When Amy Shark was 10-years-old, her grandparents took her to get hypnotised. She was having a recurring nightmare that was so frightful, so utterly terrifying, that it once gave her a nosebleed.
“The shark would knock the boat and tip my brother out, and then we’d see the shark coming for him – it was pretty much a scene out of Jaws 2. And my granddad would jump in after him and I’d watch them both be eaten. And then the boat would just get knocked by this shark. He knew I was in there. It was fucked.”
Amy Louise Billings is seated on a couch in a sunlit room at Sony Music’s Sydney office. You can tell she’s spent a lot of time here. She knows most of the staff members by name, as if she’d made a concerted effort to do so. It’s mid-morning in mid-March and she excuses herself to see if she can get the air-conditioning turned on. Amy gets up, opens the door and pokes her head out into the open-plan space where a few marketing managers, publicists, and label coordinators are enjoying the Australian luxury of being back at their desks mid-pandemic.
Amy calls out to one staffer who is mid-mouthful and she laughs with her soft chuckle.
It’s been a long time since Amy Shark was haunted in her sleep by that Great White, but her Jaws-inspired name is a telling reminder of the human condition. “People love torturing themselves,” she says. “That’s why we wait and watch scary movies at night, because we actually deep-down love fucking ourselves up.”
“We actually deep-down love fucking ourselves up.”
Amy puts herself in that category too. She’s not afraid to explore some of the more painful chapters from her past in her music. Her songwriting has been inspired by journal entry scrawls long before breakout single “Adore” did what most others dream of: became a radio mainstay on both commercial and triple j and clocked 5x Platinum certification. In fact, Amy got an EP, an album, and half of her recently released sophomore record CRY FOREVER out of the backstory of how she and her husband got together. “So dramatic,” she shakes her head.
That backstory is not one you’d necessarily expect: Girl meets boy. Boy is dating best friend’s sister. Girl fights feelings for boy by moving to Hayman Island to work as a cleaner. Boy breaks up with girlfriend, accepts his heart belongs to someone else.
“At the time it was definitely like four different divorces,” Amy remembers. “My best friend hated me. Her whole family hated me. Shane’s girlfriend definitely hated me. It was just a fucking mess.”
“At the time it was definitely like four different divorces.”
It was Shane who told Amy she had the chops as a solo artist after he caught her and her pop-punk band Hansel Kissed Gretel live. It was Shane who set up her MySpace account and uploaded her music, and it was him who entered her in every competition he could find.
“I remember saying to Shane, ‘Stop. This is getting embarrassing now. I can’t get a gig anyway, not a real gig’,” Amy recalls. “I could play a million covers. People love me singing Tracy Chapman. I was getting so many gigs and making decent money playing at the pubs, but I just hated it. It was fucking soul destroying.”
“I remember saying to Shane, ‘Stop. This is getting embarrassing now. I can’t get a gig anyway, not a real gig’.”
After one screaming match where the pair were on opposite ends of the ‘Amy Shark is a star’ spectrum, Amy thought their final stances aligned. While she put her head down at her job as a video editor for rugby league team Gold Coast Titans, Shane was secretly writing grant applications. Amy’s success in the Gold Coast City Council’s Regional Arts Development Fund meant she could work with M-Phazes, the Grammy-winning producer behind “Adore”.
Having well and truly earned his stripes as one of Amy Shark’s managers, Shane is in the enviable position of having a client whose work ethic is matched by her talent. This means tough conversations between them are sans ego.
“The best thing about us both is we’re not scared to say anything to each other. You know, ‘cause we’re together, there’s no filters. It’s not like when you sit down with your label or something and you might think something but it’s like, ‘How do I say this in a way that’s really polite and doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings?’”
Amy actually captured a true example of this on camera. For her recent documentary series Forever, Amy Shark, Amy filmed Shane without his knowledge, hiding the camera in her home studio while they were choosing which tracks would make the album.
“No sweetheart,” Shane says. He sounds tired. “You’re trying to pat yourself on the back over one line. It’s nothing. How does the song sound? How does it all fit in? Just wait. We’ll get to that.”
Amy’s eyes grow wide in disbelief as she makes her right hand into the shape of a gun and fires off one ‘shot’ into the back of Shane’s head.
Later in the episode, Shane pulls her up on a songwriting crutch he’s noticed. “Stop using the word red everywhere,” he says, frustrated. “You’ve got red bus stop, red fucking rooftop, red kite. Like just… ease up on red.”
“We can be brutally honest,” Amy tells me. “We want the best for both of us, you know? I’m pushing him now to manage more artists because I know he’s so good at it and it’s like, ‘Don’t waste it on me, man’. He can manage me with his hands behind his back now.”
Later, over lunch at Chin Chin in Surry Hills, she sips on a beer and thanks me for ordering healthy food. “If I was on my own this would look very different,” she nods to the salad and kingfish sashimi. She tells me that when she was a kid, she took her parents’ camera to every party and every show. She filmed it all, cataloguing both the banal and big moments of her life.
“I filmed everything,” Amy juts out her chin cheekily. “All the shit gigs. All the shit times when I was 22 and we were broke, living with my nan. There’s some cool footage.” Realistically, with the amount of footage she has, an Amy Shark feature length documentary would be a director’s dream to work on – that is, if Amy doesn’t choose to direct it herself.
There are moments in the interview I can’t believe Amy allowed me to record. One moment was when she spoke in very clear terms about her birth father. Her parents had her young. Her mum was 20 and her dad just 19. Now separated, she’s lived with them both in the past; even moving to Canada to be with her dad for a time. But long before Amy Shark rose to fame, her strained relationship with her father was a cause of deep pain.
“Usually, I’ve got it pretty good where if you hurt me enough, I can put you in a box and you actually don’t bother me anymore.”
“I don’t speak to my birth father and that creeps in every now and then into my mind.” Amy speaks slowly now, unsettled. “Usually, I’ve got it pretty good where if you hurt me enough, I can put you in a box and you actually don’t bother me anymore. It’s kind of brutal,” she says with a half-smile. “Like you’re just not there. Do whatever you want. It doesn’t hurt me anymore. […] You’re in that box. But with family, sometimes it does creep back and you’re like, why don’t you care? How did you not care?”
Amy hasn’t spoken to her birth father in 15 years, with the exception of a few “pretty colourful emails”.
Naturally, as is now trademark Amy Shark, some of the unpacking of that relationship is done through her music. Through songs like “Amy Shark” and “You’ll Never Meet Anyone Like Me Again”, the spiritual crises she tackles are at the heart of her being.
Don’t start now I’ve done all the years of hard work
Don’t start taking over
And asking for favours
Please just don’t start now that
I’m Amy Shark
(Lyrics from the song “Amy Shark”)
Amy doesn’t just reflect on her past from a point in the future. Amy’s songwriting draws you back into the moments of her life when her emotions reached a crescendo—you feel as if you’re experiencing everything she felt in the moment that inspired the song.
“The Wolves”, a reverberating slow burn thriller, is another of those transporting songs. It’s about the pinnacle of Amy working out the tiny cogs of the music industry machine, and the chess-like strategies that power it underneath.
“There are so many times where you feel like you’ve just been thrown to the wolves. ‘Who is on my side? Who actually cares about me, that isn’t making money? Or am I a client to everyone?’,” she says. “Because some people make me think I’m not, and I think we’re friends, and then there will be this gnarly conversation or a total disappointment thing that happens.”
“There are so many times where you feel like you’ve just been thrown to the wolves.”
The first half of “The Wolves” was written while feeling angry, frustrated, and betrayed. The second half was written from a place of vindication. The dichotomy plays out beautifully; you get sudden chills at the point of transition.
“I was liberated,” she says when talking about the second half of the song. “I was in a better spot and I think that’s why I came up with the lyric “I think I’m coming back to life”, in the song. Because I was like, ‘No, now I’m enjoying running with the wolves’.”
“The Wolves” was the most challenging track on CRY FOREVER when it came to the production phase. Partly recorded in LA with multi-award-winning producer Dann Hume at Conway Studios, it was a chance encounter with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins that helped Amy crack its code. The track previously had a complicated guitar moment at the beginning and Billy stepped in.
“He was like, ‘Just play that one bass note’. That’s why it’s so empty at the top end of “The Wolves”, because it was Billy Corgan’s idea.”
Billy Corgan fell in love with the opening lyric – “What’s left of me for the wolves / Just pick around the bones” – so much so, that he wanted it for himself. “He was like ‘Man, if I could I’d pay you for that opening line… how much?’”
Amy Shark might be one of the most unassuming Australian pop stars when it comes to fashion. Her signature dress sense – which she wears both onstage and off – consists of jeans, platform boots or sneakers, and an effortless half-up-half-down hairstyle where the top half is pulled into a messy top-knot bun. Dressed today in baggy black jeans, a navy-coloured T-shirt with a dolphin on the front and Doc Marten Quad platform shoes over white socks, it’s fun to remember she was tapped for the cover of Vogue magazine in 2019.
Fun because, while the modelling offers come in as regularly as product endorsements do, the photos her husband posts of her solo on Instagram have a vivid similarity: she’s donning a broad grin like a 10-year-old who’s just been asked to smile, and she’s giving a peace sign.
“You know, you just have to pick the right moves I guess,” Amy says of the fashion-focused offers. “I try my best to do that. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Yes, this is going to suck and I’m going to hate every minute of it. But the outcome’s going to be pretty sick’.”
Amy and Shane have just moved to Sydney from the Gold Coast. They’re renting out their sun-soaked home to make the most of Sydney’s proximity to the music industry – she’s even living within walking distance from Sony Music’s headquarters. It’s been five years since “Adore” propelled Amy Shark into the global stratosphere, and with labels and managers on both sides of the Pacific – along with four multi-Platinum singles and a number one album, she’s no longer chasing the post-“Adore” tsunami ripples.
“I’m in my peak of hunger for music,” Amy says assuredly.
“I’m in my peak of hunger for music.”
It’s an impressive sentiment from an artist 15 years in. Amy started her career on the Gold Coast pub circuit and it’s no coincidence that when she’s not working, she prefers to stay in. In the past she forwent nights out and regular social events for dates with her iPhone and guitar. Now, she ditches the mid-tour celebrations to curl up on tour buses and record voice memos that turn into Platinum-selling hits.
Amy realises that in another world – one in which she chose an active social life – her music career may not have taken off in the way it did.
“[Before ‘Adore’] I’d be at Envy nightclub playing, missing out on a friend’s 21st. Or missing out on someone’s fucking bridal shower or something,” she muses. “Because I knew I had to play that gig to make money, to go and record my stuff.
“So after years of missing out, now it’s a part of me. I don’t care to miss out. If I can write a song tonight I’d probably rather do that. So I spent a lot of the [2019 European] tour just being okay with not leaving the bus. It’s built in me.”
“I don’t care to miss out. If I can write a song tonight I’d probably rather do that.”
Amy has a way of making you forget she’s the type of artist who Travis Barker DMs on Instagram to say he likes her music, who Billie Eilish gives a tight reach-around hug to when they’re photographed, and who clocks over eight million streams each month. With collaborations that range from Tom DeLonge to Keith Urban, Amy has done the most to expand Australian guitar-wielding indie-pop since Vance Joy toured with Taylor Swift.
Her writing session with Ed Sheeran last year spawned two major outcomes: the chart-climber “Love Songs Ain’t For Us” about her husband Shane, and a piece of advice that sent Amy rushing back and stripping down another three songs on CRY FOREVER.
“He told me not to overcook our song that we’d done,” she says. “He said the song is really strong on its own. […] He said, ‘Give the song what it wants, not what you think it needs’.” That advice can be heard on “You’ll Never Meet Anyone Like Me Again”, “Lonely Still”, and “Amy Shark”.
“I’ve spent so long before trying to squeeze a big beat in or thinking that the song needs something else. When realistically it’s just a strong song if I just leave it, if I give it just exactly what it wants.”
Amy Shark hasn’t always had a string of hitmakers knocking on the door and performances to 75,000 people at ANZ Stadium (Fire Fight Australia). There’s also been tears in backstage bathrooms and nasty tweets from keyboard warriors who often unleash their feelings without caring that there’s a real person reading them on the other end. The struggle of dealing with unprovoked internet attacks shows up on her album, namely in the track “All the Lies About Me”.
Musically, it’s irresistible: a sparse rhythmic landscape with surprising left turns. Lyrically, it tells of how artists are branded with targets on their backs once they reach a certain level of ubiquity. It’s a target they didn’t choose to wear, but one they now carry around like a ‘pick me’ sign at a Comedy Central Roast.
“There was a time where I’d heard a few things and as much as I felt like getting a crate and putting it out into the street and just being like, ‘Hey! Everyone! I’m me and this is what I actually…” She trails off, knowing reasoning with an angry cynic is as good as screaming into the abyss. “But you can’t do that. You’ve got to just take all the bullets and be like, ‘Okay, yep sure. Yep’.”
Luckily, Amy has a wicked sense of humour. Her wit often catches you off guard and makes you forget she’s one of Australia’s highest-earning music exports. “It’s not like I’m walking around with this big secret,” she jokes. “Like I’m actually a piece of shit. I’m actually an arsehole and no one even knows.” She’s laughing now and putting on a silly voice. “Like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so evil’.
“I think that’s the frustrating bit.” She stops joking. “I think that’s why I just came out with [the lyric] “I’m not as bad as you think I am”. That’s as simple as it is really.”
Despite Amy’s very global career, she still has an innate ability to remain accessible; she’s self-effacing and always warm. However, don’t let her laidback nature fool you, she’s just as savvy as any other musician who’s learned the ins and outs of the music industry. There is an indelible aura around the way she sees her brand now.
“A good song’s a good song and that’s in me. I’m in control of that. That’s my job.”
“I started realising that I didn’t need anybody.” Amy looks up, bright-eyed. “That it is in me, it’s all up to me to write the album. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, if you’re with a major label or you have great managers or whatever. A good song’s a good song and that’s in me. I’m in control of that. That’s my job.”
Amy Shark’s CRY FOREVER is out now via Wonderlick/Sony Music Entertainment Australia.
Amy Shark CRY FOREVER Tour 2021
Friday, June 11th (New Show)
Newcastle Entertainment Centre, Newcastle, NSW
Saturday, June 12th
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, NSW
Friday, June 18th
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday, June 19th
Wrest Point Lawns, Hobart, TAS
Friday, June 25th
HOTA, Gold Coast, QLD
Saturday, June 26th
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD
Thursday, July 1st
AEC Theatre, Adelaide, SA
Saturday, July 3rd
RAC Arena, Perth, WA
Tickets to all shows on sale now via Amy Shark’s website.