In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, singer Elise Amara spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about her musical career ahead of her performance at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s “Women With Soul” event.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Elise Amara: Hello. I’m Elise Amara, a Fort Worth-based singer-songwriter, musician (in) neo-soul and R&B.
Fornoff: You are one of the artists featured on Amplify 817. You have an album there. Can you talk a little bit about that album and what inspired it?
Amara: Oh, yes, the “Soul Haven” album was released in 2017. Most of the songs are just life experiences turned into music — different aspects of heartbreak and self-realization (set) to R&B music.
Fornoff: What got you started in music?
Amara: Oh, I’ve been in music since I was about 6 or 7 years old. My parents noticed that I had a knack, a natural desire to play with instruments, and so they paid for piano lessons.
Eventually, I got into different bands at school and started writing when I was 16 or 17. After that, when I became old enough to kind of be on my own, I would go to different clubs and places where they were playing live music and trying to get exposed to what was going on in the music scene in Dallas and in Fort Worth.
I went to record my first album in 2016 and released it the following year.
Before that, I was a musician for other artists. I didn’t really take a center stage position seriously until I decided, “OK, I’m tired of playing for other people. I want to see what I can do on my own.” So there was that shift around 2014.
Fornoff: What did you learn going from being a supporting artist to being a main act?
Amara: There are a lot of aspects of the business that don’t concern you as someone else’s musician. You’re pretty much told when rehearsal is, when the studio session is, when the gig is, and then you show up.
But as the artist, as an independent artist, you are the manager of the business, so you handle those things. And the image part is different. In some ways, as someone’s musician I can just show up and I can show up in work clothes if I wanted to. No one noticed me, right? But I can’t do that as the artist because I have to match a persona that they expect.
Fornoff: What is your persona on stage that you’ve sort of developed?
Amara: I like a natural approach, authentically soulful, very tuned into my culture and my roots. (It) looks different than my work clothes, but it’s not over the top. Like, if my music was visual, this is what Elisa Amara would look like. I try to match that feel, that vibe, (that) authenticity.
Fornoff: You talked about your background and wanting to represent that well. Can you talk about your background and what it means as a performer, to be the face of that?
Amara: I grew up in church, so gospel music, blues, jazz are really ingrained into what I do. I try to keep those aspects in my music as much as I can just to kind of make sure I’m passing that down to whoever is listening because it’s a part of my identity, you know? And when I perform, I want people to feel this soulfulness and see it as well.
Fornoff: I’m curious who your inspiration was when you were younger. Who were artists that you looked up to?
Amara: Definitely all the Motown greats, Aretha Franklin, phenomenal piano player, great great vocalist. More recently, maybe Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, people who have kind of honed their craft into a lane that is specifically them. You know, it’s not mimicking another person, when you see it, you know it’s them.
I try to keep that in mind to be who I am and just stay true to that as I write and as I continue to perform.
Fornoff: You were talking earlier about one of the learning curves was the business side of being a solo performing artist. I’m curious about your experience in Fort Worth, trying to build your brand, trying to get that going while juggling another job and trying to make these two different tracks align.
Amara: I definitely learned by experience because people perceive you differently as the artists when you’re female. If I’m a musician as a male and I transition as an artist, there’s not really a lot I have to do to my image. But when you are female in a society that expects something from you visually, (you have to be aware of) the way that you dress, the way that your hair is, the way that you carry yourself. So having to keep that in mind and not just the music was kind of like a pass/fail type of thing.
There were people who were supportive and then there were people that were like, “Who are you trying to be?”
Learning the avenues of the network, I’ve had a lot of great experiences and I’ve had some bad experiences. Business is business and, if you don’t know it, people might take advantage of you, like any industry where there’s money involved.
Understanding that, you’re treading that fine line between art and business. Which parts do I sacrifice? Which parts do I keep? Which parts make me feel like I’m selling my soul? Which parts are going to benefit me financially? So you have to keep all that in mind as you’re working.
The good thing about Fort Worth is that people want authentic music. They want diversity in music. They want to see artists doing their own thing. They don’t want what I call a live jukebox, which is great for me because I have original music that I want to put out and there’s a market for it here. This is the best place to be because I was raised here.
If you go…
Event: Women With Soul
Admission: Free, but space is limited. Call to reserve seats.
Address: 3200 Darnell Street
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Date: July 28
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Fornoff: You talked about the expectations that people put on different types of musicians in the industry. And you’re about to perform at a show (highlighting) women in music. I wonder what that’s like for you to have to be (with) other people doing your craft who maybe have similar experiences, struggles or pressures that you also face.
Amara: I’m excited. Hopefully, I can network and learn from them and forge some bonds, some friendships, because it’s all about a team effort. No one is self-made. There’s always someone in the shadows, that’s helping support (artists), you know.
It’s important in this business to have a support system of other musicians or other artists, even if the genres are not the same, even if the cultures are not the same because you’re going to experience the business part, (which) does not change no matter what you play.
I look forward to meeting women that are doing the work like I’m doing the work. And maybe we can learn from each other and work together.
Fornoff: If people do go to the show, can you kind of give them a preview of what they can expect?
Amara: At some points it might feel like church because it’s just in me, you know? When I sit down at a keyboard, that’s just where it leads me, those (chord) progressions, and melodies.
I’m not going to be on stage dancing or anything like that. It’s not me, but I will be at an instrument. I’m a musician’s musician, so that’s what I go with.
Fornoff: You said an instrument. I know you play keyboard, but what other instruments?
Amara: I play bass, keys, drums and all the rhythmic stuff.
(But for this performance) I’ll be at the keyboard the whole time.
Fornoff: Excellent. Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you want to mention or you think is important to know?
Amara: I would like to give advice for anyone trying to get into this business. Whatever it is, find your lane. Find what excites you.
I found out during the pandemic, when I couldn’t perform and I had to figure out how to feed that passion, and it wasn’t doing Zoom performances, which are terrible. But I figured out how to license my music. I figured out how to create for other artists and still be in my creative mind(set). It’s not always about the next show or the next crowd. Sometimes you have to figure out what your lane is. There are some people who make six-figure incomes and they haven’t been on stage in years, and it’s not from streaming because those are pennies on the dollar. But they figured out how to cultivate the passion in the way that they are satisfied.
So that will be like my message or my call to action. Figure out what part of their game that you want to put your energy into because there’s room for it. Just because it’s not a radio song, just because you’re not performing every weekend doesn’t mean you can’t make it (or be) successful.
Fornoff: That’s really good advice. Thank you so much for your time.
Amara: No problem. Thank you for coming out.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.