By Jocelle Koh
Pairing her ethereal, elf-like vocals against grungy guitars and reverb-heavy atmospheres, Asian Australian artist San Mei trades in rose tinted glasses for a reality check on her latest EP In Comes The World which explores the beauty and hope that can be found in the most profound depths of pain and loss.
Born to Chinese Malaysian and New Zealand parents, San Mei (otherwise known as Emily Hamilton) initially chose to adopt her Chinese name as a means of paying homage to her heritage while reflecting the importance of family to her personally. Of the connection between family and her creative process, San Mei shares:
“It’s not something I’ve really intentionally focused on with songwriting, so I guess it’s something that just comes naturally to me because of how important my family is to me. In terms of my heritage, I always found my father’s story of literally coming from the jungle in Borneo to creating amazing opportunities and a wonderful life for himself and his family so inspiring – it makes me want to always keep pushing and striving for something more and for something magic, and creating music is that for me.”
While the artist and producer has always embodied a freeing, optimistic nature in her magical creations, In Comes The World marks a departure from her more bluntly positive outlook, shifting gears towards a more nuanced message of seeking connection and solace through darker times.
“For a long time I really just wanted to share positive, hopeful messages with my music as I wanted to take listeners to a happy place. But as I experienced more of life, I realised that it’s okay to express darker feelings and share difficult stories, because I think they’re universal and relatable to everyone, and that can make people feel a lot less alone. I think music is about connection, and if you can make a connection with others through the darker times as well as the good ones, that’s a beautiful thing too.”
The most significant sonic change can be heard in San Mei’s track “In The Machine” which adopts a gritty, industrial landscape replete with neon-sounding drum and bass influences while never fully losing that signature dreamlike quality of San Mei’s sound.
“When I was writing this song, I was in a place where I wanted to mix things up a little, but still stay true to my sound. I thought having some drum sounds/grooves I hadn’t used before would be a cool way to experiment in that. It was also the first time I’d actually gotten stuck in to listening to The Prodigy, and I was like, what would happen if I put some Drum n Bass and industrial sounds to my music? It was a funny idea for me but I was really into making it happen and I think it worked!”
Inspired by confronting experiences that made her feel the weight of the world in its entirety, the grit of the EP, evenly matched with the potential of hope that comes through in Hamilton’s lyrics are an apt representation of the confusing yet beautiful momentum that is borne from the toughest of challenges.
“I’ve found that a lot of growth and beauty can come as a result of pain, and the more of it I’ve experienced, the more in touch with myself and other people I’ve become. While there are some things I wish hadn’t happened, I think being able to rise above and move forward despite the challenges is something to be celebrated. For me, focusing on the positives and what I can learn is important to be able to keep my head above water.”
Speaking of keeping heads above water, San Mei shared the story behind one of the most meaningful tracks on the EP, “Sink or Swim”. Inspired by the difficulties we collectively faced during the pandemic, the perceptive artist’s innate optimism comes to the fore on this track which takes us to higher ground.
“I was looking around seeing everyone just completely deflated and without hope and I thought, the only option for us is to keep our heads above water, keep pushing forward, keeping searching for optimism and not drowning in this time we were living in. We had two options; sink or swim. I know I had it a lot easier than some people during that time, but I still had this thought that the only option for me was to swim, and keep looking towards the future with hope. I hoped other people could find a way to keep their heads and hearts above water too.”
During our asynchronous conversation, words such as ‘connection’ and ‘hope’ came up multiple times. While San Mei draws deeply on her own experiences, producing vulnerable works that tell of her experiences with loss, hopelessness and many sleepless nights, it seems to always come back to an intention of hope that her experience can alleviate the pain of others going through similar situations. On the takeaway message for this EP, she shares:
“I mostly hope that people will feel like they’re not alone when it comes to experiencing the chaos of love and loss and everything in between. I wouldn’t say I have a lot of wisdom to offer, but what I have learned is that embracing what comes with being human, good and bad, can be a really wonderful thing.”
With lines like: “Yeah this circle feels like an endless night/I know you pretend, but I read your mind/If we lose our heads, we could lose this fight“, San Mei effortlessly melds her experience with that of the listener, creating an unbreakable connection. Featuring songs which go from frenetic highs to dizzying darks and everything in between, San Mei continues to reach out to listeners, reminding them that while hard times are inevitable, maybe letting the world in isn’t as scary as it once seemed.