Amber Fresh, the musician behind the Rabbit Island moniker, makes music that seeps into your life. Deep In The Big, her newest record – and possibly the finest she has ever made – is no exception. You put the thing on, and at first, it feels almost overwhelming; it’s this dense, beautiful knot of words, and spiralling piano riffs, and haunted insistent melodies. But then you listen to it again, and then again, and every single time it changes; it deepens. It is a record with the power to change the direction of your life, however gently. And all it asks of you is that you listen.
Watch the clip for ’11, 12, 13′ by Rabbit Island below
Tone Deaf: What is your creative process like? Do you try to write music every day?
Amber Fresh: There are things I try to do every day like spending time in nature and getting wet (I’m trying to learn to surf at the moment) – but not writing music. For me music happens just when it wants to. Sometimes I’ll set up some gear and just make sounds and loops for a while, or improvised pieces on the piano if either no-one is home, or someone’s in the back yard who I am kind of secretly playing for. Making songs really just happens whenever what’s going on in life and the planets align to pull a song out of the ether; sometimes I get to have the song come through me. If I’m heartbroken or near a piano it’s more likely I’ll make something. My creative process is like this – I feel like I’m going to make a song, or am playing because things are full-on around and inside me, and then I press record on my phone or computer and do it all in one go. The studio recording and mixing part of things can happen every day just for a few weeks at a time though, but only every few years when I get the chance to do that.
Do you work a day job in addition to making music? If so, how do you find juggling the two?
Amber Fresh: My job at the moment is taking private school boys on camps – hiking, kayaking, climbing, building fires, teaching them a few things about Indigenous culture and the real history of where we are, making jokes about Fortnite. I love it, and it’s very intense just being around teenage boys and sports-edge (that’s my term instead of straight-edge) type guys for a week and then coming back into my own and my friends’ world. I am so happy to be doing that as well as music right now.
How long did it take you to write Deep In The Big?
Amber Fresh: A very long time! Each song was written in the time it takes to play the song, but the space in between writing and recording, getting mastering done, label things, deciding on art, deciding on song order, deciding on songs to leave out was long.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted the album as a whole to sound before you started writing it?
Amber Fresh: I just made songs and didn’t know what the whole album was going to be like. Aden, who recorded the album, had a dream before we knew each other about recording my music and I think he might have had a sound in mind. But really I just do what feels right at the time and it ends up sounding like Rabbit Island. I just like to experiment and go with whatever is happening in the moment, and if it’s good I’ll keep it. We did a lot of re-amping of pianos and guitars through pedals and that was just something that opened up as a possibility during mixing and ended up being important to the overall sound of some of the songs. I like to plan as little as possible before creating, and then when you’re in that world everything presents itself to you and you pick and choose the best path. Sometimes I feel it’s like maths in that sounds and songs are meant to be a certain way – until they get there it’s not right, and then suddenly everything is right, and 1=1. There’s this mathematical symbol: an equals sign with three lines instead of two. It’s even maybe like that. When the songs sounded right to me I could feel it as a physical and energetic and physical thing through my body and in the air around me, and other people in the room could feel it too I think. When that happened it was weird, crazy, nice.
Songs on Deep In The Big like ‘Interstate’ or ‘Zigrid’ seem to avoid emotional binaries – they’re not exactly sad or happy. They’re more nuanced than that. Are you thinking about emotional tones at all when you’re writing?
Amber Fresh: Usually if I’m writing songs I’m overwhelmed about some heartbreak, or in a meditative state – or just enjoying touching an instrument and hearing what comes out of it. All these songs really are a mix of the emotional states. I felt like these songs were in the place where deep heartbreak and longing – in a romantic sense, a friendship sense, a universal and earthly sense – are transformed into something greater, deeper, bigger; as though tapped into some possible place of things being okay even when they seem too much to bear. I wasn’t thinking about emotional tones but that’s the place where these songs exist.
Do songs usually come out like you intend when you start writing them, or do they change a lot?
Amber Fresh: If a song is going to be a song, it’ll just come out right all in one go – chords, words, melody, everything. Other friends of mine write in different ways but that’s how it happens for me. All at once without intention, just with feeling: a whole song. When it comes to layering and making a whole piece, a whole song with many parts, I just follow the path that seems right and sounds right and pleasurable.
How do you judge the success of a project?
Amber Fresh: This is a hard one! Friends and I who make music talk about this all the time. We are all a mix of confidence and total trepidation and self-doubt, except for… no, everyone is like that! We look at each other playing or listen to each other’s music and are like, ‘Shit I’m a lame piece of shit who can’t make anything good, and this friend is a genius! I’m never playing again!’ And then we’ll play a show ourselves one time and be like ‘Woah, I did it. I made something amazing and people were amazed and changed. This is what I’m made for!’ I think success is being a kind and happy person. For this project though, I think I’d be really happy if people got the vinyl and it was in their house like a nice piece of furniture – like something that gets regularly enjoyed – and also I hope it’s healing music for some people who listen to it. It would be a success if someone puts it on at night with candles on and gets to live inside it and feel really, really good from something I got the chance to make.
Do you approach writing an album like Deep In The Big differently to how you approach writing an album for children like Songs For Kids From Rabbit Island?
Amber Fresh: Yes, recording and mixing when there’s a studio and other people involved is totally different, in a nice way. Writing the songs is the same though: I just press ‘record’. Songs For Kids I made in an afternoon one time when my first niece was tiny and my friend was out and there was a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar in the kitchen. Deep In The Big was a few years of loves and friendships and spiritual experiences coming and going, and having some amazing artists and engineers willing to help me make a thing.
What’s the last great book that you read?
Amber Fresh: I’m reading Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire on Instagram live to people at the moment when I’m not out of range in a tent on camp. Only a few people listen in though. [Laughs.] I’m also reading two amazing ocean-related books: Jack London’s Le Loup Des Mers (The Sea-Wolf, but I’m reading it in French to keep my French going) and That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott all about the Menang Aboriginal people of Albany-Kinjarling and European/American invading arrivals all around the area I grew up. There’s parts about Rabbit Island in it even –the actual island in WA. I don’t know the traditional name for Rabbit Island yet. It’s changing my life and mind; an incredible book.
Do you still love to snowboard?
Amber Fresh: [Laughs.] Yes! I am so far from the snow though. It would be a dream of all dreams to be on a board again cutting through powder – like true love, it seems too good to be true even though I hope with all my heart I’ll get to have both those things again.