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Amy Keys

Amy Keys

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Amy Keys

Amy Keys is one of the world’s most in demand backing vocalists, but aside from signing with Phil Collins, Sting, Stevie Wonder and a galaxy of other music legends, she somehow also finds time to do a range of other projects from her own recording facility in LA, which is furnished with a full suite of Aston microphones…

Phil Collins, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, Herbie Hancock
Ave Maria

“I was always interested in music, it was always a part of my life. I would try to imitate and try to make my voice sound as close to whatever my favourite song was, and I would repeat it until I knew every lick inside out, even the instrumental portions.

I had a great music teacher in elementary school who worked with us on voice control. It was always in my life but I wasn’t in a choir or anything growing up. Later on I was cantor in the Catholic church. There was no secular music, it was all Ave Maria and things like that; very strict and very conservative. In college when I joined my sorority, they had a thing called the Probate Show where you had to perform for your ‘big sisters’ - all the pledgees who are trying to get into the organisation have to put on a show. I sang the big number at the end and some guys who were there saw me and asked about me joining their group, so I ended up joining their band.

Before that I had done some stuff with a Jazz band at college and little one-offs for different events but nothing really organised. The band started working around DC and then Washington Metropolitan area. After that I joined another group that played at Mr. Henry’s which was where Roberta Flack got her start. I was singing there and that’s really where I cut my chops as far as harmonies and really working with a band because we were there every weekend and the place was packed - there’d be a line out of the door to come in. At one point a guy came in and asked about me singing on some of his compositions, which I did, and he sent it to a few record companies. I was approached by Capital and I ended up signing with CBS Sony.”

Singing for whoever would listen

“I was doing pretty well – one of my songs was used in a film - but it wasn’t really my sound, they [CBS Sony] basically shaped me into what they wanted at the time. At that point the alto voice was the big thing - Anita Baker and Toni Braxton were doing alto - so because I can sing down there they kind of tried to pigeon hole me into that. Neither one of their styles is my style but I got my deal. In the process I signed with the William Morris agency and they told me I needed to move to New York or LA, as DC was not going to afford me enough opportunities.

So I came out and tested the waters in LA and I ended up doing some work in a film and a couple of commercials, so I’m thinking the universe is telling me I need to move out to LA. So that’s what I did. Once the deal ended I got my house out here, singing for whoever would listen and wherever they would let me sing. I did a lot of stuff for free.

I went to a club where they had a thing back then called R&B Live. I was introduced to them and brought in. They would bring together different artists; the first line up I saw there was Herbie Hancock and Joe Sample on keys, Dennis Chambers was on Drums, Marcus Miller was the M.D and played bass and Hamish Stuart came in as guest artist. It was like a mosh pit of amazing artists, you never knew who was going to end up coming through there to perform. Al Mackay the guitar player from Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the first artists I did background vocals for. He told me he was supposed to have worked on my album and I thought ‘Oh my god, I wish you had!’”

The Phil Collins demo

“Al said that one of the people that was originally going to work on tour flaked on him and would I be interested in going and I said ‘absolutely!’ We did a tour of Asia. The final night of our tour was in Manila in the Philippines in this huge open air stadium and everyone was screaming for the song ‘Reasons’, but Philip [Bailey, EW&F’s singer] wasn’t on this particular tour so Al turned around and asked me if I knew the song. He gave me the microphone and I went ahead and sang it.

I’d got to know the horn section pretty well and exchanged information with the leader. I never thought anything else about it but a couple of months later he called me and said; “Don’t get your hopes up but I’ve recommended you for something”. It turns out that he’s the lead trumpet player for Phil Collins! He recommended some CDs I should base my demo package on for the gig. I sent in this whole demo package, with a couple of letters of recommendation, including one from Phil Bailey, and heard absolutely nothing so I figured that they hated me! Then out of the blue, my boyfriend at the time called up and said I should listen to the home answering machine. It was a message from Phil Collins!

I love him for that because a lot of artists don’t do this, especially with background singers, they’ll just throw the section together and wonder why it crashes and burns, rather than melding that group the way they did the band. Before Phil said he liked me and really wanted me to come on board, he told me there would only be two backing singers and he didn’t want us pulling each other’s hair out, so I had to go and do a kind of interview with the other singer, Arnold McCuller, to see how we meshed. Another month or so passed by before I got the call from Phil’s manager Tony Smith and that was kind of how a BIG section of my career kicked off.”

Singing at the White House

“I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty cool stuff. A highlight was going on Herbie Hancock’s Joni Letters Tour (the CD he won the Grammy for) and being able to perform with legends; Vinnie Calautti on drums, of course Herbie Hancock on keys, Chris Potter on Sax, the amazing Dave Holland on Bass and Lionel Loueke on guitar. Nathan East played at a couple of festivals including the Newport Jazz. He and I were in the Phil Collins band together. That was a huge moment for me, singing with Herbie Hancock was incredible.

Oher highlights?  Singing with Joe Cocker was one - and being part of one of the songs that played when President Barack Obama was being inaugurated. It was a song that was written about America by Dave Stewart and I did one of the main lines in that so that was huge. And singing at the White House. I sang for the Women of R&B performance. I had the President and the First Lady Michelle Obama right down front. I’m from Washington DC but that was my first time I’d been in the White House.

I’ve done vocal arrangements and sung numerous times with Ringo Starr, which is amazing, and in doing that I’ve been afforded the opportunity to sing with Timothy B. Schmit from the Eagles and Richard Page, the lead singer from Mr Mister, Joe Walsh from the Eagles. Another huge thing was touring with Toto, I love them.

Also we just did a benefit for the victims’ families of the Saugus High School shooting out here that included Steve Lukather from Toto, Colin Hay from Men at Work, Gregg Bissonette was on drums - he’s played with everybody – it was an all-star band.

Oh, and I’ve toured with Leonard Cohen - that was amazing!”

The harder stuff

“People ask me what genres I sing and I’ve sung everything! I’ve performed with Sting, I sang on the soundtrack of Jungle Fever with Stevie Wonder, I did the anniversary of The Lion King a little while ago with Elton John. I’ve done Country, I did a promo tour with Brooks & Dunn which was fun, I’ve sung with Vince Gill, Phil Vassar, Brad Paisley, Earth Wind & Fire, which was cool because Philip [Bailey] had me come down and sing Phil’s [Collins] part on ‘Easy Lover’. I’ve done a number of different shows with David Foster, I did Fight Night, the benefit he put together with Mohammed Ali and I sang on ‘Hit Man’ - it was one of Donna Summer’s final performances – also Cee-Lo, Michael Bolton, Chaka Khan almost everybody that he has done hits with.

I’ve written stuff for different people; I’m a Rage Against the Machine kind of girl, I like that stuff, the harder stuff. I co-wrote a thing with an artist called Mitch Marlow, a guitar player who used to be with the group Filter, I’ve done some co-writes with him that have been fun.”

Stealths, Starlights and nose-whistles

“A friend of mine said I had to check these Aston mics out because he knows how much work I do in my own studio. I co-write with a ton of different people overseas and here in the US. As you’ll probably hear, I have a lot of mid-range and bottom to my voice so if something doesn’t have a nice crisp edge to it, it makes my voice sound too muddy and there’s certain microphones that I just can’t use because I sound like I’m singing through cotton balls. As soon as I heard the crispness of my voice on a couple of the Aston mics it was “Oh my god yeah, I am definitely interested” because not every microphone does that for my voice. A lot of times I’ll just get mush and mud which is not what my clients want!

I get called to do different commercials, and they are gigs I’ll use the Aston mics on. One of the craziest ones I’ve ever done was for an insurance company. It featured a family sitting and listening to the grandfather snoring in his easy chair. As he breaths out he has a nose whistle and they wanted the ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ coming out of it!

I have the Origin, Starlight, Spirit and the Stealth in my home set-up. The main ones I use are the Starlight and the Stealth so far. I’m still trying the other Astons out, trying different settings to see which one suits my voice. The best so far I’m thinking is probably the Starlight but I’m really excited about working with the guys to find the perfect fit for me.

I’ve got my Aston Swiftshield with the Shock Mount, I’ve got all my goodies, I’ve got the Halo, I’ve got all my stuff set up here in the studio. It’s been great so far but I know it can be even better because I can see the potential in these microphones so I’m really excited about using them to their fullest.”

Pitcher perfect

“I’m working with Scooter Pete. He and his wife are amazing, Emmy award-winning writers and composers. They’ve done television and film and he’s done theatrical productions. He’s working on a piece about the club, Café Paris, underground, during the blitz in London. It’s called ‘London Undone’ and I’m hoping this gets off the ground because it would start on the West End and then come to Broadway and I’d been originating a role in it, which would be amazing. Scooter’s writing, the book and the music is incredible and really, really fun to sing.

I’m also going to start working with a group called the Supersonic Blues Machine. One of the members is Kenny Aronoff, the amazing drummer. He and I toured with Joe Cocker. Kenny, myself, Mike Inez from Alice in Chains and a few other guys once did a project with Bronson Arroyo who at the time was the pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. We premiered it in Boston at the pub that’s right across the street from Fenway Park. They filmed us walking out of the dug out, across the field, across the pitcher’s mound, out the side door, in through the side door of this club and up on stage. People were watching this video on screen thinking that it was just a film, not realising that we were doing it in real time! I think they won the World Series that year. His other team mates got up at the end of the show and of course we had to sing Dirty Water for Boston.

Then I’m working on a one-woman show because I’ve decided I’ve been touring and doing a lot for a whole lot of other people - I’ve sung everything from hard rock to country and everything in between - so I’ve had to kind of find my own niche again.

I did a benefit called Rock ‘n’ Roll for Children and the proceeds go to the Children Hospital Division back in Maryland and it helps pay for parents housing and things like that so that they don’t have to worry about it while they’re there helping their children fight whatever illness they’re dealing with. That happens every year and I’m hoping to do it again soon.”

Out-takes

Q. Who are your favourite artists?
A. Phil Collins, Herbie Hancock, Steve Perry who I’ve stolen so many licks from, I adore his voice, all that Journey stuff, I could sing everything he’s ever sung I think. Joe Elliott, lead singer from Def Leppard. I love rock ‘n’ roll tenors, and this is probably why my voice has stayed so low. I’ll say Toto as a group, and Vince Gill and Michael McDonald, who could both sing the phone book to me and I’d be happy. Sarah McLachlan, her voice is unbelievable and is just heart breaking when she sings. Of course Earth, Wind & Fire, Brad Paisley and he is one of the most amazing guitarists, I had no idea how badass he was until we did the show with him. Sir Elton, Patti La Belle and Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight who I truly adore. As far as instrumentalists; Marcus Miller, Nathan East, I love John Mayer, Jacob Collier – he’s incredible. And I adore Sting. Oh and Dave Stewart, I worked with and toured with him and still do a bunch of recordings with him.

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?
A. I have a Bachelors in Biology with a Minor in Chemistry. I actually left Dental school to pursue music full time and I was doing really well and it’s like, you know what I have to really go for this. I would either be in veterinary medicine or some type of sports medicine. I adore sports, I played sports all the way up through college, I love it.

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. I wouldn’t have to worry about popping my p’s or the ‘s’ sound but that being said, I need a microphone that would not zero in and exaggerate the mid and bottom range of my voice but pick up more on that upper brighter range so that all of the textures of my voice come through. So any mic that can find that beautiful sweet spot, that balance with my voice between the upper register and that strong bottom-end of mine and find the way to balance those, that’s my dream mic.

Q. What was the first song that made you cry?
A. That’s easy peasy, I sing it almost every show and I talk about it because it was sung by one of my vocal heroes, Michael McDonald. I was driving the first time that I heard it and I almost had to pull over it made me weep. It’s basically piano and strings, the arrangement is breath taking and it’s called, ‘I Can Let Go Now’.

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