Performers in a tribute band always seem like they have big shoes to fill. But when you choose to take on the vocals and style of Amy Winehouse, the shoes are only part of it. Big soul, big voice, big band, big hair…there's a lot more that goes into recreating the magnetic presence of the late, English soul singer. She was a classic artist in a modern era with songs that are still part of today's pop lexicon, even four years after her death. This is something singer Mia Karter understands very well. A year and a half ago, the seasoned vocalist and Winehouse fan took her adoration and talent to the next level.
Donning the “Back to Black” singer's trademark beehive hairdo and stepping on stage with a team of ace musicians, she became the centerpiece of the Amy Winehouse Experience, which plays a wide range of the singer's hits, deep tracks and favorite cover songs. While it might be easy to write this off as a gimmick (especially in the wake of the Amy documentary released last month) those thoughts are quickly dispelled when Karter talks about her reasons for starting the band, her dedication to honoring Winehouse's iconic, short-lived career and her commitment to authenticity (anyone who would take 2-3 hours before sound check to get into costume is definitely the real deal). We recently spoke to Karter before the band's gig at Harvelle's in Long Beach on Saturday.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): What made you really want to do a proper Amy Winehouse tribute band?
Mia Karter: I started the project because I wanted to do a good live show, that was really the motivation. I've been playing and singing around Southern California for a while now and I wanted to do a show that had a horn section and background singers, the whole nine yards. I thought of her because she's amazing and iconic and she does this music that's completely classic and she also covered a lot of old tunes that were classic, And she does a great live show. She worked with producers who were really known for their arrangements and that's what drove me to her music, it really allows the musicians to shine and do their thing. I have roots in a jazz and soul so it was a really great thing to try.
Did you need help putting together such a big backing band or did you already have musicians for the job when you started?
The core element of the band are guys who I've played with for a while for my Top 40 gigs in the past, my drummer's been around the scene for years, my bass player has played with a lot of well known acts, and a lot of people who I've brought on are all seasoned guys. I had to go looking for horn players and that was probably my biggest challenge, finding guys who are into the material and take the time to really get into the project. Obviously when I started the project I didn't know what to expect. We did the first show at Harvelle's in Long Beach a little over a year ago and the reception was killer. The audience was electric, they knew every word to every song and people were just enjoying the show in a way I had never experienced before. I think that her music and her fans are so dedicated to her material. Really it was a chance for them to experience it live, which a lot of them never had that chance and never will, I think that's what really resonates with people.
Do you find yourself trying to get into character or act like Amy on stage?
We tried not to make it too gimmicky. I do an accent but I don't push too hard to be exactly like her. The goal is really more to honor her and her music rather than impersonate her. A lot of people ask me questions like “do you stumble around on stage?” No, that's not what we're doing here. We're celebrating her legacy, we're celebrating her music, she obviously had a really unique voice and I use her vocal stylings. But no one can be Amy Winehouse, so more than anything I think it was just about playing the music well and to bring it to life. And I really think that's what we've done here.
How far do you dig into her song catalog in addition to the hits like “Back to Black” and “Valerie,” etc?
Of course we do play the hits that people know and we play songs that were phenomenally written, songs like “Take the Box,” which was an early song for her, but it's so well written and it's got these beautiful dissonant chords and a really beautiful arrangement. We also do “Mr. Magic” which is a funky play on the Grover Washington song. We also incorporate a lot of the covers that she did. We do “It's My Party” by Leslie Gore, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” songs that people love that also bring a lot of life to the show. Typically the first half we play more of her slower, moodier songs and the second half of the set is where we bring all the funky, soulful dance tunes out.
After doing this band for over a year, have you developed more of a connection to Amy's music than you had before?
As a singer and a songwriter, I always connected to her music. She made everything super personal and you can feel her pain in her music. You see a lot of the criticism of Amy Winehouse and you see the tabloid image that was created about her. And it's really tragic because she was suffering from addiction and it's something that's all around us in the world and she talks about it very openly, she talks about her tumultuous relationships…I just think as a person and as a young woman, you can identify with a lot of messages she puts out there. And I think as an artist you identify with that struggle to put your heart on your sleeve and into your music. I never thought this project was something I would continue to do. And now we're headed to Las Vegas in two weeks and we're in talks with other venues who are really interested in working with us and I think there's such a huge reception for this project because she was a fascinating character, she was an open book.
In terms of her style, how long does it take you to get into costume?
Like 2-3 hours, man. It's a journey. I don't know how she did that every day. It's a lot of work. You have to do a hair piece and then put your hair up into it, it takes a really long time. I have someone who makes all her dresses custom just like Amy's, she also does the hair and the makeup. We're also starting to put together an authentic set design, these vintage lamps she used to have on stage and other unique elements to her style. That's what we chose Harvelle's to do a show because it's this really sexy, cool theater and a lot of the shows she did, those were the types of venues she chose. They have the old style big stage with chandeliers hanging down, velvet curtains and that sort of vibe. It's really inspiring to perform in environments like that.
Do you envision this project developing more as a touring act? Are you looking to expand the kinds of gigs you guys do in the future?
We were in Vegas over the weekend and we came to find out there's actually a demand for this, people really want an Amy Winehouse tribute band. There's a couple really top notch ones in the UK but there's not much in the States and people wanna see it. So there is a demand for it. I'm really open, obviously as an artist I have other projects I'm working on and I have my own music and things in the works that are my own, I still to Top 40 bands. But in terms of plans, I'm just letting it do what it needs to do. Wherever the band is needed, we're ready to go, but obviously it had to make sense for us.
Do you have a short list of songs you really enjoy performing as Amy?
“Tears Dry on Their Own” comes across so amazingly well live. The horns and the mix of that song is great. “You Know I'm No Good,” is always a fun, sexy song I love to play. And “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” is a ballad but it's really taken on a new meaning when I play it, because you do wonder about that as an artist. And I think Amy made a few comments where she talks about her greatest fear being not remembered for any contribution in music. And even though that fear doesn't have a place anymore, it's interesting how her legacy continues to grow even after she's been gone.
DRK Productions presents the Amy Winehouse Experience at Harvelle's in Long Beach on Saturday May 14 9:30 p.m. $20 for general admission $30 for lounge seating. For full details, click here.