words • Pedro Gonzalez
Ambi Lyrics is not a fan of heights. She admits this as we walk out onto a rooftop patio deep in downtown Chicago. The Virgin Hotel is hosting AMFM’s producer showcase that night and we meet prior to the event to talk about her latest project, Study Hall, and how she feels about joining her Pivot Gang family on the east-coast run of Saba’s Care For Me tour. Albeit excited, Ambi reluctantly admits she’s weary of flying out to New York the following day to meet them.
Ambi has never had much infatuation for the spotlight either. In fact, the St. Louis transplant has favored a place behind the scenes instead, content with the pursuit of mastering music production and engineering since she moved to Chicago. Here she found a creative haven among like-minded peers that allowed her to grow as an artist while remaining primarily in the background.
However the importance of representation wasn’t lost on Ambi and when it came time to work on the follow-up to her debut project, Your Music, she understood it was time to step out of her comfort zone in order to provide more visibility to female producers in a culture inundated by men.
The road to the release of Study Hall in early April was turbulent to say the least. A teacher by day and producer by night, Ambi also found herself in the tail end of a relationship while grieving the passing of John Walt —a close collaborator, hype man and friend of hers—all in the past year. Thankfully, encouragement from family and friends as well as her own drive sparked something in Ambi that led her to turn those two big events into the core of Study Hall’s narrative.
A compulsive student of her craft —she devours manuals and books front to back, watches hours of Youtube tutorials and writes countless notes—for Ambi, the name of her newest release also symbolizes her academic approach to creating and an advocacy for constant knowledge.
So what did we learn during Study Hall? First and foremost that Ambi’s “producer” title goes beyond simple beat-making skills. Across eight songs featuring guest appearances by talented midwestern voices both nationally recognized like Saba, Smino and Jean Deaux; and rising local acts like Joseph Chilliams, Via Rosa and TheMIND –the ‘tape is glued together by Ambi’s arrangements, direction and vision.
There’s a hazy, dimmed-lights vibe to this record but it’s packed with enough versatility to convey a wide-range of emotions. Self-doubt clashes with confidence, regrets and aspirations are whispered back and forth, and mourning turns into solace.
Study Hall kicks off with a motivational soundbite from Morgan Freeman’s character in the film Lean on Me. But by “Hakuna Matada” the EP resets to a more solemn note as Via Rosa oozes nostalgia followed by a visceral Joseph Chilliams verse on the fallout between lovers and (perhaps more importantly) friends. “Serious Thoughts” contemplates the gloomy end of said relationship with the help of Nosidam and a real life voicemail from Ambi’s aunt while “Morning Motivation” is the dawn after the storm and, alongside “Miss Me,” the reclaiming of her purpose and confidence.
The heavy hearted closer “Dream A Genie” offers a space for John Walt’s real-life cousins, Saba and Jean Deaux, to mourn his death and celebrate his life. Spine-chilling lines such as “my heart got a leak, I’m going to die with that” and “how do we go on? Because I don’t want to write no slow songs” make it clear that Walt’s void will always be felt but that his legacy will continue through their art. It’s a touching dedication to a man who was known for his passion towards the music he made with his friends.
Study Hall is a body of work that follows you through heartbreaks, losses and challenges but ultimately seeks to heal those wounds.
After her AMFM show, Ambi is back to her composed and reserved demeanor. In many ways her set seemed to serve both as a healing session and a quick refresher of the importance of her own work. As we parted ways, I wished her good luck on her upcoming tour, but she didn’t need it. It was obvious that Ambi was ready to take off and fly wherever her music leads her next.
Check out the Q&A below Ambi’s newest video for “Hookey Interlude” featuring Sean Deaux.
I think people take the producer tag very lightly nowadays. It feels like you just need to make the beat to become one, but you were doing a lot more with the sequencing, arrangements and overall vibe. With what type of mindset did you go into this project?
I really wanted to express the things I was going through, from the excerpts to the skits you hear. The one after “Serious Thoughts” featuring Nosidom, that’s actually my aunt. I was in a relationship and not as focused as I was before. A lot of my friends and people that I work with were like “we haven’t seen you out lately and you haven’t been doing the things you used to do, is it because you’re caught up in this relationship.” And it was true, I was basically on idle and I had to snap out of it.
Did those type of conversations help you make this project?
Once I got out of the relationship, I saw myself so engulfed into finishing it that it kind of came natural. Now, I’m just focused working.
You guys also had a very tumultuous past year after the passing of John Walt. But since then, I’ve heard a new call to action from people that knew him to “work like Walt” and I sense that statement throughout your project.
Yeah, he was always working! Walt, Squeak and [Mfn]Melo were the main people that were like “ok where’s the project? What else do you have? When are you putting it out?” Basically encouraging me to finish. Walt was always asking what’s new. He was always ready to work when he was around. Work like Walt means whenever you get the opportunity to present your craft and who you are as a person, you have to put your best foot forward.
I feel you accomplished that with the project. Was there a particular verse that you were excited to have on it?
My favorite song on the project has to be “Dream A Genie.” That’s the one I got to…really feel. I don’t know how to explain it, we were all just in sync on how we felt about Walt being gone. You could feel it when Saba was recording, you could feel it when Jean was recording and just to see.
Did your background as an educator influence the project and its name?
Yeah, but I also literally study everything. Everything. From people’s demeanor, interactions, how to present myself to others and how to get myself through these types of interviews. I observe people, watch people that I admire, I read books, watch videos. Anything that I can find tangible and get my hands on. I study it.
Yeah, one of my biggest takeaways from the podcast was that you read a whole manual.
More than once! I still have those manuals. I’ll be in the middle of a session and I’ll have four or five notebooks full of notes that I went back over. You would think I was insane.