She took to the stage dressed like a biker’s girlfriend, sheathed from top to bottom in tight, black leather. As her band kicked into its opening song, a loud, menacing rock number called Still Got This Thing, she gave her bass player a shove, tossed her head of raven curls back and laughed. After belting out the final words to the song, she tore off her studded jacket and yelled: “Hello, America. Are you ready to rock?” It was the first night of Alannah Myles’s first U.S. tour. And at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn., last week, the raspy-voiced Canadian singer drew a chorus of whistles and cheers. In fact, before she had even completed her second song, the frenzied Rock This Joint, Myles had the audience of more than 500 mouthing the words and clapping along. When that number was over, she leapt into the air with a dramatic kung fu kick and told the crowd: “You’re great. You put Canadian audiences to shame.”
America has a special place in Myles’s heart. For 10 years, Canadian record companies had consistently rejected her, so the Toronto singer turned to Atlantic Records in New York City, which recorded her debut album, Alannah Myles, and released it in Canada and the United States a year ago. The record went on to be a huge success in Canada, producing four hit singles and selling more than 600,000 copies—making it the highest-selling debut album by a Canadian artist. And last week, it swept the Canadian music industry’s Juno Awards, winning five prizes, including best album and best single, while securing Myles the award for most promising female vocalist.
Now the album appears to be conquering America. Black Velvet, a bluesy rock number from the album, has been No. 1 on the U.S. charts for two weeks. And with Myles currently on a 30-city U.S. tour, American audiences are beginning to discover her tough-girl charms firsthand. Said rock-band drummer Arnie Couzzo, 23, who attended last week’s New Haven concert: “She’s awesome—she looks great and sounds great.”
Myles has managed to join the small legion of female musicians who have established themselves playing a harder brand of rock. With a carefully crafted, sexy image and a meticulously produced sound, she is a record company’s dream come true: an artist who is primed and packaged for commercial success. That winning formula is the product of a team led by MuchMusic video jockey Christopher Ward, Myles’s ex-boyfriend. Ward, along with producer David Tyson, wrote most of the songs on
the album. Tyson’s production work on the record, meanwhile, offered Top 40 radio a clever mix of hard-rocking numbers and sultry ballads, with just enough hints of blues and country to set it apart from other pop releases. And with the help of another friend, video director Deborah Samuel, Myles—who refuses to give her age, but is in her early 30s— has shaped an image that fulfils stereotypical male fantasies yet still appeals to many women. Said Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary owner of Atlantic Records, which pioneered such talents as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin: “She has what makes an artist popular—a combination of talent, material and production.”
Myles appears to possess an unshakable selfassurance, and that has led to charges of
arrogance. After her victory at the Juno Awards, the singer displayed her trademark bravado at a private champagne celebration attended by Ertegun, her U.S. manager, Danny Goldberg, her family and Canadian country and western star k.d. lang. When officials from Atlantic presented her with six platinum awards to mark her Canadian sales of 600,000 copies, Myles joked, “Where’s the rest of them?” Later, she told Maclean ’s: “I wouldn’t have made it without a lot of confidence.” When asked how she came by it, Myles nar-
rowed her emerald eyes and said, “I was born with it.”
Myles—who adopted her surname when she became a performer—is the second of five children born to broadcaster William Byles and his wife, Sheilagh. Her father, who owned Toronto’s Celebrity Club—a well-known watering hole—and discovered the comedy duo Wayne and Shuster, was instrumental in leading her into the entertainment world. At dinner parties, he would ask the teenage Alannah to get her guitar and sing for the guests. “We were a close family,” recalled Alannah’s sister, Nuala, a graphic artist. “But there was always competition between the kids—we were all striving for attention from our parents.” She added, “My dad, who died two years ago, loved the fact that he had this entertaining daughter—she really took after him.”
Dividing her time between the family’s Toronto home and their horse ranch in Buckhorn, Ont., north of Peterborough, Myles—an avid horseback rider—listened to singers including Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and began dreaming of a music career. In 1980, she met Ward, himself a pop musician. When he and his band embarked on a tour of the Maritimes, she went along as a backup singer and occasional opening act. Ward says that in those early days, Myles was a “shy, folksy” singer. He added that, after becoming involved with Myles romantically, he began to groom her, introducing her to the music of artists such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. Said Ward: “There was a lot of passion between us. And when you care about somebody so much, you invariably put your stamp on them.”
Still, Ward insists that Myles possessed a strong personality even then. And while he was developing his TV career, she was working as a makeup artist, interior designer and model. The two continued to pursue music in their spare time. Said Ward: “It became apparent to me that Alannah was a much better singer than me.” But, Ward says, the constant rejection by record companies was daunting—“I began to wonder whether I was just too involved with her and couldn’t see what was wrong.” According to Myles, everything changed in 1984 when she and Ward—who broke up two years ago—met Toronto-based Tyson, an aspiring producer and a successful songwriter who had written material for Joe Cocker and Donna Summer. The trio began to polish both the material and Myles’s vocal style. Said Myles: “I knew then that Christopher and David were the people that I’d have success with.”
Ward says the material he writes for Myles has to reflect her philosophy of “I won’t be held back—I am what I am.” But Myles, who wrote only one song, Lover of Mine, on her debut album, says that “you can look for a great deal of songs written by me on the next album.” That will undoubtedly please her female fans, who seem to find in her a strong role model—a woman, says Myles, who is not afraid to be labelled a sex symbol. She added: “Perhaps I can bring a contemporariness to that image so that it doesn’t have to be submissive. It can still be very ‘Hey, don’t mess with me.’ ”
That brash sexual authority was in strong evidence in New Haven. At Toad’s Place, where the Rolling Stones appeared last August, Myles strutted, shook and shimmied like a raunchy female Mick Jagger—much to the delight of the young audience, mostly Yale University students. “She comes out all sexy and yet she’s hard rock,” said Joanne Silvestri, a 24-year-old nurse. “She shows that women can do it just as good as men.” Using aggressive sexuality and a rugged voice as her tools, Myles is breaking her way into the still largely male domain of rock ’n’ roll. And if her brazen approach to selling herself alienates some people, that matters little to Myles. For now, she is sitting pretty at the top of the charts.
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