Nashville’s Bantug is concerned about your friendships

Photo by Kelsey Cherry

Photo by Kelsey Cherry

Amanda Bantug is watching Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary series about an international cult putting down roots in an insular Oregon town in the 1980s, when I call her on a Saturday afternoon. We both exclaim over the fact that, despite the extensive media coverage of the events that unfolded around the Rajneeshi planned community at the time, neither of us knew much about it before watching the series. “I’ve never heard of anybody even talking about this!” she says, excitement in her voice.

Maybe the first thing to know about Amanda Bantug is that she’s excited, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of her more logical side. In her shimmering synth-pop tracks, the 24-year-old, who records under her last name, excavates her own world and emotions with the precision of a documentarian. She’s been living in Nashville for the past six years after relocating from Lilburn, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, where she was raised. More recently, in advance of her second EP, Red, slated to come out later this month, she’s been supporting folk musician Liza Anne in Nashville. It’s a collection of six songs packed with big synths and big feelings, and it keeps the stakes high even as it doesn't take itself too seriously. 

From the apartment that Bantug shares with her husband, whom she describes as “the world’s best pizza baker”, she discussed how she copes with feelings of vulnerability and fear around being a woman, the forces that shape her songwriting, and how School of Rock inspired her to start playing bass. 

Red is out May 25 on Soundcloud and Spotify. Singles “Shapes” and “Our Apartment” are out now. 

How has Nashville influenced you, and what are some ways in which it finds its way into your music?

Just because Nashville is so known for country and Americana and folk, I think it’s more [about] my community. What this city is makes me want to be what it’s not, if that makes any sense. For a while, I was trying to do the singer-songwriter thing but I wasn’t really connecting with it, and I was never really writing songs that I was super proud of. And so I think I was like, “This is not who I am, and I have to figure out my way out of this.” And so, there’s a lot of people amongst my friends who were trying not to do that, so I think that definitely motivated me to kind of get out of that area of writing and try something new. “Circles” was the first song that was like that, but I think “Waiting” was the first one that I put out.

“what this city is makes me want to be what it’s not, if that makes any sense.”

When did you start writing music?

I don’t remember the exact age, but I think it was around 10. That’s when I just started writing goofy little songs. I didn’t even really like what I was writing until two years ago. I mean, I still don’t always like what I write now [laughs], but I think two years ago is when I started fully connecting with my writing.

You play a few different instruments, but which one did you pick up first?

I think I learned bass first. I played guitar a little bit, but I did orchestra in middle school, and really got into that for a second. I saw School of Rock, and that girl who was playing bass guitar —I was like “Oh fuck yeah, I wanna pick that up.” I was playing bass a lot growing up, and then I ventured into guitar.

I understand that you’re also a woodworking apprentice, which is amazing! Can you tell me more about that?

I’m in the process of making a bench for someone right now, and I was actually just doing some drawings when you called. I started in January. I think I’ve always loved the idea of making furniture, just because we live in this day and age of, “Let’s just buy something cheap that will last you a year, or like three years.” I think there’s something really beautiful about making a piece from something that’s living, and then you get to have this piece for your whole life and pass it down. There’s something really special about that. I was really fortunate to find a woodworking shop offering internships, and then that internship slowly became a part-time job. It’s definitely really hard at times, but I’m learning a lot almost every single day because I’m so brand-new to it. But it’s been really cool. I love it a lot.

One of your lyrics that really stood out to me on Red is “The fact of being a woman makes me feel unsafe, and I want out.” What’s behind it?

I’m very sensitive to media. I was watching Big Little Lies and a French film called Elle, and both of them [deal with] rape and assault, and those thoughts were becoming prevalent in my mind. Every day, there are women getting raped and assaulted, and it’s just super frightening. I’ve had plenty of friends who that’s happened to. I’m just this tiny woman that anyone could probably pick up, and so I think for a while I was walking in fear all the time. It kept me up late. Obviously it’s a fear that a lot of women have, but to have that almost paralyze you is very unhealthy. There’s a healthy fear of it, for sure, but I don’t ever want it to hinder me from doing anything, like sleeping.

“I’m just this tiny woman that anyone could probably pick up, and so I think for a while I was walking in fear all the time.”

That whole song [“Want Out”] was about that time that I was going through, and especially with the whole #MeToo movement and feminism becoming huge in a great way. So I think the song is that process of what I was going through during that moment in time, and just being sick of how this is a woman’s life, and it’s going to take a very, very long time for that to change.

Absolutelyand yes, you don’t want that fear to become unhealthy and all-encompassing, but it is a very rational fear, you know? It can be really hard to learn how to live with it.

Yeah, I didn’t know how to for a month or so. And that’s probably a fortunate situation in comparison to so many other women out there.

So, about “Shapes”, which is a song that I loveI understand that it’s a song about how friendships can sometimes fall by the wayside when a new lover enters the picture, and you feel like you’ve dealt with that before in your friend relationships. Do you feel like you’ve ever been that friend, or do you mindfully try not to be?

I think probably both. I’m only human. No one is ever going to be perfectly balanced, but I think I’ve always been such a friend kind of person. My first boyfriend in high school [and I] broke up because I was hanging out with my friends too often. [laughs] I think it’s super important to take care of the people who are always going to be by your side. Being committed is great and all, but I think friends can be the ones who are always going to stick around. Saying that, I do have a husband and love him very much.

When you introduce someone into your life, obviously everything is going to change. So I think that’s the whole course of “we all turn into shapes we didn’t mean to”, and that’s in a good and bad way. I think, when you’re with someone, they bring out the best and worst of you, and you kind of have to figure out how to live with that.

I was curious to know what went into the decision to name both of your EPs after colors. What do the titles mean to you?

So, Blue wasn’t going to be an EP. Those first four songs were just singles, and then “Just Like A Dream” came out and I decided to make it a compilation of all the singles from the past year and a half. I wrote them all differently and recorded them in different places —if you’re listening very closely, you can tell that sometimes.

I decided to put it all together, and I named it “Blue” because all the artworks for all the singles—the common denominator was the color blue. Because of that, it was kind of sticking in my mind, “Maybe I’ll name the next one after a color.” I had written all these songs and I was ready to put them together, and I was like, “All these songs kind of emanate the color red, in their own distinct way.” “Our Apartment” is a little intimate, and “Want Out”—that’s obviously about being paranoid and scared and having fear. You know, those are different emotions but they kind of emote red in their own way.

What’s next after this EP comes out?

Oh, man. I probably should make another EP and do one more color, just wrap up that trio. I think that I want to do one more EP right before my first album. I think I just want more room to explore and not have anything tied down that’s like, “Now I have to make this album that needs to sound like this.” I’m still writing so much stuff that doesn’t even sound like what Red’s going to sound like. I want to do small little EPs and see my growth in writing and see where that takes me.

You’ve been playing shows around Nashville, but if you had to pick one festival that you would love to play, what would that be?

I think I’ve always been intrigued by Leeds, [in the UK]. I’m not crazy about festivals, but I’ve always found that one very fascinating, and it always looks like a good lineup.

Oh, yeah. You always see pictures of people from Coachella and they’ve got their flower crowns and fancy sunglasses and everything, and you look at pictures of people from Leeds and they’re covered in mud and wearing rain boots.

Right—everyone’s camping and just wants to listen to music and doesn’t give a shit about their aesthetic. Which is maybe my vibe. [laughs]