“I feel like a monk sometimes.” It’s the last thing you’d expect to hear from one of Portland’s most celebrated live acts, a genre-melding musician from a family of creative powerhouses who has appeared in everything from the Time-Based Art Festival to Willamette Week’s Best New Bands List. Amenta Abioto’s recorded output, though, has been somewhat monastic—it’s been six years since her debut Opening Flower Hymns—but she’s breaking her silence this month with a new album, still untitled as of press time.
The record marks something of a departure from Abioto’s more diffuse early work. Opening Flower Hymns was mostly layered vocal loops, many of them improvised in the moment. But this new project finds her working with more firmly structured songs. Lead single “Plant It,” released in February, is awash with lush synths, fleshing out Abioto’s beautiful melodies with a groovy bass line and electronic drums.
Abioto moved to Portland from Memphis in 2010 with her entire family and, alongside her four sisters, quickly became a fixture in various creative circles (sister Intisar is the storyteller/photographer behind the much-lauded The Black Portlanders photo project). For many of her live performances, Abioto is armed with nothing but a loop pedal and her powerful voice, stacking layers of melodies and rhythms on the spot, drawing inspiration from R&B, soul, pop, and various styles of African music. She also incorporates a background in dance and theater, and, given her penchant for improv, no two shows are quite the same.
This reluctance to limit herself to a single genre or medium is a partial product of being raised in a boundlessly creative family. Both of her parents are artists, and though Abioto knew early on that music was her true calling (“I’ve always just loved to sing,” she says, “wherever, whenever”) she‘s spent her entire life immersed in art of all sorts.
“When [my family and I] come together, it’s like we create this universe,” she says. “Earth, fire, water, air—we all have different elements that we bring in, different energies, and it’s very powerful.”
For this new record, Abioto harnesses that power to examine human suffering, “and how much it means not to take pain so lightly.” After six years of relative quiet, she’s ready to raise her voice.