Polymath — a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
Aminah Hughes’ debut album, Blue Wooden Boat, is an impressive first outing by any measure. Recorded in Ireland, USA, Australia and Germany, Blue Wooden Boat features special guests Tommy Emmanuel, Waterboys’ fiddler Steve Wickham and Nashville gospel singers, The McCrary Sisters. The album was mixed in Nashville by Tim Carter and mastered in Memphis by Brad Blackwood, both Grammy Award winners.
The music on the album traverses folk, gospel and the blues, refusing to be tied down by genres and showcasing Hughes’ vocals and song writing sensibilities almost to perfection. Around The Sound took tea with Hughes as she prepared for the album’s launch on 14 November.
“Oh, and I did the cover art [for the album], too. I dabble in visual art.”
That’s Aminah Hughes’ parting shot to me in a conversation that covered her career as a singer and song writer, as well as her interests in writing - both prose and poetry - film making, acting, spirituality, science, space, the universe and ... everything!
With a person like Hughes, the definition of words like ‘dabble’ stretch a little, not unlike Einstein’s theory of relativity where stuff expands or contracts according to where in spacetime you’re viewing. It’s all about perspective. I ‘dabble’ in art, too, but none of my scratchings have ever ended up on an album cover, not even one of my own, much less looked like the object I was attempting to render. When Hughes dabbles, things of beauty appear.
When Hughes dabbles, things of beauty appear
Knowing the range of Hughes’ creative interests, it’s difficult not to wonder how she manages them all and if there is a pecking order. In response, Hughes starts with the music and ranges over her interests from there.
“Music feels like it’s just part of who I am and it’s something that will always be there, but I want to pursue other interests as well on the side. I guess, primarily, I’m a writer. The difference is that I want to make the films that I write, and I want to sing the songs that I write. I love cinema and I love music. I see cinema as a passion and music as part of who I am.”
“A lot of musicians, in order to survive, do lots of different things. I teach song writing every now and then, but instead of holding down a job as a music teacher, I go and work in films and I do photography. I shot a calendar in Ireland to help raise money for the album. Everyone in the arts is multi skilled, because you have to be in order to survive, especially in Australia. I just spread my skills across a few mediums.”
Set to release her debut album, Hughes also is writing a novel, two feature films and has just auditioned for a role acting in another film soon to start production in WA. So, to say she ‘just’ spreads her skills across a few mediums is a bit of an understatement. But that's a little bit of the Hughes value add, along with all the talent comes a healthy dose of self-effacement. It’s not like Hughes is unaware of her gifts, perhaps more that she hasn’t quite gotten around to learning how to play the trumpet just yet. Not that she mentioned, anyway.
It’s almost a relief, then, to learn that Hughes also suffers the same shyness and anxieties about her talents that most of us do when we think we might be quite good at something. How she got to meet and work with Tommy Emmanuel illustrates this beautifully.
“My ex partner, who was my partner at the time, his band was touring with Tommy [Emmanuel] through Eastern Europe. Tommy came to Belfast to perform at the Waterfront Hall and we went along and were hanging out in the dressing room. Somehow, at one point before the show, Tommy and I ended up alone together in his dressing room. He just happened to start playing this song that I’d been singing at my gigs, an old Irish American song. I started singing while he was playing, but I was really nervous and thinking ‘I can’t sing in front of Tommy Emmanuel,’ and then he said, ‘You just need the right key’. And so we sang it in the dressing room together and he asked if I’d like to come out on stage and sing it with him that night. I was so nervous on stage, I started singing with my eyes closed. Then I took a peek, opened my eyes and there was this humongous audience and they were so warm. They just loved him, and it was an electric vibe. I looked over at Tommy and he was smiling, and I thought, ‘I’m not missing this,’ so I kept my eyes open and it was just so much fun. So much energy.”
A star was born.
Tommy Emanuel wasn’t the only high-profile performer to lend their talents to Blue Wooden Boat. The album also features vocals from the McCrary Sisters, although, in Hughes’ own words, initially, “I was looking for men. I wanted that timbre that men have.”
I was looking for men
“I was on a train somewhere while in the US and it was a long journey, so I went and stood in the space between the carriages where I could be by myself and sing. I had this song that I’d written, ‘Tell Me It’s Over’ and I was listening to it with my guide vocal and I started hearing these harmonies coming in. I was singing them to myself and thought, ‘I’ve got to record some harmonies on this.’ I usually record my own harmonies, but when I was in Nashville, on a night off we went to see Bob Dylan and these women came out on stage, the McCrary Sisters. I heard them sing and I thought, ‘‘Tell Me It’s Over’! That song!’ So, a couple of days later we got them in and they absolutely blew the house down. They were phenomenal. They just blasted out the first line and we were all like, ‘Mmm, that’ll do!’ They knew what they were doing, they were amazing.”
The results of the recording process that became Blue Wooden Boat are nothing short of spectacular, albeit in an understated way. Hughes’ song writing and the arrangements and instrumentation of the songs on Blue Wooden Boat mark out this offering as a song cycle that will have enduring appeal. Having gotten to know Hughes just a little, her own response to the album isn’t really that surprising.
“I am very proud of this album, but, in a way it’s quite a safe album. I’m looking forward to pushing a few more boundaries.”
I’m looking forward to pushing a few more boundaries
Self-effacing again, but also looking ahead to what’s next. Hughes already has material for albums two and three in the can or in the process of being recorded, and she’s looking forward to breaking the shackles of any genre typing that comes with Blue Wooden Boat. From Hughes’ perspective, her debut album is deliberately safe so that she doesn’t confuse her audience. Once established, she has no intentions of continuing to play it safe with subsequent releases.
Hughes didn’t directly mention her acumen as a strategist during our conversation, but she did talk about the reasons for starting her own record label, Blue Wolf Records:
“I decided in 2003, when I was living in Sydney and working with Robert James, best known as a member of GANGgajang. We were co-producing and from him and other people that were around me at that time, I just heard so many bad stories about major labels. I decided then, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to start my own label. I’m going to own my masters.”
Hughes is an artist who has control of her career from end to end and is setting up the infrastructure required to be successful in the long term. She may have her feet firmly planted on the ground, but she’s not just a hard-nosed pragmatist. There’s a beautifully shy, spiritual side to Hughes that, when she allows it to be seen, provides a glimpse of the wellspring that drives her creativity.
Asked to speak about the theme that runs through Hughes’ current music and ties it into her commercial interests, she simply says, “Blue is my favourite colour.”
For a moment, Hughes looks like she’s going to leave it there. Throughout our conversation, she has punctuated her comments with shy laughter and a gentle reluctance to give away any more than she feels she has to. It’s not that she’s difficult to interview, just maybe figuring out as she goes where the boundaries between the professional and the personal lie.
“The blue wooden boat is a metaphor for escape. The blue wolf in Blue Wolf Records comes from a vision I had, of this wolf that had blue fur. It didn’t make any sense to me and then I went and Googled it and discovered that there is a blue wolf in Alaska. I don’t know, I think it’s my spirit animal.
Laughs. Pauses. I sit and wait to see if there will be more.
“Fuck it! Yeah, it’s my spirit animal, my totem. I’m the blue wolf in Blue Wolf Records.”
I’m the blue wolf in Blue Wolf Records
“I never talk about my spirituality. ‘Tell Me It’s Over’ sounds like a gospel song and it works as one, but I’m really singing to my higher self. I’m quite interested in the spectrum of gods and goddesses. I don’t necessarily believe that they’re real, but as archetypes, I believe that they’re powerful and very useful. I’m quite scientifically minded, I don’t believe in a creator god, I believe in the big bang and I actually read about quantum physics in my spare time. I’m very interested in the science world and in space. I love space. However, I believe that there is a spiritual plane and I’ve certainly had a lot of experiences that I don’t think can be explained by science.”
And there it is, Hughes the strategist also has an interest in knowing what the big strategy of life, the universe and everything might be. That’s where we return to the songs.
“My songs are focused on story telling. The lyrics are really important.” The song, ‘Blue Wooden Boat’ is about escaping a situation that is not good for you. For me it was about escaping family violence. It was a situation where I thought that I was alone in something and then someone from that family came and told me that I wasn’t alone and that he wanted to escape it as well.”
“A lot of my song writing comes from really deep places like that. It’s kind of like therapy. It’s about having the courage to get away from a bad situation and then finding out that you’re not alone.”
If you think you need a bit of therapy, even if you don’t, Aminah Hughes comes highly recommended. The Words and music alone are highly rewarding. The opportunity for reflection and spiritual growth come as an added bonus.
Aminah Hughes comes highly recommended
Blue Wooden Boat is launched at The Ellington on 14 November. More information here.
The single, ‘Blue Wooden Boat’ is available now on Spotify.