Interview: Amanda Huff
We recently sat down with Amanda to talk about her Music, her future and the music music scene in Milwaukee. Watch the 2018 Radio Milwaukee Music Awards recap video below.
For those who don't know you, tell us about yourself.
My name is Amanda Huff and I'm a Milwaukee musician specializing in jazz, electronic and cinematic composition, with my focus being primarily the vocal and lyrical aspect. I'm currently a member of the experimental jazz septet Strangelander as well as a freelance film composer for the Milwaukee Film scene. I like facts about weird bugs, I like dark comic books, I like dressing up in party hats and smiling at people. I suppose I am a large amalgamation of play.
How did you get your start in music?
This is a weird memory, but it's always felt so definitive: So I am five years old, and I am at a cabin my grandparents have rented for the family for a weekend. It is raining outside and I'm inside hanging out by myself underneath a rocking chair. There are a lot of people inside the small space, so I am occupying myself by watching them all walk past and trying to imitate their voices as they do so. I remember being really struck by all the different voices I could access within my own. Once I learned that singing only further expanded that arsenal of sounds, I was smitten. There is so much poetry to be had in sound alone.
What's the best show you've ever played and why?
About a year and a half ago I played a show at Company Brewing with Strangelander that was unlike any other show I've ever played. Especially at that time I was still new to jazz and that band is full of some pretty heavy hitters in the scene, so getting to play with them with zero technical knowledge on my part was super intimidating. It was the first show where musical communication really clicked for me. I was able to just feel the bass instead of focusing too hard on listening for it, I was making musical jokes with the keys during solo sections, I was letting go. I saw colors blasting through my brain and started forming sounds I didn't know my throat could procure. I don't really know how else to express it other than I left my inhibitions at the door and just recklessly created and it was exhilarating.
What has been your biggest triumph so far?
Biggest triumph so far has to be curating the Bjork tribute last year. I know I've done a ton of huge things since then, but this project was not something I had foreseen in my career trajectory. I was immensely humbled by the entire process, because it was just a massive series of "you know nothing" and getting to problem solve from there. I literally knew only one album at the time I agreed to take the project on, so the proceeding months became this obsessive spiral of consuming her full discography, picking out the songs that spoke to me the most, and building up from there. My bandmate Steve Peplin was instrumental to creating the arrangements and helping me find some of the musicians that filled out our 'Bjorkestra'. I think we had 17 people total. It gave me so much new perspective on what it takes to fully put together and execute a show, not only from a musical standpoint, but a business one. It was sort of a wake-up call. You can't avoid the business aspect to music, so you better learn it sooner than later so you can make it work for you instead of the other way around.
What has been your biggest tribulation?
Finding continuity and courage. As someone who does really love to play and genre-jump and be different people at different times, that can be a double-edged sword. When it comes down to telling someone who you are, it can mean nothing. I resisted making music by my own name for so long, instead opting for background roles or producing under a moniker, and I think it is because I was afraid of what having an identity would mean. I was scared of the politics and the business and the attention and everything that comes with commanding a platform, and I still think I largely am, but the success of this past year has motivated me to try and work past that. You can do a lot of good with a name and an agenda.
What's your favorite thing about Milwaukee?
Favorite thing about Milwaukee is definitely the diversity. This city has a very long way to go in terms of healing itself and fixing the prejudice and racism embedded in its systems, but I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that make those conversations a priority instead of ignoring it. I came to Milwaukee 8 years ago a very sheltered and ignorant product of the suburbs. I will always have work to do in terms of undoing that. This city opens my eyes a little wider every day and it's really humbling to not only witness the hardship of a city, but the strength in community and culture as it rises. There are a lot of fabulous and powerful people here that have built themselves up in spite of adversity and that is something to be proud of.
What is Milwaukee's music scene like today?
I think it's currently in a lot of flux. Many of the artists I grew up performing with are blossoming into full acts or moving out of Milwaukee, or forming collaborations I wouldn't have initially predicted. They're starting to claim their voices and be pro-active with them. They're having the hard discussions about why we're still largely a very insular community, and trying to work together to form solutions for it (i.e. more all-ages venues and opportunities, more inclusive spaces and diverse band lineups, more non-alcohol-centric opportunities, etc.) At the core, though, I've been very fortunate to say I have always witnessed a whole heck of a lot of love, passion, respect and creativity.. I think we've got some really special people in our midst.
Where do you see Milwaukee's music scene in 10 years
I'm not sure. As much as I love Milwaukee, I foresee a lot of the acts that are here now probably leaving; or at least using Milwaukee as just a home-base to intermittently return to. We don't currently have the money or priorities in place to sustain most artists to the degree they need to be. It comes largely down to fractured infrastructure, budget, the fact that we are first and foremost a bar town, and the ruthless winter season. I think Milwaukee has the potential to grow out of it, but I'm not sure whether that'll happen within 10 years or not. That being said, I think we'll have a lot of truly innovative acts start to emerge from the restlessness. Just as I witness with the scene now, I think the younger generations will have even more energy and solutions to offer, and maybe we'll see that shift Milwaukee needs sooner than later.
If you weren't doing music, what would you be doing?
Well, I have my BFA in Fine Art, so most likely something in that field. I graduated from MIAD in 2014 with a double major in Painting and Integrated Studio Arts (a concept-focused major with open media), and a writing minor, so I think I was always destined to be a creative. Maybe I'd be making comic books. Oh! Or I'd be a magician. Could you imagine that? I told my mother that once and she looked like she had seen a ghost. I think magic is really cool, though. Wonder and finesse are a delightful combination.
What's one thing most people don't know about you?
I have a really horrible vocal tic in the form of a cough. I've had it for 17 years. Some days I just cough non-stop. I think it's partially why I've got a cool rasp to my voice and a super strong diaphragm, but I also fear it'll some day be the death of my career. People don't really understand Tourette's and the many ways it can be painful and isolating, but my hope is that one day I can use my platform as a musician to discuss that on a larger scale with people since it is something that correlates with my career and is even in some of my lyrics.