Amber Mark Embraces Vulnerability in Music and Life
Amber Mark is not afraid to ask the big questions. She’s also not afraid to answer them either. In an hour-long sit down with Billboard for the Honda Stage series, Mark never shies away from…
Amber Mark is not afraid to ask the big questions. She’s also not afraid to answer them either. In an hour-long sit down with Billboard for the Honda Stage series, Mark never shies away from the realities of life. No matter how vulnerable, messy, or complicated it all might be. This is the same sense of fearlessness and intimacy that made listeners flock to Mark’s music.
As a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer, Mark has charted her course in the music industry by way of raw talent, bracingly honest lyrics, and a rich vocal tone holding it all together. Mark’s breakthrough moment came with 2018’s ubiquitous hit, “Love Me Right”, which led to her debut late-night TV performance on the Late Night with Seth Meyers Show. But even before she popped up on TV screens, Mark’s following was steadily gaining ground with more intimate releases like “S P A C E” off of 3:33 AM in 2017, which dealt with the passing of her mother back in 2013. Mark is known for channeling the ephemeral states of loss and desire into melodic torch songs.
“I was writing about grief at the time and the process of going through all the different stages without even knowing it,” says Mark. “I always had a hard time talking about my feelings and expressing myself. So with 3:33 AM I let out a lot of feelings that I’d hold inside. I knew I wanted to be a singer. But even if it didn’t work out, music was a way for me to help my own mental sanity.”
Throughout the conversation, which ranged from an unconventional childhood to mourning the passing of her mother — each topic more soul-baring than the one before — Mark blossoms, revealing layers of wisdom and perspective that are seemingly beyond her twenty-something years.
“[My music] has this way of connecting with people. The most important and the most exciting part is when I get messages from people saying your songs have helped me through this or I’ve been through a similar situation as you.”
Mark credits her childhood with instilling in her preternatural sense of wisdom, a worldly sound and profound love of music. Born on a farm in Tennessee, Mark spent her formative years trotting the globe with her mother, Mia, a free-spirited artist originally from Germany.
“It’s a blessing. Honestly, if I think about it, so many people dream of traveling to India, Thailand, Nepal, and Germany,” says Mark. “It was kind of a whirlwind. We weren’t staying in one place for more than two years. But I don’t regret any of it now. Maybe as a kid, I was kind of annoyed and frustrated because my mom didn’t really like to settle. She was very much a hippie and wanted to travel the world and just paint her life away. But I enjoyed it. I think it really helped me to accumulate different types of cultures and really make them a part of my childhood.”
Eventually, the non-stop pace of things began to wear on Mark, who desired some semblance of stability. It was right around her teenage years, while living in Berlin on the creative whims of her mother, that life became too tumultuous. “We moved to Berlin and initially I really liked it. But then winter came and it was really gray and cold, and I started going through puberty around 13 and you know, you hate everything and you’re just like depressed about everything.”
Thankfully, that was when music saved her.
“I asked my mom for a guitar and she just came home one day with a guitar in hand, and I was very excited about it and immediately taught myself on YouTube,” says Mark. “Music became like a place for me to escape. It brought out a passion in me at the time, and it was kind of the only thing that I was really excited about at the time. It wasn’t the best time. But yeah, you experience growth in all of those dark moments.”
Picking up on her daughter’s need for stability, Mia moved the family back stateside first to New York City, then to Miami, Florida. The vibrant city held some visceral memories that left a lasting impression on Mark that would go on to help her define her signature sound.
“My first memory of music would probably be in the car with my mom when we were living in Miami [as a kid]. She was blasting Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gloria Estefan, and lots of Sade. Moving back to Miami was really great because my brother was living there. So it was the three of us together again.”
Mia enrolled Mark into Miami Beach Senior High, where Mr. Burroughs, the music teacher who ran the after-school rock ensemble, helped to nurture her musical journey. “Mr. Burroughs had been doing it since the seventies. My brother was involved in it. It was very similar to School of Rock.” It was while performing in a local charity event and school showcases that Mark had her first blush of fame. “That’s kind of when it started to like my eyes started twinkling like, Oh, OK, people are into this,” says Mark. “This could be a thing. That was my first taste of being on stage and performing in front of an audience.”
Mark eventually landed back in New York City, putting down roots in the West Village with close family-friends, including her sister Chloerose. Through a family connection, Mark landed a gig working the receptionist desk at a salon by day, while figuring out her sound by night. Through a fortuitous run in and an unwitting joke with one of the salon’s owners, Michelle Carter, who just so happened to be the sister of Shawn Carter. Yes, that Shawn Carter. Mark got her foot in the door at Roc Nation, and was one step closer to her dream. “I was starting to try to make music and make beats. I was interning at Roc Nation, and assisting a manager there,” says Mark. “It was very motivating for me, seeing artists going in and out of the office. I always kept [my music] really hidden and I didn’t really talk about it. So it was grind mode for me where I would go work at Roc Nation during the day and then I’d go home and like, just write as much as I could. I was writing demos and looking for producers to produce them.”
The positive reception to the early music that Mark put out on SoundCloud was the gas that ignited her career. And pretty soon, radio stations were picking up her one-off singles and EPs. “I just put it out on SoundCloud. And then once that happened, then things started to move very quickly. So I never really thought about the next steps.”
With her newest album, Three Dimensions Deep, which debuted on January 28th on EMI/PMR Records, Mark is once again diving into the deep end of the emotional wave pool. The album’s soul-searching overtones reflect a period of conscious questioning that marked her time under the restrictions of COVID-19. The lockdown became a time of introspection that felt at once familiar and new. “I had always felt like science and spirituality/religion were like completely opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Mark. “I started really looking into how different physicists theorized life. And it felt like they’re very much talking about the same thing, they’re just expressing it differently. It almost made me feel more connected to Earth and more spiritual. It opened this side up to me that I had kind of closed off after my mom had passed.”
For Mark, revisiting the theme of loss, even from a more existential entry point, is a worthy calling. If not for herself, then for her fans. “The reason I named the album Three Dimensions Deep is because I felt like we, as human beings, can only perceive the world in three dimensions”, says Mark. “So I wanted to talk about how you could go as deep, philosophically as you want. I think the main thing is that they’re able to really connect with it on an emotional level. Like, I can’t even believe I’m doing that for one person. That’s what keeps me going.”