The Greening of Amanda
A lot of things seem weird to Amanda Green. The 24-year-old singer/songwriter uses the word a lot to describe, in general, her personal life and, in particular, the confluence of professional events ranging from her first club gig last August (a solo date on the patio of Churchill's Hideaway) to the upcoming release of her debut album and the start of a monthlong East Coast tour.
Her classical training on piano, which started when she was four years old? Weird, Green declares. Ditto for her debut public performance, when as a kindergartner she provided piano accompaniment as her classmates sang about rectangles, triangles, and circles. ("All I know is the piano made me different from everybody else," Green recalls, "because I was always playing piano while everybody else was in the play.") As for the semester she spent studying music composition at Michigan State University? Again, weird. ("Everybody wore Beethoven shirts all the time.")
And so on. That maiden show at Churchill's? Well, you can guess. "I was a little freaked out because I had just learned how to play guitar and I was really doubtful about my ability to communicate anything to anybody," she confesses. Green is also doubtful A for now, at least A about her ability to front a band that includes veteran drummer Derek Murphy (Forget the Name, Sixo, Milk Can) and her boyfriend, bassist Matt Sabatella (who formerly led his own self-named band and played bass with Diane Ward and Brian Franklin). "I'm still at the point where I feel scared to go over something too many times because I don't want to waste their time," she admits. "I haven't reached the point where I'm a very didactic bandleader or anything, and I doubt that I ever really will. I don't know. It's just weird."
Also rating high on Green's weirdometer is the fact that she's been sharing space these past few months at Criteria Recording Studios with arena-rock demigods Aerosmith, who have been in Miami recording their forthcoming album. "It's just very weird because it's your first album and you go in and it's like ... Aerosmith. You can't get a more emblematic, rock and roll type of career-oriented band than Aerosmith. It was just really bizarre." Not that the guys in Aerosmith have been snobs. In fact the band's scarf-flourishing lead singer Steven Tyler played his band's rough mixes for Green between sessions and asked what she thought. "Nothing could have made me feel punier than hearing their songs," she notes. "They just have that sound of gold."
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Weird as the notion seems to Green, her work -- an engaging blend of hypnotic rock riffs and quirky pop hooks drenched in a defiantly postmodern attitude -- has the sound of gold to her manager Richard Ulloa, whose knack for spotting and nurturing talent has given him something of a Midas-like aura locally. Ulloa, the owner of Yesterday & Today Records in South Miami, founded the Y&T Music label a few years ago simply to help the then-struggling, now-platinum country act the Mavericks record and release their work. Later, as a manager, he helped Mary Karlzen and For Squirrels find their way to major-label contracts.
Ulloa cues up a rough mix of "I Stay Home," a track from Green's upcoming disc Junk and Stuff, being issued on Ulloa's Y&T label. Over the speakers Green can be heard faintly asking "Now?" and then giggling ever so slightly as she strums the song's opening chords. Bass and drums join in a choppy, midtempo gallop as Green launches into a rambling, deadpan monologue that sounds like an overheard slice of conversation between two jaded models at a South Beach nightclub: "I met this guy he tells me a story/How he met this girl who took him back/To an apartment where they got real high/He could've hit the sack but he didn't try."
The mind races for musical points of reference: Velvet Underground? Liz Phair? "Everyone has a different opinion," Ulloa says. "I've heard Amanda compared to Tori Amos, the B-52's, even Mary Karlzen." So who would he compare her to? None of the above. "This girl has the power, in my opinion, to revolutionize the record business," he gushes. That sort of outcome would no doubt seem weird to Green because, as she sheepishly comments, "I have no idea what I'm doing."
Which is not entirely accurate. Green was something of a musical whiz as a youngster, winning piano competitions and, at the age of nine, earning a soloist spot with the Miami Youth Symphony. She started writing songs a few years later, after her father bought her a Panasonic Double Cassette Recorder with Super Echo, a contraption commonly known to lounge lizards and armchair Sinatras as a karaoke machine. And yet Green wasn't interested in belting out "Old Time Rock & Roll" or chirping along to the backing track of "Wind Beneath My Wings." "I remember specifically telling my dad in the store, 'I don't have to buy the tapes of the background songs,'" she recalls. "I just wanted to use it because it had the microphone input and the headphones and a really big echo."
That same karaoke machine occupies a central spot in the living room of Green's Coral Gables condo and has played a pivotal role in her songwriting career. The turning point came in early 1995, after Green had worked for a few years as co-writer on a project for a well-known dance music producer whom she diplomatically -- and firmly -- refuses to name. "Bad things that shouldn't be in the world," Green now says of the songs she helped write with the hotshot producer, her voice dripping with disdain. Indeed, she looks back with more than a little embarrassment at having authored lines such as "You make me wet all over" and "With the right love you can't go wrong." But, as she points out, "people always said, 'If you do this and you have a hit, then you can do anything you want afterward.'"
To be sure, the collaboration could've been Green's ticket to the big leagues; before making the demos, the unnamed producer signed her to a one-year recording and publishing deal. But beyond picking up some extra vocal experience and getting a chance to work in a professional studio (the songs were cut at the Bee Gees' Middle Ear studio in Miami Beach), nothing ever came of the demos or the deal. Following that artistic debacle, Green retreated to her condo and the karaoke machine. "It was so irritating to me because at that point I was in a multimillion-dollar facility and I was basically working for hire," she grumps, "and when I was finally writing the songs that I wanted to write, I was here at the karaoke machine on my floor."
For the next six months or so Green taught herself how to play the guitar while experimenting with melodies, lyrics, and sounds. She refers to the results as "the karaoke tapes" -- the literally hundreds of unlabeled cassettes that litter her apartment, each filled with melodic ideas, nonsensical aural fragments, and songs in various stages of development. It was one such cassette that sparked Ulloa's enthusiasm. After seeing her perform, he asked Green if she had anything on tape. She demurred, he persisted, so she went to her car and found one under the seat. The tape floored him. "There's so much magic that I'd be willing to put out a CD just of the karaoke tapes," he says. "They're that incredible."
Those early, homemade versions of Green's songs brim with an urgent kind of tension that connects daring experimentation and raw talent. If anything, the effect is enhanced by Green's rudimentary guitar chops and the limitations of the karaoke machine. (The device is made to record only one dub clearly; subsequent dubs make the preceding mixes murkier, and some of the songs have been copied at least a half-dozen times.) "A lot of people have told me I play the guitar like a pianist, which is kind of weird," she states unsurprisingly. "I think because I know what notes go together, but I don't know where they are on the guitar, I wind up with voicings that sound different than regular chords. I know enough chords to write songs, though. You only need a few, right?"
Despite the technical limitations, Green's playfulness with lyrics and melodies pierces through the decidedly low-fi murk of the karaoke tapes, whether it's the bright, relatively uncluttered mix of the whimsical "Twenty Years" ("I like pretending that I'm in the CIA/I spy on strangers just to brighten up my day") or the hazy, opium-den feel of "Way Out," a seething fuck-you dirge ("I'm not your friend/I don't like you any more/Season's over/Don't let your ass hit the door").
"It was a total gamble what was on it," Green observes of the tape she handed over to Ulloa. "Actually I was lucky because there were a few songs on that tape, and I could have given him a tape of me mumbling to myself." Green pauses to reflect on the felicitous twists of fate her career has taken in the past ten months. "I mean, think about it: My whole life I'm living up to a certain day in a certain way, then one day I just played a show and I meet Matt and then I started playing a bunch of shows, and it's been completely different since then. Last year at this time I wasn't doing anything. I was thinking about signing up for summer school and, you know, getting a life."
Another pause. "I just hope I don't use up all my luck.
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