Q+A: Mina Moore on her Amy Winehouse Tribute

The Minneapolis singer-songwriter on her show covering Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” and why she’s staying faithful to the original

When Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mina Moore talks about Amy Winehouse, you hear the warmth and respect that popular culture afforded the late London-born star too late.

Back in the mid-2000s, Winehouse mixed up pop music by claiming jazz and old-school R&B as her touchstones—heard both in the phrasing habits of her deep, multi-textured voice as well as in the wall-of-sound production behind her ’60s girl-group rhythms and Motown vibe. Yet, in the legacy by which many have decided to remember her after she died in 2011, music often seems to come second to an image that was largely beyond her control: that of the artist who closed our culture’s “rehab glam” era—when media heartlessly scrutinized celebrities’ struggles, as described in the 2015 documentary Amy.

On September 2 and 3, Moore places Winehouse’s musical genius—the one that earned her all the critical acclaim and Grammys—center stage at the Dakota Jazz Club, singing Back to Black, 2008’s Best Pop Vocal Album, in its entirety.

Known for her soulful, smooth voice and beautifully measured phrasing, Moore performs with members of Bon Iver, Sonny Knight and the Lakers, Nooky Jones, Courageous Endeavors, and more. She has also partnered with Create Opportunity 2020, a “movement to connect young women and women of color with those in the arts and creative people,” Moore says, “to try to close the visibility gap.” To that end, she adds, “Amy’s story is a great one—it’s about the value of self-care, about feminism, and about being yourself.”

Moore told us about her personal connection to Back to Black and Winehouse and explained why she’s choosing to perform a faithful rendition of the record. (Join us in keeping tabs on Moore; her first EP, Amongst Ourselves, is due out soon.)

MnMo: How did the idea for an Amy Winehouse tribute show occur to you?

Moore: I’ve wanted to sing either an Amy Winehouse show or a Fiona Apple show for a while. I thought it would be great to stage live performances of one of their records—they’re such productions. I was imagining: Where would it be? The Dakota, I thought, would be great. It was just one thing I was sitting on; I hadn’t really taken any action. Then, I got invited to sing with Har Mar [Superstar] for his Sam Cooke tribute. I remember, during soundcheck [at the Dakota], I sang “A Change Is Gonna Come” [by Cooke], and the people working at the club were like, “Who are you, and why aren’t you singing here?” I was like, “Well, funny you should ask. Let’s make that happen!” And so, I was looking at their drink menu, just sitting around, and I saw that they had an Amy Winehouse cocktail. Some things just feel symbolic to you. I thought, that’s a good sign.

MnMo: What is it about Amy’s music, and Fiona Apple’s, that makes you want to perform it?

Moore: There are two big reasons. One of them is not a very romantic answer: Fiona and Amy are both contraltos. That’s the lowest range in the female voice, which is my range, which doesn’t happen a lot. I grew up listening to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Aretha, these dynamite ranges that I just could never sing as a kid—although I suppose most kids can’t sing along to Mariah Carey. [Laughs] There was something about [Amy and Fiona’s] voices that just fit, that just resonated emotionally. And then you couple that with how they are fantastic musicians—I mean, incredible musicians. And that’s not to say they are the only contraltos in pop music. You know, Nina Simone is another example, Tracy Chapman. But where I was, at my age, with the content—the lyrics of Amy’s music, just so soul-stirring—it was something about what they were saying, and where, in the voice, they were singing it.

MnMo: Why Back to Black, in its entirety?

Moore: Well, it’s interesting. Amy’s discography is technically only two records. There’s Frank that came out in 2003, a few years before Back to Black. And then you have a couple of duets with Tony Bennett and some stuff that was released after her death. And Frank is a great record—but it’s different. Amy had a jazz background, and you can hear a lot more of that on Frank. You still hear Amy, there’s no question about that. But Frank is like Back to Black-lite. And I guess Amy was lukewarm about it, as well, because she didn’t get to have a lot of mixes and things that she wanted. But Back to Black is, as an album, just huge. Back to Black won all the Grammys, and I remember the first time I heard it: A friend of mine had burned a copy of the CD, and I was driving to work listening to it. I was like, “Who is this large black American woman singing? This sounds great—I should check her out.” Then, you know, I pull over, look at the album cover, look her up. And I’m sure everybody remembers thinking that about her. Then, to see the topics of addiction—that also resonates.

I think that Amy’s addictions and struggles resonate with me because I can see so easily how she wound up where she did. This industry is ruthless, to the most “wholesome” of artists. Alcohol abuse, drug use, self-harm, and the entertainment industry all contributed to the deterioration of Amy’s already fragile mental health. I’m a person who has struggled at least to some degree with each of those things myself. Amy’s words and melodies are such a perfect representation of that disastrous combination of elements, of what living that fear and despair and shame feels like—not to mention the poor woman was in love. That’s what’s real to me. That’s the difference between Amy and her idols, and even her contemporaries. Back to Black isn’t just about unrequited love and messy break-ups and scandalous affairs. It’s just as much about the morning after, when everybody’s gone and your makeup is still on from the night before, the bottles are empty, you’ve missed all your engagements and spent all your money. It’s gritty! But it’s so real. It’s the authenticity that only someone having lived through it could write. And for those of us who have, Back to Black is a safe space to explore our vices and what makes us mighty enough to overcome them.

MnMo: You’ve mentioned before that you love to sing covers. What is it about singing other people’s music that draws you to it?

Moore: I ask myself that often. I think, on a psychological level, being an artist for me comes with a lot of fear. By performing something that is already validated, I feel more comfortable. It’s not a cop-out, but it’s definitely a safety mechanism. But I also think that, as a musician, you learn so much by experiencing music, by performing it. It’s one thing to listen to your favorite song. It’s another thing to actually get up there and sing it. Whether it’s just a live band or karaoke, or you’re doing it on your guitar, it’s almost the difference between smelling the food and then actually tasting and eating it. And sometimes, when a song is good, and it captures exactly what you want to say, that’s part of the sharing of music. Music was meant to be covered. We call it “covers” now, but, you know, that’s what music is for: for everyone to sing.

MnMo: You’ve also mentioned that you love karaoke. How does your performance differ when you’re doing a tribute show?

Moore: Taking on this project—this is a 10-piece band, of which I am director. So it’s taking into consideration 10 different people. I can’t only listen to the vocals. The band that’s playing on the record is the Dap-Kings, the Sharon Jones band in New York. These guys are the best living who can play that fast, Motown feel, and I artistically chose to do a faithful rendition of the music because it’s so good. I don’t think you need to change it. I thought to myself, if I was going to go to this show, what would I want? I would just want you to sing it the way it is on the record. And it’s a lot of work to be faithful. But, thankfully, I have an unbelievable group of musicians, who just blew me away at our first rehearsal. I wanted everything to be as authentic as Amy would, which is great, because there’s a lot of hip-hop, there’s a lot of soul in this music. It was about making sure we don’t lose that by getting caught up in hitting everything note for note, so that it still has the feeling behind it.

MnMo: It seems like other musicians often speak of wanting to put their own stamp on others’ music when they sing it, but you favor a more faithful rendition…

Moore: Yeah, I do. And part of that is because—I’m going to mention Mariah Carey again: Mariah Carey’s vocals are known for what some people would call “ornaments” or “runs”—very intricate melodies. But there’s a joke among music nerds and singers that if you try and sing Mariah Carey without those ornaments, the song sounds really, really silly. And that’s kind of the hallmark of these great musicians, is that their stylings are so musical. That’s why I think Amy’s genius is so important. The things she’s doing vocally are incredible. It’s jazz—at the end of the day, it’s jazz. So, because [those vocal stylings] are so important as the foundation, I don’t think it’s right, in this case, to change them. Which works in my favor sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll be like, man, the way she phrases that—if you know this record, if you know this song, that’s your favorite line, and you can’t mess that up. But other times, it’s like, I don’t know if I can actually sing that—that was incredible what she just did. You don’t really realize it until you set out to do it yourself.

MnMo: What’s a song of hers that presented a vocal challenge?

Moore: The track “Tears Dry on Their Own.” I remember a few months ago, when I really started to train for the show, I found karaoke videos of all the songs. [Laughs] To be like, oh, let’s just see how these feel. And I couldn’t get through it. I was out of breath, and I was like, oh my god—”Tears Dry on Their Own” was one where I had no idea she was singing her ass off. That whole song, really, is a challenge. But it’s so magnificent.

MnMo: So, it was a breathing challenge?

Moore: Yeah, it’s just to get to the top of your range. That’s the thing about her being a contralto, right? When you have a very, very low range but you’re also singing, like, high D above C sometimes—and Amy moves so quickly. Again, it’s that jazz training. And even aside from the challenges of breathing and reaching some of the notes, there’s her phrasing. It’s so iconic and so essential to what makes Amy, Amy. I spent a lot of time on maybe two words, to get the timing. It’s just the way she feels it. Amy sits back behind the beat a lot, which is actually something that I do, too. So that was kind of cool. Learning her music has really validated a lot of my decisions as a singer—the decisions I make when I sing. I see Amy makes the same ones.

MnMo: What are other distinctive ways Amy sings?

Moore: You can really hear her jazz influences: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday. And then you’ve just got Amy, who’s just kind of punk, you know? She’ll do these very tongue-in-cheek things with the way that she sings something, where she’ll switch tones of her voice. So, on “Tears Dry on Their Own,” she’ll do these very deep lines—“But to walk away I have no capacity”—with these big, deep notes. But then she’s like, [in nasal tone] “Once it was so right/When we were at our height.” It’s like all of these caricatures. She’s switching the tone and quality of her voice in seconds. Line to line. But it’s still very emotive, and it sounds perfect with the production.

MnMo: Who else do you like to cover?

Moore: I’m starting to sing more Aretha. This was actually before she passed away. It was right around the time I started training for the Amy tribute. I was getting stronger in my voice, and I was like, maybe I can sing some Aretha now. But I also am singing Blues Traveler and La Bamba. I’d also say Sam Cooke feels really good to cover because of that singing range. I know Amy covers “Cupid” [by Sam Cooke], and I think it’s something about that register in the voice that just can feel good.

MnMo: Do you ever worry about losing track of your own voice, as you intently listen to other artists to nail those nuances?

Moore: I don’t, really. I think there’s enough distinction in people’s voices. Everybody on the planet could try to sing like Billie Holiday, and there would still be billions of different Billie Holidays.

MnMo: What would you say are distinctive characteristics of your voice?

Moore: People say my voice is soulful. A lot of people say it’s kind of smooth, kind of laid-back. I’m definitely, by choice, not a belter. There are a lot of stereotypes that black women are Aretha Franklin. And people used to say that to me a lot after shows: “We can tell you have a great voice, you really should just go for it, just really belt it out!” And I was like, no. [Laughs] I’m not going to do that. And now, especially because you’re telling me to do it, I’m not going to do it. And I think if I wasn’t black, you wouldn’t be saying that to me.

MnMo: After this show, what’s next for you?

Moore: We are finally going to release an EP that has been done for about four years now. Through an unfortunate chain of events, it just didn’t get out. And now’s definitely the time, so we’re excited about that. And we’ll start to play some shows to promote that.

MnMo: Do you know when it will launch?

Moore: We don’t have a hard date yet. But soon. Very, very soon. It’s called Amongst Ourselves.

[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

Hear Mina Moore cover Amy Winehouse at the Dakota Jazz Club September 2 and 3. Buy tickets here.

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