To say that Amy Cunningham's passionate love affair with music is life-long is in fact no exaggeration. "My mom says I was singing before I was talking” says the Vancouver Island-based singer/songwriter. My grandfather would play the guitar, and he said I started singing along in key when I was three years old. I don't remember consciously deciding to be a musician, it was just always there."
Amy has had a fascinating musical journey since then, one that now culminates in the release of a totally compelling debut album, To The Stars We'll Return. Cunningham most commonly performs solo or with just one accompanist, but To The Stars We'll Return is far from a sparse acoustic record. Armed with a cast of some of B.C.'s best instrumentalists, Amy and her co-producer Corwin Fox (Miss Emily Brown, Shane Koyczan) have carefully crafted a richly layered album utilizing a wide range of musical textures.
"The goal was to make a big album with a big message," Amy explains. "It’s a record I can stand strong in and I'm still able to play these songs on acoustic guitar and just sing my heart out. I think that passion can stand in place of a full band, although touring with other musicians is definitely on the horizon”.
Cunningham and Fox worked painstakingly on these songs in Corwin's Vancouver Island studio, TransOrbital Productions, bringing in guest players as their schedules permitted. Notable players featured on To The Stars include Doug Cox (dobro and weisenborn), Jake Jenne (saxophone and percussion) and Christina Zaenker (cello) among talented others, and the versatile Fox (himself a prolific singer/songwriter and one half of acclaimed folk-rock duo Morlove) also played banjo, electric guitar, bass, and organ.
Fox and the guest players add real atmosphere and drama to the sound of To The Stars, but the focus is always placed upon the potent combination of Cunningham's rich and powerful voice and emotionally eloquent songwriting. Amy's voice is more force of nature than instrument, possessing a natural intensity that immediately makes the listener take note.
The songs on To The Stars We'll Return traverse wide lyrical and sonic terrain. The upbeat and catchy "Freedom" is described by Amy as "a song about my own definition of freedom. I see it as something constant that comes from within." Opening with the line "travelling up and down this road so wide," it would make for a great road trip song.
The dramatic power of Amy's voice is fully showcased on "Saving Grace," achieving an emotional intensity evocative of Neko Case. The song utilizes metaphor to describe what Amy feels is the nature of the human journey; working through our stuff to get to a better place. "I feel I’m at a very healthy place in my life, but it was a struggle. I worked through a lot…that is an empowering song for me, and I hope it will be for others."
The sweetly melodic "We Are the Ones" features fluent guitar lines from Doug Cox, and lyrics ("we are our only hope") that urge us to accept social and environmental responsibility. Its message is already resonating, as the song will be featured in an upcoming sustainability themed documentary, Community Connections, by B.C. filmmaker Chris Carter.
For Amy, the medium and the message in her music are inextricably linked. Yes, there are strong social, philosophical and environmental messages in her songs, but they are always framed in musically interesting and welcoming settings. "I am aiming for something accessible in my songs," she stresses. "I don't want to alienate people. It's about taking pretty idealistic ideas and grounding them."
Born in Brampton, Ontario, Amy grew up in a family of musicians. Her grandfather is a skilled guitarist who sat in with such greats as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and family gatherings always featured the clan playing guitars and singing. Amy began writing poetry and in journals at an early age, and started playing guitar at 14.
The muse followed her to Brock University in St. Catharine's. There, she co-fronted a band that became very popular on campus and through the Niagara region. Initially known as Rob and Amy, the acoustic-based group mixed originals and covers, and opened for such notable artists as Jeremy Fisher and Craig Cardiff. "We were the house band at the university bar, and we'd regularly play for 300 people there," says Amy. Such experience proved invaluable, and helps account for Cunningham's impressive stagecraft.
Amy Cunningham never does anything half-heartedly. She is now logging serious road miles in support of To The Stars We'll Return. July dates around Vancouver Island are being followed with August dates from Vancouver to San Diego and back, a genuine cross-Canada tour in September, followed by fall dates in Ontario. "Everything I own fits in my van now," says Amy, in true 21st century troubadour fashion.
"I am directing all my energy to this. It is the amalgamation of everything I care about. It's music, it is waking people up, it is exploring the self, and finding a way that will hopefully help people come together. Most importantly it is ridiculously fun to create and share. These are times when we can gather around art and music and conversations about the kind of world we want to create”.
For a soundtrack to such a conversation, you would be well advised to investigate To The Stars We'll Return. Here is an album that marks the arrival of a shining new star, one to be watched closely.
For more information, contact
Last Tango Productions
#104-384 Sunnyside Ave.
Toronto, ON M6R 2S1