Ama Huen Ning flourishes in both music and painting

Ama Huen Ning's new album shows she is as adept at the piano as she is on canvas, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 1:02pm

Singer, songwriter and painter Ama Huen Ning has come a long way since the release of her debut album in 2007. Recorded with Korean jazz funk musicians and sung mostly in Cantonese, Seoulful was written for her, organised by a record company, and featured cover art depicting her with the "little girl" look so popular in South Korea and Japan.

A Taste of Life - out now on her own AMA label - is sung in English and, with the exception of one cover tune, consists entirely of songs the 30-year-old has written herself or co-written. It also features rather more adult artwork: on the cover is a grainy black and white photograph of Hung, then six months pregnant.

Her son, Harper, was born in June, and the album is dedicated to him.

The Chinese University fine arts graduate's latest effort is as much about artistic progress as it is about breaking away from the commercial shackles.

Huen had a mixed reaction to her 2007 album. Although she enjoyed her first foray into music, the style "was not the music I love the most", she says, and the promotional activities organised by the record company distracted her from her other vocation: when not making music, Huen works at the Qiang artists studio in Fo Tan, where she sometimes exhibits.

Huen's art - which can be viewed on her website - is influenced by surrealism and abstract expressionism. But music and painting are equally important to her, she says, and she tries to keep them in balance.

"I always knew what I wanted to do. I've loved painting ever since I can remember. I would use anything, pencils or crayons to generate colours or patterns, not necessarily on a piece of paper. I would do it on the floor or the wall," says Huen, who has exhibited locally and in Seoul and New York.

"The second thing that came to me was the sound of the piano, because my neighbour was a piano teacher. I had no understanding of the instrument, I just fell in love with the sound. My parents said 'Why don't you take some lessons?' so I took a few, but didn't really take to that, so I just started doing my own stuff on the piano."

Her interest in jazz developed while she was in college when she began listening to Chet Baker and Julie London. "I loved the way they used their voices as instruments and I started to learn just from listening to their records over and over again. I thought: 'Why not form a jazz band?' I played with a guitarist for a while, playing duets at the Fringe Club, doing standards."

A mainstream Cantonese album soon followed but the experience was far from satisfying: "Every single day I had to go out for a radio interview or whatever. I was singing or recording just a little bit of the time, and I had no time to paint. I thought 'Something is missing'. There was that itch."

Huen has now organised her life so she can play, perform and paint - and be a full-time mother.

"I do it very spontaneously, but in recent years I have kind of set up a schedule for myself. I know a lot of people might think it is a blessing to have two completely different outlets of expression, but I have to do it separately. One day is music - I practise the guitar and piano, and work on my software, the next day would be visual art. I have to set guidelines."

Sometimes one branch of creativity informs the other. Two songs on A Taste of Life are concerned with the colour blue. "One song is about a dream I had about going to Amsterdam. It's called Sweet Little Girl Blue. It's almost like Alice in Wonderland. It's rare that I get such vivid coloured dreams. The Perfect Blue, the first one, has a Cantonese rap in the middle of an English song, and that's kind of a twist," she says.

Becoming a mother, according to Huen, has given her a new perspective as an artist and led her to create radically different work from much of what she has exhibited in the past.

"When I was painting back in school my stuff was morbidly dark - literally and figuratively. All my stuff was always immediate and to the point. I don't cover wounds or blood stains. I just show them," she says.

"Discovering that I was pregnant completely changed how I see life, and how I want to present my music and art. I want to minimalise and capture the essence. Recently I did a joint exhibition with a couple of other artists from the Chinese University about little secrets that we wanted to share with the public.

"That was a chance for me to show that I'd changed, because my style from before was so remembered by my peers and professors that they couldn't believe I had painted this stuff," she says, laughing.

Recent paintings in what she calls her "Domestication Series" derive, she says, from trying to capture an infant's view of the world. "When I had the baby in June I was staying home most of the time, learning how to be a mother, and I realised that the baby was always looking at light switches, light bulbs, everything in the confines of my little house, and I wanted to capture what he saw and generate paintings from that," she says.

"What I painted, basically, was sockets and light switches - [but] in really fine detail to the point where you think they are real."

Looking ahead to 2013 Huen is planning a schedule of appearances to promote A Taste of Life, recorded in Hong Kong and the Philippines with several Hong Kong jazz musicians including bassist Paul Candelaria, drummer Anthony Fernandes and her co-producers, guitarist Skip Moy and keyboard player Jezrael Lucero.

She also expects to exhibit more of her paintings. In January she and her co-tenants in the Qiang studio will participate in Fotanian Open Studios 2013

"The studio I have in Fo Tan is shared with three other female artists, and they are all painters I know from the Chinese University. We've had this studio for two years already, and we've signed another lease for two more years, so we've decided to do a theme exhibition for Fotanian 2013. It's about being on good terms with your past."

She is considering going back to university to complete a master's degree, but is also planning another album, possibly featuring her own guitar and piano playing as well as her vocals - something perhaps a little further "out" than her two albums to date.

A Taste of Life is less commercial that Seoulful, but still very much in the jazz/blues/funk pocket.

"I want to incorporate raw sounds, every day sounds, into my next album," Huen says.

"It will be a little more experimental but melody driven. I'm much more confident with my ideas now. I want to communicate, but I'm not completely commercial. I do stuff from my heart and soul."