Musician SHAWN AMOS On The Ups, Downs Of Family Fame

His father is Wally Amos, creator of the "Famous Amos" chocolate chip cookie brand and his mom, a former beauty queen and nightclub singer. Yet, Shawn Amos' childhood was not all sweetness. Despite dealing with his parents' divorce and his mother's long struggle with mental illness, he went on to become a successful producer and singer. Host Michel Martin speaks with Amos about his family, his music career and his new album, entitled "Harlem."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Shawn Amos is a musician, singer and songwriter. He's a record producer and an online blogger. Few areas of the entertainment world are unfamiliar to him. Now that's partly because of his own career experience. But partly because of his dad, Wally Amos, who was a talent agent and personal manager before he became famous for his cookies, Famous Amos cookies.

Now Shawn Amos is here with us to talk about his new album "Harlem" and whatever else is on his mind. We hope - we know there are some other things on his mind. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SHAWN AMOS (Musician): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Why "Harlem" and why now? In fact, I - there's an interesting backstory to this. Actually, you composed these songs quite a long time ago. So, why now?

Mr. AMOS: I wrote "Harlem" and recorded it about 10 years ago at the same time I was working as an A&R executive at Rhino Records. And I produced a box set called "Rhapsodies in Black," which is a four-CD disc box of spoken word and music from the Harlem Renaissance period.

And I had a real passion for it and it was sort of a - it helped a lot. It helped me a lot work through some self-identity stuff. And at the same time I was producing that box, I recorded these songs quite privately and shared them with a few friends. And the mixture of sort of the autobiographical nature of it and it was a pretty twangy-sounding record, a lot of banjoes and acoustic guitars. It felt like it didn't quite fit in to what was going on at the time.

And I put it away. I think I was partly afraid to reveal that much of myself. I think that I didn't want to fight a battle of trying to convince somebody that, you know, no, it really does make sense. You just have to listen to it.

MARTIN: Yeah, try to convince them that your baby is cute. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No.

Mr. AMOS: As a father of three I can relate to that. So, yes, I stuck it away. I moved on to other things. And flash forward to last year, my oldest daughter, who's nine, (unintelligible) upon this record. And she was playing it in her room. And took a lot of pride in Daddy's recordings and she was singing along to some of the songs.

And it got me thinking about the record again on a number of levels, like, wow, I'm not that guy anymore, but I kind of feel a lot of the same things. And, wow, how far I've come. And, also, the music made a lot more sense now than it made then, things that happened and that make the record seem less of a fish-out-of-water now.

MARTIN: You think people are more accepting of different genres, in a way.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah, particularly with black artists. I think, you know, there was a time when, you know, early '90s for sure where if you weren't a hip-hop artist, it was sort of tough to be a black artist.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that family - the theme of family is central to this album and also it's this album being birthed, it seems to me. A number of the songs on the album speak to that search for place, to find a place where you feel at home. I'm thinking about "Independence Day" and I'm so excited that you brought your guitar, because I'm hoping we'll hear something.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: Are you going to play "Independence Day" for us?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is that what you feel like playing?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. This is Shawn Amos and he's singing "Independence Day." It's from his new album called "Harlem."

(Soundbite of song, "Independence Day")

Mr. AMOS: (Singing) Independence Day, 1921, Miller's bending over cotton in the Carolina sun. His back is broken. The southern star has fallen by a firecracker fuse. Never did believe when they told us to our face those days are over. We're strangers in this land still. We're strangers in this land still. Oh, yes I'll say it plain, I'll quote the words of Mr. Hughes, America has never been America to me. Yet, I swear this oath as long as I can breathe, America will be a seed that grows deep in the heart of me. Deep in the heart of me. We're going up to the promised land. Going up, we're going up. Going up to Harlem. I'm going to Harlem.

MARTIN: Shawn Amos, singing "Independence Day." It's on his new album, "Harlem."

Shawn, you were telling us a minute ago that you're not that guy anymore. Do you still feel that way, that America has never been America to me, it's just a dream? Do you still feel that way?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. I realize that a lot of the themes on the record, themes of otherness, themes of sort of looking for your tribe, are more universal than what I thought them to be at the time I wrote the record. So while I feel infinitely more comfortable in my own skin, literally and figuratively, I still feel that for a lot of people, they feel an otherness. That whole - that line that we're strangers in this land speaks to a lot of different groups in a lot of different circumstances, whereas, at the time, it was pretty much about me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, it is, it's interesting. It is the personal story against the backdrop of the larger story. In fact, the cover art I wanted mention is an African-American man, and his mouth is painted over and his eyes are covered with blue stars. And his mouth is kind of covered with a white-and-red stripe, so kind of like evoking a flag. And he's - it looks like one of those classic, like, 19th-century portraits of an African-American man. And there is a theme, like, some of the songs about "Vicksburg," "Southern Man," "Blackface," it does speak to the African-American struggle sort of more broadly.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: But then on a more personal level, that feeling of not fitting in. Why do you think you felt that?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. It was on a number of levels. You know, one, because of my father's success and his fame, which occurred at, you know, my formative years, he was able to have me live a kind of life that he was not able to live. And so I lived in fairly well-to-do, white neighborhoods and I went to private schools. And I was the only black face in the crowd from the time I was born until the time I was in high school.

On another level, you know, my mother - I had a mother who was severely mentally ill, and I couldn't - and the line between reality and fantasy was a very blurry one growing up for me. That didn't help, either. And then I guess the third part of it is that I had a father who, like a lot of men of his generation, you know, he was also, like, a hustler. And he was hustling and making his thing happen, and his career came first. And so...

MARTIN: Wasn't around a lot?

Mr. AMOS: Running - wasn't around a lot. And even when he was around, he wasn't present, you know, and a lot of my thing was about, you know, hello, I'm here, you know.

MARTIN: So you were kind of lightly parented.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMOS: The quintessential latchkey kid, for sure.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. AMOS: And so all those things really left me sort of like, you know, the ship without a rudder. And I had to figure this stuff out with no one to sort of turn to, and so that's sort of the conversation that's been going on in my head for long time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with singer, songwriter and record producer Shawn Amos. We're talking about his new record "Harlem."

Picking up on that thread, you published a very - I would have to say very poignant series of articles for Huffington Post about your upbringing. What do you call it, "Cookies & Milk?"

Mr. AMOS: "Cookies & Milk."

MARTIN: "Cookies & Milk."

Mr. AMOS: "Scenes From a '70s Hollywood Childhood."

MARTIN: "Scenes From a '70s Hollywood Childhood." And there's this crazy picture of your dad in a - what is this? A caftan...

Mr. AMOS: Dashiki.

MARTIN: ...or like a floor-length Dashiki.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And he seems to be mixing up some of his Famous Amos cookies...

Mr. AMOS: Yup.

MARTIN: ...cookie dough. And here you are in a little Dashiki...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...with a cowboy hat and some sandals. It's very groovy.

Mr. AMOS: Nothing says '70s like Dashikis and cowboy hats.

MARTIN: Nothing says '70s like Dashikis. But you talk about, you know, you had this very privileged childhood in some ways, but before, that there was a lot of chaos and, you know, disorder attached to it. I mean, you talked about, at some to point, you know, living on Sunset Strip, which was...

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. It was a little, you know...

MARTIN: You know, where, you know, frankly, a lot of your kind of maternal figures were the prostitutes in the neighborhood, or the sex workers...

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and so forth. And then to go from there, right, that was the early period, I guess, before your dad hit it, right?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Then to being kind of well-off.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: That must have been very confusing.

Mr. AMOS: It was a fairly schizophrenic, you know, life - I mean, literally and figuratively. My mother suffered from schizoaffective disorders and, you know, she was quite literally, you know, living in a lot of different worlds and my life was a lot of different worlds. I could be at the Comedy Store one night with my father, and, you know, the next morning be waiting for my carpool in the corner with hookers being dropped off from their night of work.

The cookie store he opened Sunset Boulevard, his first store was on Sunset near Formosa near La Brea. And at the time, it was not a happening spot, you know, and there were all sorts of bizarre characters used to float in and out of there, you know, drug dealers and vice squad folks. And so it was a pretty no-holds-barred, you know, upbringing.

And at the time, it didn't seem that unusual. I mean, it's only when you look back at these things - and what prompted me to write this, again, was my kids. And I was thinking one day God, my daughter will when she turned eight, I'm like, when I was eight, like, the stuff I saw at the age of eight, like my -it's nowhere on my daughter's roadmap at all.

And so to realize that the things she will never see and never encounter because times have changed, because of how she's grown up differently, because of my commitment to parenthood, that was a really profound thing, and I wanted to sort of document that, in part, for her and then, in part, again, to help sort of reconcile this thing inside of me.

MARTIN: I was curious, though, why you decided to talk about these things at this time, because I'm sure that a lot of people will - they can conjure your father's face, like, no problem. You know, they can see the cookies, right, with his picture on it, looking really smiling and happy. And he looks like -forgive me - you know, like how Uncle Ben, for some people, conjures these feelings of warmth and joy. Was there any of that for you, or was it all just loneliness and, you know, needing a parent to be there who wasn't a there?

Mr. AMOS: You know, it totally was - you know, at the time, I didn't realize what I was missing until I created it as an adult for my own children. So if you talked to me back then, I wouldn't have, you know, snuck away and gone, oh my God. Get me out of here. It's crazy. I felt I had a fairly normal upbringing, because kids adapt.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of people think that great art comes from great pain. Do you think that that's true?

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. I mean, it does. I mean, look, there's no doubt. I think great art comes from extreme feelings, whether it's extreme joy, extreme pain, extreme fear. I think going to those extremes brings out some pretty beautiful and frightening, you know, and illustrative stuff. So I used to think, yeah, I had to perform from a place of pain, and I don't think that anymore.

The hardest thing is to think you're alone, right? The hardest thing is to think, you know, I'm the only one going with this. No one - you know, and I think by sharing stories, you realize we're all have more in common than we think, and that's comforting.

MARTIN: What are you going to play now?

Mr. AMOS: I'm going to play "Mean as You."

MARTIN: "Mean as You."

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell us about it.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. So, you know, it's funny. I wrote this song, actually, for my grandmother. My...

MARTIN: Was she mean?

Mr. AMOS: She was mean.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMOS: My father's mother Ruby. Ruby Amos was a domestic who grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and she was a tough, mean, old, illiterate woman, and was, you know, from the day she was born till the day she died.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. AMOS: And she was the victim of her, you know, circumstance, and she cleaned people's houses during the day and, you know, came home at night and...

MARTIN: Was mean.

Mr. AMOS: ...was mean. And my father loved her regardless. And it's funny. She had to be banned from my father's cookie store because she would harass the customers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. To do what? To buy more or buy less?

Mr. AMOS: You know, all I gathered someone would be smacking their food, you know, close, close your mouth. Close it. And she just is a trip. But anyway, she passed away, and I saw it affected my father. And I was - it was profound, like how someone so mean could - and this is the refrain of the song - how someone who's so mean can actually mean so much to somebody.

MARTIN: Okay. Let's hear it.

Mr. AMOS: So here we go.

MARTIN: "Mean as You." Here it is. Shawn Amos from his new album, "Harlem."

(Soundbite of song, "Mean as You")

Mr. AMOS: (Singing) Ol' Ruby just lyin' there, in her sleep she's unaware. Took a sharp hit to the chest to bring that woman down. Now, I guess I'm the lucky one, 'cause to see me this way you'd slap me and say, boy stop all that whimpering. Didn't I teach you anything?

And I never met anyone, I never met anyone, I never met anyone who could mean so much to me, and be as mean as you, be as mean as you, be as mean as you.

I never met anyone. I never met anyone. I'll never know anyone who means so much to me, and be so goddamn mean, be as mean as you, be as mean as you.

Goodbye my baby, goodbye my baby.

MARTIN: That's Shawn Amos singing "Mean as You." It's on his new album, "Harlem."

So what's next? You seem like you've figured some things out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMOS: Game over.

MARTIN: What are you going to do now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMOS: I'm going to finish working on the "Cookies & Milk" stuff.

MARTIN: What do you mean? A memoir.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're going to write a - the pieces that you published in Huffington Post are kind of like the opening...

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. This is...

MARTIN: ...foray into the memoir.

Mr. AMOS: And I'm working with an unlikely a collaborator, Garcelle Bouvier, who's an actress, to produce a film version of it. So...

MARTIN: Garcelle Bouvier. We've seen her on "NYPD Blue." Right.

Mr. AMOS: Yeah. Exactly.

MARTIN: The prosecutor.

Mr. AMOS: And she's...

MARTIN: The really cute one.

Mr. AMOS: She's a very cute prosecutor. The cutest prosecutor you'll ever want. So we're working together on a film about this, and playing the songs and taking them around, and that's - and being a dad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. AMOS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And good luck with everything. Maybe when the memoir comes out, you'll come and see us again and tell us more about the story of Wally and all that went into making Shawn Amos, Shawn Amos.

Shawn Amos is a singer, songwriter, record producer and blogger. His new album is called "Harlem," and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Shawn Amos, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. AMOS: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Fire Down Below")

Mr. AMOS: (Singing) I hear the jay hawks in the morning. It's my early warning.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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