After spending her young childhood at sea, essentially living at a South African yacht club when not sailing across the Indian Ocean, Aimee DeBeer moved to England, Texas, and finally, New York. Although she’s classically trained in opera, the musician has found her own voice and sound, rebelling against the formal rules she learned at the Manhattan School of Music. The 26-year-old has already played at New York local favorites, including Pianos, Rockwood Music Hall, and Baby’s All Right, but here we’re pleased to announce her debut EP Strange Fiction (due for release next month) and premiere “Oblivion,” her first official single.
DeBeer’s Instagram and music videos are filled with dizzying, surrealistic images, but lyrically, she draws inspiration from musical icons like Lou Reed and Johnny Cash and literary notables, such as John Steinbeck, for their ability to ground themselves in reality. “It’s these old men,” she says with a laugh. “I think they tell things very honestly. It’s not flowery language. It feels real and uncontrived. They’re not afraid to speak of intense emotions.”
Taking this inspiration to heart, DeBeer’s songs express her own struggles, but in an emotionally open way, allowing listeners to interpret and apply thematic elements to their own lives. On “Oblivion,” over languid bass and keys, the musician’s angelic voice croons, “Breathe for me / How does it hurt? / Between the bottles and lines / Well don’t you feel like dirt?” She continues, “And lay back / On this spinning wheel / And we’ll go round, round, round / ‘til we don’t know how we feel.”
Before her show on October 17 at the Living Room during New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, we spoke with DeBeer over the phone.NAME: Aimee DeBeer
BASED: New York
CHILDHOOD AT SEA: My father builds boats; that’s something he’s always done. He’s busy building one right now, that [he and my mom] are gonna retire on—that’s the plan. So as a kid, we lived in Durban, South Africa at a yacht club, on the boat. [laughs] We moored there. We sailed across the Indian Ocean sometimes. My parents did a voyage from South Africa to Brazil. I grew up around very adventurous, open-minded people.
MOVING MAINLAND: I moved from South Africa to England, and then to Texas. In many ways, in Texas—where it’s very conservative, a religious environment—having these very free spirited parents, I really felt isolated. So I dove into my own world, discovered music, and identified with that as an outlet of expression. I moved to Texas in elementary school, so I didn’t really start writing [music] then, but I started collecting and growing attached to it.
“OBLIVION”: I wrote that song about two years ago and it’s about the Wheel of Fortune—a lot of my songs are about the unknown. I wrote it in a time when I was surrounded by people who had very strong viewpoints about where they were going, what they were going to accomplish, and were somewhat manipulative and ego-driven. This song is about how nobody knows where they’re going and to relax; there’s this Wheel of Fortune. I envisioned it as a merry-go-round—you lay back on it and things sort of get dizzy, but that’s the way life is. Everything feels sometimes dizzy or like a blur.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES: Growing up, I listened to Elvis—mainly stuff I could steal from my parents or could get at used bookstores. I was into Joni Mitchel, Fiona Apple. Later on I discovered Lou Reed; I was really into the Velvet Underground. Bob Marley was my mom’s favorite, so I listened to a lot of Bob Marley growing up, too. Lately I’ve been listening to Perfume Genius. I’ve been really into his last album. It comes out of nowhere—it’s very silent in that way and then evolves, rather than music that hits you over the head. I think there’s something very intimate and personal about it.
SURREAL IMAGERY: Surrealism is about the unknown. With a photograph, you can say what’s real and not real, but nobody really knows what is real and what isn’t real. I like the element of mystery, an element that’s slightly thrown off, that makes you more aware of possibility. My mom’s a painter, but I don’t consider myself to be a naturally visual person. I’m far more conceptual and definitely musical.
CLASSICALLY TRAINED: I was writing my own music, but wanted a formal education, and as a kid, your parents are like, “Go to college!” So I went to college for music. If you learn all the rules, it’s more exciting to break them. I know the rules, but I don’t really care anymore about them.
BABY BOOMER: When I was probably seven years old, my dad thought I would fit in better with the culture [in Texas] if he bought me country music CDs. He bought me a Dolly Parton album and I thought Dolly Parton was the coolest person ever. So to be honest, I think that was the time [I realized I wanted to pursue music]. As a kid, I just sang to everyone. I would be on a train singing to people. They called me Boomer when I was a baby, because I had this booming voice and I would sing weird melodies all the time.
AFTER MOVING TO NEW YORK, I LEARNED… That life is even more confusing than I thought. To try to sort things out, I write songs. I try not to control it too much. I spend a lot of time alone, which is part of writing music. There’s a meditation to it.
I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW… That they’re not alone. They’re not as weird as they think they are. My music should be comforting in a way. I would like to take people on journeys. The future is confusing, but you shouldn’t be scared. We all feel it, even if we don’t want to admit all the time that we’re scared.
FOR MORE ON DEBEER, VISIT HER WEBSITE.