For San Mei, art is healing. The process of melting pain into melody is an escape from the moment, providing either a temporary haven, a comfort, or a resolution. In the case of her latest single, the dream-pop poet makes peace with the unimaginable.
Glossy, refined, and bursting in neon beats, Midnight is as bittersweet as a single can be. San Mei (a.k.a Emily Hamilton)’s sweltering guitar melodies teeter on the edge of distortion, burning so bright that they could unravel at any moment. Her words wash through with an unshakeable longing, vivid imagery serving as a balm for anyone shaken by loss. As the textures and pace grows, so too does the intensity of Hamilton’s reflections. Midnight is an ode for the heartbroken who long for a way forward.
We sat down with the artist herself to explore what went into making the lockdown-bound track, the story behind it, and what the future holds for San Mei.
HAPPY: Well I wanted to start by saying I’m so sorry for your loss, I read in your press release that you’d lost your mum. Was that recent?
EMILY: No this was a few years ago now, I wrote this song probably a year ago. I feel like I could probably never stop writing songs about the different aspects of that loss. It’s a very complex thing and I’ve written about it before, but this one is probably the most recent and probably the most like me accepting it finally. It’s more of a tribute, I guess, and just being ready to let go, which I didn’t really set out for it be that song. But it just grew into this song that was about that situation, but it wasn’t until I started vocalising what the lyrics were about that I thought this is actually a really nice tribute
HAPPY: I totally get that, and melodically and in terms of the chord choices as well, it’s got that bittersweetness to it. It’s sad but it’s hopeful. Do you feel like the writing process was cathartic?
EMILY: Yes… what’s the noun for that? Catharsis? Anyway, I’ve never really written music for that reason, a lot of people do, but normally it’s not a reason to write for me. But, in this case, I think it has been definitely. More so than any other song I’ve written. In hindsight, there have been songs that have been really cathartic but this one’s an obviously cathartic one for me. So, it’s been nice to experience that because I generally haven’t focused on that.
HAPPY: That’s great! Then you ended up working with Michael McCartney, he helped you with tracking the drums and the final mix that we hear today. What was it like bringing him into such a personal endeavour?
EMILY: Well I’ve known Michael for years now, he’s been a friend for years. He’s also drummed on pretty much all of my recordings so far, bar like one or two songs, I think. So he’s always been pretty involved in my recording process, we’ve been good friends and then it’s just progressed into this more collaborative relationship now. He helps me engineer the song, he played drums and just had a bit of input with helping me on production decisions and that kind of thing. I just recorded a bunch of new songs with him, more as like a co-producer kind of thing. So that’s cool, and Oscar Dawson is still involved, he’s still mixing everything.
HAPPY: So Oscar was the mix engineer, I get you.
EMILY: Yeah, so Michael and I are kind of progressing in more of a co-producer kind of thing and the aim is still to have Oscar on board for mixing and that kind of thing, for now. So, it’s actually a really great team and especially now since I can’t go down to Melbourne obviously to work with Oscar, this is such a great team and a way to get around that I suppose.
HAPPY: I was actually intrigued about where you record because I saw the press photos that you sent across and it looks like you do a large portion of the recording at home?
EMILY: Only the last, well this song and one other song from my last EP. I usually am in the studio but we’ve gotten better gear at home now so with Midnight, this one was actually really difficult to record, just to get it right with the production and everything. It took a couple of goes in the studio and then I just tracked guitars and bass at home. I don’t have anything good enough to do vocals here so it was drums and vocals in the studio and then everything else just at home. It was a cool process. I want to become more self-sufficient with recording, so this was a really good start I think: to know that I can actually, not just have good gear, but make the right decisions at home putting my producer hat on a bit more and just being like, “Well, it’s up to me. I’m taking it home, yes the gear is cool but these parts have to be right, sounds have to be right.” So it was a really good process, a very good learning curve.
HAPPY: That’s cool that you can record at home during lockdown. How are you finding every other aspect of being locked down?
EMILY: That’s the hardest thing for me. International travel is my favourite thing in life to do, so I feel like really frustrated and like, “just let me go!.” Queensland is a pretty great place to be right now in terms of having no lockdown. It’s a little bit scary because people are acting like COVID never happened, so I’m just kind of waiting. People are standing so close to me in the supermarket line, I’m like, “there’s still stickers on the floor guys!” So it’s pretty good, this is a great place to be but travel wise I’m pretty devastated. We actually got booked to go to America for South by South West but obviously we can’t go anymore.
HAPPY: I read that!
EMILY: It was so devastating! We played last year, it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life! It was just so great and so we were so excited to go back. The full band could come this time so I think just as we got there, things were starting to get precarious, but we were at the stage where people were like, “oh what is this thing, it’s just the flu or whatever.” So we thought we’d just go and then like two days after we landed, every show started cancelling and South by South West was cancelled. So, I think we ended up having a week there or so and then we just had to come straight home so that was pretty devastating.
HAPPY: It feels like you’re at the beginning of a dystopian horror movie, doesn’t it?
EMILY: Yes! It felt like that particularly in LA for some reason, I think it was like really raining and it just had this really scary feeling in the air. It was absolutely like a dystopian horror movie, it was crazy. So it was nice to get home, that was good.
HAPPY: Tell me, when you released the track Midnight, did you find that people were responding to it and sharing similar experiences?
EMILY: Well it’s only been out for a few days now, so I haven’t heard heaps of stories yet but I have heard from a few people who have reached out and said I know exactly how you feel losing a parent, or people I know that are going through something like this. I feel like it has resonated with people and I was a little bit hesitant about sharing in-depth what it was about just because it is intimate, but it was also like I don’t want to be milking my own personal tragedy for this song, you know? That was just something that crossed my mind but seeing people’s response to it, I’m really glad that I did share it. I wanted the listeners to feel a connection to the song before it came out, so I was kind of doing little videos and vaguely touching on what it was about and sharing some lyrics and definitely, even before it came out, people were messaging me and commenting, seeming to really relate to that topic. I think I’m learning that being vulnerable in your lyrics is okay because mostly what you’re feeling is universal anyway, it’s not like this is a new situation. So it’s been good for me.
HAPPY: You mentioned that the song title Midnight came about because you were waking up at night, I hear it’s common with a loss of a parent to actually dream you’re being visited by them. I just wanted to see if that resonated with you?
EMILY: Yeah. In terms of waking up at midnight, I don’t know if I got the sense of being visited but it was just like, I think that in the press release I said that I would wake up in a panic because I guess you still feel so connected to that person it’s like they’re still with you and then it was this shock every night. I would ask myself, “oh that happened,” it was very strange. So, I guess in terms of feeling like a visitation, it was more like as she was still so wrapped up in my life and me as a person, I was still so bonded to her, and so it was more of a feeling of surrealism like, “is this actually happening, it feels like she’s still here,” kind of thing. So it was more of a shock, like this doesn’t feel real.
HAPPY: So rather you would forget that you’ve lost that person and then you wake up and remember?
EMILY: Yeah I think, and in time obviously you get healing. That’s why I wrote the lyrics of the song, “go sweetly out into the night” because I just wanted to… I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I didn’t want to feel so much anguish and pain about it, this is time to be like, “I want to do a sweet send-off and be at peace and say goodbye.” I want it to be this nice thing, like go sweetly, I’m saying goodbye in an accepting way rather than that feeling of panic and anguish and everything. So, I think when I wrote it I was in the frame of mind to be like, “I’m okay with it now, here’s my ode to you and saying goodbye in a peaceful way.”
HAPPY: Yeah, that really carries in the song. The lyric that actually caught my attention was “it takes a long time, honey,” which starts the chorus. I wondered whether that was from your perspective or your mother’s?
EMILY: Oh, why did I use the word honey? I think I wanted the song to be relatable to anybody and it’s kind of nice, it kind of sounds like a romantic song and it just felt like the right word because it’s got this ’60s kind of garage thing. I just like the word honey and it just felt good to end that phrase with that. And maybe part of it was I was protecting myself at the time from it being open about my mother, I just wanted it to feel a bit more like a typical love song and someone could relate to it as a loss of a relationship, or a loss of a partner.
HAPPY: Is this the first single off a larger upcoming release?
EMILY: I did consider that but I just recorded a bunch of songs, it’ll be a stand-alone single. I’ve kind of been progressing in a sonic direction, not crazy changes like evolution I suppose, and because I’d written it quite a while ago, I felt like this song kind of feels good with my last few releases. This is going to be a nice bookend to that before this new kind of sonic thing comes out next. So it’s just going to be a stand-alone.
HAPPY: Are you able to tell us a little bit about the new direction?
EMILY: It’s nothing drastic or ground-breaking, I’m just allowing myself to explore different sounds. In the past, I was afraid to try and combine new sounds with what I usually do. I’m allowing myself to be more myself I think. If I want this crazy sound I’m just going to use it. It just feels good to do that, I think that comes with confidence in your own artistry, so it’s just gotten to a point where I’m not so afraid of different sonic ideas.
HAPPY: Tell me about these sonic ideas, new guitar pedals, new synths, different approach?
EMILY: I think I was listening to The Prodigy, I just figured out that I’m a Prodigy fan. I was like, I wanna use a snare that sounds like that in one of my songs. That is so ridiculous, San Mei and Prodigy do not go hand in hand! But I guess I want to express myself and if I want to use an industrial-sounding snare, I’m going to do it. Just things like that.
HAPPY: It sounds like there’s a lot of programmed big beat grooves?
EMILY: I’ve been working with Ian Peres (Wolfmother, Xavier Rudd) and he’s got this amazing analog Moog drum machine. I still love live drums, so I’m just kind of combining sounds. It’s been very fun.
HAPPY: I look forward to hearing it, lovely to talk with you! We will have to get you into our studio when you’re able to travel!
EMILY: Yes that would be fun if you’ll have me!
Grab your copy of Midnight here.
Interview by Nic McKenzie