“Jazz singing is the complete purity of intention.” — A Conversation with Amani, about ‘We’ll Have Tea’

The Hang-Out 070
10 min readNov 29, 2022
“A song is like a monologue.” — Amani

On a rainy September day I sat down with Amani at a cafe in The Hague. We had a long chat about her album “We’ll have tea”. I came to know about Amani’s music through my work as a volunteer at the Hangout-070. I was sitting one evening having dinner with other volunteers when someone put her music on. “An Exolinguist on Planet X ‘’ radiated through the loud-speakers. It gripped me and I realised I have to write about this. It’s exceptional, it is fresh, it is both old & new: it haunts you. I asked Amani to tell me all the stories behind her music. We began by the story behind the stage name she chose.

Here you can listen to “We’ll Have Tea” by Caspar Milquetoast:

https://tinyroomrecords.bandcamp.com/album/well-have-tea

“People don’t appreciate this about Mr. Milquetoast, but he’s a gentleman at heart.”

Anis: Why “Caspar Milquetoast”?

Amani: Caspar Milquetoast is a character created by HT Webster who appeared in newspaper comic strips between the 1920s-50s. He’s known for being especially timid and weak-willed — a few reviewers have tried to draw grand conclusions about me and my personality based on Caspar, like I chose him because I’m “hiding away from the world” or something. Really I just like his vibes. People don’t appreciate this about Mr. Milquetoast, but he’s a gentleman at heart.

Anis: What could we say about ‘We’ll have tea’?

Amani: It’s telling stories from different perspectives. Also, trying to serve the story using the music. Let’s take Leonard Cohen, for example: most of his songs were poems first, and then adapted to melodies. He makes the transition beautifully, so his songs are better than the sum of their parts. It’s a hard thing to define; you see it everywhere, even with music that doesn’t have lyrics. Every note is there to serve the emotion; take arias in operas. Moments of triumph, peaks of emotion, always on a high note. I think pop music, generally, should do the same thing. Some people work backwards: write a melody and then add words to suit it.

“If I’m not following the storyline of the song, I personally can’t sing. A song is like a monologue.”

Anis: And how do you tell a story with your music?

Amani: I start with the text. When I set it to music, I think about, for instance, what’s the most important word in the sentence? The melody has to follow the progression of the story. I don’t think I always make that happen, but it’s something I try to achieve. ‘Pink House’ (from my EP) is the closest I’ve come so far, I think — that track also doesn’t follow a traditional verse-chorus structure. Every moment of it is led by the feeling of the text.

That’s the only thing that music is; a way to speak. In my opinion, if I’m not following the storyline of the song, I personally can’t sing. A song is like a monologue.

Anis: The album starts with a one-minute song titled ‘The Fool’. Who’s the Fool?

Amani: The title comes from the tarot card: the Fool. Its arcana is 0. To my understanding, the Fool signifies infinite potential. It’s me asking the listener to keep an open mind.

The voice-over in that track comes from the best audiobook to have ever existed, which was voiced by Tony Jay. The most beautiful, broad, educated, soulful voice that I’ve ever heard.

I’d been hoping that there might be a book narrated by Tony Jay, and then I found Time’s Fool.

The book itself is a historical murder mystery starring Will Shakespeare. A marriage between an unremarkable text and a heavenly voice. So the voice-over in ‘The Fool’ comes from that audiobook — in particular the ending, when Shakespeare’s ex-lover has burnt to death, literally, in the flames of her own hatred. In the final lines of the book, ‘Shakespeare’ is meditating on death and mortality.

Anis: What can you tell us about the creation process & instruments?

Amani: The creation of the music is digital. At least, the biggest part is done digitally. For vocals, I mostly just sit under a blanket and shout into a shitty mic, and you can tell. Some people enjoy that aspect of it.

Anis: Does each instrument have its own role in the narrative?

Amani: There is a certain balance & nuance between the real instruments which I’m capable of playing and the digital ones that are readily available, and which have much more choice and intention. With a guitar or clarinet you have less control: with a digital instrument, you can decide the pitch and duration of every note, how hard the note is being struck, whether or not it has vibrato, etc.

For instance, ‘The Negation’ was entirely digital, every choice was intentional. ‘Specially conveying that suspicious, apprehensive feeling in the piece. ‘The Fool’ is digital, while ‘Exolinguist On Planet X’ contains a combination of live and digital instruments.

Anis: Let’s talk about live instruments

Amani: One of the live instruments I used was the guitar in ‘Exolinguist’: to serve the feeling of a folk song or a ballad. I had an image in my head of a scientist sitting alone on a desolate planet, just playing a guitar. I thought of using the guitar by itself, without any digital extras, and maybe I should have. The guitar has the potential to be an incredibly lonely, melancholy instrument. Mirel Wagner’s ‘No Death’, for instance.

Another was the clarinet: there’s a real clarinet solo in Burnished Gold. It could only have been a clarinet!

There are fake clarinets in Pink House. Everyone describes it as an organ, but they’re actually sampled clarinets playing chords.

Speaking of which, I find the chord progression in ‘So Long, Giovanni’ a little embarrassing for how simple it is. . .Why is it embarrassing? There’s a specific mood in the live piano playing those four chords, III-i-iv-VII. I wanted to tell a simple story; but I feel like sometimes I regret not adding that complexity. I didn’t think people would like the more complex version, but I myself would enjoy it. During the writing process I don’t associate any instruments with any specific feeling — although looking back now, everything is in its place.

Anis: Would you re-write ‘So Long, Giovanni’?

Amani: I might record a new version, not to replace the original, just to add to it. The chords would get more abstract as the song went on, to serve that hammer of grief that’s about to fall. I’d record it all live, beating the shit out of the piano, like Diamanda Galás is famous for doing, and just see what that would do to the song.

Anis: What’s your favourite song on the album?

Amani: Some of the songs I’m more emotionally attached to because I’ve had them in my head for longer. And because they’re based on some of the best books I ever read. Salieri is my favourite song. The melody has been in my head since I was eight. I was never fully satisfied with the chorus: we added a little choir on the hook to hold up my shaky voice. Looking back on that, I’m not sure if it was the right decision.

Anis: What’s your impression of the album reviews?

Amani: One reviewer said the albums seemed to have been written on acid in the 70s. Strangely enough, most reviews tend to date me around the 1960s or 1970s. Two completely unrelated writers both compared me to Nico from Velvet Underground. I think the more reviews I read, the more I understand that a review is just a projection of the reviewer. People have said completely contradictory things about this little 20-minute EP, so there’s no objective truth here. Just interpretations.

“I think my favorite genre leans more toward jazz than blues. On top of that, there’s a big difference between being a blues/jazz musician, and being a jazz singer.”

Anis: Tell us a bit about your musical influences.

Amani: There’s Leonard Cohen — I love his career path. He started as a novelist, then began to write poetry. Then, because he wanted to go into a STABLER field, he took up music(!!).

Camille Saint-Saëns: So much mood. So much drama. Danse Macabre and the Carnival of the Animals are my favorite pieces of classical music.

Fiona Apple: Absolute queen. Legend. She and her piano are twins separated at birth. She’s a modern day blues artist.

Harvey Danger: A one-hit-wonder from the 1990’s, but so much more than that! Genius storytelling, more down-to-earth than Fiona Apple. The singer comes across as pretentious, and I mean that fondly. Their lyrics are sharp, witty and fun to say. The perfect trifecta.

Anis: What does the blues mean to you?

Amani: I think my favorite genre leans more toward jazz than blues. On top of that, there’s a big difference between being a blues/jazz musician, and being a jazz singer. Jazz singers are a huge inspiration to me: Nat King Cole, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone. They tell the truth. They won’t ever sing a single note or syllable without knowing exactly what they’re saying, or where it’s coming from. In that sense, to me, jazz singing is the complete purity of intention.

Anis: Would you see yourself as a jazz singer?

Amani: Right now my biggest problem is resources. I’ve been recording music since 2018, but I was never thinking about releasing it or performing live. I tried to get a guy to join me last year, a really talented guitarist. I’d ask him, “what do you wanna make?” He had no answer. “OK, what do you NOT wanna make?” No answer.

So I kept showing up with weirder and weirder songs to try and provoke a vision out of him, even if it was just to say “this song is weird and I hate it” — but the plan backfired and he left.

So right now I have a resource problem: if I had the money for a proper DAW, and if I knew some live musicians who were willing to show up with me, it would transform my music, both the recordings and my live shows.

And yes, if there were talented jazz musicians willing to work with me, I might turn into a jazz singer.

Anis: If you were a jazz singer, which song would you sing?

Amani: Nature Boy. To me it stands out in the pantheon of jazz: the story that it tells is different from most jazz songs. A lot of jazz is about heartbreak, (“You hurt me”, “I love you”, etc.)

Nature Boy is almost a fairy tale. A fable. You still have to sing it with soul. I love the melody, storytelling and composition. It all feels very dreamy; all the elements that I like just come together.

Anis: Tell us a brief history of your relationship with music; when did it start and where is it going?

Amani: Let’s go back to the first time I played a musical instrument: we were seven. Every girl wanted to play the flute, but they gave me a clarinet. And I played the clarinet for a couple of years. I had to stop for four years, and then later on I got a clarinet tutor. I remember him wearing a turtleneck every week, always black or red. He had an involved way of playing and teaching music: you had to figure out what the music notes were saying, where to put the emphasis, what to feel while you played. It’s only now that I realise what a gift he gave me.

The other half of my epiphany, that brought me to where I am right now, was discovering Harry Belafonte. He did everything: folk songs, Calypso, Hava Nagila. . .he has a cover of Danny Boy that taught me that the voice is an instrument. It’s live, he’s in Carnegie Hall, one man’s voice filling this enormous concert hall. Danny Boy has this note that comes around twice: “I’ll be here. . .”. Belafonte interprets that note, here, so beautifully both times, and both notes are vastly different.

When Belafonte uses his voice, he plays an instrument. A beautifully crafted instrument, like any other. I read an interview once where he said, “I’m not a singer, I’m an actor. I’m just such a good actor that I’ve convinced you I’m a singer.”

Anis: What are you currently working on?

Amani: In terms of music, I have two projects. When I was just finishing with “We’ll have Tea”, I had time to think about what I want to do next.

My plans may have changed, but at the time I wanted to call the next EP “Five Years in Sweden”. There’s an old demo of a song by the Mountain Goats on Youtube, called ‘Ghosts’. The chorus of it goes, ‘Five years is a long time, and I spent five years in Sweden, dying for you’.

I recently spent a semester in Cairo, and some days I would walk around the big empty apartment like a Victorian ghost. I’d sing to myself to pass the time: Nature Boy, songs by Belafonte, and the chorus of ‘Ghosts’. I changed it to “Five months is a long time, and I spent five months in Cairo, dying for you”.

The other project is a cover album of an artist very close to my heart, Herbert Khaury aka Tiny Tim. Maybe you know him from his song ‘Tiptoe Thru’ The Tulips’, although he has a huge library of strange, gorgeous music. I want to name the EP “Some Khaury in Their Birth”, after a line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 91: some glory in their birth, some in their skill. . .

Anis: A musician you’d have tea with?

Amani: There’s a difference between someone I’d enjoy contemplating from a distance vs. a person I would actually get along with. . .

I would sit down for tea with Tiny Tim. He lived such a strange life and he failed so often. I want to know where his resilience comes from, and how I can inherit it.

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