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Artist Spotlight: Max Embers

Singer-songwriter Max Embers had more experiences than he knew what to do with; so he left it all behind and started from scratch.

Born in a small city in Germany, Embers moved to America and joined the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he was able to perform alongside such icons as Paula Cole and Harry Belafonte. From there, he gained an international platform when he was featured on NBC's "Songland", a competition show to find the next great songwriter. This gave him the opportunity to work with legendary songwriter and One Republic-frontman, Ryan Tedder on the song "Lookin' Up".

Max has since amassed an impressive list of collaborators, including Kelly Clarkson, Noah Cyrus, and Felix Sandman.

However, having spent so much time learning from others, when the pandemic hit, Max Embers decided it was time to head off on his own. So that's what he did: he packed up, escaped L.A., and spent three weeks by himself in Idyllwild, CA. He came back with idyllwild, his new EP scheduled for this Summer. He's given us a first taste of this project with his song, "wildest dreams", a dreamy acoustic pop track about the clarity and freedom of knowing what you want.

Max Embers was nice enough to sit down with us and answer some questions about his upbringing, his collaborations, and his new music.


Let’s start with the basics! Where are you from and how did you first get into the music industry?

I’m originally from a small city in Germany, called Herne (I’d be shocked if you’ve heard of it). When I was a child, we had my dad’s old white Yamaha upright in our living room and whenever I got the chance I’d try to play it - it was the most intriguing thing to me and I’d ask my dad to teach me little melodies all the time. For my fifth birthday, my parents told me that I could start taking lessons if I wanted - and of course, I did! All throughout growing up, I played classical piano, which I think is really what introduced me to music as a whole. The music culture in Germany is surely vibrant in big cities like Berlin, but where I was from - at least in my experience - there was a bit of a lack of exposure to pop and world music. So as much as I loved my classical musicianship, I didn’t really even consider the possibility of moving away from classical to writing pop songs until much later. In a way, listening to my parents’ favorite musicians, like Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Sting, and Michael Jackson was a catalyst for me. I started devouring any kind of music I could get my hands on, would lock myself into my room and listen to CDs on end, buy magazines to read about pop culture, and secretly imagined myself being a part of that world.

The biggest change in my experience came when I did an exchange year as a junior in high school in the US. I had already written a few songs by then, but - and this is something I admire about American culture - getting the chance to partake in all the musical activities in high school, like choir, orchestra, marching band (sure call me a nerd, but I thought it was the coolest thing!), performing an original at the pops concert, etc. Those were some of the most special moments for me and when I moved back to Germany to finish high school I knew that music was where my journey was taking me. I applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the leading contemporary music schools in the world, and… got in! And that’s sort of how it all began.

In 2019, you were a finalist on NBC’s Songland. How did that learning experience compare to, say, studying at Berklee College of Music?

That’s a great question. Songland was an incredible experience - being on stage and performing for some of the greatest, most successful musicians of our time - and on national TV! - was a surreal opportunity and definitely gave me a taste of what it feels like to have a massive platform like that. If we’re talking songwriting, Berklee maybe gave me a more technical foundation and the chance to put it into practice with my peers, whereas Songland - and working with Ryan Tedder in particular - allowed me to see how one of the biggest writers in the industry approaches his songs, the priority being: make it FEEL good. All the technicalities don’t matter unless it feels good.

On the other hand, both are similar in the sense that they are both somewhat separate from the “real life” music industry. At Berklee, you get the chance to meet the most talented people you will probably ever meet, learn from music legends, and focus entirely on getting better and creating as much as you can with your peers. Few of us were actually super concerned with life after Berklee. My priority was having the time of my life, savoring every moment, learning as much as I could, and of course, working my ass off to make some money on the side and get through it as quickly as possible, because it’s a very expensive undertaking and a massive privilege to be there in the first place. What I’m trying to say is Berklee sort of simulates the music industry, but without the pressure of actually being thrown into the real world yet, where you have to then actually make a living off of your art and figure out what your place as a musician in an ever-changing industry could be. Songland is similar because, of course just like with Berklee, it’s an incredible platform and an opportunity to be seen by hugely influential people... but at the same time it’s a reality TV show that still feels slightly detached from the industry.

At the end of the day, after Berklee and after Songland, you get back to your day-to-day reality, and you sort of have to forget about everything you’ve learned and go back to the roots of WHY you’re doing this in the first place, and then just keep grinding.

(Via NBC)

In a short amount of time, you’ve become a prolific collaborator, working with people ranging from Ryan Tedder, to Noah Cyrus, to Harry Belafonte. Is this a part of your career that you’ve particularly enjoyed? What about your style lends itself to collaboration?

I absolutely love collaborating. I think I’ve gone through different stages and periods of time where I was more focused on working with (and for) others, co-writing songs for other artists, and such. And there’s something so special when multiple people with their talents come into a room together and create something out of nothing. I think the coolest thing is when you work with someone who has a different strength than you and you kind of pull the best out of each other. Magic happens that way! I love both writing by myself and creating with others, and for the next project(s) I am so stoked to get back into the room with some of my favorite writers and producers!!

How, if at all, has your experiences working with such a diverse array of people allowed you to find your own voice as a singer-songwriter?

Both at Berklee and in the music industry in LA, you’re constantly surrounded by a bazillion other artists, musicians, writers, and producers, all of which have their own thing going on, their own musical preferences and sound. The same goes for teachers at Berklee and A&Rs or other industry professionals: everyone has an opinion. Through collaborating with so many people and being exposed to so many different musical schools of thought, for a while I fell into a place of insecurity about my own talent as a writer and singer. I made a very conscious effort to force myself and build a foundation for myself, to trust my instincts again. Now that my EP, idyllwild is about to come out, it fills me with so much joy that I’m able to say that it’s me, through and through. I can finally see the deeply valuable lessons I’ve learned from other musicians and people in my life, and the musical influences that obviously trickle into my music from all sorts of directions, without letting it stifle my creativity or make me feel like what I have to offer isn’t good enough. This is a highly competitive industry, and it’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to everybody else and thinking you must sound just like what’s on the radio right now. But I think there’s a sweet spot of appreciating the beauty of other people’s art, and letting it inspire your own creativity, but keeping in mind that what makes your art special is YOU. Nobody else sounds like you, thinks like you, writes like you. So that’s where the most beautiful art will come from.

Your latest single, “wildest dreams” anticipates idyllwild, an EP inspired by your 3-week experience in Idyllwild, California. I’d love to hear about that journey and how it influenced this music.

In the middle of the pandemic, last summer, I found myself in quite a funk. I was at a place where I felt insecure in my abilities to work without the help of others and was questioning if I could even still write by myself. I guess I had lost my artistic voice and vision a little bit. That was super scary to me and I knew I wanted to find that part of me again, so last year I booked myself a solo writing retreat in the mountains in Idyllwild, California - a little mountainous town in the woods, and spent three weeks writing by myself. What came out of that was the most truthful art I’ve ever made. I think I needed to prove to myself that I am capable of creating on my own. Now that it’s all done, I couldn’t be more proud and grateful, and I can’t wait to share it with you all! I can’t even describe to you how transformative that time was for me. Spending time with my own thoughts away from the daunting music industry has had a way of sometimes inhibiting me from really being myself as an artist and creating my best work. And that’s what my EP is all about - it’s about self-exploration, about growing into your true self and allowing yourself to really experience the magic along the way.

Each song on idyllwild will come with its own visuals. How did this idea come about and what role do visuals play in your artistry?

Since I was a teenager fantasizing of being a famous artist, it has always been my wildest dream (no pun intended) to put out an album or project that, like my favorite works of art by other musicians, has a theme and common thread through the whole thing, something like a concept album. Totally subconsciously, when I was creating the songs that now makeup idyllwild, I kind of did that on a musical level. From “wildest dreams” to my next single “got to get you” (out 6/4!), to “mccartney” to “alive”, all of these songs are very introspective and tell an honest story from start to finish. When the time came to make visuals for the EP, I wanted to find a tone for the music videos and cover artwork that was equally as honest and magical as the songs were to me, and as my time in Idyllwild was. It’s my third time here in Idyllwild, and every time I’m overcome with so much joy and filled with peace. THAT’s what I wanted the videos and the cover art to feel like. I ended up with a DIY video-diary type visual, that actually incorporates footage that I took last year when I was in Idyllwild for the first time. I hope it’ll connect with people and translate that feeling of freedom and peace that I’ve felt every time I’ve been in Idyllwild!

What would you say you’re trying to achieve with this upcoming EP?

Of course! I hope that this EP will connect with my listeners. It’s the most personal work I’ve ever done, and I can’t help but feel vulnerable putting it out there in the world. But at the same time I know I’ve created something special that really tells my story unapologetically, and no matter the outcome, I’m proud of that. More importantly than how “commercially successful” this project is going to be, I know that especially in the times we live in right now, there are people out there who need to hear this. I hope it will translate the message that at the end of the day, we’re all the same, we’re all trying to find our way and make sense of this crazy thing that is life. I hope it will make people feel more understood, less alone, and encourage them to believe in themselves. To help them see that we all deserve to dream, and to dream BIG. There are a lot of challenges we face as a global society at the moment, and things will not get easier in the next decades. I think for our own sanity, it’s important that we prioritize self-care, and find love for ourselves, while also cultivating love and compassion for others and for this planet as a whole. If my music can bring people together in that way, that would, truly, be my wildest dream.

Check out more Max Embers:

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