Sun Blood Stories’ latest album, It Runs Around the Room with Us (2017), features a song written by Amber Pollard titled “Burn.” It was inspired by a time when the singer-guitarist and her son George saw a Confederate flag hanging from a parked truck.
AP: I was working at the time, and I was at the [Ada County] Courthouse. There was a burn ban in the city, and it was 110 degrees outside. We were standing at the courthouse, and we just lit it on fire in the parking lot.
The song served as the climax for the Boise-based rock group’s set at the 2016 Treefort Music Fest. As singer-guitarist Ben Kirby and drummer Jon Fust bashed away at their instruments, Pollard ran around the stage howling out the song’s single lyric: “BURN!”
It was the first time SBS had played the song live, and it hit the audience (including me) hard. My friend Jax Perez would tell me much later, “I cried. And I don’t publicly cry. I was raised to not publicly cry. But that show – especially when that song closed everything out – I was fucking bawling.”
Amber Pollard has that effect on people. On stage, she can hit an intensity level that few others in the Boise scene can match. In her everyday life, she’s thoughtful and outspoken on race, gender, sexuality, abuse, and many other issues. Her passion and forthrightness have earned her a number of fans, particularly among young women.
Amber and I met up recently to discuss her life and music.
BS: One thing I thought we’d talk about is some of the artists that inspire you. And the two that I can think of off the top of my head are Janis Joplin and Prince.
AP: Of course, yeah.
BS: Right. Which, I think, makes a lot of sense. But yeah, talk a little bit about that. How did you discover these two?
AP: Um… Fuck, I don’t know… So, here’s my Prince story. I was born on February 13. On January 13, before I was born, my mother went to see Prince perform in Houston while he was on the Purple Rain tour (so, dated myself).
It was 1985, and my mother is eight to nine months pregnant with me, looking like Barney the Dinosaur with her purple velvet mini-dress and purple, thigh-high boots on, walking around with me in her belly at the Purple Rain [show]. And she had VIP passes, so she ended up going backstage. And Prince walked by and touched her belly… and then just kept moving.
And this is the story I’ve always been told. And the VIP tickets are in my baby book. So Prince has literally been a part of my life since before I was born.
AP: And Prince taught me as a young child… a shit-ton about my sexuality and who I was. Listening to Prince’s music really helped me at a very young age understand who I was sexually, which might be kinda gross [for] a kid, but I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t have a confusing time ever where I didn’t know that I was queer.
Hip-hop and R&B had a powerful impact upon Amber as well.
AP: When I discovered rap and R&B was when I also discovered how differently I was being treated than the other kids in my school. Because everybody knew that I was mixed, and everyone around me treated me that way, but I didn’t realize that was happening until I started really tapping into my culture. And really getting a good taste of both of my cultures. […]
I always knew that I was mixed, but I didn’t really know what that meant because my daddy wasn’t around. I was being raised in a white household and being raised as a white child. It was an instinctual connection the minute that I discovered rap music and R&B. Like, immediate.
Not everything has been so simple and direct in Amber’s life. Being able to pass for white has put her in uncomfortable positions.
AP: The hardest part of passing as white is when people aren’t paying attention long enough… If people aren’t paying attention ¬¬– white people aren’t paying attention – they will say shit that you know they wouldn’t say! And as soon as you point out – “Hey look, I’m sure you might have noticed that I got a squishy nose, but I’m black as fuck.” – “Oh, I would’ve never said that if I’d have known.” That don’t make it better!
BS: Yeah, it’s what you’re fucking thinking.
AP: Yeah, that’s the problem in the first place. Why are you saying it at all?
BS: Yeah, and it puts you in this weird place too. It’s another thing you’ve talked about – and I get that too – where you don’t necessarily face discrimination that other people deal with on a daily basis.
AP: It’s awkward, and it’s a hard conversation to have with a lot of people. White males specifically – very difficult conversation to have.
But racism does not affect everyone in the way that everyone likes to pretend that it does. So yes, I’ve experienced racism but not because they looked at me and said, “Oh, dark skin. She has dark skin and she has nappy hair.” Because I don’t have that, right? I have experienced racism in the fact that really, really, really racist white people can see my nose and they know right away. That’s different from just being far away and someone being like, “That’s a criminal. That’s a monster. Kill that monster. Get that monster.”
Abuse has been a major factor in Amber’s life as well.
AP: I married a dude, and we had a terrible relationship. It was very toxic; he’s very abusive. I was very young and grew up in a very abusive household and thought that is how relationships are. Like, you just deal with it – as a woman, you just fucking deal with men’s outbursts, right?
Her first husband’s military career took them to various spots across the U.S. After several moves and fights – the last of which put her in the hospital – Amber divorced him and started roaming around the West.
Amber moved to Boise with George in 2007 (her mom followed soon after). A couple of years later, she saw her future bandmates Kirby and Fust play with guitarist Daniel Kerr in the band Talk Math to Me.
AP: I remember saying, “Hot, hot, hot! All of them are hot. I like them all. Which one do I want?” [Laughs].
So I’m sitting on the ground watching them play with my mother, and George’s running around and playing Frisbee or something. Danny Kerr, at the time, he’s doing this British punk, pop-punk dance and jumping around onstage, and it’s like, “Oh, he’s pretty cute.” And then Ben moved from bass, sat down at the keys and started singing this really slow, pretty, groovy song, and I was like, “That fucking guy! That one right there. That’s my future boy.”
And she was right – the two started dating in 2012. That same year, she ended up joining his band Sun Blood Stories.
BS: I remember you telling me that story before – I think you were in Utah or something like that, and they had this show booked, and it was canceled.
AP: Ugh, worst tour ever! Worked out really well for me!
BS: Right! They were just like, “Hey, you wanna sing?”
AP: Yeah! “This tour’s been really shitty – why don’t you just get onstage? What could go wrong, right? It couldn’t be worse than it already is.” Yeah. And then Andy [Rayborn], out of nowhere – like, the least likely person – was like, “Amber should be in the band.” “Oh, is that my formal invitation? I accept!” [Laughs].
Amber started out singing and playing tambourine. However, her role shifted as the lineup changed and she learned how to play slide.
AP: I like making noise more than anything. And when nobody was home, I would go into wherever our stash of shit was and play with stuff. And I found this $17 slide guitar that Ben got in high school [but] never fucking played… I played with it for a little while – for a couple of months – while we were still a four-piece and I was playing tambourine.
And I told Ben, “Hey, I want to play this. And there’s no room for it in what we’re doing now with Andy’s sax solos – no offense, Andy! – but there’s just no fucking room for it. But I want to play this instrument; I like it, and I think I’m good at it.” And he was like, “Okay.”
Then I played it for him one time. We went to our practice space, jammed one time, and he was like, “Oh shit, you CAN play that! Oh! Okay, let’s figure it out!”
Today, Amber’s slide is an essential component of Sun Blood Stories’ music. Using a rotating series of pedals, she creates massive, roiling waves of sound.
AP: I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on pedals, and half of them, I think, “Oh, this is exactly what I need!” And then we start playing together, and I’m like, “Unh-uh! Unh-uh! Ew! Uh!” And then they go on Ben’s pedal board or Jon takes them. So we just have this round robin of pedals that float all around. And then I’m like, “Oh wait, no – I need that pedal back for that song. So I need you to unplug, give it back. I need it. I’ll give it back when I’m done using it, I promise!”
I just know exactly how I want to sound. Sometimes, it takes a couple of months to figure out exactly what that sound is. But you just keep buying pedals, eventually, you’ll find it. [Laughs].
Amber has begun playing a larger role in songwriting too.
AP: Ben and I wrote pretty much all of the songs [on It Runs Around the Room with Us] together. I wrote the first song, “End of the Day,” while I was at work waiting to go home [laughs]. You know that four o’clock hour when you’re like, “Ugh, I can’t start a new project because I’ll never finish it before it’s time to clock out. So I’ll just sit here and act like I’m working.”
So I wrote that song in that twilight hour at work. And I wrote “Come Like Rain” for my first daughter and “Nothing Sacred [Will Hold].” And “Burn” with my kid’s help – we wrote it together.
Despite her prominent role in the band, she frequently needs to fight for respect as a musician.
AP: I’m not here to sell the lady part of the band. You can talk to me about my setup; you don’t have to ask Ben.
Ben and I have very strict rules – and he does not like following them – but no affection whatsoever [at shows]. No kissing, no hand-holding, no pats on the butt, no longing looks, any indication that we’re in any type of relationship. Because as soon as that happens, every single time without fail, someone defers to Ben regarding something they should be talking to me about.
Amber isn’t afraid to challenge people’s behavior outside of music either. She recently called out a Boise musician and former friend for abusing numerous people. She also set up a private fund to help those affected recover.
AP: This is not a bad thing, protecting your community. Keeping 16-year-old children safe from predators is not a bad thing. And anyone in this community that has anything they want to say to me… more than willing. My kid’s four years younger than the children that that person was fucking. That’s disgusting. And it’s wrong. And I feel very passionately about that. I don’t feel bad about anything that I said.
She holds herself to a high standard as well. In addition to playing in Sun Blood Stories, Amber runs the Facebook page Vegan4One, which has more than 1,900 followers. She sees veganism as a way of breaking abusive patterns in her life.
AP: My father left when I was really young – that was an abuse in itself, not knowing him at all. I know him now. But my stepfather, my father, my husband, all of my boyfriends, my girlfriends, my teachers in school who abused me, the church that abused me. The emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that I endured in my first 24 years was overwhelming.
And veganism was my only way to really lock down and feel confident that I would not be like them. I am not going to continue a cycle of abuse in any form.
But no matter what hardships she and her loved ones may face, Amber won’t back down.
AP: I have a full-time job, I’m a full-time mom, I got a full-time band. You know what I mean? I’m full-time taking care of everyone I fucking know. I don’t have time to sugarcoat shit. So you can either take it the way I give it to you… or not [laughs]. That’s all I got time for.
Amber and her bandmates are wrapping up recording on Sun Blood Stories’ next album, which will be released fall of 2019.
Photos by Lila Rae