Interview with Wine Country Singer/Songwriter Amber Snider

by Alex Cosper

Conducted January 2017 on Facebook

ALEX: Tell us about where you're from and how you got into music.

AMBER: I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, mostly from Vallejo and Napa but I lived in LA briefly in my early 20s to pursue a career in acting. I was born into a musical family and began playing in my parents' band on various instruments and vocals then began writing songs and performing. I had a very rocky childhood and music provided a much needed outlet (still does). I started a band, married the guitarist and have been playing ever since. We sometimes play with my parents as well.

ALEX: I heard your song "Heroes & Heartaches" on Bandcamp and thought it stood out as an exceptional song. What can you tell us about the song?

AMBER: Thank you! The song 'Heroes & Heartaches' talks of the "heroes" in my life as well as those who have given me "heartaches". Many times in my life, this has been one in the same person. Because people are people, and have the capacity to both love and hurt the ones they love, "Someone you know may go either way. Towards the dark of night or into the light of day." People won't always love us the way we would like to be loved and sometimes that just plain hurts. And the same is true of ourselves with how we treat others.

But we still have faith and keep trying. And though sometimes unfair, life is so very short. Hopefully we survive our struggles long enough to write a song about it. Or many, many songs. The song, is also the title track of the album and since it is dedicated to my godfather who was born in 1933, it is meant to have a 1950s - 1960s vibe (as does the song 'I Will Be True'). This is partly because it is paying homage to 'his time' and also because I really love the music of that generation; extremely heartfelt, beautiful and real.

ALEX: "Heroes & Heartaches" is also the name of your album released in August 2016. How would you describe this album?

AMBER: This album is a dedication to my god-father, Francisco Gallegos who passed away in 2010. He was an amazing musician. He was a disciplinarian. He loved to laugh. He was very much a DIY guy and he was old school. He believed in hard work, dedication and he was constantly pushing boundaries until the day he died. At the end of his life, in his 70's he was still playing golf, recording songs, studying Spanish and learning to play the accordion. We were even collaborating on music together. I treasure that time we had. He was an inspiration and helped many people in his life.

The Story - Francisco was a father figure to me, a mentor, a music teacher, a life coach and a friend. He took my family in and gave us a home when I was very young, when we had nowhere to go. He continued to be there throughout his life. He loved me like a daughter and taught me many things.

The Songs - You'll notice a couple of songs with a distinctly 50's/60's vibe to them, that is a tribute to Francisco and his era. 'Guiding Light' is very much about our relationship on a personal level. The album 'Heroes & Heartaches' is a tale of love, loss, yearning & learning diving into different layers and chapters of my life. It was a very emotional experience recording this CD as I started while grieving the death of my godfather and finished while pregnant with my first child. Major life changes. I know Francisco would've been proud of these songs and of me and that feels good. This project is dear to my heart and without him, it could've never happened.

The Studio - This marks my 7th CD release and my 2nd one working at Gawain Matthews' Studio, which is just an amazing process. I mean he's so talented, he can play just about any instrument you can think of. He works quick and gets the best out of you. You get top quality sound coming out of there and it's a gorgeous, pristine environment. He's in San Pablo overlooking the water there.

He was a guitarist for Mickey Hart on tour and plays a bit here and there but mainly he is a studio guy and is amazing at it. One of his songs was featured on American Idol. He recorded 'The Amber Snider Band' CD back in 2012 but this time I gave the band a break and it was just him and I on the tracks. Just incredible. I'm really excited about these songs.

ALEX: Your music fits into Americana and multiple categories. What music has influenced your music the most?

AMBER: I am glad to hear that! My family roots on my mother's side are from Arkansas and Oklahoma where my grandparents lived before moving to the SF Bay Area. My grandmother's family had so many children (twelve) that they could not afford to move them all out at once. They had to make several trips, picking fruit in the California orchards to save up enough money for the next batch. My grandmother's maiden name is "Muse" so my mother and I will sometimes play as the "Muse Roots" duo paying homage to our family lineage.

Back south, my grandparents grew up poor and lived in the country without electricity or running water, yet all were incredibly rich with warm hearts and a great love for music. So I have a "romance" with the styles of music that reflect our American history although I myself grew up in a very modern urban/suburban pop-culture. Ironically, I didn't really like country music growing up and listened to mostly top 40 pop radio. I was in love with Michael Jackson when I was a kid and thought we would one day be married. I listened to hip-hop. So I imagine I somehow developed a pop sensibility with a nostalgic love for twang.

ALEX: I understand you've released several albums now. Tell us about your recording history.

AMBER: The first song I ever recorded was in LA year 1999 and it was a demo a friend did for me as a favor, it was a decent track, one of the first songs I ever wrote. At the time I was holing myself in my room writing and writing doing little else. My family gave me a 4-track recorder which I fiddled around with during that time mainly to capture ideas. I still have the cassettes somewhere. At the time I worked for Diane Warren and I watched her write 40 songs a week so I was aspiring to be more like her. I still am.

Flash forward to 2002 I had moved to Napa, formed a band and recorded 'Accoustic Color' (an unintentional misspelling of the word 'acoustic') and recorded the EP with another musician friend in his mobile home trailer in just about an hour. I was going through some personal relationship issues at the time and the session was some much needed therapy. The songs are just me and a guitar (under my maiden name 'Amber Estrada') and have been a very popular download over the years.

In 2004 I recorded 'A Sleep To Dream' with Shoestring Angel Records, a startup that signed me and another Napa artist. We recorded at Narada Michael Walden's Tarpan Studios in Marin. We hired top-notch Bay Area musicians, it was all very exciting and the songs turned out great.

That EP showed a range of my songwriting and performance and opened a lot of doors for me in my career. One song, 'Chaotic Sancity' was placed in an indie movie in NY. At that time, we all lived in one big house and had a recording studio that we would dabble with from time to time and I also recorded a bit in other friends' studios but I didn't release another album until 2010 when I released 'Still Dreamin' (a play on the previous released title) and 'Napa City Nights LIVE 2010' a live recording of the popular city concert we have done since inception.

These were my first releases under my new married name "Amber Snider" (I was married in 2009 to longtime guitarist, Aaron Snider). 'Still Dreamin' had re-releases of the previous EP "A Sleep to Dream" plus four new songs recorded at my friend's home studio (Jef Madnick) and two recorded at my parent's home studio (my parents are on the tracks, too - Diana Wallis & Steve Wallis).

2010-2011 Aaron and I studied Audio Engineering at the local college and began recording at home, mostly laying down ideas, tracks for future releases, etc. I continued writing songs. In 2012, my band, The Amber Snider Band, went into Gawain Mathews' studio in San Pablo to try to capture the sound we had been getting in our many live performances. Gawain added elements of banjo, mandola, B3 Hammond, dobro, etc that gave the songs the proper folk-americana treatment they so desperately needed. We were very happy with this EP.

In 2013 I went back in the studio with Gawain to record a holiday song, "Let's Make Christmas" a feel-good song for a special time of year. At the same time, working with Gawain I released 'Should've Known Better' a rocking new twist on one of my older songs from the 'Accoustic Color" release. I continued working on home recording and writing.

In 2015, pregnant with my first child, I released my personal home recordings with some mixing and mastering assistance from my friend Steven Meloney. These were songs I had been working on for the past few years. Some with me playing piano, some on guitar, with lots of other instruments thrown in such as accordion, lap steel, strings etc. I had fun making it. The album was titled "A Little Heart" because of the little heartbeat growing in my belly at the time and because the songs all had heart, too.

In 2016, I released 'Heroes & Heartaches' which took about two years to finish. Again working with Gawain Mathews. We wanted to make sure everything was perfect and we took our time with the details. For instance, on the song, 'The Beat Goes Bad' we recorded footsteps as percussion, because the symbolism of the song called for it. I never get tired of listening to this album and I plan on making music videos for many of the tracks because they need visuals to finish telling their stories. Heroes & Heartaches was nominated for "Best Folk Singer-songwriter Album of 2016 by the Independent Awards," which is a huge honor.

In our home studio, Aaron and I are in the process of finishing our new/old recordings and we hope to release them early 2017.

BTW Heroes & Heartaches was just nominated for "Best Folk Singer-songwriter Album of 2016" by the Independent Music Awards.

ALEX: How comprehensive was your audio engineering training?

AMBER: I took one college course and learned by watching people in the studio but I am still learning! I recorded A Little Heart (2015) on my computer by myself and had a friend help mix/master it, it turned out pretty good I think! I will be starting another music production college course next week and I am really excited.

ALEX: What are live opportunities like in Northern California's Wine Country?

AMBER: Well there are plenty of wineries and tasting rooms. I have played come great ones like Chateau Montelana, Freemark Abbey, etc. Napa itself has come up with a lot more music venues too like the Uptown Theater, Silo's Music Club, City Winery (which is now Blue Note) and of course Bottle Rock Festival is HUGE. I have played those places, too. But I remember when there was only a couple of spots for live music. Tourists were always looking for it, I think the supply is now catching up with the demand.

ALEX: You've talked about playing guitar, piano and other instruments. What's the range of instruments that you play?

AMBER: Mostly I play acoustic/electric and electric guitar and sing though I do compose songs on the piano and enjoy it very much. The piano was my first instrument so it holds a special place in my heart. Some songs I play harmonica along with the guitar such as on "Gravel" on The Amber Snider Band CD. I also like dabbling in other instruments such as the banjo, ukulele, violin, lap steel and drums. When I was a kid, my parents use to have me sit in on their practices on the drums when their drummer wasn't available. I learned a simple yet steady beat! Years later I played keyboard and sang with them at various gigs but when I formed my own band, I gravitated mostly to the guitar.

ALEX: What are your thoughts about how today's music business is shaping up and how the internet is now part of it?

AMBER: Great question. I think that the main difference today as opposed to 50 years ago is that musicians are much more empowered by technology to record and release their own music. They no longer have to depend on that "record deal". This is both good and bad.

When I first released a cd back in 2002, there were already a lot of indie artists doing the same thing yet it was all very new and exciting for everyone. There was a "new frontier" sense of opportunity and discovery with such social media platforms such as MySpace and YouTube as a way to discover new music and also to be discovered by audiences. People launched careers that way.

Now in 2017, I think the market has gotten so over-saturated it has become a challenge for artists and audiences to connect. There is also the "why buy the cow when you can get the milk online for free" mentality. If artists are constantly giving away all their content: songs, live performance videos, etc. I think a lot of people don't see a reason to leave their houses, find parking and pay to see them at a venue, buy a cd, etc. It is much easier to stay home and enjoy their music online for free. This is a predicament for the artists who want people to know them so badly that they constantly give their work away for free. This kind of business model cannot be sustained.

The question becomes, how do musicians make a living as "musicians"? It is a tough career choice. I have spend thousands of dollars creating music, buying gear, travelling to shows, playing many for free, etc. and I am not the only one. Most of the other musicians I know do the same thing and everyone has to find a way to make money to support this "habit." I think music is undervalued in our society because of the over-saturation and the mentality that people have now-a-days that they shouldn't have to pay for music. It is a silly notion. When in any other field, construction, website design, etc. people would never think to ask for a good or service for free. Some club owners actually try to get musicians to play at their establishments for free or for very little and call it "exposure" for the musician as justification. The problem is when enough musicians accept this as being ok, out of desperation or whatever, all musicians suffer. Our overall value is decreased.

Luckily I have had a network of good venues and supporters over the years who pay me decent money because they respect what I do. And in general I sell more CDs at a performance than online because that's where I create a personal connection with people. That has always been the case for me.

The internet, though incredibly efficient at spreading information around the world, is impersonal. It also seems to me to have created a culture where more value is placed on sensationalism and not talent. There seems to be a mentality for people to look for a quick gimmick to get a viral video and become famous rather than learning to play music or craft a song to deliver a message that can make the world a better place to live in. If you can do both I suppose you can be ahead of the game.

Smart indie artists join forces with other artists to do shows, promotion, booking, etc. There is always so much work that needs to be done and it's a great way to find new audiences, too.

The best way for indie music to survive and thrive as a "business" is for artists to stay positive and to keep creating great original music and for listeners to support them by going to their shows and buying their music. That way everyone wins.

ALEX: Do have any ideas on what would make the music business better for independent musicians?

Because large record labels don't really put a lot of resources into discovering and nurturing talent as they have in the past, there is a lack of business knowledge and resources in the indie music industry. Indie artists have to educate and fund themselves if that is the path they choose. Mentor and education programs would be of incredible value to indie artists because there is so much misinformation and scams on the internet.

Personally I have spent way too much money trying to promote my music the way I thought I "should" through several companies and I got nothing back in return (except for a tax write off). Music and Art in general should have great value in our society to balance out all the ugliness that we see everyday. Having education, guidance, funds and resources available to indie artists would greatly propel the quality of talent and content that we can have in the world for all of us to enjoy. That would be nice.

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