Elba consists of poet, vocalist, songwriter, and experimental sound artist Amber Sawicki and Metadata Records label head, producer, engineer, and motion graphics designer Jon Bierman.
Born in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Amber grew up listening to her father’s music collection, country, folk, pop, and reggae. Singing and writing are an integral part of Amber’s life. After releasing her first album in 2011, Amber decided to enroll in Berklee College’s songwriting program and has a BFA from Emily Carr University with a minor in writing. Born in the United Kingdom, Jon is a raver at heart. Jon attended Drum n Bass parties during his university days in Durham and toured the UK with Keiretsu, a multi-genre dance music orchestra. Jon has produced jazz, rock, hip-hop, classic, and acoustic-singer songwriters. He cites 80s pop and 90s British dance music as influences.
So, how did Jon and Amber get together and form Elba? Amber’s roommate Michael was the key figure in connecting them.
Amber liked the electronic music her roommate Michael was listening to and wanted to make an electronic music album, a departure from the acoustic folk music she was used to. Michael suggested she contact Jon to produce her new material. The fruit of their collaboration is their 8-track debut Elba EP.
The album tackles themes like romance and breakups, the importance of mental health, and consumerism. Jon is a master knob-twiddler offering a good dose of trip-hop infused tempo, bouncy and moody melodies, breakbeat, and shimmering synths. Amber’s voice and lyrical rhythm drive the album’s visual landscape.
Elba spoke to The DJ Cookbook about their musical influences, favorite childhood meals, and recording process.
Q: It’s quite early in Vancouver right now, what do you like to eat for breakfast, do you drink coffee or tea?
Amber: No, not yet. I am all about oatmeal! I like creative oatmeal. I use pepper, turmeric, and honey. It is so good. Lately, I’ve been making a lot of banana bread. I’ve been having a slice of banana bread with my tea in the morning.
Jon: I’m drinking espresso. I haven’t had breakfast yet. The longer I wait, the better it tastes! I think breakfast is the only meal of the day that I consistently make an effort. It may be the only meal of the day that I will cook. The rest of the day, I snack. There’s a lot of take-out. I don’t have the time to cook as much as I wish. There will always be caramelized onions, always. I caramelize onions, either the day before or the day of. I will be making an omelet with goat feta cheese, maybe some bacon if I have any. If I have peppers, I’ll add them to the omelet, a slice of avocado and cherry tomatoes with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Q: As children what did you look forward to eating?
Amber: My mom used to make burritos from scratch, the whole thing. Eating burritos was always a big deal for us. My mom would go and buy cheese and let us put it on. We grew up eating really healthy we didn’t have any white flour, no sugar, no red meat, nothing. I used to get grounded for eating sugar. She could tell I’d eaten sugar because my pupils would dilate! When you have salmon and millet all the time when you’re a kid, it tastes dry, you’re like: “Oh god, no!” Then she’d say: “it’s burrito night” and she would buy us real cheese! My sister and I, our brains would explode. It was the most exciting part. We would think about it all day because we got to eat cheese and sour cream and the refried beans. That is such a good memory for me! So once in a while, I get my cravings for burritos.
Jon: My mother is a pretty good cook. She loves cooking for me. The most comfort meal that she would cook, she would call Poor Man Stroganoff. A beef stroganoff made with mince. It is sauteed onions and beef mince. She added chutney and sour cream. It’s like this gooey, sweet, slightly creamy beef gonk! With boiled new potatoes tossed in butter and cilantro. Steamed carrots with a little bit of brown sugar. The dish has these nice colors to it. The beef stroganoff on one side, the bright orange carrots, and the potatoes with the green cilantro leaves. That was always a favorite home-cooked meal that my mother would make.
Q: Vancouver’s food scene is known for its sustainable ethos, do you have a favorite farmers market or store that you go to? Are you picky about where you go or buy food from?
Amber: I used to go to the farmers market more often, since the pandemic things have changed a bit. I used to go to the Kitsilano and Trout Lake Farmers Market. Those are the two big ones. I really like the Trout Lake Farmers Market. I’m picky when I’m there. I don’t really care about which store I go to. It’s more about what’s available at the store. Also, it’s a bit of a trek for me to go to the farmers market. I can walk to the grocery store. During the pandemic, I went to Alberta and hung out with my mom for a while and realized that I needed to take more advantage of the food in Vancouver. The food in Alberta is good but not as fresh as here in Vancouver.
Jon: The grocery shopping near me sucks. Unfortunately, there’s not a farmers market near me that’s convenient. You can only go on a Saturday and it's expensive, so I just go to the big chain supermarket that’s nearby. There’s a reasonably close Chinese fruit and vegetable market that’s ok but you can’t get good avocados, they don’t have any dairy or orange juice.
Q: What can you tell us about the restaurant scene in Vancouver?
Jon: We have so many good local restaurants nearby. There are incredible Indian restaurants where I live. Like the best Indian food, I’ve ever had anywhere. Better than anything I’ve had in the UK. One of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city is literally on my back doorstep. There’s a good Korean restaurant across the street, a fantastic Mexican take-out, and a great pizza place. There’s an Italian fine dining restaurant called Savio Volpe. It is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. I went there for my birthday and my girlfriend’s birthday. A wonderful French bistro called Les Faux Bourgeois.
Q: How did you get into electronic music or who did you listen to when you were growing up?
Amber: My dad influenced my music taste. We took a lot of road trips together. My dad didn’t live with us so he was kind of my hero. When he would pick me up it was all about my dad and his music. He was way too cool. It was all about Queen, then he weirdly turned and got into Shakira. I got into Shakira for a while because of my dad. I listened to the Spice Girls, Hootie and the Blowfish, which was not cool, apparently when you are in that age group. I remember the Limewire days when I discovered Reggae. We got our first computer during the dial-up days, searching for all types of music. Growing up in this little town where everybody listens to country music, which I love, don’t get me wrong. I love the female powerhouse country singers like Amanda Marshall and Sheryl Crow. I grew up listening to that but discovering Bob Marley was so different. It was such a crazy turn for me as a kid to hear that music. Toots and the Maytals, Elephant Man, Peter Tosh. Music was always a part of my family. My grandpa listened to a lot of Nat King Cole. Lauryn Hill was also a big moment for me. I listened to Lauryn Hill on repeat. She was like an alien. How can anybody sound like that? It was unbelievable to me.
Jon: I was 12, 13 years old living in the UK. Pop music was electronic. Top 40 music was exploding with electronic music, and a lot of it was instrumental. I remember there would be tracks in the top 10, they wouldn’t have any vocals, and obviously, there were a lot of tracks that were electronic that did have vocals like C+C Music Factory, Snap!, Haddaway, you know what I’m talking about! All those music compilations from the 90s were all dance music with vocals. The core started there and then Prodigy and Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, Lamb, DJ Shadow, Underworld. All these emerging and pioneering acts had a huge influence. A lot of these acts came from bands and traditional forms of music. The 1990s had this explosion of creativity that was fairly pure. They were making songs than just dancefloor fodder. Once I got over the pop phase of the early 90s, I discovered Drum n Bass around ‘95 or ‘96 and began listening to LTJ Bukem, Ninja Tune, and Hip Hop.
Q: How did Elba begin?
Amber: I had a roommate that knew Jon. He had gone to a few events that Jon had hosted. My background is in folk music, I had never really listened to electronic music. It wasn’t something I gravitated towards. I started hearing some of the stuff that my roommate Michael was listening to, and I was like: “This is great, I want to make some electronic music, how do I get into that?” He heard me say that and said Jon and I would be a good musical match. I had this little crappy cell phone and had one of those DAW apps and put something together and we texted it to Jon! Then we decided to start working together. Busy Bodies was the first song that we worked together on. When that song came back it inspired me to write a whole album. Initially, I hired Jon as a producer for me to do a solo project. I decided to call it Elba, a tribute to my grandmother. The more we worked together I realized it was a collaboration. It was 50/50. It was something that should be a duo. It felt like Jon needed to have that recognition. You can’t have Elba without the both of us.
Q: Do you remember what your roommate was listening to that sparked your curiosity about electronic music?
Amber: That’s a really good question! I have to think about that, I have to check my playlist.
Jon: He was probably listening to some of the DJ mixes from me, or the people in the crew I roll with in Vancouver would be posting on Mixcloud. Michael was coming to these parties I was throwing with my girlfriend and this large group of people who had been doing parties in Vancouver since ‘98. I think Michael was probably fairly new to electronic music, like 2 or 3 years previous to this.
Amber: Michael has a very interesting background because he was newly out of the Mormon church and he was exposed to this scene.
Jon: Yeah, there’s a Mormon connection here which is kind of interesting. We became friends with this ex-Mormon guy Joe. One day he came to one of our parties through a mutual friend. He shows up at one of these parties. Joe had never been to an electronic music event in his life. He was very wide-eyed.
Q: You can say he had a religious experience?
Jon: Exactly! He embraced it very quickly. His family and immediate surroundings started coming to our parties. We suddenly had this extended friend group of ex-Mormons, mainly from Alberta.
Amber: I just found my playlist! Michael was listening to a track from Bonobo, and I was like: “What is this?” From that, I started digging. The wonderfulness that is Spotify. For the consumer, the ability to search for music is great. If you are trying to learn and discover new artists I appreciate it. As an artist, I have a split relationship because we don’t make any money.
Q: How did the recording process begin?
Amber: I was working in Garageband when I met Jon. That was the furthest I go could!
Jon: You were able to convey your ideas very effectively using Garageband. I showed you what to do, and you were able to send me stems out of Garageband. You took to that well, and then you went and bought Logic.
Amber: Which is crazy! I only bought Logic because of Jon. Jon gave me every tip and trick that would take you years to figure out. You were a great teacher.
Jon: I was extremely impressed by how quickly you adapted to Logic. It was very beneficial for both of us for you to get Logic and to learn it because the subsequent tracks that we did for the Elba album started with these Logic projects from Amber. She recorded her vocals very nicely at the Vancouver Public Library audio booths.
Amber: The audio vocal booths at the Vancouver Public Library are so great! I could put down a bass melody for myself and then go to the library with my written lyrics and bring my laptop to record it. I started researching for the best microphones and bought one. The booths with the good mics were always booked. I bought my mic and then would go to the locations that weren’t booked and record there. I was very impressed with the sound quality of these booths.
Q: Are you going to tour this album?
Amber: I want to make more music. I’m more of a homebody so if something picks up with this album then great, I’ll do it but I definitely want to make more music. Plus my job is tricky, I need to be present here, I look after kids so I just can’t pick up and leave the families that I’m working for. It’s hard, it’s not economically viable.
Jon: Unless something happens unexpectedly, I don’t think we are going to get booked for dates. Touring is such a lot of effort. I think it is too early in the pandemic still. I would rather make more music with Amber. It’s just hard to imagine that all of a sudden we would be getting these dates and the fees for our performance would be any more than 500 Euros each at best. How do you make that work? Two or three dates at most? You’re away from home, your bills add up. We are in the Pacific Northwest, we are so far away. We would have to be getting paid quite a lot of money per show, we would need to have all our expenses covered, all travel expenses…Unless we have a hit, then there’s actual money coming in through radio play, maybe then the economics would make sense but until that point, I just don’t see it as being one of those up-and-coming struggling bands working the circuit. It’s just not going to happen, it doesn’t seem realistic to me.
Q: What about doing a Livestream?
Amber: We’ve talked about it.
Jon: Yeah, we’ve talked about it.
Q: Let us know, we’re fans and would love to watch it.
Amber: Thank you!