On new album, Amy Black finds her calling in soul music
SOMERVILLE – Amy Black stood in this same kitchen with this same reporter nearly three years ago. But the circumstances were different, maybe even a little uncertain. Back then, Black was still working her day job in marketing, but had decided to chase a harebrained idea. It seemed crazy, but she couldn’t help but wonder:
At 40, could she pull off a lifelong dream to become a full-time singer and songwriter?
Three years and as many albums later, she’s discovered she can — and has. Earlier this week Black self-released her third album, “The Muscle Shoals Sessions,” which took her to Alabama to record at FAME Recording Studios in the fabled Southern town referenced in the title.
Working with legendary Muscle Shoals musicians such as Spooner Oldham on organ, Black veered away from the country and folk leanings of her previous releases for a confident foray into blue-eyed soul music. She’s been hooked on soul lately, and for a recent interview at her Somerville home, she’s sporting a Mavis Staples T-shirt to prove it.
“When you’re in the middle of something, sometimes you don’t recognize progress,” Black says on her back porch, sipping coffee with her husband, Ryan, by her side. “But when I do take a step back and see how far I’ve come, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a short period of time for the amount of discovery and music I’ve produced.”
The momentum has been strong enough to prompt a major change. After nearly three decades in Boston, at the end of this month Black and her husband will uproot to Nashville. The move is partly to kick-start her career on a national level, but also to be closer to her family.
After her CD-release shows at Johnny D’s in Somerville on Friday and Saturday, Black will embark on her most ambitious tour yet. Through the end of summer, she’ll be crisscrossing the country from New England through the Midwest and the South, eventually back on home turf in late August.
“I don’t know where I’ll be on the other side of this tour,” she says with a half-smile that suggests she’s both terrified and elated by the possibilities.
“One of the interesting things about Amy is that she sees what the goal is and then gets it done. Whereas if you start as an 18-year-old, you don’t know what the goal is,” says Sarah Borges, the local roots-music spitfire who will co-headline most of the summer tour with Black. “I’ve never seen a more organized musician than Miss Amy Black.”
Black, who grew up in Missouri and Alabama, came up with a smart repertoire for her new album, choosing songs made in Muscle Shoals, including classics by Sam Cooke (“Bring It on Home to Me,” which Lou Rawls recorded there), Bob Dylan (“Gotta Serve Somebody”), Laura Lee (“Uptight, Good Man”), and Arthur Alexander (“You Better Move On”).
She intentionally steered clear of the iconic songs by female artists: “I mean, who’s going to mess with Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘I Never Loved a Man [the Way I Love You]’? I know I’m not!”
Instead, the material showcases more of Black’s range as a skillful interpreter. She also included three of her originals, including the album’s centerpiece, “Woman on Fire,” a blazing call-to-arms that just happens to sum up her life these days.
Black is quick to give her husband credit for support that went well beyond her expectations. When she decided she needed a band, Ryan, a schoolteacher and former Navy diver, learned to play drums specifically to back his wife. After two years of lessons, he became her official drummer. He honed his skills in a tiny room in their basement that they converted into a dungeon-like rehearsal space they call “the drum-geon.”
“It’s been cool for me to see how she’s not afraid to follow the things that inspire her in music,” Ryan Black says. “And then it turns in to something really original. By doing that, she’s really found her sound. I see her becoming more and more of who she is as a performer.”
Amy and Ryan now have the luxury of playing as a duo or with a full band, depending on the gig and how much money they’ve got to burn. Black’s latest band is made up of four Berklee musicians, along with Ryan on drums and Black mostly on vocals and some guitar.
“It’s almost like we’re growing a community around the music, and everyone is happy and supportive,” Black says. “My hope is that I’ll get more opportunities to make this music. I feel a lot of joy with what I’m doing now, and I want to do more of it and on bigger levels.”
At: Johnny D’s, Somerville, Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $18. 617-776-2004, www.johnnyds.com
Listen to the new album here: