Amy Douglas is a singer, songwriter and musician, accomplished in a number of genres, from rawk’n’roll to the disco and house records that she’s known for in the dance music world. Describing herself as a “singer/songwriting/rock and rolling/disco diva-ing/house-ing professional bad influence” Amy has supplied song-writing and vocal duties for Horse Meat Disco, Luke Solomon, Soul Clap and for 2018’s contemporary classic “Never Saw It Coming,” co-written and produced with her partner Tim Wagner. Her voice can be heard on releases on DFA Records, Hot Creations, Glitterbox, Simma Black and Classic Music Company and she’s recently been working on her collaboration project Hard Feelings with Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard. Oh, and she recently wrote Róisín Murphy’s anthemic disco-heartbreaker “Something More.”
It was the snake-like insidious charms of the Crooked Man remix of “Never Saw It Coming” that bought Amy’s voice to a wider house music audience, but she had already served her time as a jobbing singer and musician, with a raft of solo projects and collaborations and indeed, a life lived in music. She possesses a full, powerful voice with a raw edge but a sweet tone, and her big delivery, blue notes, and melismas fit perfectly into house musics’ diva tradition, bringing a rock and roll swagger to the sometimes antiseptic sound of computer-based house music.
Songwriting is the language I speak best. English is not my first language, But songwriting for me has always been this sort of supernatural thing wherein I can just… hear the song talking to me. I’ve written entire songs in my head based on hearing something drip from a faucet.
No doubt Amy’s lyrics and voice have turned many a producer’s decent track into an anthem and that process — from her being sent a track through to writing lyrics and melodies to bring it to life — is a little-discussed corner of dance music magic, one that happens so often that we’ve become immune to its wonders. For Amy Douglas, songwriting and singing are so tied up with her personality and character as to be inseparable:
“Without singing, there is no me. I have no purpose, beyond singing and songwriting, but where singing is concerned, it’s the demanding taskmaster that ensures I never party too hard, never stop striving, and that I will suffer for the art LITERALLY. It also is the life that found me, and it’s my destiny. Singing is how I communicate the real feelings inside, singing is where I found my Excalibur and could wield it out of the rock when life was kicking me in the ribs.”
So how does the songwriting process actually work? How do you go about communicating your emotions through music?
Songwriting is the language I speak best. English is not my first language, songwriting for me has always been this sort of supernatural thing wherein I can just… hear the song talking to me and allowing me to be directed and I just find the way inside of them and allow them then to tell ME what they want. I’ve written entire songs in my head based on hearing something drip from a faucet. My process generally begins and ends with piano and vocal. I am a pianist and I’m old school and my feeling is, a great song is immaterial of its arrangement, it can live… virtually in the air. Listen to [legendary US blues singer and guitarist] Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” and it’s just him singing and clapping. It’s genius. So even when I work on tracks wherein I’m sent entire ideas from producers, my first thing to do is learn the track, so that I can sit down at the piano and write organically, then return to that track and plunk the idea into it. It’s nerdy as hell, but I love to “Get the music in my hands.” I can totally write without my piano but I prefer NOT to.
And how much of yourself do you put into your songs? Are they confessional?
I am a verrrry extreme writer in that for me it has to be fantasy or complete immersive reality. I always tell people “I write ’bout what’s going on in my life in the moment, they are always confessional.” Occasionally I veer into a global perspective, and I have dalliances with other perspectives with which to write the songs but ultimately I return to “This is my life, this is what’s going on, this is why I feel this darkness, this is who I love…” Otherwise, they are joyrides to take, usually about sex and debauchery. Usually ending in destruction and flames!
So do the lyrics need to be “real” for the vocal to sound authentic? Or can a singer make any lyrics sound emotive?
Oh good heavens NO. To be a great singer is to be a great actor. Their job is to make no matter what they sing about important.
o o o
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amy began singing very young and wrote her first song when she was 8 years old. Her first musical influences are a list of greats in various genres: “Beatles. Elton John. Stones. Aretha. All Motown, most notably Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey, Marvin and The Temps. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin” and when asked to pick three specific musical influences on her particular singing style, she’s unequivocal:
First and foremost: Chaka Khan. She is the greatest singer to ever live, there is no one to compare. As a fellow jazz singer geek, she gives the power of Aretha, the hipness of the best jazz vocalists and a sexy sexuality that is like no one else. No one can touch her.
Secondly, Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin changed my life, as they did everyone, but they also gave banshee wailing and abandon a place vocally with a musically perfect background with which to support it. Aspirational is an understatement and also pure freedom, sexual abandon, no fucks given singing.
The third is Sarah Vaughan. You will NEVER hear a vocalist with a tone like Sarah Vaughan ever. It’s like listening to velvet rubbing your earholes.
So the world of house and disco music have fully embraced you and your songs. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up here?
What if I told you I clicked my ruby heels together and said “There’s no place like house music, there’s no place like disco…!” I come from rock, hard rock at that, jazz and funk. Luca Venezia of the great Curses had a label called Trouble and Bass and he had me sing for one of the artists on his label. From there I started working with the awesome Juan MacLean. From there everything evolved and snowballed.
I think it’s now that the sweet spot of the right styles and ways of pushing my organic old school nature into where dance music is and is going. The gatekeepers continue to come down and considering that I care really only ’bout songs, not genres, all the better.
“Never Saw It Coming” really is an outstanding song; can you tell us a bit about writing it?
I am so proud of this song. [Co-writer] Tim Wagner of 33 Hz and I have a project called Sunrise Hwy (which we’re revamping incidentally), we released music on Tensnake’s True Romance label. Tim is absolutely 100% the other side of me; we’re both cranky particular old school New York, Long Island no less, jazz fanatics who worship Steely Dan and sort of see ourselves as their children. He’s the ONLY person on Earth who 100% gets every reference I make and the converse. We were talking ’bout the lack of blues and the more dark spiritual side of gospel in dance music and decided to see about making something we thought would buck trends, while honoring also new wave, most notably Vince Clarke’s work with Yaz, darkwave, house music, pop and the likes. We then thought “This has to be either about God The Devil or Revenge!” Revenge won! That The Crooked Man and Justin Strauss have remixed this song with so much individual finesse has also been such an honor. These are giants. I was humbled beyond compare when they wanted to remix.
And do you have a favorite track of your own?
My favorite solo track that I’ve written with Tim is called “The Life” and it hasn’t been released yet! It’s the darkest most nihilist song I’ve ever written and it’s like Goth Pop meets Wu-Tang with SWV singing backup.
However aside from solo efforts my favorite collaborative work and where I think I’m putting some of the songs I’m proudest of is in my collaboration with Joe Goddard, Hard Feeling. This is drama. Opera. It’s so intense. It’s like Louis Malle’s [1991 UK/French film] Damage as an EP. I’m also so so so proud of all the work I’ve done with Horse Meat Disco. Writing with Luke Solomon has been an honor and a lot of fun be it at my studio in BK or his in LDN. Horse Meat Disco are family, I love them dearly, and the album is going to knock your socks off.
So we know lots of people have had enough of talking about it, but we have to ask, how has your lockdown been?
During lockdown, honestly, when not doing my best to help people I love most and not freak out, I’ve been busier than ever so life on the inside hasn’t changed much! I’ve always been a studio rat, and having lots of work is medicinal for me. I’m the definition of idle hands being the devil’s workshop. When not working on more incredible collaborations and solo work, I’ve been getting ready to do a radio show once a month for 1BTN Brighton, getting ready for Ladyballs record releases and I’ve also been delving into editing, film, music, the whole nine. I’ve been doing an interactive immersive online piano lounge thing on IG live once in a while to make people laugh wherein I have people throw requests at me and I attempt to bang ’em out whether I know the song or not. I have perfect pitch and am such a song junkie it’s a blessing to have a skill that lets me pull songs out of the air sometimes, especially when needed most! I’ve been in a constant state of building up my brand, and my future looks and exciting ventures pretty nonstop.
And so to the future — what’s coming next for you?
I have a whole mess of really incredible new music coming out. First up was the single I was blessed to write for the luminous Róisín Murphy, “Something More.” I still pinch myself every single day that this happened. She’s a goddess and influential icon and now she’s someone who in addition to dazzling me continually with her artistry and voice, her inherent poise and dazzling beauty, she also cracks me up on the telephone now. She really is a miracle of life. This has been such a blessing really, and moreover, I’ve been so touched to see how the song is really hitting people in the soft underbelly right now. That it was a family affair with Parrot aka The Crooked Man in the Captain’s Chair of The Enterprise? I mean… does it GET any better? Working with him is a never-ending pool of reward. I got to work on a song with two people who mean everything to me. Everything else is gravy.
Also ahead is the Horse Meat Disco LP. It’s been a journey for sure and the payoff is going to be an album that really, in my opinion, defines not only the four men and what they bring into this world, their legacy, the codification of the four men and the vision wherein but it also really speaks to where disco is and needs to GO! I have four tracks on the LP, which is in and of itself pretty darn humbling, no less to be on an album with N’Dea Davenport and Kathy Sledge both of whom have only ever spent their life and mine knocking me OUT!
Moreover, as the co-writer of all the tracks, I think this is where my headspace in the speaking to “where disco is going” comes from. The album has a wonderful parabola to it in all spectrums of where disco goes, and it never necessarily settles down in one zone. I think this is the headspace we need to keep if to ensure disco remains a vital genre permanently and not one that tinges dance and pop culture every 10 years or so.
The biggest thing I have ahead however is Hard Feelings. This has been, arguably the most rewarding moment of my career across the board. I make a joke here at home that Joe Goddard’s last name begins with God, and boy that is deserved, not just the genius that he is, the incredible producer, one of the greatest of them all, and his incredible way of thinking about everything, but I defy you to also find me a more gorgeous soul…
The album is coming out in 2021 on Domino and I’ve never been more certain in my gut, soul and third eye, that we’ve made a piece of art that is going to strike deep with a LOT of people. It’s a very emotional LP, grueling and confessional, and song after song forces the harsh spotlight on relationships and their mystifying and often painful epicenters.
Then there is Ladyballs Records and the slew of releases we have scheduled. I wanted now more than ever to really focus in on that brand, not only for myself and to shine the light on work from people I adore, but also to say “New York is here, it’s always been here, it ain’t going nowhere.”
It’s going to be a big, loud, sexy, lusty, high-octane affair. Like its CEO.