Emily Hamilton is a legal aid worker by day and a powerhouse pop rocker by night. Although even that description doesn’t do her music justice. Emily, AKA San Mei, has been finding her feet musically for some years and a not-so-chance meeting with Oscar Dawson (Holy Holy, Alex Lahey, Ali Barter, British India, Robbie Miller, Joyride) catalysed a giant leap forward in both her sound and her approach to the industry in general.
For someone who was forced to play piano as a child (“and hated it”), San Mei’s is a lovely story of musical growth.
“I was really into sport for a while and thought that was what I wanted to do. My sisters and I played competitive tennis,” Emily said.
“Then I just met some friends – actually my youth group – and was playing in church and stuff – and they were also in the music industry as well. And then I married one of them.”
From there, she explored songwriting and honed her chops by emulating other artists, learning the same chord progressions and embellishing songs herself. And she just kept practicing, “I think things have become a bit more cohesive in each song,” she said, of her musical evolution.
“I’m definitely not where I want to be – I want the songs to be strong enough so if I just sat down at a piano or with guitar they’d be able to carry themselves,” she said. “That’s one thing I’m trying to be mindful of.
“In the beginning it was all new to me, all these amazing, crazy sounds in Logic and just trying to learn that.”
“Lately I’m just trying to refine ideas and make them simple but strong.”
Oscar Dawson has also been helping San Mei refine her songs. The pair met at his show at Miami Marketta after he’d received a copy of the demo for ‘Wonder’.
“When I look back I can’t believe Oscar heard my demo,” Emily said.
“He invited me to the show so we could meet in person and he was interested in working with me. We just kind of said hi and met up at BIGSOUND again to talk logistics.”
“We just had a lot of fun recording together, we got along really well, he’s very laid back.”
Oscar’s approach to Emily’s songs was similarly laid back. When he received San Mei’s songs they were nearly fully formed.
“I’m pretty precious – everything has to sound really good before I come to them. I’d written all the parts and tracked them, so he was really good in that he didn’t want to just take over and do things his way even though he’s a genius,” she said.
“He was really supportive in just using the ideas and complementing them better with maybe different drum patterns than what I’d laid down. Just things here and there that would complement. He really Just refined things,” Emily said.
Emily’s recent releases have seen her shrug off the bedroom pop-producer epithet and complete her transformation to dream pop, complete with psych-tinged guitars and synth. It’s the kind of music just as much at home in a dingy indie bar as on massive festival stages. She says that evolution was a totally conscious step.
“I got to a stage where I didn’t feel like anything was flowing. It might just be the maturity of it all. It wasn’t feeling natural after a while, so I just started incorporating my love of guitar and music – which really speaks to me and gets me going.”
“I feel like at the moment, especially with the newer stuff that I’m writing that I’m loving combining two things – those really interesting electronic sounds with heavy guitar bass.”
That ‘newer stuff’ has scored Gold Coast’s San Mei a much coveted showcase slot at BIGSOUND this year, something she says she’s incredibly “excited” about.
“I feel like there’s so much to accomplish there – where do I start?”
“I feel kind of privileged I guess just to be a part of all of that, to be with all these bands making waves in their own thing that they’re doing – that’s pretty special.”
As well as BIGSOUND, Emily has a bunch of shows on the horizon, plus she’s just scored a City of Gold Coast RADF grant to support the release of new single ‘Heaven’. She’s also dropped more than a little hint about a new four-track EP but no release date has been set.
Catch San Mei at BIGSOUND (Tuesday at Woolly Mammoth and Thursday at Brightside) as well as at the AU Review party at The Foundry on 7 September. She’s also at Rainbow Revolution at Miami Marketta on 28 September and the Crafted Beer and Cider Festival in Broadbeach on 6 October.
IMAGE (c) Lamp Photography