Somerville’s Southern Songbird Seeks Inspiration At Muscle Shoals
With over five releases and opening spots for Chris Isaak, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris, you’d be hard pressed to believe Amy Black was a late bloomer. However, this singer/songwriter, a Northern girl with Southern roots along with her previous bodies of work and sultry, soulful voice has become one of the area’s musicians in demand.
Currently, Amy is working on a new project in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording a full length album that will feature classic cuts and original material. Joining Amy is a nine-piece band including Will Kimbrough (guitars), Lex Price (producer & bass), Bryan Owings (drums), Regina and Ann McCrary (vocals), Charles Rose (horns & trombone), Jim Hoke (sax), Steve Herrmann (trumpet), and none other than Spooner Oldham on keys. The full production is being engineered by Joe Costa. For this, Amy is utilizing PledgeMusic to fund the project, a platform she used to successfully fund her last album, This Is Home.
From open mic to a full-time career in music, Amy took a break from her busy schedule to talk about growing up down South, walking away from a day job in marketing, being part of the Muscle Shoals legacy, and what it really means to have the music take you away.
Amy: I used them in the past and liked the platform. They are also available when you have questions or challenges and will jump on the phone with you — that’s helpful. And maybe the biggest reason, they want you to reach your goal and will work with you to readjust it if necessary.
HOWL: Referred to as the ‘Swampers’ in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern Anthem, “Sweet Home Alabama,” David Hood and Spooner Oldham have been on or produced many of the hits that came out of Muscle Shoals. What is it like working with them?
Amy: It’s pretty great. They are legends. I got to do a show with David last year and really enjoyed working with him, but I’ve spent the most time with Spooner. Spooner’s a kind and thoughtful person and so humble. It’s amazing what he’s done in his lifetime — all the records he’s played on, songs he’s written and folks he’s shared stages with including Neil Young, Bob Dylan and so many others. One songwriter/producer I know said about him, “he’s a quiet mountain of a man.” It’s a great honor to get to make music with him, and with David. I so admire the work that they’ve done through the years and the contributions they’ve made to some of America’s most loved music.
HOWL: Dylan also cut songs in Muscle Shoals. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, and more cut some of their finest work there as well. You grew up in Alabama and with such a rich legacy. Is there a particular song that hits home with you?
Amy: My family is from Alabama and I spent a few ‘growing-up’ years living there, but when I wasn’t, I would visit my grandparents often. I have to say that I didn’t know about the legacy. I passed FAME all the time as a kid and an adult and really didn’t know the history. As far as what music hits me, it started with Aretha. I began really listening to her when I was in college and in my early 20s. Of course, I knew ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ and ‘Chain of Fools’, but I got to know other songs during that period and believe that definitely had an influence. Now that I know the music, a lot of songs hit home — they actually hit me right in my gut. One of my favorites has always been ‘Do Right Woman’, but now I love others like ‘Uptight Good Man’ (Laura Lee) and ‘Watch Dog’ (Etta James) and pretty much any song Otis Redding ever sang.
HOWL: Many musicians have a regular day job and work on their music on the side when they have the time and money. You had a good solid job and you left to pursue music full time. Was it a hard decision and what made you do it?
Amy: When I first started making music and writing my own songs seven to eight years ago, I had no plans to do it full-time or to leave my career in marketing, but the more I performed, the more I wrote and then with the release of my first album of originals, I began to get more and more serious about music as a career. I applied my business and marketing skills and believe that’s been a big help, along with the support that I’ve had from others along the way. When I finally left my day job, it was something I’d planned out and had been slowly moving towards as my career was building, so it wasn’t too difficult to do. Bottom-line, I don’t care that much about money or things and I’m passionate about music and performing, so walking away wasn’t hard.
HOWL: Growing up in the South and then moving to the Boston area, what were some of the advantages or disadvantages when it comes to your musical career?
Amy: I didn’t have any plans to have a career in music. I’d had a few passing thoughts when I was younger, but it just wasn’t an obvious thing for me to do, so I went to school, studied communications and started working. I was in a few bands off and on, but nothing serious. By the time I realized this was something I wanted to do even it if was just every once in a while, I was living way out in Groton, Mass. in a house with my husband and dog, far away from the Boston music scene. There was a little open mic happening in town and I decided to go check it out and sing a few songs with a guitarist that I’d met. It was a small scene, but that’s really how I “launched” my career, growing into the Bull Run and headlining there with a local band. When I moved to Somerville four years ago, I had played Sally O’Brien’s, Toad, and I’d had one CD release show at Passim on a Sunday afternoon. It’s been great to see things grow. Now I do a Friday and Saturday at Johnny D’s for CD release shows and have enjoyed playing in the some of the area’s best performance centers. That goes to show that Boston is actually a GREAT place to build a career — and not just Boston, but New England in general. There are so many venues and organizations that support live music and that are interested in helping independent artists. And the fans are great. So committed. I’ve gotten a lot of support along the way and I’m grateful.
HOWL: There has recently been a new documentary on Muscle Shoals which has regenerated interest in the studios and its history. Do you feel as if you bring that legacy and awareness to Boston with your project or are people already familiar with it?
Amy: I think my project definitely helps to promote the story and music of Muscle Shoals both to those who’ve seen the film and those who haven’t. At my Muscle Shoals shows I usually ask for a show of hands of those who have seen the movie. What I find is that there’s a decent number who have, maybe 20% of the room, and they are very passionate about it — usually give a yell, but then there are so many who haven’t seen it yet. I encourage them to go home and watch it. It’s a bit of a grass roots thing — more and more people are watching it, and telling their music loving friends to see it too. I really love being a self-proclaimed ambassador for this incredible music.
HOWL: You have had time to absorb the sound and cultures of the North. For instance, an older song in your discography, ‘Molly,’ is a song about a Lowell Mill girl. How has the influence of the North helped channel that essence into song and music? How do you incorporate what you’ve picked up here back in your Southern Sessions?
Amy: It’s hard to know with North or South what influences me. I know I’m a mix of both in my experiences and who I am. I’m more about the feeling of something and what someone is going through or the passion of a moment, things that are universal no matter what region we are in. I will say that southern music draws me in the most. I like a sultry, soulful song with a beat that hits me in the chest or makes me want to move. That tends to be found for me in gospel, soul, country and southern rock.
HOWL: One of the coolest rewards on your PledgeMusic is a dinner and show package pairing. Can you tell us more about that?
Amy: Yes, it’s amazing! We did it last year and it was so delicious and fun that I brought it back again. There’s a chef in Cambridge named Robert Harris who opens up his professional kitchen and his chef’s table and prepares a southern soul meal — four courses — paired with beers/wines. Each course is also paired with a song from me. It’s one of the best meals you’ll every have and the most intimate “show” you’ll ever attend. It’s a max of 20 people around the table. And it will take place on a weeknight that works for everyone. We do have tickets left for this and I highly recommend it!
HOWL: In the end, what makes it all worth it for you?
Amy: Making music. Singing. I’m a singer, I’m a performer. I’m happiest when that’s what I’m doing. When I really think about it, I have to pinch myself and say, “You are singing for a living.” I never thought that would be my life. I think I’m still in denial. But every once in a while it hits me and that’s when a real sense of joy washes over me.
Upon the project’s completion, Amy will do a tour to promote the album and will be hosting a two-night CD release party at Johnny D’s in Somerville on June 12th and 13th. Those wishing to make a pledge to fund the album can do so here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/amyblack-muscleshoals