It’s no doubt that up-and-coming artists can struggle to find their footing or assert their identity in an increasingly crowded music industry. For Emily Hamilton, an Australian singer-songwriter from Gold Coast who releases music under the name San Mei, that journey has been, at times, frustratingly slow. But with her forthcoming EP Cry (out March 20 via Sydney’s etcetc Records), San Mei set out to vent those frustrations, resulting in some of her most personal and relatable songwriting yet. Finally settling squarely on a dream pop indebted sound, Cry sees Hamilton coming into her own as a musician and producer, and with her unparalleled work ethic, there’s not much to get in her way.
Except a global health crisis. When I spoke with Hamilton on the phone, she had just arrived in Austin, Texas. Having played nine shows there at last year’s South by Southwest around the release of her second EP Heaven, Hamilton and her three bandmates had high hopes for the live debut of Cry. When SXSW was cancelled due to the coronavirus threat, they decided to go anyway and play whatever unofficial showcases were left, as they’d already invested quite a bit of their own money to come. But by the time they’d landed, those showcases we cancelled, too, with only virtual showcases in the works. Now, she’s looking at it as a much-needed vacation for the band.
Last year, San Mei played more than 45 shows, mostly in Australia, supporting touring bands like Ali Barter, Jack River, G. Flip, and K. Flay on weekend jaunts. “It feels like it was every weekend. It probably wasn’t but touring can get really tiring,” says Hamilton. “It just reiterated to me that it’s all about working hard if you wanna do well in music.” In some respects, she says, it made her question if this was the work she wanted to be doing. “Even energy-wise, I was like, I’m exhausted. I dunno how people who are in really successful bands just constantly tour. So what I got out of that was just like, this is a huge part of making music, and do I want to keep doing that, and the answer was yes.”
Those feelings of physical fatigue, feeling constant pressure to succeed, and feeling so far from her career goals were Hamilton’s biggest inspirations on Cry, most of which was written as she reflected on her accomplishments at the end of last year. An early single, “Hard To Face,” voices those frustrations most succinctly: “I know that time can be cruel when it’s wasted/But I know that if you run to the prize you can make it to the end/Running out of time, am I losing my mind?/Running for my life, why can’t I get peace of mind?/ Does it get better?” While supporting bigger artists on tour was an “amazing” experience for Hamilton, she said she found herself comparing their successes to her own trajectory and feeling inadequate, and eventually, she just had to get those feelings out.
“I’m usually a bit more private and careful about what I write, but I just had to say it,” Hamilton says. “It’s actually been a good challenge for me to be more vulnerable in my lyrics. I always have tried to be a bit more cryptic. I’m kind of at the stage where I just want to say what I mean and for it to obvious so people can be like, oh, I feel that too. So that’s where those songs came from.”
Elsewhere on the EP, Hamilton gets personal about hiding her faith (“Love in the Dark“) and also takes time to enjoy the company of others (“Cherry Days,” which Hamilton self-produced). But the title track, premiering exclusively on Audiofemme, differs in that it’s almost a mantra, a reminder that these moments – whether frustrating or exhilarating – will pass by in a flash, and sometimes it’s better to live in them and learn from them than let them slip away.
“You’re wishing all your time away/You wanna feel something else/Do you have enough to give away?” she asks; though her questions are addressed to another person, they could just as easily be the voice in her own head. Luckily, that voice reminds her “It shouldn’t make you feel so bad/You only have one heart to break/Keep it whole.”
“Cry” is an uplifting centerpiece for the EP, one on which Hamilton solidifies her sound squarely in the realm of dream pop. She says she was inspired initially by Lykke Li and Grimes, but also classic shoegaze artists like Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. “[That music] really resonated with me and it feels natural to me to write that way; I guess it wasn’t so much of a ‘oh, I wanna sound like that’ – it was more ‘oh, I connect with that, and that sounds like what comes out of me naturally, too.’”
Still, San Mei’s music never loses its pop grounding – Hamilton’s voice is clear and emotive, its breathlessness almost communicating the kind of whirlwind that the project has been caught up in. And that’s intentional – now more than ever, San Mei wants to connect with her audience on a personal level. “I’ve been very private, and now I want people to know my personality, know who I am now, what my message is,” Hamilton says. “It’s not just about me – if they can connect with who I am as a person then they can relate to those songs and not feel alone. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to work on at the moment; I hope that these songs can help other people too.”
San Mei’s Cry EP is out March 20th. Follow the band on Facebook for ongoing updates.