There’s no feel-good story quite like the success of Amy Shark’s debut single ‘Adore’.
From its beginnings as a grant-funded excuse for the Gold Coast artist to work with Grammy-winning producer M-Phazes, to being the gateway drug to her local and international major label deals – and the #2 chart placing of her debut EP – the road to double Platinum status marks one of the swiftest local industry infatuations in recent memory.
To celebrate the release of the Night Thinker EP, Amy Shark, M-Phazes, Stu MacQueen from her label Wonderlick/Sony Music, producer Cam Bluff, and her co-manager Rachael Comerford spoke to TIO about how the breakout hit came into existence. Read the conversations below, condensed and edited for clarity.
PART ONE: THE GOVERNMENT GRANT
AMY: The very start doesn’t even really include ‘Adore’. I was just trying to get funds together to work with a great producer. I actually applied for a Government arts grant (Gold Coast City Council’s Regional Arts Development Fund) because over the years there’s been a lot of money of mine that I’ve put into it and you don’t really get much in return. It was kind of taking its toll. That was really hard to do. Obviously you have to write a lot and try and plead your case, so that was hard work. I didn’t actually get it the first round, I was devastated.
I was lucky that I had just won the QMusic Pop Award for a song (‘Golden Fleece’) so I knew my sound, I just needed to work with a great producer. I got approved for this grant and then I contacted M-Phazes’ management and he liked some of the demos that I sent him.
M-PHAZES: Amy had been talking to my manager Nate (Nathan Flack) for a while, he actually had some of her old songs a while before we worked on ‘Adore’. She had applied for a government grant to work on her music and I agreed to help if she got the grant.
PART TWO: ‘ADORE’ IS FORMED
AMY: We had actually decided on another song of mine to do and we were sorting out dates to go in [and record]. Then about two weeks before, I was just at home by myself and I was working on a song and I dunno, it just wasn’t working and… every now and again when that happens I just go, ‘I’m going to play something else for a sec because this song’s annoying me’.
Then all of a sudden I just changed capo and I started playing the chords for ‘Adore’. I don’t want to sound like a douche saying this but I was probably finished within about 10-15 minutes because it just came out.
Usually, I just mumble [the lyrics] and try and make sense of it later. It’s almost like that first line was like, ‘Okay I’m away’. It’s easy to sing right? And that’s how easy it was for it to come out.
PART THREE: BEHIND THE LYRICS
AMY: The opening line is like pretty much me narrating a movie or something. I dunno, it just worked.
I reminisce a lot. I’ve had heaps of things happen; relationships, friendships and so many things that I can draw from. That’s how I started playing music, to digest everything. The guy who I am married to now (Shane Billings) set up my MySpace. I was writing heaps of songs but I didn’t even want to put them out anywhere.
The chorus is obviously very simple. When you’re an adult, things change and you’re not going to parties – I mean you still do, but it’s different. Everyone’s calling Ubers now; I remember what it was like not being able to get home, going, ‘Fuck, I have to walk, I have no money for a cab because I spent everything on a six-pack of Breezers.
A lot of times you would go [to a party], hang out, and talk to everyone you wanted to talk to and end up going home and digesting everything that person said or everything that might mean he might liked me – reading into every single thing.
Heaps of people have asked me about the [line] ‘get drunk off one sip’. It’s just a way of me explaining that alcohol is like, ‘Oh look, if we’re drinking at the same party we’re going to have a whole lot more confidence’ (laughs).
It’s probably about many [experiences]. Different nights, but I’ve always been the same way. I don’t fall for people easily. I can count on one hand, less than one hand, people that I’ve actually loved or wanted to really be with. It’s not like I was a tragic at school that just fell in love with everyone.
So when that did happen I can really zone in on it because I don’t normally feel this way about people so I’m going to do everything I can to make this happen because I’m not used to being with people I want to be with.
PART FOUR: THE HUSBAND TEST
AMY: Shane is actually my biggest critic. We both have the same mind really, with music. He came home from soccer and I [said], ‘I think I’ve got something cool’. I procrastinated playing it to him because I really liked the song and I didn’t want him to say, ‘Nope, I don’t like it.’
I played him ‘Adore’ and the second he asked me to play again I knew he must of liked it. I played it again and he [said], ‘The whole Adore thing, I think I either really, really love it, or it’s corny.’ I felt the same, [I thought], ‘it’s either great or it’s cheesy’.
I demoed it better and Shane was like, ‘I reckon it’s better than the one you were going to do with Phazes.’
I sent it to [M-Phazes] and Mark was like, ‘This is a cool song.’ He wasn’t phased either, he thought they were both good, but we went with ‘Adore’.
PART FIVE: TRACKING VOCALS
AMY: M-Phazes is busy working with artists who are artists and not just like artists that just hassle the hell out of him. But his management also manages [Melbourne-based producer] Cam Bluff (Bliss N Eso, Allday), so he said you’re going to track your vocals with Cam and do some pre-production stuff before Phazes, because Phazes is super busy and you’re like a big inconvenience to us right now (laughs).
CAM BLUFF: Myself and Phazes have collaborated on tracks before so I had a pretty good idea of what I should bring to the table. With ‘Adore’, Amy had written some very real and honest lyrics so our mutual goal was to bring that emotion and honesty out of her.
AMY: I went and did my vocals with Cam in Melbourne at Cam’s home studio. Cam did a great job but we still really wanted to work with Phazes too.
CAM BLUFF: ‘Adore’ basically started with myself and Amy tracking the guitar and vocals first. I remember then starting the track off with a lot of textual things like vocal stabs and filtered drums because we wanted Amy’s vocals to shine through.
I remember Amy shouting beers mid-session [laughs]. She’s such an incredibly charismatic person and when you work with someone like that, it brings the best out of you and I think that definitely aided in getting such a solid vocal performance.
It wasn’t until after I handed the session over to Phazes that the song really started to take shape sonically.
PART SIX: ENTER M-PHAZES
AMY: He called me. I was like ‘Oh my god Phazes is calling me, this is so cool’. He’s like ‘Hey, what do you feel with this rough version?’ [I said] ‘I really like it, there’s some stuff in there that probably could come out…’
M-PHAZES: She basically gave me a rough idea of what she wanted. She wanted it sparse but dirty hip hop drums in the chorus.
AMY: He was like ‘That’s what I’m thinking, I’m just going to strip the guts out of it’.
It was really funny I didn’t hear from him for a few days. That was the only thing that was going on in my life. I was like, ‘Hey Mark, just checking in to see how the song’s going.’ He actually wrote back, ‘Hey Amy, please be patient… blah blah’. I was like ‘Oh shit, I shouldn’t have written anything. Why didn’t I just chill’.
M-PHAZES: Cam had done some work on it, and the stuff he did was great but I just made sure I was on the same page as Amy production-wise first, then I basically spent most of the day stripping out a lot of the sounds. I wanted to find the one sound that would give the song its identity and work around that, while not overshadowing her song or voice which are the most important things.
AMY: He sent it through and I think we boosted the vocals a bit more [on the final version]. I was talking to his manager asking if I should get it mixed and mastered. He was like, ‘Well, is it going to be a single? What’s it going to be?’ So I went and [had it mastered] by myself by this guy Paul Blakey who lives on the Gold Coast, he’s done some of my other stuff.
Editor’s Note: The mixing engineer on ‘Adore’ was Charles Daly.
PART SEVEN: THE BIDDING WAR
STU MACQUEEN: I found ‘Adore’ on the triple j Unearthed site either the day Amy uploaded it, or possibly the next day, and it had me pretty excited after a verse and a chorus. I felt that if the track could navigate its way past all the media and industry roadblocks that separate a new artist from the public’s ear drums, that it would really resonate and affect people. I dropped Amy an email to tell her how much I loved the track and then sent ‘Adore’ and everything else I could find of Amy’s online to Gregg (Gregg Donovan, business partner in Wonderlick) and we both started getting excited.
I personally believe the two central pillars of A&R are – fresh and accessible, that is there has to be something fresh and unique that sets an artist apart, but also something that is accessible to an audience. I believe Amy is unique, yet clearly has an incredible ability to connect with a broad range of people with her striking melodies, coupled with an almost disarming honesty in her lyrics.
AMY: I think it might have been an Unearthed Feature and then it was quickly added to Spot rotation [on triple j] and I was like ‘This is massive’, I couldn’t have asked for any more. I didn’t understand it because Shane was like, ‘Amy, we’re getting calls from all these people. I’m inundated with record labels and managers and I don’t know what’s going on.’
We went and met with a few people. We met with everyone, Universal… we were over in the States, Republic flew me over at the end of last year. There was a whole heap of agents trying to book me to play with other artists. I used to have to beg [for that] and I hadn’t done that in a while because it just got so repetitive. I went on tour with Cub Sport and Tigertown and I didn’t even have management, which I don’t recommend. We had to book my whole band’s flights, accommodation – all the logistics were on us. Shane just played manager for a while.
STU MACQUEEN: I remember having a pretty long and great conversation with Amy. I feel like we connected pretty quickly. Amy is just so real and down to earth and has a fantastic sense of humour. We talked about where she was at in her career, some of the challenges she was having in the bigger picture, where ‘Adore’ was at, and where things might go from that point. I just tried to talk through what I saw as the next steps and the overall strategy.
AMY: Firstly, I was just trying to get my head around it and one of the managers, [Stu from Wonderlick] was like, ‘This is how it works: we all get these emails about what gets added [to triple j] and it says so-and-so from Universal… Amy Shark, Unsigned.’
STU MACQUEEN: I think I just explained that some parts of the industry are very reactive to the triple j ads, and said that every man and his dog would probably now be in touch. Amy is a very perceptive person and a good judge of people and their motivations. She and her husband Shane seem to have pretty finely tuned ‘bullshit meters’, which I think helped Amy when all the record company interest and hype started coming from all corners of the planet.
PART EIGHT: THE RECORD DEAL
STU MACQUEEN: After lots of great phone conversations with Amy, and after hearing some of her other recorded work beyond ‘Adore’, we were pretty much ready to offer her a deal, but the live side for an artist like Amy, or any artist we work with, is always going to be crucial. At the time Amy didn’t have any gigs booked in the near future, so we resorted to the next best thing and asked her to come into our office and play for Gregg, myself and our team. She played ‘Adore’ and two or three other tunes acoustically and blew us away. It was clear that Amy would be able to make these songs impact live. It was really just a final box ticking exercise from our perspective.
Following this, we quickly spoke with our fantastic label partners at Sony. Gregg and I caught up with Denis Handlin (Sony Music’s CEO and chairman ANZ and president Asia) and played him ‘Adore’. Denis has great ears and got it immediately, and as he has always done since we joined forces, he backed us 100% to go ahead and get the deal done. We then got Amy and her husband Shane to come in and meet Denis, Paul Harris (A&R Manager) and Tim Pithouse (general manager, international marketing and artist development) at Sony. Denis made a big impression on Amy. That was a crucial day in the battle for Amy’s signature – never underestimate the Denis Handlin factor!
From there it was a very intense and competitive situation. More and more labels both here and internationally were jumping in every day it seemed. Both Wonderlick via our worldwide partnership with Sony, and our competitors, had their international arms fully engaged. Amy flew to New York for discussions with labels, and some of our competition were throwing a lot of meals, expensive hotels, and the red carpet treatment at her. I had some emails and texts with Amy while she was in the US that gave me some hope that she still had her head on straight, wasn’t overawed by the situation, and was focussing on the right things in regards to her decision about a label.
We had lots of conference calls between Amy’s lawyer and the Wonderlick/Sony team, lots of emails, and days turned into weeks. We were becoming increasingly concerned that if some label, be it us or someone else, didn’t get on board soon, the natural momentum that ‘Adore’ had could be lost. For Amy’s sake it was crucial, that amongst other things, the track start to be worked at commercial radio in Australia as soon as possible. Momentum is perhaps the most valuable thing in the business and it was feeling dangerously close to being lost. We were pretty straight with Amy and her team that we felt this way. I think ultimately Amy made her call about where she wanted to be, instructed her lawyer of her intentions, and after many more calls and emails we got the deal done (in November, 2016). Drinks were consumed and plans were made.
PART NINE: THE MANAGEMENT DEAL
AMY: We did the rounds. I had phone calls from so many people, phone calls from managers in the States. I knew I needed someone here to help, because it was getting crazy. And then Courtney Barnett’s manager Nick O’Byrne, he wanted to meet up. We put it off and off, and I didn’t go and meet him at BIGSOUND.
He must have passed on my name to Jaddan at UNIFIED. The guy that was in my band was like ‘Jaddan spoke at BIGSOUND, he’s the bomb at the moment.’
RACHAEL COMERFORD: Jaddan and I were back in Australia for Splendour in the Grass last July. A few people had mentioned to Jaddan this new artist Amy Shark that he should check out, including Nick O’Byrne (Courtney Barnett’s manager).
Jaddan had already heard the song, and continued to hear it on triple j while in Australia over this time and just really, really loved it. We went back to New York where we were living at the time and just couldn’t stop listening to the track. We hit her up via Nick and Jaddan ended up on a call with Amy to discuss where she was at and what it was she wanted to achieve, and they just clicked.
AMY: I had a really great conversation on the phone with him but I was still meeting with a lot of other people as well.
RACHAEL COMERFORD: An hour later she sent over some demos and we just sat in our apartment listening on repeat to these songs. We were just so excited. It wasn’t just ‘Adore’, there were so many other incredible songs. It was a no-brainer for us. We hit up Nick Yates our GM of Artist Management to see his vibe, and he was also just as excited. We didn’t want to sign an agreement without meeting with her, but it was around six weeks until we were back in Melbourne. That was a long six weeks.
We talked every day, kept providing our advice and thoughts on things so that she could see how we worked. When we got back we flew her to Melbourne the day after we arrived, and had lunch at the Corner Hotel. It was instant. We all got along so well and we just wanted to work together, we sent our management contract over that day and a few weeks later we were back at the same table at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne having a beer and signing the paperwork.
AMY: It’s one of those things where I’m glad I took the time that I did because I’m really happy that I am where I am now with UNIFIED – and even Sony. You just get a feeling, you’ve got to trust your gut. As much as they do want to dine you and tell you everything you want to hear, I’m not 17, so I can read through a lot of shit.
RACHAEL COMERFORD: When we started working with Amy she had already signed to Wonderlick / Sony. We were excited by working with this company lead by Denis (Handlin). As a company we had never worked with Sony on an artist so we are excited to finally be working with them.
We have a team of four around Amy. Unified Artist Management works with different teams that we call ‘pods’ that work on different artists. We have four management pods at the company that all have their own autonomy to sign and develop artists. This is the first artist that our ‘pod’ consisting of Jaddan, Toni Saunders & myself have signed since Vance Joy. We wanted to bring in Unified GM of Artist Management Nick Yates (Illy, Violent Soho, The Kite String Tangle) for Australia & NZ.
Jaddan is across all the big picture strategy, deals, and the rest of World, Nick Yates Oversees Australia & NZ, I run the implementation of strategy set with Jaddan and Nick Yates, and Toni runs day to day and on ground. It works great as a team effort. Amy has a very secure team of people across all aspects of her career. It was a no-brainer for us to create a sub-pod for her.
With Jaddan and I living in Los Angeles and Amy at the beginning of her career we wanted to have someone really across everything going on, on a daily basis in Australia and that’s where Nick Yates came in.
STU MACQUEEN: We were pleased that she decided to go with Unified, as we have always had a lot of respect for Jaddan and his team and how they go about things. Unified, like Wonderlick, are interested in long term artist development and career building, not the short term win, it’s about the long game. It’s nice to be working with managers who share that type of thinking.
PART TEN: ‘ADORE’ GOES VIRAL
AMY: I wasn’t even signed to Sony yet and SeaFM on the Gold Coast picked it up. Some people were saying it was unheard of to not even be signed and to be played on Commercial.
It was doing really well [on Spotify]; it hit a million plays quickly. Then, I was in Melbourne, in the middle of the recording the EP and everyone was super stoked that it got a Nova add. But to me, I was like ‘Doesn’t everyone get added if you’re with Sony? Surely…’ I thought Sony would go in and say ‘hey we’ve signed this artist you’ll be playing her now.’ I soon realised that radio stations are pretty picky as to what they play and what they think is going to suit their market.
And then I started hearing it fricken’ everywhere, and all my friends were taking photos of the video on V Hits, it was really sinking in.
My parents live out in the country and they just have no idea what’s going on really. They were like ‘We’re hearing you on our radio station out here and everyone’s talking about you. Is everything okay?’
When I did [triple j] Like A Version [in November], that was a big thing for me as well. It just kind of snowballed since then.
PART ELEVEN: THE NIGHT THINKER EP IS FORMED
AMY: It was all [recorded] in Melbourne with Dan, Edwin White who does a lot of Vance Joy’s stuff and M-Phazes. They were all home studios in Melbourne.
I tend to write my best stuff at night and a lot of the time when I was at high school, when I was at home with mum and dad learning the guitar, I would think of the craziest lyrics and poems at night. I had a shitty band at school [called Dorothy’s Rainbow and Hansel Kissed Gretel] so I always used to try and write songs for us but as soon as I put my head down to go to sleep I’d go, ‘oh that’s a good idea’.
PART TWELVE: EUROPE, CANADA AND THE US COME KNOCKING
RACHAEL COMERFORD: We had to keep it a secret for a while that we were signing her as it took a while to get the paperwork signed off. But Jaddan was in at RCA records in NY and mentioned it to an A&R guy Dan Chertoff (Kings of Leon) and he was so excited. He had been following her for a while and really wanted to sign her. We told him to keep it on the DL that we would be working with her and once we finally did the deal RCA was there ready to welcome her to the family.
I think for Amy this was just all happening around the end of last year and it was just so crazy for her. She’s been trying this for so long and it’s finally happening. We’re always delivering good news, so I think that’s hard to digest sometimes at this stage. It’s just one thing after another and when you’ve been trying for a while it can almost feel like a dream.
AMY: I had already met a few labels when I was in the US. [RCA Records] were the most persistent and Jaddan went and had meetings on my behalf over there. I put all my trust in Jaddan and Rach, they know that market a lot better than what I do and I learned that really early on.
RACHAEL COMERFORD: When we started playing the song to our key contacts over in the States it was so exciting. We just knew people were going to love it and her. And we are so excited to be able to share that. People are so excited about what is going on.
PART THIRTEEN: ‘ADORE’ TAKES #2 ON THE HOTTEST 100
RACHAEL COMERFORD: triple j hottest 100 coming in was ridiculous we were so happy for her. She did all of that by herself. Amy built that song completely by herself with no management or label involvement. We were just so excited to see that for a new artist. We’re just excited to be here to help build the career around her and celebrate the wins as a team.
Amy is such a down to earth humble person. During the lead-up to the hottest 100 was a very funny period of time. There was so much pressure on her. And all the reports that she’d go #1, and she just wouldn’t believe that she could even be in the Top 10. We just had to keep reassuring her that it would be okay and she would even come in the top 100. There was just so much more pressure put on her.
M-PHAZES: I never expect song to blow up because you just set yourself up for disappointment. I knew the song was special and had a cool vibe but had no idea it would connect like it has.
CAM BLUFF: When I heard the finished version of Adore I knew it was something special, but I had no idea it would have made such a strong lasting impression on people and reach #2 on the Hottest 100. I think we all couldn’t believe it when we found out.
PART FOURTEEN: THE SINGLE TOUR SELLS OUT
RACHAEL COMERFORD: I wanted to announce the Adore tour as soon as the Hottest 100 came in to really maximise that press opportunity and her fans on her socials. It was quite funny as we almost pulled the announce so many times. She was so scared that she wouldn’t even come in, or even in the Top 20 and that it would look really bad that we announced the tour.
I kept reassuring her that no matter where it came it would be great and the announce would get maximum impact. The next day when the shows all sold out and we were rolling into seconds and thirds she was just shocked. She’d wanted a tour tee but thought it would look bad with like five dates, and I kept saying ‘Dude there will be like x dates on it, and she would just laugh and say, ‘you’re an idiot, Rach’.
It’s taken her so long to get to where she is, and I can tell that every sold out tour, fan photo, radio play, tweet is so exciting new and fresh. That energy is something that you just don’t always get… and it’s something as a manager I just love seeing.
STU MACQUEEN: I can honestly say that it’s been an absolute pleasure working with her. Amy is up for doing the work, without complaint, that is required for someone who wants to build a successful career. Amy has great instincts and a pretty strong vision for what she wants. My job is to help her realise that vision and see that it’s captured on tape, or in the ones and zeroes.
We worked very closely on the tracks for her EP and we are currently putting in place the plan for her album recording. I think there is a nice respect for each other’s opinions. Our approach at Wonderlick is that the music must be right, no other part of the plan is going to matter if we don’t get the music right first. Never reverse engineer a timeline from a release date, unless you have first made damn sure you have the songs. It’s the most competitive business in the world and you can’t expect to achieve much if the record isn’t the best it can possibly be. I know Amy shares this philosophy and wants her debut album to be something special and I have no doubt it will be.