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Don’t give up the Ghost: Singer-songwriter Amanda finally takes the spotlight

By STUART HUSBAND – More by this author » Last updated at 16:36pm on 16th February 2008


She turned James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ into a mega-seller and has written hits for the likes of Beyoncé and Whitney Houston. But success as a singer has always been elusive for Amanda Ghost. She tells Stuart Husband why she’s finally ready to take the spotlight…

Amanda Ghost is telling a story about a recent trip in a New York cab.

“I was on my way to see the music producer Mark Ronson,” she says, “but I had this bad back.

“When the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes I literally screamed with pain, and suddenly I couldn’t stop screaming.

“Everything came out – that I was thousands of miles away from my newborn daughter; that I needed to keep working despite a slipped disc – all the highs and lows of the past nine years.

Amanda Ghost

Amanda Ghost has written hits for Whitney Houston and Shakira. Now the 33-year-old is ready to take the spotlight for herself with new album, Blood on the Line

“It was incredibly emotional,” she says, “and as I sat there sobbing, the cabbie actually apologised, which is unheard of.’

Amanda has burst into the room like a force of nature, apologising for being late (her daughter Gia has been “playing up”), casting self-deprecating looks in the mirror (“God, I’m such a mess”), and enthusing about the clothes for the photo shoot (“So glam!”).

It’s a tribute to the 33-year-old’s vivacity that she has made it through a decade that’s been every bit as turbulent as she’s hinted.

She was tipped for a stellar singing career back in 2000, when she was plucked from Enfield-born obscurity by Warner Brothers’ Andrew Wickham, the man who signed Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris.

He claimed Amanda was better than both. She was fÍted accordingly, until her debut album, Ghost Stories (released in the U.S. only) failed to sell in huge quantities.

She was then left in hellish limbo, with Warners refusing to release a follow-up and trying to morph her into a Pink/Avril Lavigne hybrid.

“I think the reason it failed was because I wanted to do too much,” shrugs Amanda.

“I could write in any genre – pop, jazz, country, reggae – and I put them all on the album. The chairman of Warners said that I had a great voice but I couldn’t write hits.”

An ironic remark, considering what came next. Amanda had signed a separate songwriting contract with Warners, and in 2004 was asked to polish up a somewhat maudlin ballad.

Amanda Ghost and James Blunt

Amanda with James Blunt after scooping their Ivor Novello awards in London in 2006

The song was James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’, which went on to top the charts in Britain, the U.S., Canada and virtually any other place where soulful young men moon after hopelessly unattainable women.

Her co-writing credit brought her Grammy nominations and two Ivor Novello awards, and, with her writing partner Ian Dench, Amanda has since gone on to provide huge hits for Beyoncé (‘Beautiful Liar’, the duet with Shakira, which went to number one around the world) and the latest American Idol winner Jordin Sparks (‘Tattoo’, which has given Amanda her third US top ten song in 18 months).

As well as working with boy wonder Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse’s producer, the in-demand Ghost has been asked to provide songs for Whitney Houston’s much-anticipated comeback album, and has been collaborating with musical legends Jay-Z, Mariah Carey and Lionel Richie.

All of which means that it’s a more propitious time for Amanda herself to venture back into the spotlight.

Her new album, Blood on the Line, provides a low-key acoustic showcase for her earthy, soulful voice to tackle a few of the songs she’s written for other people over the years (including ‘Time Machine’, penned for her best friend Boy George).

Later in the year she’ll be on the judging panel of a new American reality TV show that’s a sort of American Idol for aspiring songwriters.

Amanda credits Boy George with honing her own songwriting skills. She met him when she was 19 and working on the door of London’s then legendary nightspot, Mud Club.

“I was a fashion student, dabbling in journalism and pretending I didn’t want to get into music,” she recalls.

“I mean, I’d been singing and writing songs since I was eight; I’d sing them to my friends in the playground, and they’d go, ‘You didn’t write that!’ and I’d go, ‘Yes, I did!'”

Boy George took her under his wing. “What he gave me was an invaluable musical education.

“I was a pop kid at the time, and he introduced me to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and David Bowie.”

(Mitchell has since become a friend, and credits Amanda’s song ‘Blood on the Line’ with reinvigorating her own faith in music.)

“George,” Amanda adds, “knows more about music than anyone I’ve met.”

The main thing he taught her about songwriting, she says, was to concentrate on simplicity and directness.

“Bob Marley said that the greatest songs can be hummed by a three-year-old, and it’s true.

“George would be saying, ‘Your voice and melodies are great but your lyrics are shit,’ and I’d go, ‘But they’re from my heart!'” she grins.

“He also taught me that it’s about two per cent talent and 98 per cent graft.

“I don’t think of myself as a professional songwriter – I hate them; they come in and write the ‘moon-in-June’ stuff and don’t add anything.

“To me, if I’m writing with someone, it’s important that their voice comes out in the song, otherwise there’s no point.”

This seems an appropriate moment to bring up ‘You’re Beautiful’, a song that’s become the ‘Lady in Red’ of its generation.

For Amanda, its legacy is more ambiguous: it’s set her up for life, but Blunt was curiously reluctant to acknowledge her as co-writer until he was forced to by the Ivor Novello triumph, hence her mix of pride and dismissal now.

“It changed everything for me,” she admits. “Until then I was a struggling artist.

“It took James Blunt three years of hard work to write, whereas for me it was ten minutes of polishing up the chorus at a kitchen table in LA when I was bored.

“I didn’t think it was very good,” she says with a smile.

“I said to my publisher, ‘Take my name off it.’ Thank God they talked me out of it. It’s a really childlike song, that’s why it did so well, but a lot of people still don’t realise he didn’t write it by himself.

“Everyone says, ‘Do you hate him, does he hate you?'” she continues breezily, “and we don’t.

“But there’s a lot of vitriol towards him, maybe because he got so successful so quickly with a song that’s so loathed.”

Amanda has always been grounded, a trait she attributes to her family – her father is Trinidadian, her mother Spanish, and she has two sisters, who are both bringing up families in New York.

But you get the feeling that success, now it’s finally come, is all the sweeter, not only because she’s a mother herself (her partner
, Gregor Cameron, is a TV producer; they live in Notting Hill, London, and are planning an April ‘flamenco wedding’ in her mother’s native Seville), but also because her new-found clout is happening on her terms.

“Being an artist, for me, isn’t about being famous,” she says firmly.

“Growing up with George, I got a crash course in how awful full-on fame can be.

“I’m doing this album because a lot of people have been asking me to do it, but I’m just as interested in my songs and my label and nurturing artists, bringing raw talent to fruition.

“The first time round, I wasn’t ready. I signed for £1 million and I was on the cover of a Sunday magazine before I’d sold a record.

“Immediately, everyone wanted to shoot me down. You have to earn it, and f****** hell have I earnt it,” she cackles.

“I’ve been plugging away for nine years, and I know everyone hates Madonna now, but one thing she taught me as a young, aspirational girl was that a quitter never wins and a winner never quits.”

And Amanda Ghost strides off with the exuberant air of someone for whom those words have been triumphantly vindicated.

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