INTERVIEW: LIV LI’s Amber Nichols on her new single ‘Bloom’ and her many musical paths
LIV LI is a new pop project for a singer who’s lived many different musical lives – and now she’s found her sound.
If you look back at the genesis of LIV LI – the new pop project of Australian singer-songwriter Amber Nichols – it’s probably fair to say that the future didn’t always look so bright. Although she grew up steeped in music, with a sharp ear and a love of singing, it took years for Nichols to find her feet musically. Thankfully she persisted and has today released the debut LIV LI single ‘Bloom’. A remarkable electronic track with a powerful lyrical message, the song is a sign that this will surely be Nichols’ most impressive and important incarnation yet.
Confidence was the first hurdle, Nichols remembers. As a child growing up in Canberra, her first singing lessons ended awkwardly. “I was so scared of being in front of the teacher that they had to turn all the lights off. I stood in the corner and sang into the wall,” she recalls with a laugh. When she tried keyboard classes, an authoritarian, ruler-wielding teacher didn’t help, either. “The teacher would walk around … and if you weren’t holding your fingers in the right position she would slap you with the ruler. I came home and I said, ‘I’m never going to keyboard lessons ever again!’”
Nichols had showed a precocious talent for music early, picking up music by ear by the time she was five. “My parents would have the radio on and I would just go over to the piano and be able to figure out the melodies of whatever I was hearing,” she remembers. Despite her talent, it was something a little less classical than the piano that would flick the music switch in her head. “I always feel a little bit embarrassed saying this, but honestly it was The Little Mermaid for me,” she laughs. “I wish that I could be cool and say my parents played Bob Dylan records and read poetry, [but] when I first felt that kind of excitement and hunger and passion for singing, it was all about Ariel!”
A teenage obsession with Mariah Carey, though, would initially make her doubt her own ability to sing at all. “It was an unhealthy obsession; I listened to Music Box on repeat for years,” she says. “But I was listening to someone that has a ridiculous range, who does crazy runs, and I’m not that kind of singer. In my mind that was what a singer was. So I just never thought I could ever be one.”
Still, Nichols jumped at the chance to join a band when the chance finally came. When she left school, she taught herself guitar and piano; a friend, impressed by her vocal ability, asked her to join his fledgling band Angels are Architects. They steadily gained a following, winning their state final in the National Campus Band Competition in 2005. After the final was filmed by MTV, the band found themselves in demand and began touring internationally, the highlight being a gig in Singapore to a crowd of 60,000. But when they were offered a record deal, the band turned it down. Nichols was shocked. “The band members were like, ‘Nah, this is just a hobby for me,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘What?’ I wanted it so much and the other guys just weren’t really into it.”
In the end, Nichols took the record deal as a solo artist, although the experience quickly soured. “When I signed they had a box that they wanted to fit me into and I just couldn’t fit into it,” she explains. “And in the end we agreed to part ways because I just couldn’t be what they wanted.”
After that first disappointing brush with record labels, Nichols released music independently before appearing on The Voice Australia in 2015. It was that moment in the national spotlight that ultimately led to the music she is making today. “As soon as that show was over, it was over,” she says. “And that’s where I first had the idea to completely rebrand and start this new project because I wanted freedom to just do whatever. I don’t want to do albums. I don’t want to do EPs. I just want to create what I want to create in that moment and give it to whoever wants to listen.”
Nichols also admits that creating LIV LI – the name comes from “a combination of the names of two people that I love” – was a way to distance herself from her real life. “I can be really vulnerable and authentic in one moment and just totally surreal in the next moment and that’s okay, because it’s not ‘Amber’.”
The first song from LIV LI appeared at the beginning of February: ‘Silhouette’, a pared-back electronic track with gorgeous melodies and harmonies that cascade over one another, the production and tone recreating the shadowy, hollow feel of a silhouette. It’s a change from the music Nichols had made previously, which had its roots in folk and acoustic genres – although Nichols says she has always been drawn to electronic pop, citing Lamb, Massive Attack and Portishead as some of her favourite bands. She was also inspired by Vera Blue, another graduate of The Voice Australia, who successfully stepped from folk into electronica. A collaboration with Melbourne producers MSquared, the new single ‘Bloom’ was a watershed moment in the transformation process. “We knew that we had done something pretty special. I thought, ‘We’re kind of onto something,’” she remembers.
And special ‘Bloom’ certainly is. A moody, haunting, driving, skittering delight of electro-pop with dashes of trip-hop, it is a track that sinks into your soul and refuses to leave. Nichols says she always has a muse when she is writing, and for ‘Bloom’ it was a young girl she has known for many years. “When she was young, she was just such a vibrant, beautiful girl who was good at everything that she touched,” Nichols says. “As she grew up, she went through a patch of bullying which really took a toll … All the dreams she had for herself disappeared.” It made Nichols think about how quickly the fearlessness and drive of youth can vanish. “When we’re young, we’re told you can be anything and we kind of believe that,” she says. “We have these massive dreams for ourselves and different things happen to us that start to chip away at that, and then we just lose faith.”
She insists, though, that the song is one of hope. “Anything that’s really great takes huge amounts of courage and strength to actually bloom, so that’s what the song is about – blooming. It’s a painful process to follow your dreams. It can be hard, and you can shy away from it, and give up because things are difficult. But there’s potential, and that dream is still there.”
Never giving up on your dreams is a particularly relevant lesson to learn in the music industry, where Nichols says “you’ve got to be a self-starter”. And being a woman makes it that little bit harder. “I do know that every time I walk into a room of writers or producers, I’m always in the minority. I know that,” she says. “All the producers I have ever worked with have been male. Most of the writers that I’ve worked with have been male. Why is that?” She does sense a much-needed change in the air, though. “From my management, to PR, to digital strategy – they are all women who are at the top of their game who inspire me and lift me up every day,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t get to see too many women onstage in comparison to men, but I don’t predict that for the next generation. I think gender equality is something we can see significantly impacted in our generation. It’s an exciting time.”
While the LIV LI project took some time to evolve, Nichols is focused on the next stage of her career and is determined that this time she is here to stay. “I haven’t put music out into the world for about two years and I never want to ever do that again,” she laughs. “I’ve got enough music to come out for years and years and years. I’m just not going to stop!” Nichols is also looking to branch into photography and videography, but music is her one true passion. “I will play for whoever wants to listen. I’m going to just keep creating and keep putting music out, and express myself in all creative outlets. I hope that it resonates with people and that I get the opportunity to do that.”