Interview: Alannah Myles Talks Songwriting, Creating Art and the Enduring Appeal of Black Velvet

Alannah Myles poses in a red leather bustier and velvet skirt agin front of a light purple wall

Toronto-born singer/songwriter Alannah Myles has a voice which has been heard around the world. Her first album Alannah Myles was released in March 1989 and its signature hit “Black Velvet” soared to chart-topping status during the following months. The album (which also featured the hit singles “Love Is” and  “Still Got This Thing”) sold 1.2 million copies in her home country, making her the first female artist to achieve Diamond status in Canada. In Early 1991, the song swept the JUNO Awards earning the song’s writers (Christopher Ward and David Tyson) the Composer of the Year Award. Myles’s recording won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, topping heavyweight nominees including Janet Jackson and Tina Turner.

“Black Velvet” continues to move audiences and is played on radio stations daily throughout the world. On June 10th, the song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) and performed during the virtual ceremony by Canadian artists Serena Ryder and Damhnait Doyle, along with writer Ward. In this interview, Myles talks about the enduring appeal of “Black Velvet, making her mark in songwriting, her trailblazing style (and the artists that imitated her) and which rock star’s daughter she would like to see portray her in the movie of her life.

Jason: How have you been during the pandemic?

Alannah Myles: Probably better than most others as I was more prepared for hibernation resulting from an injury to my left femur that has left me instead of housebound by choice, bedbound by force for the past four years. A litigious twist of fate obstructing requisite independence for conducting a recording career.

Jason: Was your authentic style back then, the black leather, studs, red heels all of your own choosing? Other groups of the time such as Heart later admitted they felt pressure to adapt to fit what was considered “sexy” in music culture.

Alannah Myles: Funny you should ask, I designed my own wardrobe for stage and photos using the finest Italian tailor made soft leather stovepipe chaps, studded British black leather biker jackets and a French lace vintage bustier that was by 1990 “displayed” by George Marciano for his Guess ad depicting a young Claudia Schiffer wearing the same bustier which had been sculpted for her by Frederick’s of Hollywood. Frederick’s were hired to copy it from my “Black Velvet” video for the subsequent 40 million selling jeans ad. In the latter half of that same year, 1989, you may recall a white man’s work shirt and jeans worn in my BV video that appeared on Brook Shields’ pre-adolescent figure in Calvin Klein ads. Tina Turner’s 1989 single “Simply the Best” in a white work shirt and jeans, mounted on a horse no less. By some examples given, one might say my wardrobe choices rather influenced the end of ’80s fashion to a degree. I loved haute couture and all things attached to it. I loved being rebellious but feminine. I was selling strength in my music, in a man’s world owned then by men.

Jason: “Black Velvet” has been played over five million times on US radio and here in Newfoundland, Canada there’s hardly a day when it’s not played on one of our local radio stations. When thinking back on hit songs from ’89–90 this one absolutely stood the test of time. Singing competition show performers still sing it. Other songs from the same time don’t receive this level of airplay in 2021. There’s no falseness to be found in its presentation. Why do you believe the song, and more importantly, your version resonates strongly?

Alannah Myles: It is a country blues song with a chorus. Ushering in a time when country music won the hearts of the masses away from disco, punk and grunge music. If it was a crappy song no one would remember it. I recently saw producer Quincy Jones state, “A Great singer can make a song a hit, but a bad song can destroy a Great singer.” In my case, “Black Velvet” was written for my debut album, tailored for my voice by it having been whispered to me upon first listen. There was never a demo of it presented to me. What we did and the time we took with it in the recording studio was the magic that brought it to life. To this day it still gives me mysterious shivers if I happen to hear it on YouTube. I don’t understand the popularity of the song as opposed to any other, but I do understand the breadth of emotion conjured from listening to it.

Jason: I read in an early interview of yours where you expressed doubt in your songwriting. Has your confidence in songwriting grown since then?

Alannah Myles: Nope, not really, probably why I have dozens upon dozens of unrecorded songs. Everything I wrote or write cannot compare to the popularity of BV. Still doesn’t mean I haven’t written a better song, just haven’t recorded it yet.

Jason: In what other ways do you create art besides in your music? Sometimes there’s an overlap of art forms… I’m curious what your overlap is?

Alannah Myles: What used to be a fast paced physically active life has become sedentary of late in part due to old age and circumstance. Galloping horses through forests and fields has turned into necessary creation of digital formats, royalty management, budgeting the finances to graphics and presentation.

Jason: I thought your 1995 album A-lan-nah was your most inspired, organic work. however the public didn’t warm to it. Do you feel the public expects an artist to stay in one lane and make the same thing over again?

Alannah Myles: I’m only lucky I stayed in the same lane for the 15 minutes I was famous for my music. I bore easily and need to sing music that demands more from my voice.

After completing three albums for Atlantic Records (WMG), 1989’s Alannah Myles, 1992’s Rockinghorse (which featured the hit song “Song Instead of a Kiss” and “Our World Our Times”) and 1995’s folk-tinged A-lan-nah, Myles ended her relationship with the label and decided to release subsequent albums independently. It was then when Myles realized Atlantic had been withholding money from her during those years. She found herself in her own words, “scraping by the barrel wondering how I was going to pay my rent.” Her first royalty check for “Black Velvet” arrived to her on April 1, 2008, 20 years after she recorded the song. Myles had paid out $7 million in expenditures from 1988 to 1995 to make the albums, expenditures Atlantic billed her for, even as her albums made over $160 million in sales. In 1998, Myles was also the victim of a smear article published in the Canadian newspaper The National Post which alleged her career stalled due to drug use. She sued and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. She used that settlement money to finance her next album and forged ahead focusing her energy to her true love: songwriting.

Jason: You’ve been very open regarding being taken advantage of by labels, lawyers, and the media while still following your impulse and passion for creating music. Were there any songs in particular which were born from your struggles or directed at those who did you wrong?

Alannah Myles: There are too many to tell. Every song in which I have invested my time and energy was like a child to me. It had to be disciplined before I set it loose upon a critical world. I’ll have to save some stories for a publication I question who would ever want to read.

Jason: Even today artists are being taken advantage of, the most glaring example being Taylor Swift yet she, like yourself, reclaimed her place and made her setbacks hers. In certain aspects the industry hasn’t changed in this regard.

Alannah Myles: Now that I have waited and watched how the great big machine works, I’m happy not to be become a part of it again. I own my publishing and soon I will own copyrights to all 3three of my Atlantic albums. I’m in a good place and thanks to having had my second Covid vaccine, things can only getting better.

Jason: Rock biopics have become popular and huge over the past few years. If a movie or Netfilx series of your life were to be made, who would you like to direct it and portray you in the role?

Alannah Myles: Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson.

Side by side photo of Alannah Myles and Eve Hewson

Jason: This isn’t a question but a dear friend of mine wanted to share this with you:

“Please let Alannah know how impressionable she was on younger females like myself at the time. We were trying to find ourselves and needing role models to look up to. She was a cool cat with style and what seemed like a kick-ass attitude…and please tell her what an amazing voice she has!”

This is the question: what does that mean when somebody says something such as this to you?

Alannah Myles: A great deal more than the millions my music has made for me but mostly others.

Visit Alannah Myles official website and follow on Facebook

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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