The trail to Amy Shark’s second album, the self-lacerating ‘Cry Forever’, was first blazed on a sub-zero winter’s night in Berlin. It was January 2019 and the Gold Coast singer-songwriter was far from the sun, bunkered down in the back of her tour bus outside the 1,500-capacity Festsaal Kreuzberg club. Shark was touring Europe to promote her breakthrough debut album, ‘Love Monster’, and the record’s scary creatures were coming back out to play.
“It was freezing cold with a million things going on at home which I needed to sort out,” the 34-year-old tells NME. “I was missing certain people and missing certain events, so I’d get super down – and then play a show and feel like a legend. It was so fucked. The best thing I did was write about it.”
By the next morning Shark had not only the first two songs she would write for ‘Cry Forever’ – the bittersweet but unbowed semi-acoustic anthem ‘Worst Day Of My Life’ and the lilting, regret-laden ballad ‘Lonely Still’ – but also a guiding principle: she would put everything into her songs. No cost was prohibitive. If they drew blood then she would apply bandages. If she disappeared into them, she would find a way out.
Shark remembers another night when she was alone in a Sydney hotel, traipsing the hallways after midnight listening to the drafts of a new song on her headphones. The staff would offer concerned glances, but Shark kept walking. She was at her “lowest”, but there was a song in reach. At 1am she e-mailed a demo to her husband of eight years and co-manager, Shane Billings – he reminded her she had a 6am start, but Shark kept writing. By dawn she had the core of ‘C’mon’, a percussive, alt-pop plea for support that Shark would eventually finish with producer and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
“I wish I could control that need, but it’s a doubled-edged blade for me,” Shark says. “It’s not a job for me to write songs. I love it and I do it all time and I use it to get through moments where I meet strange people who either inspire me or let me down. I can’t control that. I don’t ask myself if I really want to cut myself open – I just do it without even knowing.”
Released last Friday, ‘Cry Forever’ is Shark’s attempt to tie together her many strands: the arena-filling pop star; the songwriter who just wants to be alone while her guitar gently weeps; the imperfect individual who doesn’t want to censor herself; the artist still trying to figure out who in the music industry sees her as a friend and who sees her as a money-spinner; and the woman trying to underpin her personal life after a sometimes fraught upbringing.
“This is the time to showcase who I’m meant to be, but as an artist I’m passionate and deep and I have a mountain of issues I’m still working through,” Shark says. “I’m never claiming to be perfect. There’s a million things in my life I’m not proud of. Everyone is the same, but I’m just the idiot who writes about it.”
Shark talks about herself with a degree of self-knowledge gained from struggle and anonymity. She was 30 years old, with teenage bands, day jobs, and solo personas in her rear-view mirror, when the yearning single ‘Adore’ went from independent release to number three on the charts and then number two on the triple j Hottest 100. For ‘Love Monster’ she got stuck into a three-year-cycle of promotion and touring – and the nagging thought that she must better it second time around.
“The second I start feeling comfortable and know what I’m doing these random curveballs start flying at me. When you think you’re a people person and have everyone figured out, you just don’t,” Shark explains. “I’m still Amy Shark – I’m going to talk about deep shit, I have a potty mouth occasionally. You try to get it right and try not to let anyone down. It will never feel normal.”
“My life has so many complicated people in it. It’s great for songwriting, but hard on the heart and daily living”
As ‘Cry Forever’ came together, Shark made some changes. Recently she and Billings relocated from the Gold Coast, the only home she’s ever known, to Sydney’s inner-east. She was worried she was too prominent on the Gold Coast “and annoying everyone”. It’s quite the culture shift – “it’s so different,” she confirms with a laugh – but will also save time as she looks to not only match her initial success in Australia, but also continue making headway in the US – where she lowered the lights on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon – and Europe.
Shark has collected the ARIA Award for Best Pop Release three times; only Kylie Minogue has more wins. But she’s aware of the music industry’s other increasingly public realities. Only weeks ago Tony Glover, an executive at Sony Music Australia, the record company Shark is signed to through the boutique label Wonderlick, was sacked after an investigation uncovered allegations he had bullied and harassed staff members.
“I haven’t experienced that, but I know people that have,” she says, speaking broadly about music’s #MeToo issues. “I think my label is doing what it had to do.”
Shark, too, has sometimes felt compelled to act decisively. In 2017, after the flush of first success, her birth father – who the singer hadn’t heard from in 15 years and who had separated from Shark’s mother when she was still just a baby – tried to re-enter her life. Shark wasn’t having it. “It must suck knowing ur daughter got all this way on her own!” she tweeted. “Now beat it! I’m busy.”
“My life has so many complicated people in it. It’s great for songwriting, but hard on the heart and daily living,” Shark says now. And as dismissive as her initial tweet was, matters aren’t truly complete in Shark’s world until she’s written about them. So atop folk guitar fingerpicking Shark tells her life story as a wrenching struggle against abandonment and its wounds on ‘Amy Shark’, the closing track on ‘Cry Forever’: “I needed help, I needed love, I needed care, I needed a hug, I needed praise, I needed time with you.”
“There are songs on this album where I’m like, ‘why did I do that, now I have to talk about it’, and that was the hardest,” Shark says. “But I have to weigh it: do I suck it up and put these songs out to show people the artist I want to be, because it will help people listening to it who won’t feel so shit after listening?”
Shark likes to joke that songwriting is her closest and longest lasting relationship – “We’ve had moments, but we’re pretty tight” – but reality confirms that. Until she let in Ed Sheeran, her co-writer on the new album’s ‘Love Songs Ain’t For Us’, she’d never actually sat in the room with a co-writer, preferring to retreat to a private space just like that tour bus in Berlin. When you’re Amy Shark, that’s what’s at stake.
“If I sacrifice my songwriting, my music is shit and my career would be gone,” Shark says. “I’d be a fraud if I wrote about things that didn’t mean anything to me. I’d be over.”
Amy Shark’s ‘Cry Forever’ is out now