St Andrews’ Sound: Adeline Um
Article by: Marco Marcelline
Music editor Marco Marcelline sat down with the Boston-bred singer-songwriter Adeline Um last semester. They talked music colleges, the pressures of being a female singer-songwriter, and the music scene in St Andrews.
When did you start making music?
I started singing and performing when I was 15 and I started writing music the summer before coming to St Andrews when I was 18.
How did you end up at St Andrews?
I really wanted to go to music school – Berkeley - but my parents thought it would be better for me to get a normal liberal arts type degree. In first year, I was really sad because all I wanted to do was music. But I honestly think that coming to St Andrews was actually a plus in terms of my music because if I had gone to Berkeley, it would have been super competitive and I wouldn’t have had as many opportunities, as everyone there is really good at music.
So you’re a big fish in a small pond here rather than a small fish in a big pond?
Haha, yeah. It’s so much better that way.
What are your plans for developing your craft in the immediate future?
Everyone’s been asking me that these last couple of weeks! I decided two weeks ago that I want to take a year out after uni and just write and see where it takes me. Right now, I’m 70% into my degree and 30% into music. I want to see what will happen if I put 100% of my efforts into making music.
What prompted you to make that decision?
I played this really amazing gig the other week for Sofar Sounds. You have ups and downs with music, sometimes thinking, ‘Ugh, this is going nowhere, I’ll just get a degree and get a normal job’ (and it’s common in my family to do a master’s), but I played this gig and it was so amazing and encouraging. There was another artist performing the gig as well and he was from Nashville, doing a tour with Sofar Sounds around the UK. He was so inspiring.
What made this gig different from others you’ve performed?
Any gig I play here is usually for an event, so everyone is drinking and socialising and nobody is really paying attention to you. But Sofar Sounds is an organisation that was made as a response to bar gigs. Everyone was so quiet and attentive, and they came purely because they wanted to listen to music and discover new artists. It was just so energising to finally feel like my music was being listened to at a gig rather than being background noise.
I had a look through some of your YouTube videos and I saw that you collaborated on a song called ‘Keeping Me Close’. How did that come about?
Oh! I wasn’t expecting you to bring that up! I had recorded a couple of covers and I had put them on SoundCloud. My older sister had said, “Oh, you should put your stuff on SoundCloud because that’s where all the cool people are”. I really didn’t expect anything of it, but then one of my songs got really popular.
Last time I checked, it was at 125,000 plays.
Haha, thanks. I put it up on SoundCloud and I hadn’t checked it for three months, and then all of a sudden I started getting floods of artists and DJs who really wanted my vocals on tracks. One guy, Rohan, was really persistent in sending me tracks he thought my voice would be good on, and he also asked me to write for him. At the time, I had a lot of material to write so I said yes. He was the only person I said yes to. It took me six months to write for him, though.
What did you use to record it?
I used a blue Yeti. It’s super DIY – it’s literally just a USB mic and you plug it into your computer. Then I downloaded his track and recorded my vocals over it, and it’s funny because you can hear St Andrews seagulls in the background!
Did you credit them as featuring artists?
Haha, I should have done! I sent him the track and he sent it to a bunch of independent labels on SoundCloud. This particular label called Lil Palace picked it up and put it out on Spotify and SoundCloud. It’s not doing so well on SoundCloud, which is sad because the day it was released, SoundCloud was down. And this really popular artist with about one million followers reposted it, but because SoundCloud was down, it never showed up on his feed which was such a bummer.
And there’s a music video?
Yeah! I had nothing to do with it, but I take credit for it anyway.
So you’re on Spotify – with a tick next to your name and everything. That must be a cool feeling.
Haha, everyone’s saying to me, “You’re so legit, you’re on Spotify!”, but literally anyone could be on it. You just need to have something recorded and that’s what’s really nice about Spotify in that it is an even platform for all artists. You have Taylor Swift and Adele and any singer-songwriter like me that just wants to share their music.
Do you rely on personal experiences to drive your songwriting?
It depends. I went through a really bad break-up just before coming to uni and that’s when I wrote so much music and it came so easily because I had so much to write about. But when I got over it, it became a lot harder to write. For example, the track I did with Rohan was so difficult to write and he asked me, “Can you write this song now, please?”
The best song I wrote was while I was sat in an Anthropology lecture. A theme just came into my head and I got up, left the hall and wrote it. But it’s hard when you get given a deadline to write things; it inhibits your creativity. Writing is sporadic with me, which is kind of annoying because I wish I could just sit down and go ‘Oh, I’m gonna write a song today’ and then just write a song. It comes so randomly. Sometimes I’ll just wake up in the middle of the night and make a voice recording of something that’s just come into my head.
What do you think of the St Andrews music scene?
I feel like I’m not that involved. I’ve played one Music is Love gig but I’ve honestly not really immersed myself in it. I’m in an all-female acapella group so a lot of my time goes into that. The musical community here is really great, all of the singer-songwriters that I know are really supportive. Whenever I get asked to do a gig and I can’t do it, I can just ask someone else to take my place. There’s no competition here whatsoever. I think Matilda [Lucas] had a song that went really big on SoundCloud, which was amazing and I feel that at a music institution, people wouldn’t be so supportive – there’s a lot more jealousy in those places. There’s only a handful of us here, and so there’s a lot of mutual respect for each of our craft.
Do you listen to your music?
I’m a perfectionist so when I make something, I listen to it back and critique it thinking, ‘I could’ve done this better or that bit better’. I think if you don’t listen to your music, then you’re doing it wrong. You get a different feel for how you want to improve and change and adapt for the future.
Would you say you’re a self-critic?
I always have this ‘quarter-life crisis’ every few months, where I’m think ‘Am I good? Do people really mean it when they tell me I’m good?’
What’s the most rewarding part of the music process for you?
I think the most rewarding parts are when I’ve had an impact upon the people that I’ve performed for. If I’ve written something that’s really close to my heart and it has made people in the audience identify with it and feel connected to what I’m saying, then that for me is the most rewarding aspect. And the music industry is so competitive now because everything is based on social media – worth and talent are judged by how many followers you have. If you don’t have at least 10,000 followers on your socials, are you even a good singer?
As a female singer-songwriter, do you feel that your experience has been different to your male counterparts?
There’s definitely different challenges for male singer-songwriters and female singer-songwriters. I feel like it’s easier for male singer-songwriters to have a following, especially if they’re attractive because girls love that. They love boys who can sing. There’s greater pressures for female singer-songwriters to look a certain way and that’s certainly something I’ve battled with. I’m constantly wondering if I am pretty enough. You know, do I have the look?
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Lianne La Havas. I discovered her when I was fifteen and I immediately fell in love with her. When I was going through that break-up, her second album Blood had just been released. I couldn’t stop listening to it. The songs on that album are just so amazing and they have so much meaning to me. Her sound has very much influenced my own. I think a lot of artists get wrapped up in the performance of it all – I mean, I love going to shows where everything is about the performance – but I think for me, that’s something I would never like doing. I just love how with Lianne, it’s all about the songs, her voice, and her performing the songs rather than putting on a massive show. I love Corinne Bailey Rae, too. I saw Birdy in Edinburgh last year and she was so good. I’m a massive fan of basically every female singer-songwriter who doesn’t have a massive band behind them.
Lianne La Havas (left); Corinne Bailey Rae (right)
Would you ever consider pure songwriting as a profession?
I couldn’t. I couldn’t sell my soul like that. Maybe for Rihanna but otherwise no, haha.
Make sure to listen to Adeline’s dulcet tones over on SoundCloud (https://soundcloud.com/adelineum) or catch her playing live in St Andrews.
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