Amy Vachal is the kind of singer whose music puts you at ease. Full of acoustic-driven blues and pop folk-inspired tunes, the 28-year-old Brooklyn singer-songwriter has made it her mission to release work she believes in.
Since her successful run on the ninth season of The Voice, where she was mentored to the semifinals by Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams in 2015, Vachal has been working hard to keep her dream alive by playing shows, collaborating and touring with other artists while still being creative and writing.
On her intimate three-show West Coast Spring Tour (playing shows in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the past two weeks), Vachal played from her repertoire of older tunes about love and relationships as well as new material off her prospective full-length album coming late this year. Longtime friend Matt Sucich provided backup guitars and vocal accompaniment during her shows.
I had the pleasure to sit down with half-Filipino artist Vachal before her show at The Chapel in San Francisco last Monday night to talk about her singer-songwriter soul, honest approach to songwriting, recording her debut album and musical hardship post-Voice.
Rachel Ann Cauilan: So you just started this tour. How’s the planning process been for you? When’s the last time you were on tour?
Amy Vachal: Gosh it’s been a while. This is my first headlining tour on the West Coast. Last time I was on tour was with Joe Purdy in the fall who is an amazing singer-songwriter. He took me with him to Europe which was my first time and oh my gosh, I’ve never been to so many countries in so little time!
RAC: How was that? How long was that tour?
AV: It was a whole month, so it was 13 countries in 30 days. It was amazing. Joe has a big following in Europe and it’s funny [because] he’s come out with, I don’t know the exact number but maybe 13 albums and I haven’t even come out with one. But he’s built this following over the past several years and it was amazing to see the response to his music. People have been waiting for him to come for seven or eight years.
RAC: Oh my gosh. I feel when people wait that long they’re that much more excited.
AV: Yes! And to me it just shows the power of a good album. I don’t know as a musician if you ever feel the pressure of having to put something out right away, but sometimes what matters most is that you believe in what you’re putting out. Joe is a prolific songwriter and every single one of his albums are real and come from the heart and people connect with that. It was amazing to see that, how having not visited Europe for several years people are crazy about his music. This music becomes a part of their life.
What compounded it was that these are people who spoke different languages from us. You automatically feel like an outsider when you’re in a country you don’t know. You don’t know where to get breakfast, where to ask for the bathroom. And then [music] is this unifying force and you’re like okay, we can all speak this language in a way. That was special.
RAC: So now you’re back on tour. How’s that period been preparing for this?
AV: I think the thing about this line of work is it’s very unpredictable. I found a lot of my courage having to be tested because it’s not like you have a paycheck or have any certainty that is your safety net. You just kind of hope and keep working even if it doesn’t make sense. And that’s honestly been my life, just relying on faith.
While I was on The Voice, I gotta tell you, it was such an amazing time because all of us, all we had to do was go out there and sing. Someone’s handling our scheduling, someone’s handling where we sleep at night, someone’s handling our food. It was an eye-opening experience to see how much work goes into that.
RAC: What would you say are some of the things you’ve taken away from The Voice? I know people leave with such different experiences and some say it’s like your “15 minutes of fame.” But how was that journey for you?
AV: I would say it was one of the biggest blessings in my life. I totally get what you’re saying how some people can look at it, and I think it is a weakness for anybody and I have to fight it too, of [thinking], “That was my one shot!” You reach a platform and millions of people are watching you at a time and your life changes instantly. A lot of it doesn’t feel real because, you know, it feels unnatural and in many ways it is.
RAC: And I think the part that it’s on TV, you don’t see the people who are seeing you. You go online and you see all these people are supporting you and all of a sudden it’s like, how did that happen?
AV: Yes. I do believe that if your heart is heading towards the right place, that’s all that matters. It’s very easy to get discouraged when success comes and goes, but true success I think is harder to measure.
RAC: Yes. And sometimes when people reach what they thought was success, it isn’t satisfying. That’s the scary thing! So I wanted to ask, what compelled you to audition in the first place?
AV: To be quite honest, I had never thought I would audition. I got an email on my birthday of all days asking me to audition, but it was always one of those things that I had never thought I would do. I was doing music for four years before I had done this. I was in New York working odd jobs, scraping by and really just working out of passion. I got the email and I said out loud that I wouldn’t do it, but in my heart I was like, I think I’m gonna do it! I honestly was very much of the mind of, if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. We’ll see where it goes. I’m not gonna get worried about it. I think that’s the best advice for anything you do — you just figure it out.
RAC: What are the other things you like to do in your life when you’re not doing music? And how do you think those play a part in how you approach your music?
AV: I do think I live a slightly unique life in that I don’t really compartmentalize or blockade things like vacation or hobby or downtime. It’s all very intertwined every single day. It’s why I often forget what day it is.
RAC: That’s kind of a good thing!
AV: I guess it’s a good thing? Haha, but I never know when it’s the weekend until there are too many people on the street. One thing I do practice is the sabbath and I do believe it’s good to have one day off … I wish I had more time to paint and play soccer and sports, which was such a big part of my life when I was younger. The thing I realize after just doing one thing, like being in the studio for too long or just trying to perform for too long, it’s that–
RAC: You start to miss those other things?
AV: Yes! And I also realize that those things actually inform. They inspire what you do because it’s hard for the same thing to inspire the same thing. I live in Brooklyn with one of my best friends who plays in my band, who’s also half-Filipino, and one of my other friends who’s an artist … but I’m kind of feeling like I need new space. So I’m thinking about [leaving Brooklyn]. One of my best friends just recently moved from Brooklyn to LA and I’m tempted.
RAC: That’s funny because I’m actually moving later this month to go back down. I’ve been home for the past two years and I miss SoCal so much. So I’ll just see how it is to be on my own again and hustle my way around–
AV: That’s good! You gotta do it. You gotta follow your heart there. How old are you?
AV: Oh my gosh, you’re like mini-me. I remember that feeling. It’s one thing of having a choice and following it or doing the safe route. Once you take that leap, your life will change. Any time you take a leap of faith, your life changes.
RAC: That’s true. And I’ve never been one to not. If I have that feeling, I can’t not do it because I don’t want my whole life to pass me by!
AV: Yes! I needed to hear you say that actually. You have to constantly remind yourself that because you’re surrounded by a world where that’s not the norm. And you won’t even realize it starts to affect you until the norm becomes your norm. That little voice sometimes gets smaller and smaller.
RAC: What are those times that you felt that way?
AV: Oh I have so many of those. One major time was really tough. I was living in New York City and had just gotten a paycheck job … I got this small opportunity to become the artist in residence at this random company down in D.C. to be the artist outlet for this corporate company. I would sing songs for them and paint stuff in the basement. But I remember going out to dinner with my brother and some of my best friends and I was at this crossroads. I was finally able to pay rent comfortably and then this crossroads happened of, do I pursue songwriting and passion and that little voice in my heart, or do I do what makes the most sense, what the world would say you should do? I remember I decided to quit my job and cried to my boss. It was really tough, but if I had never done that I would never be here.
It was a very strong moment for me to listen against reason in my heart. After having done it, I realized it’s not that scary anymore. A lot of people are really scared to take that chance. So that was a big one for me. I’m still facing that everyday.
RAC: What has been one of the biggest things you’ve learned throughout all your experiences? Is there a moment that sticks out to you that you’re proud of that keeps you pushing towards what you want to do?
AV: That’s a good question. One of the hardest but most rewarding things I’ve gone through post-Voice is reaching this point of… I’ll just be straight up honest with you, I reached this point of being more broke than I ever was. I reached this crossroads of what do I do now — do I go get a job serving tables again or try to go into the corporate world, or do I go down this other road and take out a credit card and put all that I have into [a record]? I haven’t met a producer or had an opportunity for a record label to pay for a record or single, and I had this tiny vision of a road where I could learn to engineer and record on my own. It would take a tremendous amount of sacrifice and it would be scary [but] I just went down there because you just have to ask yourself what you really want. And so, earlier this year [I said] I want to put out my single. I want to put out a record.
RAC: I loved your single “Wait” by the way. Can you tell me a little about that?
AV: Thank you! It means so much to me that it actually got out. Most people don’t know how much money it costs to get it out and how much it takes out of you to get something that you really feel is done. “Wait” was the first of its kind in that it came straight from real-time experience. I’m grateful for it now, but to finish writing the song and to have to learn how to record it. I built it in my bedroom. I don’t think I slept for more than 40 minutes for all of January. I was going crazy and was totally heartbroken. Ultimately, I’m the kind of writer and artist that believes in love, in all of its various shapes and sizes and colors.
RAC: What would you say you hope to accomplish with your music?
AV: I try to ask myself that every time I go out on stage. It’s so corny but I’m just so interested in love. Love is a monster. It’s like this deep, deep monster. It has so many sides to it. You could study it forever and only get a glimpse. But it’s beautiful because only love can make you smile bigger than you ever had and also make you cry. It’s that thing that we–
RAC: I feel it’s almost like the main thing in life. It’s what binds us all together.
AV: Is it not life itself? And that’s part of the mystery. I want to keep studying it and singing about it. It’s like they say, “Those who refresh others actually refresh themselves.” That’s a proverb. I find every time I sing, it feeds me too. Everyone learns from it and can grow from it. I hope that as I learn more, we can all keep progressing and learning about love and feeling it and reveling in it and all those other corny things. You can’t have joy without heartache.
RAC: Yes! It’s like that saying, “Without suffering there’d be no compassion.” Without the other feeling, you wouldn’t know what it is. You couldn’t be grateful.
AV: Exactly! Exactly. We’re like sisters.
RAC: So you’re working on your record and touring later this year in the fall. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your music?
AV: I’m working on a full-length record. I’m putting my heart and soul and everything I have into it. I’m hoping to come up with it before the end of this year. By the fall.
As Amy took to the stage, the patient Monday night crowd was fully engaged. She opened with songs such as “Broke Into Words” and “Honey” off her 2014 EP Crinkle Bloom. Her presence almost sucked the air out of the room as her thoughtful, dreamy songs and quiet acoustics put everyone at ease. Matt Sucich’s lightly reverberating hollow-body guitar and warm vocals provided a nice balance to Amy’s softer songs.
In some songs, she played a harmonica as accompaniment. She also performed her own sultry rendition of “La Vie En Rose,” full of whistling and French. She introduced each of her original songs with a little backstory as well — some being about seeing a ghost on spring break (“Only Dreams”), another she wrote years ago about building things that kept coming down (“Beach House”), being on a bison farm in the middle of nowhere (“Keeper”) and even one about having a crush on somebody, hoping to see him around the hood but knowing he’s married now (“Surely”).
If there’s anything I took away from Amy’s performance, it was that her presence simply lit up the room. When Pharrell said that Amy’s voice has the capability to bring joy to anyone listening, he was right. Her genuine love and joy for music shone through; and her voice captivated in a way that not a lot of singer-songwriters are able to do.
Amy Vachal's newest single "Wait" is available to purchase and stream now (Bandcamp/Apple Music). Be sure to keep up with Amy at amyvachal.com and keep a lookout for her upcoming full-length release.
This article was featured on SFCritic.com.