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Ah-Mer-Ah-Su: Oakland soul transported to the sunny South

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FOCUSED ‘The story shouldn’t be, “How is it making music as a transgender artist?” It should be about the music,’ Ah-Mer-Ah-Su said.

On her new EP, Hopefully Limitless, Star Amerasu, whose stage name is Ah-Mer-Ah-Su, faces America’s post-pandemic reality with a song in her heart and a twinkle in her eye. “I saw the world was opening up, so I’m feeling hopeful and limitless after a long lockdown,” the artist said. “I’m also embracing the fact that nothing in this creation is certain. It’s always a hope, not a promise. I don’t know how limitless I am in this world, but I know we can always try to be our best, so I’m keeping hope alive right now, in my life and my music.”

With the exception of “Fantasy,” the writing and production on the EP was finished before the pandemic. “I made a demo at home and sent it to my producer, Vice Cooler,” Amerasu said. “He added his instrumental parts and last winter I went to his house, wearing a mask. I did the final vocals from a separate room.”

The songs on Hopefully Limitless showcase the dynamic range of Ah-Mer-Ah-Su’s vocals. She glides over arrangements co-created with Cooler that weave breezy strands of jazz, rock, EDM, funk and reggae into an impressive tapestry. “No One” opens with the sound of steel drums, with Ah-Mer-Ah-Su delivering a cheerful vocal, full of self-affirmation. The beat moves between a galloping synth bass and a brittle EDM pulse. Atmospheric washes of synthesizer and a crisp funk beat drive “We Got It All,” an ode to a summer love that’s fading, despite all the good times the lovers shared. Her melancholy crooning gives way to a sunny call and response on the chorus. “Tomorrow” is ballad balanced between the dreams of a positive tomorrow and life’s day-to-day reality. The singer’s wordless, multi-tracked backing vocals add to the song’s cinematic resonance. “Temperamental,” the EP’s slowest, saddest song, opens the record on a somber note, with a wistful vocal, backed by sparse grand piano chords. It’s a moving ballad, but seems like an odd opening choice, given the album’s generally upbeat ambience.

“I felt like it was the right spot to put it,” Ah Mer Ah Su said. “It’s how I feel a lot of the time. I’m a silly person, you know, but like Pagliacci the clown, I’m often laughing when I’m really sad. The melody is soothing, but there’s a hint of reality in the lyrics. I don’t like toxic positivity. I want my art to deal in reality, so the vibe expresses a temperamental feeling. Being inside for a year was exhausting. I want to go out and do all the things I like to do. I wrote it a while ago, but it fits perfectly with the mood of post-pandemic life. I know it’s not over. We’re still moving toward some version of a new reality.”

Although music has been part of her life as long as she can remember, Star Amerasu (Ah Mer Ah Su is her stage name) never imagined she’d become a performing songwriter or a video artist with thousands of YouTube hits. “My mom was a single parent. She changed jobs and moved around a lot. I took piano lessons in 2nd grade, got a guitar when I was 13 and left home when I was 16. I lived with a roommate while I was finishing high school in Austin, Texas. I was in the choir since grammar school and studied musical theater in college, but got depressed and dropped out. I made some life choices and decided to live my life full time as a woman. My roommate wasn’t comfortable with the confident and happy young woman I was becoming and asked me to move out. I was given two weeks notice, right before my 19th birthday. I knew San Francisco was safe for the trans and LBGTQ community and came to the Bay Area.

“I lived in the Larkin Street Youth Center for a while and legally changed my name to Amerasu, after the Japanese goddess Amaterasu, ‘the Shining One.’ After moving to Oakland, I worked with a multi-media collective, New World Dysorder. I started performing everywhere—punk venues, parties and warehouses. There was a vital artistic community in Oakland. Then the Ghost Ship fire happened. A lot of people felt lost. Spaces closed, people moved away and it got harder to make a living. I stuck it out for a while, but I was ready to take it to another level, so I moved to L.A. I met Vice Cooler on a musical blind date.”

“I feel fortunate we met,” Cooler said. “We immediately got along and had multiple songs finished after one afternoon. It’s a very organic process and her voice is unique. In these autotune days, it’s rare to hear a singer actually sing. She doesn’t need anything added to her voice to instantly be identified.”

Cooler and Amerasu first collaborated on Star, the singer’s full-length debut. It’s a solid collection of mid-tempo songs touching on the joys and heartaches of love. The arrangements blend pop, R&B and rock with vocals that show off the singer’s unique, melisma-drenched phrasing. Her wordless improvisations are part church and part jazz cabaret.

“Since it was my first full-length album, I felt it needed to say something about myself,” Amerasu said. “I interviewed friends about aspects of my life and used some of the recordings as spoken word interludes. In our society, identity politics is what we talk about, not the music. The story shouldn’t be, ‘How is it making music as a transgender artist?’ It should be about the music. The need to categorize everything is detrimental to the music, especially from artists with marginalized identities.

“Making Star was tearful and emotional. Hopefully is more chill and pretty. I have a big vocal range, so moving forward, I’m focusing on a smoother sound. Not everybody’s meant to be the next Beyoncé, but you have to start somewhere.”