Amy Holland started out in the music business when she was just a teen, eventually scoring a hit single with 1980’s ‘How Do I Survive?’ It would mark the beginning of a long, diverse, and too often interrupted singing career that would see her record songs for movies such as Scarface and St Elmo’s Fire, write songs that were recorded by the likes of Judy Collins and Nancy Sinatra, and work with a young singer and keyboard player named Michael McDonald, now a musical legend and her husband of 34 years.
Her latest studio album is called Light On My Path, and it enlists the help of musical luminaries like David Crosby, Toto’s Joseph Williams and Steve Porcaro, David Pack of Ambrosia, and of course, McDonald. Paul Zollo of AmericanSongwriter.com says, ”If you crave…serious songwriting and sumptuous voices in harmony, this is an album you will cherish.”
In this conversation, Amy discusses the album, her cancer fight, Dick Clark, how the Beach Boys factored into her career, her mother’s (and mother in law’s) review of Scarface, and how her husband stalks her while she’s shopping.
Robert Ferraro: Amy, sometimes it’s useful to jump ahead in an artist’s story in order to see it more clearly. You had a very successful single, ‘How Do I Survive’ in 1980, and while promoting your follow up album (On Your Every Word) in ’83, you appeared on American Bandstand. What was going through your mind when Dick Clark approached you for one of his famous Q & A segments while millions watched?
Amy Holland: Dick was such a great guy. When you are on shows like that, especially when you’re relatively new, you can get really nervous. But what you saw with Dick was what he really was – sweet and kind – and that kept me calm. He was great.
Robert: You looked great in that appearance and I’ll mention that again later.
Amy: Ok [laughs trepidatiously]
Robert: [laughs] Well, Dick made a fuss about it himself…
Amy: Yes he did, and he was very cute about it. Which, again, was just who he was.
Robert: For many viewers of Bandstand that day, if your voice or appearance didn’t grab them, your explanation of your start in the music business probably did. You moved out to California to work with a record producer at the age of 15. What had your musical life been like to that point, to garner that type of attention?
Amy: My parents both sang (opera singer Harry Boersma, and country star Esmereldy) and my mother, in particular, had quite the little career for herself. When she became pregnant, my parents sort of went the “We’re going to have a family and get a real job” route, but my mother had quite a few irons on the fire when she backed out. Still, she always sang, and was always very artistic.
Robert: Did they start you out early?
Amy: They bought me a guitar when I was 12, and I started to write songs and make up my own chords because I didn’t know what they were called. [laughs]
Robert: So how did you find yourself in California just a few years later?
Amy: My sister Sherry was 7 years older than I was, and she lived out there. Her roommate at the time was dating one of the Beach Boys. When I visited her, he heard me sing and thought there might be something there. So, he dropped me off at Brian Wilson’s house, and said, “Go in and sing for him, and he’ll drive you home.”
Robert: Wow. I’m glad you survived both.
Amy: [laughs] Right? If only I had known what I was doing. I did sing for Brian though, and they discussed having me as an artist on Brother Records (The Beach Boys’ record label). By the time I got back home to New York from that trip, I was very much ready to leave. I had my mind made up. I wanted to be in California.
Robert: Did you move by yourself?
Amy: My mother came with me, but by the time we actually made it out there, Brother Records was dissolving. Luckily, she had a few contacts, and that eventually led me to a man named Jack Dougherty, who produced The Carpenters. In the meantime, my sister and I were writing together, and one of our songs, ‘I Call It Love’ was recorded by Nancy Sinatra.
Robert: While you were still in High School?
Amy: I was 16. At that point a publisher decided to manage me and get me a record deal, and introduced me to someone who was producing some big acts at the time. I was recording a song, and he said, “I just signed another kid that you might have something in common with”, and he hired him to play piano on my record. That turned out to be my husband (Michael McDonald). [laughs]
Robert: When Bruce Springsteen asked Patti Scialfa to join the E Street Band, he said, “Guys, she’s only going to sing the high parts. How complicated can it get?” [The pair have been married for 26 years]
Amy: [laughs] Famous last words!
Robert: Were you attracted to Michael right away?
Amy: Oh, yes. [laughs] He was adorable. At the time, my boyfriend was playing guitar in the band, but when Mike opened his mouth to sing, and I said, “Oh, that’s it.” [both laugh]. I couldn’t believe that sound was coming out of an 18 year old guy. It was a lot higher then, but it was The Voice.
Robert: Was the feeling mutual?
Amy: We both kind of had a crush on each other. I used to work in a fabric store where I sold buttons and zippers. Well, Mike actually walked into the store one day shortly after I had met him, and I just about lost it. [laughs] I did not expect to see him. I’m not sure if I even worked the rest of the day. I think my co-workers were just fanning me in the back. [Robert Laughs]
Robert: You didn’t start dating until a good while later though, right?
Amy: We lost touch for about 5 years and reconnected, but at that time he was coming off his success with Steely Dan and had just joined the Doobie Brothers. Capitol Records told him, “We’ll sign Amy to a deal, if you produce the record.” It couldn’t have been a worse time for him because it was right when ‘A Fool Believes’ and ‘Minute By Minute’ were big, and the Doobies were touring so much. He was always gone, and when he came back, he would work on my album. It took 3 years to make.
Robert: Considering how ambitious you both were, your relationship required a good deal of mutual sacrifice right from the beginning.
Amy: It did, but when it was our time to be together, we had a blast. We actually had some of our best times recording together, and with the most fun musicians you would ever want to be with. We had so many laughs.
Robert: Michael ended up producing 2 albums for you, the first of which contained ‘How Do I Survive’. When that became a big hit, did your life change immediately?
Amy: Yes and no. I still had my same friends and most of my life was pretty much the same, but on the other hand, driving down the highway and hearing your song come on the radio is pretty groovy. [laughs] I did a lot of television appearances, like The Midnight Special, Merv Griffin, and the Toni Tennille Show. I also did a promo tour of Japan, where I was singing live to track. That was was as close to touring as I got for that record.
Robert: Despite your early writing success, this type of attention was all new to you. Was it intoxicating?
Amy: I was terrified! [laughs] Absolutely terrified. I had a problem with stage fright back then that I don’t have now, and I was a little shy in general. Even though it was fun, there were times when all the attention was on you and everyone wanted to see what you were going to do. That could be unnerving.
Robert: Going back to your Bandstand appearance, what you were wearing wasn’t anywhere near over the top, but it was a sexy outfit for the time. Yet, it would probably be considered formal wear today, considering what many female artists are wearing now. Did an industry person ever ask you to be more provocative in regard to what you wore, or how you performed?
Amy: You know, I thankfully never got that. I was always able to do my own thing, and they accepted that it was part of my brand. That worked fine for me.
Robert: The business was a lot less corporate and regimented back then.
Amy: Right, because it was run by a lot of musicians. You had a lot of artistic people making decisions, and they looked at things differently.
Robert: An artist could sell 25,000 copies of their debut album, but the company might allow them to record another one if they believed in them. That wouldn’t happen today.
Amy: No, that would not happen today [laughs]. That’s why we have our own record label! (Chonin Records)
Robert: Commercially, your journey was the reverse of what I just described, in that your debut was a smash, but your second album under performed. Do you attribute that to anything in particular?
Amy: I did a duet with David Pack of Ambrosia, called ‘I Still Run To You’. The label really wanted that to be the single, but we fought hard for it to be a song that Mike and I had written. Looking back, I should have released ‘I Still Run to You’. I don’t really have any regrets, but if there was something I could go back and change about my career, it would have been that. I think it would have made a big difference.
Robert: Looking at your career as a whole, you have enjoyed a diverse success. You have the many songs that you’ve recorded, and of course the songs that you’ve written or co-written that others have recorded, the most recent being ‘Miracle River’ by Judy Collins. However, would you be mad at me if I called you the queen of the motion picture soundtrack?
Amy: [laughs] Not at all! I had a great time doing all of the movie stuff. It was a lot of fun.
Robert: Thanks to the popularity of the movies in which they appeared, you’ve recorded several songs that have had a lasting place in pop culture. You have a song to impress just about any demographic. If I introduced you to a bunch of alpha males in a bar and said. “This is my friend Amy”, you might get a casual, “Oh, Hi, Amy.” But if I added, “Amy sang ‘She’s on Fire’ from the dance floor scene in Scarface”, you’d eventually wish I hadn’t.
Amy: [laughs] It’s true! I scored a lot of points on that one with my kids’ friends. The only place I didn’t score points is when the movie premiered, because Mike and I took our mothers to see it.
Amy: If I can only tell you how mortified we were all the way through! Mike’s mother was just sort of blinking over and over, and my mother was clutching her purse. That was worth the price of admission. It turned out to be funny, and so typical of something that would happen to Mike and me.
Robert: You have a go-to ‘cool card’ with many women as well, as you sang on ‘Love Theme from St Elmo’s Fire’. Love Theme is one of your many duets. Have you ever sang a duet with a person and found, not unlike a bad date, that there wasn’t any chemistry?
Amy: I’ve never really had a bad experience with a duet, although I did have a bad experience in general, while working for someone that I admired for years. Mike was asked to sing on a project for her, and she said to me, “Well, you sing too, don’t you?” I still wonder if she thought I was his sister (Maureen McDonald, who sang on McDonald’s hit ‘I Keep Forgettin’). I won’t name names, but she was my hero, and I was very nervous. When it came time to record, I couldn’t find the downbeat of one. [laughs]. I just couldn’t get it! Each time they had to run the reel again, I was more and more mortified.
Robert: If you sing a love song with your husband, and you sing the same song with another singer, do you ‘feel’ the song more with Michael? Or are you working too hard to have sentiment seep in there?
Amy: That’s a very good question. It’s hard to explain. There are moments where it’s not just business. It can get personal, but in a technical way. You learn over time how to do the job, so in a good duet you’re doing it the way it is supposed to be done, but you can still pull personal things out of it.
Robert: And that’s easiest with Michael?
Amy: It is. We did a Jimmy Webb song awhile back called ‘All I Know’. That was a really beautiful recording, and probably the most romantic song we ever sang together.
Robert: Your latest album is called ‘Light On My Path’. What does the title mean?
Amy: John Goodwin (songwriter) always had stacks of lyrics on hand, and one day Bernie Chiaravalle (longtime Holland and McDonald collaborator) and I were looking through them. ‘Light On My Path’ just jumped out at both of us. It reminds me of an old hymn. Not necessarily a religious thing, but definitely a spiritual thing. When I read the lyric, I was really able to relate to it, and I thought most people probably could. At some point in everybody’s life, they question themselves. “Am I doing the right thing?”, “Am I going in the right direction?” I wasn’t asking myself those questions at that particular time, but I had been there before.
Robert: When you take all the time and effort to create an album in a climate where very few people buy music, what is your primary motivation? To create something tangible?
Amy: There were a couple of things that inspired me to do this record. One of them was that Mike had been touring with Toto. I know a lot of those guys, because several of them played on my first album. I had never really heard Joseph Williams (Toto’s famed lead vocalist) sing live though, and when I did, I was so inspired by him. He’s amazing.
Robert: What else drove you to make this album?
Amy: Mike wrote a song with Danny O’Keefe (singer/songwriter) years ago, called ‘We’re All Strangers Here’. That song blew my mind since day one. I just felt like I had to sing it, because I related to it so much. It’s about a woman who is looking in the mirror, and notices that she’s aging. It goes into what’s happening in her mind and what’s going on in [her love interest’s] mind. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song. And, it was written by two guys! So, between wanting to record that song, and then listening to Joseph and Toto – not to mention Mike – I kind of caught the bug, and said “Let’s do it again.”
Robert: A lot of people helped out on this album. I’m going to assume that you and Michael have an interesting group of talented friends.
Amy: We do, but it’s not that exciting, trust me. [laughs] We don’t really hang, and our parties are pretty boring. We do know some incredibly talented people though, and there have been many times in my life that I find myself in situations where I feel like Forrest Gump. You know, shaking hands with the Queen of England, or sitting across from Eric Clapton in the south of France, wondering, “Why am I the one that gets to talk to him?” [laughs] It honestly all feels like a long, fun ride, and I definitely know how fortunate I am.
Robert: You had a very serious and scary bump in that ride however. I’ve read at length how impactful your cancer diagnosis was for you and your family, including your beautiful, as-told-to piece online.
Amy: I’d love to tell you that I was one of those people who had a big epiphany after having cancer. I’d like to say that I became this incredibly spiritual person, or came away with all this knowledge. But the truth is, I struggled physically and emotionally for years after I was diagnosed. I was part of an aggressive and radical study, where 5% of the people who participated actually died from the treatment. So no, I didn’t feel that way. I remember talking to a well-known singer who was also diagnosed, and I said “It seems like you’ve had all these incredible experiences because of this, and I don’t feel that way. What’s wrong with me?”
Robert: Did not having those positive experiences make it harder to fight?
Amy: The main thing for me was that my daughter was 4, and my son was almost 7. I decided that nobody was raising these kids but me, and that’s that. I went into total fight mode. In that way, being a stubborn Dutch girl had finally paid off. [laughs] I’d love to tell you that it made me ‘this’ and it made me ‘that’, but more than anything, it made me mad. And it made me scared. I remember going to my daughter’s Christmas recital with her dress stuck over her head and I was just weeping into Mike’s coat, thinking this might be the last recital I ever saw.
Robert: That’s heartbreaking.
Amy: The great news, of course, is that I did get to raise my children. I’m healthy, and we have two amazing, wonderful kids. Our son Dylan is a singer/songwriter, and I’m so proud of our daughter for who she is and all that she’s accomplished. We’re really very lucky to have our family, and I will never take that for granted.
Robert: I’m going to keep you on the topic of family, as the upcoming leg of Michael’s tour will be a family affair. You’ll be on it.
Amy: I will be! It’s really fun. I’m singing background vocals on almost everything, and then I come out front and sing on a song called ‘Hail Mary’, which I recorded with Mike for his new album, ‘Wide Open’. It’s an unbelievable record.
Robert: You talked about being caught by the recording bug earlier. How about playing live? Does being out on the road with Michael make you want to play your own material live as well?
Amy: I have been rehearsing with my old band, and I’ve done benefits with them and Michael over the past few years, so luckily I’ve had opportunities to sing a lot of my songs live. I’d like to do more, but as I know you know, it’s become so expensive. A lot of people don’t tour if their career isn’t at a certain level.
Robert: And sometimes even if their career is at a certain level. Nancy Wilson’s new band has an opening slot on the Bob Seger tour, but they’re playing headlining dates on many of their days off, in order to offset costs.
Amy: Exactly. That’s why I’m realistic about this. I’m coming back after a long time, and am very happy to sing anywhere, whether it be 200 miles away at a venue, or at a party next door. I just enjoy getting out there and playing with other musicians that I like.
Robert: One of those musicians frequently being Michael McDonald. I hate using the word iconic, because it’s often wasted on people that are neither talented, nor iconic. But, let’s face it. There is no one else that sounds like him. Does the public making a big deal about him ever get on your nerves?
Amy: Hell no! [laughs] Not at all. I’m so proud of him, and I’m still in awe of him. He’s probably the person I’ve learned the most from in my life.
Robert: Can you share something that immediately comes to mind?
Amy: His work ethic. I remember one day he was trying to learn a Beach Boys song on ukulele all day long, and I mean all day long. I finally just screamed, “You’ve got to stop!” [laughs]. He drove me nuts that day, but that’s one of the reasons he’s good. The repetition. He keeps playing, he keeps singing, he keeps going, until it’s right.
Robert: Have you ever been sitting at home watching television, and the show you’re watching references him?
Amy: Oh, it happens a lot. Jimmy Fallon, cartoons, movies, all types of shows. But you know what gets me? Whenever I’m in a store spending too much money on clothes, his voice suddenly appears over the store speakers, haunting me. [Robert laughs] It’s like he’s checking up on me. It’s humiliating!
Robert: That’s tough to escape, because he is a favorite of department stores and elevators everywhere.
Amy: Don’t forget grocery stores. And even these little boutique stores that I like to go to! He follows me everywhere. He always has.
Purchase Amy’s new album here: ‘Light On My Path’
Purchase tickets to see Amy on tour with Michael McDonald: Tickets & Dates
Amy Holland’s website: www.amyhollandmusic.com
Follow Amy on Twitter: @AmyHollandMusic
Follow Amy on Facebook: @AmyHollandMusic
Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts. In between, he has held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he departed when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to.