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Amanda Sum integrates songs and storytelling in New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert, but don’t call it musical theatre!

Amanda Sum Photo by Belen Garcia
Theatre and musical artist Amanda Sum will combine both of her art forms in New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert at the Cultch Historic Theatre from May 11 to 14. Photo by Belen Garcia.

Many composers, ranging from John Lennon to Justin Bieber, have written songs about apologizing. But no one has done it quite like Vancouver singer-songwriter Amanda Sum.

“Sorry”, from her debut New Age Attitudes album, opens with a simple folk-y chord structure on guitar. This offers plenty of room for Sum’s evocative lyrics, which deliver a walloping rebuttal to systemic discrimination and age-old racial tropes. And it’s done from an intensely personal perspective.

Listening to “Sorry”, some might even think of the 25-year-old Sum as a next-gen incarnation of Joni Mitchell. That’s because both songwriters dish up poignant lyrics about feelings and experiences wrapped in gentle melodic envelopes.

Fans of Sum, who’s also an actor, can soon enjoy her multifaceted talents in the world premiere of “a concert in construction paper form”. New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert will be at the Cultch Historic Theatre in Vancouver from May 11 to 14.

“It’s an experimental performance piece in that it blends theatre and music,” Sum says. “It’s not a typical concert. And it’s not a play and it’s not musical theatre.”

Rather, she likens it to a “performance piece installation” with concert and theatrical aspects.

“You’re going to get a pop-up book that I make for you,” Sum reveals. “You’re going to read it. And I’m going to read it with you. Everything you need to know is in the book—and I’ll help guide you through it.”

Amanda Sum photo by Reagan Jade
Amanda Sum says that a pop-up book will anchor her upcoming shows. Photo by Reagan Jade.

Sum wins acclaim at SXSW

As an actor, the SFU fine-arts grad is perhaps best known for her four seasons in the Cultch’s East Van Panto. She also drew acclaim for the rice & beans show Chicken Girl, which co-starred former city councillor B.C. Lee.

Musically, Sum attracted national attention when one of the tracks on New Age Attitudes, “Different Than Before”, secured a JUNO nomination for Music Video of the Year. Mayumi Yoshida directed the tense, racially charged short film for this wistful song about finding new beginnings.

Then in March, “Different Than Before” captured the SXSW Music Video Jury Award. In addition to Sum and Yoshida, producer credits also went to Sebastien Galina and Lynne Lee.

“This project stemmed from a craving for change, and to stand up for our Asian peers, elders, and families,” Sum said at the time. “To see this message go this far is so moving. I cannot thank Mayumi, Sebastien, and Lynne enough for bringing this project to life.”

Yoshida became inspired to create the video after seeing Sum perform the song in an online concert.

“We had worked together making ‘Groupthink’, which was my first ever single and music video,” Sum tells Pancouver. “She was watching the concert and said, ‘Well, when we do our next video, can it be that song?’ And so I said ‘yes’.”

The problem was money. Sum didn’t have any. But with the help of Creative BC, the Vancouver Music Fund, the MVP Project, and others, including the Union of BC Performers, they filmed an elaborate story in a Chinese restaurant

Following its release a year ago, YouTube viewers regaled Sum and Yoshida with praise. Some revealed that the video made them cry. (It’s possible to see the video on Sum’s website or at the bottom of this article.)

Watch the video for “What If the Sky?”

Response to crash inspired “Sorry”

Joni Mitchell could also bring tears to the eyes of her fans. The Mitchell comparison is also apt when it comes to the ethereal “What If the Sky?” in which Sum personifies the sky.

“I just put it out as a little demo,” Sum tells Pancouver by phone. “It didn’t quite fit the realm of the themes and sound of the album…but I do quite love playing that one.”

As for that song “Sorry” mentioned at the outset of this article, it resulted from Sum apologizing to another driver who had rear-ended her vehicle.

It opens this way:

Overhearing certain sounds in a foreign language

That my grandma spoke to me hoping I’d take it in

Never really understood what she was saying

Except good night, good afternoon

Those were the phrases

And I think about it all the time

Because I said sorry the other day

Thought I was the one in the way.

Watch the video for “Sorry” by Amanda Sum.

Music comes before the lyrics

From there, the song touches upon the discomfort of being seen as the “other”, the lack of Asian faces on TV, and stereotypes about musicians and students of Chinese ancestry.

The concluding lines will resonate with anyone who’s said sorry to keep the peace and later regretted doing so: “And I said sorry, but I never meant it / Yeah, it was real / Kind of wish I’d dreamt it.

According to Sum, the music came first before the lyrics. This is the norm when it comes to her songwriting.

“Once I started it, it kind of fleshed itself out on its own—fairly quickly,” she says.

Another of her popular numbers is “Awkward Bodies”. With a jazzy feel, it cleverly lampoons how people rely on street-smart uniforms to show that they’ve got it together.

In the video on her website, which Sum co-directed with Jo Hirabayashi, she performs in a shrimp dumpling costume. She tells Pancouver that her mother created it for Halloween in 2020. In a curious twist, Sum is joined by three other dumplings facsimiles—all bearing her face.

“I really wanted this shrimp dumpling costume to have a  life,” Sum says. “I thought, ‘There can’t just be one shrimp dumpling. When you serve it, they need their friends. They need company.’ I had this image of a band of dumplings.”

Then she laughs as she refers to the bamboo carrier in which shrimp dumplings are served. And yes, Sum discloses that the costume will make an appearance at the upcoming shows at the Cultch.

Cast members and the director discuss “Different Than Before”.

Getting personal and detailed

This is the thing about Sum—even though she’s a serious artist who writes about serious themes, she’s not adverse to having fun with her music.

She maintains that not everything needs to be super poetic or a clever metaphor to resonate. Sometimes, just laying out the rather pedestrian events of a mundane day can be sufficient. And that realization has been tremendously liberating to her as a songwriter.

“This sounds a bit silly, but I grew up with the Barenaked Ladies a lot on the radio,” Sum says. “I always kind of chuckled at the jokes that they threw in. And I think that has been influential on me.”

This can even be the case if they’re simply singing about eating Kraft dinner with fancy ketchup.

In fact, Sum emphasizes when other songwriters get personal or delve into details, she feels much closer to them as artists.

“If you can be that specific, it feels so real—even though I might not necessarily share that exact same experience,” Sum says. “But the way that they’ve allowed themselves to express it and articulate it makes me feel like I can understand it.

“And I can see how they view things,” she continues. “So I suppose that could be an ‘in’ on my own music, where people might pick up things that reflect their own experience.”

The award-winning “Different Than Before” video, directed by Mayumi Yoshida.

The Cultch presents New Age Attitudes: Live in Concert as part of the Femme Festival at the Historic Theatre from Thursday (May 11) to Sunday (May 14). For more information and tickets, visit the Cultch website. Two weeks later, at 3 p.m. on May 28, YVR Screen Scene and BOLDLY will present a YVR Screen Scene Masterclass with Mayumi Yoshida in a fundraiser for the Ukrainian Canadian Advocacy Group’s Rehabilitation Program for the Children of Fallen Heroes. Tickets ($10 to $50) are available through Eventbrite or at YVRScreenScene.com. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.