As San Mei tunes up, focusing in on the headstock of her Fender Mustang, she emanates a controlled power. From her leather jacket to her long black hair, everything about her presence screams rock and roll. The energy of the room spikes as San Mei’s crystalline voice carries over the pulsing current of her electric guitar and accompanying drums.
But while she and her band channel the sights and sounds of classic rock, the delivery is decidedly futuristic.
The three-piece band behind San Mei features two electric guitars and live drums, but intricate pedalboards create an atmospheric backdrop, the perfect canvas for the front-woman to float her contemplative lyrics over.
“You want somebody, you need somebody to love,” she sings as the blazing title track off her 2018 EP, “Heaven” gains momentum before exploding into a larger than life chorus. The song is sleek, packed with movement and a driving force that doesn’t stop until the final power chord rings out, leaving a shimmering blanket of synthesized sound to fade into black.
But amidst the roaring soundscape, San Mei weaves an emotional story of heartbreak and struggle.
If you stay here babe
You’re gonna be, be somebody’s lonely prize
I loved you once
And your rhythm, your rhythm’s breaking.
Her keen ability to cultivate such an intimacy within guitar-heavy instrumentation is of no coincidence. “My earliest memory around music is having been forced to learn classical piano,” laughs San Mei (aka Emily Hamilton).
Growing up in Australia, her mom took an authoritarian approach to impart Hamilton and her sisters with a sense of musicality, which she wasn’t always a fan. “I hated it at the time,” she says. “But I’m really grateful now. I ended up loving it.” In addition to her classical training, Hamilton picked up some of her dad’s musical tastes. A fan of 60s pop, he exposed Hamilton to hippie-era artists early on.
The complexity of classical music and the catchiness of pop music are reflected in Hamilton’s aptitude to communicate deep emotions over intricate song structures. But while tackling difficult subjects head-on may seem to come easily, she wasn’t always comfortable giving her listeners a peek into her psyche.
“When I was a bit younger, I was always trying to be really poetic and cryptic in my lyrics, but I think I was just trying to protect myself,” she reflects. “I was thinking, my friends and family are listening to this. It’s pretty vulnerable.”
Now, she is striving to become more direct in her lyricism. “Heaven” is filled with angst and anger at a destructive relationship, but more than anything, it is a warning:
Was it something like heaven
Think you should take a look close
Hamilton’s transparency doesn’t stop with her lyrics. She has been refreshingly honest about her journey as an artist: the ups and downs and all the hard work she has put in to get to where she is. And while the accolades have poured in (she was named “One to Watch” by the Australian Guardian and was in the Top Ten Most Played Unsigned Artists on Triple J), she knows that nothing happens on its own.
“Even if you think you’ve written your best song, it’s not just going to be given to you. You’ve got to work as hard as you can.”
Perhaps that is what has been driving Hamilton to play live so often. At this past year’s SXSW, San Mei played a whopping nine shows in only six days, gaining the attention of some of the industry’s heaviest hitters. That hustle paid off in the form of a roster spot at one of the biggest booking agencies in the world — US-based United Talent Agency, as well as a signing to Etcetc, an Australian label home to the likes of JNTHN STEIN, Jax Jones, and George Maple. For Hamilton, getting representation stateside, in Australia, and in New Zealand were major dreams realized. But the offer comes as no surprise to those keeping an eye on San Mei’s artistic growth.
“It can be a bit of a process — discovering your own sound and what you want to say as a musician,” Hamilton explains. “Recently, [I’ve realized] I’m where I want to be.”
Read on for a Q&A and listen to the live-recorded single of “Heaven” — out now via Level.
How do you think music connects people?
San Mei: If you’re feeling alone in something that you’re experiencing, and you hear somebody singing about it on a platform that reaches others — that’s a great way for people to feel that they’re not alone. That there are emotions that people go through and experiences that are universal.
What do you want people to take away when they’re listening to your music?
SM: A feeling of escape. I’m a massive daydreamer. Music transports me to another place. Whether it brings a feeling of joy and inspiration or just helps you escape from something that you’re going through. I think that can be really healing.
What’s your earliest memory around music?
SM: My mum forced my sisters and me to play classical piano. My dad liked The Beatles and she was into opera, so we were always around it. But it wasn’t something I really discovered for myself until a little bit later — maybe after high school. I think at the time, I didn’t realize how much of an impact music was having on shaping who I am and who I am as a musician. When you’re a kid, things are sinking in when you don’t realize.
What drives you to create?
SM: Anything that moves me. Art, films, books, relationships, going outside and seeing a beautiful landscape. Other music. As long as something moves me and that emotion is ongoing, I feel inspired.
What excites or scares you in sharing your art with others?
SM: I’ve always found it pretty scary having transparent lyrics. So, I think that’s something I’m trying to get better at — just being more honest with my lyrics and the point I’m trying to make or the feeling I’m trying to convey. It excites me that other people can connect with it and feel better. Just knowing that there are other people who feel the way I feel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matthew Hershoff is a 21st-century artist. He creates and performs music under the moniker Mons Vi, and he wrote the screenplay for the award-winning HBO short film, La Piel de Ayer.