 2016. Oh my god, so long ago. I was working at Roc Nation at the time.

What were you doing there?

Amber Mark: I was working for the office manager and she happened to be Jay-Z’s sister. I had met her prior to working for her. Well, I was working at a hair salon prior to that and that’s how I met her.

Were you doing hair?

Amber Mark: No, no, no. I was just working at the front desk. I was like, “I should work at a hair salon because I want to get my hair done for free.” Luckily, one of my aunts, she owned a hair salon and Michelle Carter, she was helping out the other owner with his financial planning and I met her through that. I didn’t know she was associated with Jay-Z at all and long story short, we became friends and eventually I obviously found out and then asked her about how I can do music. We were close friends, we would joke around with each other. So I kind of got to a point where I was comfortable enough to be like, “I wanna do this, can you help me out?” She was like, “Why don’t you start interning at RocNation?”

Then I started interning for her and saved up quite a bit of money and I, obviously, ran through it and I was like, “I need to get a job!” And she was like, “Alright, just be my assistant.” I basically kind of did the job for her, but it was quite an easy job to do.

Did you get to meet Jay-Z?

Amber Mark: Yeah. He would come into the office and pick on her and stuff like that. It was funny to see a brother-sister dynamic between them.

Is he the big brother?

Amber Mark: No, she’s older. He would come in and you know, do you remember when those hover skateboard floating things were popular.

Yeah. Soulja Boy would ride one all the time.

Amber Mark: Soulja Boy, exactly! When those were popular, Jay came in like, dribbling a basketball into her office. She was making fun of him and then she turned around to go on her computer to do whatever she was doing. And he was like, flipping the bird to her. And I’m sitting there like, “this is Jay-Z and his sister.” I was more excited to meet Beyonce obviously, that was cool. 

Was that everything you imagined?

Amber Mark: Yeah, that was an emotional moment for me.

Did you ever tell them you did music?

Amber Mark: No, I didn’t wanna be that person, I didn’t wanna step on anyone’s toes. I waited until I knew I was going to do music and then I was gonna quit. I put S P A C E out and that’s when I started having a manager and a lawyer and labels were getting interested, stuff like that.

I had put in my notice, and then that was the day I went down to Ty-Ty and I was like, “Can you listen to my stuff?” He was like, “You do music?” And I was like, “Yes.” And then the day I was leaving, I remember I got a call from his assistant saying, “Can you come downstairs? Ty-Ty wants to talk to you.” I was like, “Fuck, this is so scary. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

So I went down and he was like, sitting there on his phone and he doesn’t even say anything to me and I’m standing there. This is the second time I’ve ever been in his office, I’m too afraid to say anything and he looks at me and goes, “Can you just answer me one question?”

I say yes and he goes, “How long have you been working here?” I’m like, “I don’t know, a year and a half.” I think it was a year and a half, I don’t remember. “And we’re just finding out that you do music now?”

And I’m like, “Yeah…” And he’s like, “Why is that?! I told the interns to come to me with music that you like or music you do, blah blah blah.”

And like, he says that, but he doesn’t mean that shit.

And 3:33 was about you dealing with the emotions and grief that accompanied your mother’s death?

Amber Mark: Yeah, exactly. After all of that, I started writing about what I went through with my mom and the grief I went through. I ended up making the project about that. 

I like where you said, the 8th stage of grief is forming a new world, a new understanding.

Amber Mark: Yeah. It’s something you never really get over. It always comes in waves, the emotion you feel about it. But, yeah, it’s just learning to live with it, accepting it. Sometimes it’s intense, sometimes it’s not. 

You produce as well, correct?

Amber Mark: Yeah. I produced and wrote 3:33am. I produced Conexao too.

How did you get into the music of the Gilberto family?

Amber Mark: My mom was really into them. I thought the Portuguese language was beautiful in song. So when I was in high school, I was like, “I want to learn how to speak Portuguese.” So I took Portuguese in high school. 

So in the immediate future, I presume there’s an album coming out?

Amber Mark: Yes, there is. I know I’ve been saying that forever but it’s happening. Probably May? I know we’re starting the rollout. There’s a tracklist. Stuff like that. I’m doing sessions this week to finalize certain things production wise and you never know, maybe have some writing sessions, see what happens. But for right now, I have the tracklist. 

Are there any themes you see coursing throughout the album?

Amber Mark: Yeah, definitely. I’m doing three parts to it: the first one has a lot to do with my insecurities and stuff that I have dealt with as an artist and a person. The problems that I’ve been dealing with for the past, however many years.

Then I journey into gaining confidence and towards the end of the second half, gaining too much confidence. That’s where I want the drama to happen and I want to make it into a theatrical situation with the visuals and stuff.

I don’t really want to get too much into detail, but there’s a third part where an out of body experience happens. There’s an interlude within each section and the third part is where I learn my lesson and my mom appears in the end of the movement stuff.

What are you most proud about the writing?

Amber Mark: Honestly, I’m most proud about my production and how I’ve grown in that sense. I would say I’m most proud of how I’m still trying to stick to what I try to do. There’s a lot of people in your ear, saying, “Oh you should be doing this,” and the pressure, stuff like that. Then you start to question yourself a lot and that’s a lot of what I talk about in part one. 

If you’re going to be an artist, no one can know what you need to do other than you. You’ll know what feels right and what doesn’t.

Amber Mark: But there are moments where you start to really question what you think. 

Yeah, that’s when artists get lost, when they lose what is actually taking them through the world. In any kind of creative decision I’ve ever made that’s wrong, it’s always been when I listen to someone and I’m like, “I don’t really think that’s right,” but I take their word for it.

Amber Mark: Yeah you really have to fight for what you really want. 

What do you hope to be when you’re 80 years old? What do you hope to have seen?

Amber Mark: What do I hope to have seen? I feel like I’ve seen so much already. I’m so thankful for everything. I really want to go to Japan.  Hopefully, I’ll have been there by the time I’m 80. Then probably, I just want to be on some hidden beach doing the most simple life things ever and occasionally making a song here and there. 

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!