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Helen of Memphis
Release date: 8.10.18
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After her grandmother passed away in 2015, Amy Stroup inherited a collection of vintage furs and coats, the kind of you might don for a fancy night out on the town 60 or 70 years ago. As Stroup examined the treasure trove of stylish piece, she began to notice that each bore a tag with the same mysterious name printed on it: HELEN OF MEMPHIS. Was it a person? A brand? Curiosity led to research, research led to inspiration, and inspiration ultimately led to an utterly infectious new album. Recorded partly in LA and partly in her adopted hometown of Nashville, ‘Helen Of Memphis’ finds Stroup pushing her songwriting into bold new sonic territory, incorporating bright, electronic pop elements into groove and beat-driven tunes that absolutely bubble over with feminine empowerment and confidence.
“I discovered that Helen of Memphis was a female-owned women’s store in Memphis that was known as the spot to get custom-tailored clothes for special occasions,” says Stroup. “When I put the coats on, I could just imagine my grandmother feeling so good about the way she looked and walking into a party full of confidence. That’s what I wanted for this record, to make an album that you could listen to and step into your own confidence.”
For a decade now, Stroup has been crafting the kind of songs that transport listeners in just such a way, rich with emotional honesty and vivid storytelling. Her music has been featured in dozens of television shows, including This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, Parenthood, and The Walking Dead, as well major national ad campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and Lexus. In addition to her critically acclaimed body of solo work, Stroup is also prolific collaborator, teaming up with Andrew Simple to record as Danger Twins (you’ve likely heard their songs in spots for Google, Universal Studios, and New Balance among others) and partnering with Trent Dabbs for Sugar & The Hi-Lows, a playfully retro duo that Rolling Stone said “built a bridge between the rootsy stomp of early Sun Records tunes and the harmonized swoon of old Brill Building pop songs.” The praise was universal and effusive for the Sugar & The Hi-Lows’ two LPs, with USA Today raving that “the only thing better than the bluesy, garage-rock guitars is Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup's vocal chemistry,” and Marie Claire swooning for “Stroup’s salted-caramel voice.” With a live show to match their albums’ undeniable charm, the pair earned dates with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Kings of Leon, Kacey Musgraves, and Ingrid Michaelson, as well as festival appearances from Austin City Limits to Cayamo.
When it came time to record ‘Helen Of Memphis,’ her third full-length solo album and first since 2015’s ‘Tunnel,’ Stroup decided to leave Nashville and force herself to step beyond the boundaries of her comfort zone.
“I needed to break out of what I call my internal metronome,” explains Stroup. “I love what I do in Nashville and everyone I write and record with there, but I felt like I needed to mix it up, to get out of my usual bubble and find something that I couldn’t experience at home.”
With that in mind, Stroup headed for LA to team up with SUPERCOOKIES members Taylor Dexter and Wesley Singerman, the production team best known for collaborating on beats with hip hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and DRAM. It was a far cry from the Nashville scene she’d grown accustomed to, but Stroup took to it with ease. Along with creative partner Mary Hooper, she and the SUPERCOOKIES team crafted intoxicating instrumental tracks, layering up bass and drum loops and capturing whatever freewheeling vocal melodies they inspired.
“The only rule I had for myself out there was to find something that felt fresh,” explains Stroup. “I wanted my ear to be bent towards cool new sounds that woke me up and made me want to sing along. If something felt honest to me, then I knew it would feel that way for people listening to it.”
The album opens with lead single “Magic,” a funky throwback full of swagger and style that was recorded the same day it was written. Hypnotic in its groove, the song is a celebration, a sonic high five that struts down the street with poise and pride.
“If you see someone else have a little bit of magic in them, it’s awesome to speak that out loud,” says Stroup of the song’s inspiration. “You can find magic everywhere, and sometimes you just need a little reminder that it’s inside you, too.”
While other SUPERCOOKIES productions like the reckless “Thrill Of It” and punchy “Made” explore similar palettes, Stroup collaborated with a host of additional artists and producers on the album, creating a remarkably diverse-yet-cohesive collection. The dreamy “Far Side Of The Sea” builds from acoustic simplicity to a dense, swirling orchestration, while the tender “Go That Far” casts a hushed and intimate trance, and the bittersweet “Lost Ones” offers up a cinematic glimpse inside a racing mind, as Stroup sings, “Why do the lost ones love me / I’ll be the last one to find me.”
“I’ve had so many on and off relationships and wondered out loud why these seemingly ‘lost’ guys fall in love with me,” Stroup says with a laugh. “But I realized that you attract what you are, and maybe that means I’m the lost one. We always like to blame other people when a relationship doesn’t work out, but I wanted to take a super honest look at myself and truly consider that maybe I could change for the better.”
The song is self-reflective without being self-critical, and like so much of the album, it suggests that we treat ourselves with kindness and love and avoid settling for anything less than what we truly deserve. “Fearless,” co-written with her Danger Twins partner Andrew Simple, is a confectionary slice of uplifting pop ready to bust through the glass ceiling, and album closer “Hero,” penned with One Republic’s Tim Meyers, champions the strength and bravery of ordinary folks getting through the day.
Ultimately, that’s the heart of the album, the idea that the simple things about ourselves and each other that we so often take for granted are worth embracing and celebrating. In a world of constant competition and comparison, it can be hard to remember just how remarkable we truly are, but sometimes all it takes is kind word or a loving glance to turn things around. Sometimes all it takes is Helen Of Memphis.
“When people put on their headphones and listen to this record, I want them to feel the way I did putting on my grandmother’s coats,” concludes Stroup. “I want the music to make them feel beautiful and strong and confident. I want it to make the ordinary seem magical.”