by Ryan Meehan
Alannah Myles was born and grew up in Toronto listening to Canadian FM radio stations around the late 60’s and early 70’s that introduced her to more eclectic styles of music. She spent her formative years growing up between Buckhorn, Ontario where from an early age she learned to ride horses and later competed as an equestrian in the Ontario’s A Circuit, qualifying in her last junior year with her horse ‘Special Delivery’ for Canada’s prestigious Royal Winter Fair prior to studying to become a graphic artist before deciding music would become her calling. A lucrative television commercial as well as acting &modeling income paid for early demo tapes as she pursued Canadian record labels for a deal. But things were very different in the 1980’s, and her international TV resume prevented her from being regarded by the Canadian music industry as a “real” recording artist. So she independently financed a three song master with the help of FACTOR and collaborator Christopher Ward who in the beginning helped manage her career in Canada to what seemed like overnight international success. The ‘Alannah Myles’ first self titled album released in Canada in the spring of 1989 produced four Top 40 hits, “Love Is”, “Black Velvet”, “Lover of Mine”, and “Still Got This Thing”. Released internationally in 1990, Atlantic records finally hit pay dirt with her number one international smash, “Black Velvet”, winning a Grammy award for best female rock performance, along with several Canadian Juno Awards, a Diamond award for sales in excess of one million in Canada – the only artist who still retains this status for a debut record. After its first year of release Black Velvet received the ASCAP award for over one million radio plays and the ASCAP ‘Millionaire Award’ in 2005 for over 4 million radio plays. SOCAN in Canada awarded the songs, “Black Velvet” and “Lover Of Mine” each with an award for over 100,000 plays in Canada in 2005 with her #1 hit ‘Song Instead Of A Kiss” to follow. Her follow-up multi-platinum album, Rockinghorse (1992) received a Grammy nomination and three Canadian Juno Awards. After the sale of over eight million records, she concluded her alliance with Atlantic and signed on with Miles Copeland’s Ark 21 Records to release her fourth record Arrival (1997), which had the top 40, hit “Bad 4 You”. ‘The Very Best Of Alannah Myles (1999) was released on WMC and internationally on Ark 21/EMI, and re-released as ‘Myles & More’ (2000) containing hits from all four albums. After an eight year songwriting hiatus Alannah re-emerged, with a new album entitled ‘Black Velvet’. Her latest CD contains 10 brand new studio recordings along with several new versions with both classic and contemporary arrangements of her worldwide ‘Black Velvet’ smash hit. Executive produced by Alannah, co-produced by Toronto based Canadian Mike Borkosky and Veronica Ferraro from Paris France, the new ‘Black Velvet’ was released internationally by a Canadian indie label and has since been repackaged and retitled ’85 bpm’ with exquisite new images photographed by longtime collaborator, Deborah Samuel who together will art direct has liaised with Chris Blake & Lise Brake, owners of Canadian franchise for Chicago based Parklane Jewellery. Expect to hear more music and news in her upcoming 25th Anniversary of ‘Alannah Myles’, and check her out as my guest today in 7 questions.
RM: Who was the first individual you were not directly related to that pulled you aside and let you know that you had an incredibly gifted voice? What was it about that conversation that made you really want to seek out a career in music and share that gift with the rest of the world?
AM: No one pulled me aside to tell me how gifted my voice was, EVER! The first 12 years of my career were wallpapered with record company rejection letters. Once we had spent $100,000 recording three songs that described the direction of my debut album, and sent it out with a video reel of Just One Kiss, within one month I was immediately signed by Atlantic Records and the rest is history. I remember its founder, Ahmet Ertegun expounding on the virtues of my “unique voice” upon hearing Black Velvet with its subsequent popularity. This came as a supreme compliment to be included among some of the greats signed over the years to Atlantic. I feel like my hard work paid off but I never really liked the sound of my voice, especially singing the blues. Go figure…
I worked very hard recording to acquire and develop my voice to help create the blueprints for live success. The first person who ever mentioned my vocal ability was Sir Robert Plant. After winning a Grammy he sent a bouquet of roses with a card that read “I could have told them you deserved a Grammy!” In fact I was elated by his high praise and acceptance of my voice exclusively in the genre of blues rock.
RM: While you progressed as a singer and songwriter, who were some of the artists that you really came to appreciate more and more because you came to truly respect their dedication to the craft?
AM: Probably everybody who ever pursued a recording career with any success at radio. But to be specific some of my influences were a wide range of bluesier styled artists like Paul Rogers, Steve Winwood, Paul Carrack, Terrence Trent D’arby, Steve Miller, ZZ Top, early Tina Turner (Nutbush City), Anne Peebles, Mavis Staples, Sly & The Family Stone, Aretha Franklyn, Annie Lennox and not so bluesy artists whose music inspired me to write better songs like the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, CSNY, Chrissie Hynde and a host of earlier blues and R&B masters.
RM: One of the things that I’ve noticed a lot about “Black Velvet” is the way it’s been able to resonate with young people who want to choose a song to do for karaoke that really shows off their vocal talents…When it comes to songwriting do you think a lot in terms of how prone certain hooks are to having that kind of “sing-along” feel to them; or are you primarily concerned with recording the best song possible with yourself being the sole vocal performer?
AM: That’s a loaded question that requires having to delve more deeply to answer. If you’re asking why young singers sing ‘Black Velvet’ I think it’s because it was sung so effortlessly that it appears easy to sing. It’s not! It’s probably the most difficult song to sing in the key it was recorded (Eb). I mean, who records a blues shuffle in a flat key??? Hence a 5 string bass is required to perform it live, tuned up a step to create an open tuning on stage. Men usually sound great singing it but women sound like they’re trying very hard to be sexy, which by virtue of the fact that they’re trying, they are not. If the song is sexy it’s because it honestly isn’t trying to be.
My choices may have been far less calculated than your question implies. Everything I recorded, I did so until it sounded natural or it never made it to the album. There were songs I had written and recorded for my debut album that simply did not make the grade. My standards are very high. If people engage in the emotions expressed in my recordings, then I consider I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do masterfully.
RM: With regards to Black Velvet, you are quoted on your website as saying “One Hit Wonder my ass, I challenge anyone (including me) to better ‘Black Velvet’”…Do you feel like you are ever constantly trying to hold yourself to that Grammy Award winning standard; or are you at the point in your career where you have been able to distance yourself from the constant pursuit of having a song that is as big of a hit single as that track?
AM: I hold no standard to winning a Grammy. Back then in 1990 it was sheer, blind, Universal luck and came right out of the blue in a category with nominees like Janet Jackson, Tina Turner and Melissa Etheridge. I don’t hold my music to Grammy standards since they began doling out 9 at a time and I don’t much give a shit what people think when I’m branded a “one hit wonder”. However, I suppose if I were to answer for the misused quote, it suggests more of a challenge to those who think I’m denigrated by being labeled as one. I’ve truly been blessed and challenge anyone to outdo perfection. I can’t and don’t intend to try. I’m proud of my accomplishments but do not strive for awards, never did.
RM: Let’s talk about your newest record “85 bpm” for a moment…What’s your favorite new cut off of that album; and why did you decide to choose that title as the name of the LP?
AM: The title for 85 bpm came about due to the silly little vocal loop that’s heard on the intro of its first track, “Leave It Alone”. The number 85 is commemorative of the black leather jacket worn in my very first video for Love Is, shot 25 years ago with 85 BPM crested on the back. It’s also the heart rate of a happy healthy heart, not the beats per minute of the track.
The only new cuts on the album are the remake of my original Black Velvet in celebration of 25 years since its debut. The other is a slinky little blues track called “Can’t Stand The Rain” that received a wonderful new treatment by its producer, Michael Borkosky who played a guitar riff similar to David Bowie’s Fame, while I maintained a deep gruff, blues vocal to compliment the sound of the silly backing vocals that are repeated as a hook in the track.
RM: What do you think is the most overlooked detail when it comes to really good songwriting? Why do you think that certain artists often overlook that aspect of the process?
AM: Songwriters today don’t usually think beyond the demand for what’s popular. Songwriting is not what it used to be when classic hits of today dominated the radio airways. We now search for performances that uplift our hearts. Generally, the songwriting is pleasant at best, it can even go viral but won’t have a lasting effect on the public’s stream of conscience unless it’s extremely well composed. It is my belief that the survival of music greatly depends on the quality of songs. There is yet to be a resurgence of cover songs to compensate for a severe lack of quality songwriting, for which I’m armed with a catalogue of compositions for others to pool from in the years to come. I am a proud new owner of 100% of my publishing catalogue. That’s a rarity in the music industry today where artists are owned for life.
RM: Which genres of music that you have not had the chance to actively pursue would you most like to explore in the future?
AM: Probably Gospel music, but not in the classic sense. It is my great desire to record a soulful album that is both spiritual as well as ballsy with its roots in R&B that rocks. I would also like to record orchestrated versions of some of my recordings. I’d love to record a honky rock & blues country record where you can almost hear the guitars from the Deliverance soundtrack, or songs from the award winning film Oh Brother Where Art Thou recorded by the Soggy Bottom Boys, produced by T-Bone Burnett. I especially like the current hit, “Hey Bartender”.
RM: What’s up next for you in 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
AM: Plans to tour Europe in the beginning fall of 2015 are underway.
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