Amanda Sum celebrates the beauty of gentle awkwardness

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      Amanda Sum had been contemplating the ways in which she exists in the world. What does it mean to be a woman? To be young? To be a person of colour? And how do all those things feed into her day-to-day life? Her thoughts materialized onto “New Age Attitudes,” the title track of her 2022 debut album. It was the first song she wrote for it. Softly, Sum sings: “Who’s it gonna be?/Who you gonna choose?/One to let you win/One to make you lose everything that ever meant anything to you.”

      “I think I write with a lot of questions and I don’t have a lot of answers,” the Vancouver-based artist laughs, speaking to the Straight over Zoom.

      Sum’s reflections are likewise cast across the rest of the record as she explores things like belonging, uncertainty, and awkwardness in ways that are both achingly relatable and deeply moving. On “Undecided Minds,” Sum considers herself in the greater context of her generation. “Sorry” is about getting into a car accident and apologizing for something she didn’t do. And then there’s “Different From Before”—a twinkling crown jewel, which is accompanied by a poignant music video starring legendary Chinese actor Tzi Ma as a father who confronts a group of racists at the restaurant where his family is dining.

      To achieve her vision for the record, Sum worked with an all-female production and engineering team, and an all-Asian female band. The decision was non-negotiable. It stemmed from creating her first-ever single, 2020’s “Groupthink,” which, thematically, tackled society’s expectations of her as a young Asian woman—and it was important to work with people who closely understood her experience.

      “I can’t be talking about fighting those things if I’m hiring people who don’t look like me or who don’t share that experience,” Sum says. “So, that was the priority from the get go. I thought it’d be really cool and really badass to have that—but it actually is really important to have that.” 

      New Age Attitudes, with its lo-fi soundscape of jazz and pop, was recorded to tape, live off the floor, to accentuate the warmth and intimacy of the confessional lyrics. Sum wanted to evoke the feeling of telling a secret, something the listener could feel like it’s just for them to hear.

      “I think there’s something kind of theatrical to it, as well,” she notes. “We mic-ed different parts of the piano so that, if there is a time where you hear my foot on the pedal, it feels real. Yeah, I really love that.”

      As a multidisciplinary artist also well-known for her work in theatre (her performances in East Van Panto and Chicken Girl have received raves), Sum’s ambidextrous creativity inevitably bleeds together—even if, until now, she’s been making performance art and music somewhat separately. The combination of the two intentionally manifests in New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert, which utilizes a handmade book—that audience members get to keep—as a guide through what is described as “neither a musical nor a straight concert.”

      Sum hadn’t considered a theatrical companion to New Age Attitudes when she was initially writing the songs. It came later, when she was commissioned to create a piece for 2021’s PushOFF (Theatre Replacement’s annual platform for developing local artistic projects).

      “The prompt for that was, ‘If you could make any work right now, what would it be?’” Sum explains. “And to me, at that time, I wanted to make this album—but I was really struggling with what digital-ness meant and the access part of it and if that killed the artistry of it. I thought it would be great if I could make this somewhat commercialized version of the album—which is the digital thing that is out and you can stream it wherever you want—and also have this version of it, which you can read.” 

      Sum was also intrigued by the idea of performance. She wondered: if she’s at home playing the piano, does that mean she’s performing—even when she’s alone? Or, does it only become performance once there’s a public aspect to it?

      “And so, with this book thing, that became really interesting to me,” Sum says, “because if I’m reading at home, I’m just reading my book. But the minute I take it out to a park, or if I’m reading at the library, it becomes me doing the act of reading—but, also, I’m kind of performing it, too.” 

      For PushOFF, Sum mailed and hand-delivered the book to audience members, with instructions to open it precisely at 8pm on the day her show was programmed. Everyone would be participating, moving, together. With specific cues for when to flip the page, the book reimagined the songs, as Sum describes, to guide the audience through a new way of listening and receiving.

      Now, a couple years later, Sum will present a revised version of the piece at the Cultch. In a quiet sense, she notes, it feels like a solo show for everyone—something that, even when Sum is performing, it doesn’t always feel like she is. Being able to share that with the audience is really special.

      “I think it’s very personal,” Sum says. “You will get to know me, but I’ll also get to know you. And I hope each person feels like they’re seen by me, individually—and that it’s awkward, because it is.” She grins. “I think that’s where a lot of my making sits in: this gentle awkwardness that feels a bit clanky, but it’s not bad.” 

      New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert runs from May 11-14 at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch as part of Femme Festival.