Interview/review: Emma van Heyn- munching on biltong and rusks in a Shanghai hotel room, while mulling on Looking for Amanda

Emma van Heyn’s enigmatic song, Looking For Amanda was released on October 1, 2021. On the face of it, the song and music video, comes across as sexy and sultry – seeking the mysterious Amanda – framed by funky and zany set-ups. We want to be Amanda; to have a piece of her world. Wait. Pause. The song is overlaid with fractured spoken word loops. The beguiling melody embeds itself in your head. Amanda is being shadowed and trailed. For the theatrical music video, Van Heyn has drawn inspiration from Andy Warhol and his famous Factory and Michael Jackson’s body of work; with its share of ruptures. Looking for Amanda, the video, is imaged vividly with stylized hyper saturated colouring of a surreal and magical world. The amatory echoes of Searching for Amanda are underpinned by dark and creepy undertones. Within the allure of the search for love – and relationships – physical and platonic- things can sour –rapidly. Heyn has been there and done that and it wasn’t nice and sexy at all.

Heyn was stalked. It started off in a good way – a fan admired her, when she was working in Shanghai as a singer, accompanying herself on piano. From friendly chats, the encounters became charged with menace. Social media facilitates online hook ups. It is cool to be appreciated and followed on social media but when it becomes intrusive and the line is crossed, it is not fun. It is creepy and dangerous. The song, Looking for Amanda is told from the perspective of the stalker.  Listen and you will get the story. I am, reminded of story songs, acidy-rock or whatever you want to tag them by artists like Joni Mitchell and Amy Winehouse who excavate through the uncomfortable stuff in their lives– often framed by catchy melodies which make us sing along –and then we hear the lyrics –and we go “oh oh…”. Listen to Looking for Amanda HERE

Looking for Amanda has a surreal vibe. The song was birthed in what was a surreal time for van Heyn. After graduating from drama school at Stellenbosch University, at the end of 2017, she took up the offer to do a gap work-year in Shanghai, as a singer in hotels. This was -before Covid brought live performance to a crushing halt. It almost seems anachronistic to talk about the fact that van Heyn was able to jet off to Shanghai, to entertain people in lounges and foyers in fancy hotels. While working in Shanghai, her friend, Moses Martinez from San Antonio, Texas, challenged her to write a song. They had connected in 2015, when he contacted her via Instagram – in a good way – not a stalking way. He is a musician and songwriter.  To kick off the song, he supplied curatorial prompts.  “He approached me to write a song with him and he gave me a concept and two guitar riffs- and to have a female name in the title; the landscape should be of the seaside, the narrative should be about a man that really wants to be with a woman, but her heart lies with someone else.  I then started writing the lyrics and he would add suggestions as we went along. It was a lot of fun diving into the process with him. I spent lots of time chatting about my experiences with his wife, Christy and how it [stalking] is a universal theme”.  The work on the song was done remotely: “I worked with Moses and Christy, through voice messages. I would brief them what to do and then they would sit in their truck and record the backing vocals, guitar and various speaking parts for me. I then had my friend, Julia Li from China, also add a little spoken part and recorded professional musician from the Philippines, O’Neil Carantes on the bass in my hotel room in Shanghai while eating rusks and biltong sent from home.”

Van Heyn wrote the song as part of an assignment for her online studies in music production, through Berklee College in Boston, USA: “The production of this track was one of my first solo attempts at bringing an entire piece together. While working in Shanghai, I realised how financially un-viable it was for me to build up my own band in South Africa – being unknown and desperate to find my own sound. The industry itself was starting to shake in its infrastructure, so the track evolved with a lot in mind.”

Her experiences of being a young woman in a foreign city; alone and the spectre of celebrity and objectification of women, fed into the song: “Yessss. I was super intrigued by how one can be objectified and become a fantasy for another. And how quickly those endearing thoughts can turn into something very scary, when in the hands of an unhealthy mind. Many women deal with this. Assumptions are made about the way they choose to exude themselves, even if it is meant innocently. It tends to kill the victim’s light – that which made them attractive and lovable in the first place.”

The experience of a year of Shanghai does seem like a surreal dream for Van Heyn. “I felt extremely isolated living in Wujiaochang, a brand new business district in Shanghai. Nobody in that area could speak passable English and the first three months was like futuristic apocalypse- kilometres of malls were surrounding my hotel – with only shopkeepers around. With every day- feeling it was the same – waking up in a luxurious room with no window to open – and only the sound of aircon. It felt like my own personal lockdown. It was a leap into the unknown. The whole experience stands out at a Rubicon year in my life.”

Van Heyn’s spell in Shanghai came to an end at the finish of 2018. She was back in Cape Town in 2019, for what became the pre-Covid year – we could say now. During lockdown, she got Amanda mastered and finished it and here we are- October 2021 – with the song and music video out in the world. There are plans to make a full length album and to make more music videos. That is not all. Emma van Heyn, the actress, has a solo show, Met Slenterslag na Shanghai, which will be performed, at Die Boer on November 3, 2021. This autobiographical show incorporates scenes from her Shanghai experiences and her own songs. The show was first performed at Woordfees in 2019. Van Heyn was nominated for Best Newcomer in the KykNet Fiëstas 2020. Tickets are available here:

Van Heyn would love to work on musical theatre shows: “I love delving into other’s musical worlds and look forward to collaborating with other creatives. It helps a lot to be a music producer as I can get the business side happening.  I recently had the privilege to work with Zolani Mahola (now known as The One Who Sings) and we have a few upcoming releases, which is something exciting to look out for.”

Screenshot – Instagram – Emma van Heyn – gigging with her friend, Julia Li, in a hotel room, in Shanghai, December 2018.

Biltong, rusks and creating Looking for Amanda – Emma van Heyn in her hotel room, Shanghai. Supplied.

Looking for Amanda– song written by Emma van Heyn

Music video: Emma van Heyn’s music video, co-directed with Allister Christie, stars van Heyn and Christopher Sherwood-Adcock Watch the Looking for Amanda music video:  here  

Emma van Heyn’s solo show: Met Slenterslag na Shanghai will be on at Die Boer on November 3, 2021.

✳ Featured image: Emma van Heyn. Supplied.