Interview: Amanda Lowe Warnakulasuriya

"I began this work to make sure that no one ever felt as unsafe as I did in this industry and I’m so proud of the community for carving out these spaces for everyone to thrive in creativity!"

Amanda Lowe Warnakulasuriya(ALW) is an Ottawa-based multi-lingual singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, grant writer, community builder and the director of programming for Girls+ Rock Ottawa (G+RO), “a community organization that provides professional development opportunities, community engagement and advocacy support for girls, women and gender-diverse individuals to help them gain equitable access to opportunities in music.” Adriana caught up with Amanda to ask her about her music, influences, her work at G+RO and more.

(((o))): Let’s start right from the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

Amanda Lowe Warnakulasuriya: My whole life, I grew up in a very musical household. Music was always playing at home, and I was encouraged to pursue it for fun and for educational purposes but never as a career. So I’ve been making original music since I was 10 years old, became a bit of a professional hobby at age 16, but only began to consider myself a professional musician at age 18 when I moved to Ottawa.

(((o))): What instrument did you first learn to play?

ALW: Recorder and Xylophone were the first ones they taught you in school. Although I consider guitar the very first instrument I learned to play.

(((o))): When did you start writing lyrics?

ALW: Deep in childhood, around age 10 is my earliest memory of songwriting. I also began writing poetry at that time, so I would turn my poems into songs. So it’s been a long time coming!

(((o))): What and who inspires you to write?

ALW: It’s been changing as I get older… Obviously, everything in life inspires me – my interactions, my relationships, memories, nature. For years, writing was a way for me to analyze the world around me and my own internal feelings, it was my way of processing trauma and heartbreak and moving on, which is why most of my songs have been very emotional or heart wrenching or melancholic. However, these past few years, with life being too overwhelming and hectic, I have less time to process life through songwriting so I have been reminding myself to slow down and write about everything – the good and the bad. Letting myself be inspired to write about the joyful moments is just as important, no matter how cheesy it can get. Striking a balance between living, processing, and writing has been great so I let myself be inspired by every encounter I have – big or small!

(((o))): Which artists have influenced you the most?

ALW: Lowkey this list is very embarrassing but I had an ~eclectic~ taste: The Supremes, Missy Elliot, Ashanti, Coeur de Pirate, Wilfred Lebouthillier, Taylor Swift (don’t judge me!!) Selena Quintanilla, Daughter, Explosions In The Sky, My Chemical Romance (thank you emo/scene kid days), Nelly Furtado, Glen Hansard, Dermot Kennedy, Safia Nolin. Also, Bollywood movie soundtracks for movies such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Devdas were staples of inspiration.

(((o))): You have an album coming out sometime this year. Can you tell us about the release or is it under wraps for now?

ALW: I’m actually planning on releasing an instrumental EP this late winter / early spring and then releasing my second full-length album in the summer called Islands of Death and Love. It’s still in its early stages and keeps changing with the tides, but essentially it will be an album honouring my ancestors, my loved ones, and our collective future. There will be songs of trauma and mourning, many songs about being happy and in love, and songs of yearning and hope. Life is not linear, it is cyclical and I hope this album embraces all of that!

(((o))): Having listened to your music and seen you play live I’d say that you aren’t an artist that can be pigeonholed into one genre. Out of the genres you touch on, which of those would you say influences you the most in your lyric writing and music composition?

ALW: The cusp where folk meets ambient is where I feel the most creative and free. It is not too rigid, not too open – there is just enough structure to keep you afloat and just enough flow to let you dissolve into creativity.

(((o))): You are the program coordinator for Girls+ Rock Ottawa. Can you tell us what inspired you to work with G+RO and what it means to you?

ALW: Growing up in Prince Edward Island, I was heavily involved in Sea Cadets, teaching youth, primarily from under resourced communities so I knew how important it was to have a community and mentors around you that believed in you and supported your wellbeing, and I wanted to continue to do that. Before joining the G+RO team, I worked everywhere in the music industry, constantly teaching myself everything so that I didn’t need to rely on anyone to help me and so that others could rely on me to support them through their musical careers. This was a way for keeping myself safe and others in my community safe from harm. The music industry was and still is a very unsafe scene for women, for gender-diverse folks, for queer folks, and for IBPOC folks so everywhere I went, I made sure to build a safe community of trusted musicians and industry professionals.

G+RO was beginning to do the same when they reached out to me back in 2017 and I no longer had to do this work alone! Working with G+RO has been incredible – watching the campers grow in a safe and supportive community, going from new musicians to recording their first original song, and having access to explore artistic opportunities both on and off stage, which means the world to me. I began this work to make sure that no one ever felt as unsafe as I did in this industry and I’m so proud of the community for carving out these spaces for everyone to thrive in creativity!

(((o))): You are immersed in the music scene here in Ottawa. What’s your opinion on the scene and how can we make it better, as both artists and fans?

ALW: Honestly, there are a lot of super-talented people here in Ottawa but unfortunately, I find the local music scene to be violently racist, misogynistic and ableist. I would need an entire day to talk about all the problems here in Ottawa. There are a lot of different pockets/bubbles of music communities but they are all disconnected from each other, no one is working together towards an equitable music industry and so we are getting almost nowhere. Doing community work in Ottawa’s music scene always feels like taking 5 steps forward and then 10 steps back. There is also zero infrastructure to support a sustainable career in music. The City itself doesn’t value the arts so why would the general public, and therefore why would anyone’s immediate circle value their artistic work or want to support them in pursuing a career in the arts?

The second I step out of my G+RO bubble, I feel unsafe and I know I will be confronted with racist and misogynistic violence because that is the nature of a lot of the participants in this music scene. No one is ever held accountable for their violent behaviours and their victims are never supported – not by most venues, promoters, artists, and audiences. Also, an entire demographic of people are being left out of these communities due to not being able to even access these spaces due to accessibility limitations and inaccessible stage plans.

Fans: Start going to more local shows. Support your favourite local artists by buying their music, merch, art – book them for private house shows, share their music with your friends, play their music at your parties, request their songs on the radio.

How to make it all better? We need Universal Basic Income so that folks have the financial security to explore a career in the arts. We need every public space to be fully accessible and more funding opportunities to allow small business owners to make these vital renovations – fully accessible entrances, washrooms, stages, seating areas, equipment. We need City of Ottawa funding for local venues to stay afloat and to pay local artists union fees for their performances, and diversity and inclusion policies implemented if receiving that funding to ensure that the local bands they are booking are diverse. We need every staff working at local venues to be regularly taking anti-oppression and decolonizing workshops, and for every venue to have equity policies in place. We need more women, gender-diverse, trans, 2S, queer, BIPOC, and disabled folks to be hired both on and off stage (sound techs, musicians, lighting techs, promoters, photographers, etc). We need more grants to support professional development in the arts.

(((o))): You recently played a live stream concert which was part of a monthly series put on by the organizers of Origin Kitchen Concerts. Can you tell us about the series and how you came to perform in the January show?

ALW: It’s a monthly series bridging together music, art, and food – the best elements of an event! Pairing a musician, an artist, and a culinary chef to create a wholesome community vibe. Their goal is to create a special and intimate experience between the trio and the audience. I was asked by the team and together we built a trio that would compliment each other. Since I am Sri Lankan, I decided that CardaMom should cater the event with their vegan/vegetarian Sri Lankan food. Sage and Spice Paintings was chosen for their stellar art who’s style and colours embodied the stories told in my songs. My performance was in two sets: set 1 was simple and favourites I’ve released. Set 2 was new songs combined with a visual film that I created of my favourite nature and travel videos. It was a lovely evening!

(((o))): Do you find it easier or harder to play live stream shows?

ALW: A bit of both. Easier because it’s on your own terms but harder because there is no connection with the audience – no real-time connection, the banter is awkward, wifi lags, the sound quality might not be great. Logistically, it’s a lot more work than playing a venue. It sounds self-centred but artists really do need that reassurance, that applause, in order for us to feel seen and to vibe off the audience’s energy! Is this how cover bands/artists feel when they’re playing loud bars where no one really cares that you’re playing music? I always hated those gigs (which is why I stopped playing them) but these live stream shows seem to trigger that same uncomfortable feeling. On occasion though, some live stream shows can be super fun especially if you have a filming crew there with you. Alone in my living room is chill but boring for me. That connection with the audience I miss the most – the hardest part is not being able to talk to fans after a show. I miss hearing about which songs made them cry, or which one reminded them of their loved one.

(((o))): Earlier in February it was announced that you are on the Mirror Mountain Film Festival (MMFF) jury! Congratulations! Can you tell listeners about your experience both as a performer for MMFF and now as a jury member?

ALW: Thank you! My experience performing with Novusolis at the 2019 Mirror Mountain Film Festival was incredible!! Their small team gave us the best hospitality and care to create this experiential performance mixing visual art and music. I cannot stress how amazing that performance was – having someone create a visual film of what they see when they hear your music and blending it with clips we took on tour was mindblowing! As for the jury, I absolutely love being on juries so I was super excited to be asked to join both the live performance jury and the film jury. It’s an interesting and peculiar view into the minds of creatives. I’m also a tough juror – my standards are pretty high and I view everything with an equity lens. It’s important to me as a juror, that I support projects that will have a big impact on the community / the audience. The MMFF team and the other jurors have been so much fun to work with on this, and I can’t wait till they announce their selections for this summer’s festival!!

(((o))): Thinking about your gear, is there an item you can’t live without and what’s your most favourite pedal to work with?

ALW: My Strymon Big Sky pedal I cannot live without (and also my favourite pedal). People assume it’s just an intense (overpriced) reverb pedal (lowkey is) but it does so much more. I’ve been able to emulate the sound of waves and strings, build coliseums of sounds with all the different effects on that pedal. If I only had that pedal, I’d be fine – I would drown in reverb and swells any day!!

(((o))): Lastly, during these pandemic times, what artists are you listening to?

ALW: My listening patterns have been wonky as heck during the pandemic. I’ll go from Megan the Stallion to Dermot Kennedy, from Phoebe Bridgers to Chloe x Halle, Mogwai to Burna Boy, SZA to Justin Nozuka. Also listening to anything instrumental that is a crossover of genres such as lofi-hip-hop and music-for-plants. Basically, I love any artist that can make me cry with their music!!

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