You can’t always get what you want, as the fella once said in the song. It’s a rock ’n’ roll sentiment that Amy Douglas, the brash powerhouse singer, found out on an unexpected detour toward becoming a widely in-demand voice in the electronic dance music world.
Aside from her work with producer Rob Phillips in the local duo SPF5000, including tracks like the sexy disco throwback “White Hot Fantasy’’ and the similarly steamy “Doorknocker,’’ just out this month on New York City’s Nurvous Records, the Somerville resident and New York City native has been popping up all over the dance map. She’s worked with Trouble and Bass head Luca Venezia (a.k.a. Drop the Lime), and label-mate Supra 1; collaborated with DFA Records favorite the Juan Maclean in a side project called Peach Melba, singing on the soulful house groove of “Can’t Let Go’’; scored a club hit with Lazaro Casanova on his “Miami Vice’’ EP; and has releases in the pipeline with the likes of Treasure Fingers, Codes, and Boston’s Kon.
One thing all of those diverse tracks have in common is Douglas’s powerful disco-diva vocals at the center, and the strong melodic and songwriting sense she picked up studying musical theory at New York University. “Of all the umpteen feature vocals I’ve done in the last year, most of the time they’ll send me the tracks, then I sit down like a dork at the piano, and write out the music, melodies, and words,’’ she says.
It’s part of her effort to bring a sense of musicality back to dance music, meaning the New York City disco sound of the ’70s and proto-house styles of the ’80s.
“I got into dance music very late, and not willingly,’’ she says. “I’m a rock girl, funk, jazz. I studied jazz theory and composition, and I graduated too. You’re supposed to drop out of music school and I finished. I was such a dork, I wanted to be like Quincy Jones, a writer, arranger, player, write it by hand. I wanted to be able to do all that stuff.’’
Because of that, electronic dance music is a genre she’s not even sure she belongs in in the first place.
“My tastes in dance music are pretty narrow. I really don’t love dance music that much, I love classic disco, love that they were song-driven, made by musicians, and I love early house music for the same reason. When I was in New York City, most of the work I was doing was rock, some funk stuff, and a lot of jazz. I think somebody finally shook me by the shoulders and said, ‘Someone with a voice as big and flexible as yours would be great for dance music.’ I remember shuddering at the thought.’’
Her voice (five octaves, she says, and it shows) caught the attention of Venezia, who hooked her up with hotshot producer and DJ AC Slater to sing on a track. The momentum spiraled out of her control from there, whether she really wanted it or not.
“I love and respect everybody I have ever worked with,’’ she says. “For the most part. I just think what is sad about dance music, and what is antithetical to what I desire to do, with the exception of the golden era, is that it’s incredibly disposable music. It’s the most disposable. A hot track this month could be cold mashed potatoes three weeks later.’’
She chafes at the producer-dominated aesthetic of the current moment, she says, where a vocalist or songwriter often plays second fiddle to the dude behind the knobs.
“Back in the day that was not the case. You had powerhouses like Donna Summer and Chaka Khan. Guys like [legendary New York City DJ and producer] Larry Levan were only known by other DJs at that point. Now, I think the vocalist who is providing the melodic structure and words, you’re secondary to the remixer. For me, personally, I think that’s kind of a drag.’’
Call her the self-loathing but platonically ideal disco-house diva then?
“It does make me a little self-loathing,’’ she admits, but says it’s just a particularly moribund period for dance music. “I think so much of it sounds the same. All of it has that untz-untz.’’
After working on a track, she says, “at the end of the day, no matter how much I respect them, I still have to go in the other room and put on the Stooges after.’’
Too bad she’s so well suited to it.
Fortunately, her voice also lends itself to the type of nasty rock ’n’ roll dirt, grime, and passion she’s hoping to inject into both SPF5000 and her next project, a proper rock band called Feints, for which she’s partnering with the like-minded Evan Kenney of Bodega Girls.
“I don’t feel like dance music is an arena where I can showcase what I do as songwriter. I don’t consider what SPF5000 does to be ‘dance music.’ We make music that makes you want to dance. There’s a distinction.’’
So maybe it’s not a matter of Douglas getting what she wants, but rather the rest of us getting what she thinks we need.
“I want music I can throw an anchor into and dock my boat to for 10 years,’’ she says. “Because culture right now is all about now. The disposability factor in the lifestyle is engineered around that concept. I want people to have a great sense of the past so you can look to the future.’’
Once again the Together electronic music festival takes over the city from April 2-8 this year. The packed schedule includes daytime panels and demonstrations, and parties at clubs throughout the city every night. The lineup includes huge talents like Nero, RJD2, Photek, Dillon Francis, and many, many more. Full schedule available at www.togetherboston.com. . . . Boston’s Avoxblue is finishing up work on his forthcoming record “A Place Without Time,’’ which will drop on April 10. First single “The Confessional’’ is a stormy, reflective trip through the void with brooding dark-wave synth washes and post-punk/New Wave influences coloring in the edges. Check it out at www.soundcloud.com/avoxblue. . . . St. Patrick’s Day seems like the least potentially morbid of all holidays, but that won’t stop the kids at SinOmatic’s Shamrocks and Shenanigans party at Machine on Saturday from trying to find the right angle. (Naughty leprechauns dancing to goth sounds weird enough to work.) Also at Machine that night CVLT:BLVCK welcomes Star Eyes from NYC’s Trouble and Bass label, along with regular talent Volvox, El Poser, Punketta, and Glass Teeth providing the dark electronic soundtrack. More info at www.machine-boston.com. . . . Rise has an insane slate of international names booked through the next month, including Australian bass music superstar Bass Kleph tonight, Swedish, genre-blending electro star Style of Eye on March 30, and resident Mike Swells supporting Washington D.C. tech-house hero Dubfire on April 7. More information at www.riseclub.us.