A pop star from Australia has every right to sing the blues in America. Vanessa Amorosi is living proof of making that quest possible. The latest piece of potent evidence during a career that has covered many more countries and genres is Memphis Love, the eighth studio album in her stunning discography that dates back to 2000 when she sang at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics.
In presenting the exclusive premiere of the full-length album today (16 November), Amorosi proudly shares in an email interview with PopMatters: “I hope that when people listen to Memphis Love, they go on a journey with me and hopefully, it will inspire other artists to take some risks. I’m so excited for people to hear it!”
The new ten-track LP takes listeners on a thrill ride of not only blues but also gospel, soul, and R&B — and maybe a touch of pop. The latter would be the album’s only cover — “How Long”, the 1974 soft-rock debut single for English band Ace written by Paul Carrack that peaked at No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. “It’s a powerful thing to have a song make you feel happy and relaxed but lyrically be touching upon sadness and hurt,” Amorosi states in a release announcing the 20 October official music video of her rendition.
Amorosi co-produced the album, set to release Friday (17 November), with Dave Stewart, the English musician whose Eurythmics partnership with Annie Lennox has led to other highly successful roles in the music industry. One of Stewart’s full-fledged projects is Memphis Love for Bay Street Records, his independent label with artists that include Joss Stone, Iris Gold, and Otto.
“I’ve stood on stage next to Vanessa Amorosi on several occasions, and I’m always immediately taken aback by the intensity and the power of her vocal delivery,” offers Stewart in a recent release to promote the album. “In getting to know her as a friend and as a true artist, I’ve found that her vocal capabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is an emotional and powerful storm brewing that I think we captured on this album in a way that’s a slight shift from other recordings during her amazing career.”
Reacting to some of Stewart’s kind words, Amorosi responds, “Dave gave me the love and support to really let myself be free. Vocally, he’s always allowed me the space and encouraged me to ‘let it rip’ vocally.”
For the first time, listeners can hear the record in its entirety here. Enjoy the passion and the power of Memphis Love, then continue to discover more about Amorosi, her collaboration with Stewart, and the daring leap she took with this record.
Born in Melbourne to parents Frank and Joyleen, both of whom sang for a living, Vanessa Joy Amorosi became immersed in music at an early age. In a 2009 article for The Sun Herald in Sydney, she revealed that her grandmother, who was an opera singer and ballerina, “had seven kids, so all my aunties, uncles and cousins are entertainers — cabaret, band singers, making records.”
Calling herself a country girl and tomboy living in Emerald, a small town east of Melbourne, Vanessa was four when she started attending dance classes run by her Uncle Nelson. With her two sisters, Natasha and Melissa, they learned jazz, tap, and classical ballet.
Not everything about family life was perfect, though. Her father, a singer from Rome who had moved to Australia, split when she was a child. He remained a regular performer around Melbourne until 2014, the year of his death. Her mother, Joyleen Robinson, married electrician Peter Robinson in 1994.
While learning to adapt to life’s alterations, Amorosi managed to persevere. “I started singing in a club at the age of 12 … to help contribute income to my family,” she states in our PopMatters interview. “From there, I just became a singer. I became a full-time singer by the age of 14, and I was fortunate enough to have ‘hits’ two years after that.”
In a country where pop artists like Helen Reddy, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, and Olivia Newton-John were all the rage, Amorosi started performing on stage in clubs and shopping malls. Discovered at a Russian restaurant in Carnegie, her first recording contract was signed “when I was about 16.”
She struck gold with her debut single “Have a Look” in 1999, followed by more success with “hits” like “Absolutely Everybody” and “Shine”. Amorosi’s full-length album debut, The Power, was released on 3 April 2000 and went quadruple platinum, selling more than 1.2 million copies while reaching No. 1 in Australia and No. 7 in the UK. She and her work were honored by the Australian Recording Industry Association for multiple ARIA Music Award nominations in 2000-21, including Best Female Artist and Best Pop Release (Minogue got the nod in both categories).
Looking back at that pop-oriented start to her career, Amorosi now reflects, “Growing up in the music industry had its moments. It was challenging, but overall, I’m very appreciative of having success. I was able to learn who I was musically in front of an audience that grew up with me.”
Going in Another Direction
Amorosi has met numerous obstacles in her life head-on. While there was a run of various award nominations, gold records, and acclaim while touring Australia and beyond before turning 21, she wasn’t totally fulfilled by her music-making experience. That began changing in 2012 after an appearance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with a very high-profile musician.
Promoting his new album The Ringmaster General that September, Dave Stewart shared the stage with numerous guests, including John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, and three Aussies — Orianthi, Delta Goodrem … and Amorosi, who he said: “belted out [Eurythmics song] ‘Would I Lie to You’ like there was no tomorrow.”
That was the beginning of a beautiful — and fruitful — friendship. Actually meeting Stewart in America for the first time around 2011, when she was making a pop record, Amorosi recalls, “I instantly gravitated to Dave’s incredible energy and, before you knew it, we did everything else but pop songs. I always felt trapped in the music industry because of how I started with my pop career.
“Dave felt that an artist can move into any genre if they’re passionate about it. I started showing Dave other material I was working on privately; he was really excited about that, and that’s when we started creating this record.” The first song they wrote — “‘What Do I Get” — Is Memphis Love’s closing number.
As far back as 2015, Stewart revealed on his website that he was “writing some amazing songs with Vanessa Amorosi for her crazy exciting adventures in Virtual Reality”. In 2016, they began recording at Royal Studios in South Memphis, collaborating on their original material. She got the chance to sing into the same studio mic that late R&B icon Al Green once used, performing on multiple tracks for Memphis Love with some of his previous players.
“Dave Stewart had previously worked at Royal Studios,” Amorosi divulges. “He said I would love the authentic sounds that come from it. I’ve recorded and written songs all around America for the last 13 years, all different kinds of genres. It’s incredible!”
At the time, Grammy-winning engineer, producer, and composer Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, who took ownership of Royal Studios after the passing of his father, Willie Mitchell, in 2010, exclaimed in a USA Today article, “Vanessa is an absolutely amazing singer. She’s got a voice between Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin.”
Of the experience, Stewart recently added, “Working with Boo Mitchell in the first phase of recording, it was amazing, and to witness Vanessa’s enthusiasm to be in that soulful room oozing with history.”
Making spiritual sounds
It was certainly a time of change for Amorosi, who moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to “work on gospel arrangement,” which she had created since her pop record days. “It was so exciting to be able to move through studios in all different genres through Hollywood.”
After making four albums for Universal from 2002-09, she didn’t release the next one (Back to Love) until 2019, but there was a very good reason for her career timeout. In 2016, she gave birth to Killian, her son with Rod Busby, the mixed martial arts trainer she married in 2017. “Having a child has opened up more of my emotional side. What a blessing!”
Other spiritual elements further enhanced Amorosi’s life when she recorded with the Tennessee Mass Choir, a mainstay throughout Memphis Love. Knowing she wanted to make a gospel record, the chorale group directed by Grammy-nominated producer Jason Clark and based in Lakeland, Tennessee, just east of Memphis, was chosen after she saw “their incredible work online. It was amazing watching that many singers perform your work and suddenly it comes alive.
“When I record my gospel arrangements, I do one voice at a time; nothing sounds as good as that many vocals coming together live,” she continues. “It was sheer magic listening to a 50-piece choir.” (The album includes additional recording at Jubilee Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Sage and Sound and Chunky Style Music in Los Angeles, and Bay Street Studios in the Bahamas.)
Though Amorosi’s Pentecostal upbringing had nothing to do with her desire to write and perform blues and gospel music — “That was more so watching my parents rehearse for floor shows,” she asserts — an affinity for such sounds was deep-rooted.
“I’m a big Aretha Franklin fan,” Amorosi proclaims of the legendary Queen of Soul who provided the template for gospel glory with Amazing Grace, the 1972 album she recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Vanessa Amorosi has yet to see the better-late-than-never release of the 2018 film that documented those sessions. But she obviously was affected by “stuff from the ’70s with gospel influence”, some of which her parents “were singing every night of the week”. Besides mentioning Koko Taylor, Etta James, B.B. King, and James Brown as examples, she exclaims, “I particularly love Pastor T.L Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir.”
Of course, Franklin’s powerful pipes had to be a driving force. Starting with a bluesy beat and her hearty howl on Memphis Love’s lead single and track opener “Wolf”, this saucy Aussie raises the soulful stakes. “‘Wolf’ is, for me, one of the most exciting tracks to perform live. It’s full of attitude, and I love the horn riffs.”
Besides “Wolf”, Vanessa Amorosi also lets loose those mezzo-soprano vocals on numbers like “Lift Us Up”, “Don’t Judge Me”, and “Serious”, all backed by the Tennessee Mass Choir. While she shares co-writing credits on three of those four songs (and three others) with Stewart, he sings her praises, saying, “We touched on subjects that were so close to home for Vanessa that I knew something was bound to pour out.”
Asked about Stewart’s quote, Amorosi elucidates: “Writing songs is like a journal entry for me; it’s a great way of expressing myself. For example, ‘Don’t Judge Me’ [co-written with Los Angeles musician Ron Aniello] is asking people not to judge me from my past because I’ve grown far from that as an artist/singer-songwriter.”
“Let the past be the past / Gotta put it all to rest / Rest it, rest it /Closing lyrics from Amorosi’s “Don’t Judge Me”
Let the past be the past / For all of the things I did before you.”
Regarding “Serious” — one “I particularly love,” she points out — Amorosi adds, “I feel it really demonstrates where I’m going with this record lyrically. I want people to take me seriously as a ‘Soul’ singer because I’ve always been that.”
“Sometime winners can fall / While fake rulers take all / Filling my head with doubt /Lyrics from Amorosi’s “Serious”
Make me believe I would never get out.”
To finally see the release of an album that’s been in the planning stages with Stewart for at least eight years, he notes, “This record means so much to me and her.”
Vanessa Amorosi has called the producing collaboration a “dream” and the journey “a career highlight”. Yet after years filled with “so many moments that changed my path musically, so many artists that also showed me different ways of handling what ‘not to do’,” she cites Stewart (“he gave me a lot of courage to move towards what I loved musically”) and Joe Cocker. A bigger-than-life performer known for his blue-eyed rock ’n’ soul, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and wild onstage gestures (famously parodied by John Belushi), Cocker was no caricature to Amorosi, who was young when she toured with him.
“His electric performance and kind demeanor off stage really showed me what it would take to stand the test of time in the industry,” she fondly remembers. Now an accomplished entertainer experiencing a wide range of emotions, Amorosi still finds herself “forever evolving and learning.”
Make no mistake about this take on someone who seriously aims to keep on growing and changing with the times like a human butterfly spreading her colorful wings: This lady knows how to sing the blues — and the many other hues she decides to choose.