Amy Allen has just finished surfing. “I live in Malibu, but my boyfriend lives in Venice Beach, so we try to go surfing every morning,” she says. But while Allen seems like the quintessential carefree California girl, she is actually originally from Maine — and she is also one of the hottest young songwriters on the scene, thanks to writing tracks with artists such as Harry Styles and Halsey, among many others.
Recently, though, Allen has been writing material for herself, instead of giving it to others. Her singles “Queen of Silver Linings” came out on July 1st, and her next track, “Difficult,” will be released on July 31st. Both are taken from her as-yet-untitled solo album (due to the pandemic, the release date is still up in the air).
Allen stresses that this solo effort in no way implies that she’s unhappy about collaborating with others, however. “Writing for other people is amazing and I love it, but of course there’s always these outside factors: trying to tailor a song to a specific artist, or make it a bigger chorus so that it’s more pop radio-friendly.” Now, she says, “I really wanted to have a genuine outlet for myself of what is true for me, and not have to make any edits for anybody else.”
This decision to focus on her solo career came to Allen a little over a year ago when she was asked to perform at a Grammy party. She chose two of her most successful collaborative co-writing credits: “Without Me” and “Back to You” (which were recorded by Halsey and Selena Gomez, respectively, and which both became worldwide hit singles when they were released in 2018). They were, Allen says, “two songs that I had written that were really emotional to write and very vulnerable for me.
“I was onstage performing “Without Me,” right at the beginning of the song,” Allen continues. “I was doing the bass line and I was just about to start singing. And anybody that is close with me knows that I am not really a crier – but I felt like I was about to break down in tears. I got through the whole song and I didn’t really know why I was so emotional. I got offstage and I looked at one of my managers and I was like, ‘I need to make my own music. I have to write an album right now.”
But striking out on her own, while exhilarating, was also stressful for Allen. “I was really excited, but it was also scary because I was definitely at what I saw was a peak so far in my career. I had a few songs come out that we’re doing really well, and I had a growing reputation and was getting to work with people that I always dreamt of working with. So it was a scary point to jump ship for a bit.”
But Allen knew she was definitely on the right track shortly after starting the writing process, when she co-wrote “Queen of Silver Linings” with her good friend and mentor Dan Wilson, who is best known as the lead singer of Semisonic (of whom Allen says she was a fan when she was growing up). “We write in really different ways,” Allen says of Wilson. “I’m much more ‘throw a ton of paint at the wall,’ and talk a lot until I get to something good. And Dan’s a bit more quiet. But then when he does talk, he says the most insightful things.”
As Allen and Wilson worked up the track, Allen came up with the idea to have it be about two characters, “The Queen of Silver Linings” and “The King of Good Intentions.” The Queen is “always trying to see the good in people and make things work even against all odds, especially with relationships,” Allen says, while the King is “the person in the relationship who maybe doesn’t mean to do any harm to the other person, but is continuously causing heartache.” After coming up with those characters, the song came together quickly. “I had so much to say about it because at the time I was going through a relationship ending,” Allen says.
Allen and Wilson recorded a demo of “The Queen of Silver Linings” the very same night they wrote it. After that, Allen says, “We tried to produce it so many times in different ways and make the song bigger or darker or whatever. [But] we just kept coming back to the original demo of me playing piano and singing, and Dan playing guitar. I tried recutting the vocal. I tried everything. At the end of the day,” she says, the demo “felt the realest and the rawest.” In the end, that original demo is what became the actual single.
For “Difficult,” Allen says, “I wrote that with my good friend Jon Belion and these two producers called Monsters & Stragerz. That was still when I was on the fence about if I’m writing for myself or if I want to give these songs away.” As soon as they finished “Difficult,” though, Allen says she knew it had to keep it for herself because it was “way too personal to me. I can’t really imagine hearing anybody else sing [it].”
“Difficult” examines the type of exasperating experiences Allen has had as a woman. “I had always had this idea of the word ‘difficult’ as a satire. When a man speaks his mind or disagrees or does what he wants, he is being independent and empowered and in the right. If a woman is independent and following her dream or disagrees or takes a stand in some way, it’s being ‘difficult’ or being a bitch or being ‘hard to deal with.’”
This situation is something that Allen herself began confronting early on in her life. “Since I was in high school, I have felt this tension between wanting to follow this big dream that I have and wanting to be independent and wanting to put my career first and wanting to better myself through music at all cost,” she says, “and also, at the same time, wanting to fall in love and wanting to be vulnerable with somebody and wanting to be a part of something that feels full and loving like that.”
While she might sometimes feel conflicted about what to do, Allen has always seemed to display a single-minded determination to succeed in the music business. She mastered several instruments at a young age, then began “playing guitar in pubs and coffee houses and state fairs, what have you,” she says. “I have always loved performing my own songs and having that moment of looking at somebody and knowing that your songs mean something to them.”
Now that she has established herself as a highly in-demand songwriter, Allen says she is not closing the door on writing for other artists even as she embarks on this solo career. “I think it’s such a beautiful thing to write for other people,” she says, noting that even as she began writing her own album, she also found time to co-write “Adore You” with Harry Styles this past year. (“He’s so amazing,” Allen says of Styles. “He’s such a storyteller.”)
In fact, Allen credits collaborating with others as the key to successfully finding her own “songwriter voice.” “It seems counterintuitive because you would think that the way you would find your voice is to just be writing by yourself and do some deep soul-searching,” she says, “but for me, the best thing that could have happened to me was when I first started collaborating with other writers. That was actually how I found my writing style, because I wouldn’t have pushed myself on parameters if I hadn’t been collaborating.”
Allen also recommends that aspiring songwriters should ignore whatever seems like the latest trend. “You don’t need to listen to the radio to be a good songwriter at all,” she says. Instead, she says it’s better to “try to write stories that are as honest as can be.” She cites iconoclastic artists like Mick Jagger and Nina Simone as her models in this regard, because “their songwriting embodies who they are, and they’re very unapologetic about it.”
Now, Allen says she’s very excited to show the world who she is as a solo artist and songwriter when her solo album comes out. “All the songs are written and I’m very excited about all of them,” she says. “I can’t wait for it to see the light of day when it does.”
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