What does County Antrim’s Amanda St. John have in common with the Rolling Stones, the Osmonds, Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, Etta James and Aretha Franklin?

They’ve all recorded at the legendary FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios. For the Glenariff woman, this is huge! The FAME Studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is known across America and beyond for its distinctive sound, its outstanding session musicians, and its stalwart owner, Rick Hall who passed away last year.

Global phenomenon Aretha Franklin credited Hall and her Muscle Shoals experience as ‘the turning point’ in her career, and this may well just be the case for Amanda St. John – the first independent singer-songwriter from Ireland to record there. This is some feat, and is sure to seal her fate as a performing artist.

The soul and blues singer has been on the verge of stardom for some time. Her name is known around Ireland, and her 2016 album ‘Grow’ put her glorious voice and talent on the map. She was getting considerable attention – not least, the fact that the title track ‘Grow’ was featured in a national Australian advertising campaign for the Olympics in 2016.

The Muscle Shoals Sessions continue with that rousing, captivating theme of hope, truth, inspiration and striving to be your best self.

Naturally, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin is a source of inspiration for Amanda St. John, whose wondrous voice naturally compares without hyperbole to her heroine – but to find yourself in those mythical studios in real life, recording eleven of your own songs, along with some of the best session musicians in the business was a dream come true.

The courageous songs are the out-workings of grief, hard times, sad times, painful memories, all steeped in the sentiment of better days ahead and how such challenges are sent to change us. It’s up to us to be changed for the better. Her personal life has been turbo-charged with more ups and downs than a roller coasterl; a near fatal car crash, overcoming serious damage to her vocal chords, surviving divorce and life as a single mum, loss of a much loved parent. Yet still she holds on to her dream, taking action and driving herself forward, no matter what. I love her fortitude, her courage, her strength and the sheer power of her voice.

The opening track ‘Muscle Shoals’ is outstanding. It grasps you and shakes you from the outset rocking out that Muscle Shoals sound. I dare you to try to stand still to this one – a song with swagger like Jagger.

The album is almost like a tale of two halves. The first half has a certain groove, pace and energy. Later, it becomes more introspective, reflective, and softly melodic. Amanda St. John has the capacity to make it in the US. This album has a definitive American feel. Songs like ‘You Got Me’ and ‘Talk It Out’ have a big, round sound, with a kind of ‘do do-woop’ rhythm, a retro vibe to the mid-seventies. ‘Walk Away’ and ‘Truth’ are softer, soul-searching songs reminding me sincerely of Diana Ross or Gladys Night.

‘This Is My Life’ and ‘Made Myself A Name’, with their upbeat tempo, are perfect for live performances. I imagine this entire album performed live would be magic. ‘Take A Leap’ is a beautiful song, with a gentle melody – a song about growth, hope and aspiration – I think this is a favourite, along with the opening track. Self-doubt, personal anxiety, fear of not being good enough is addressed sensitively, and the strings are a genius touch here.

‘Bring Me’ demonstrates St. John’s versatility as an artist, and stretches that outstanding voice across octaves. There’s an interesting touch to the start of the final track ‘I’ll Be Here’. We hear a distinctive, heartfelt sigh from St. John, as if, feeling a little world weary, she’s ready to wrap up the creative process.

I imagine it must take every inch of body, mind and soul to co-create such an excellent album, along with her main collaborators John Tierney, bassist David Hood (Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Paul Simon), piano/Hammond player Clayton Ivey (James Brown, Joss Stone, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes) and Northern Ireland’s producer extraordinaire Michael Mormecha (with a little help from her friends Matt McGinn and Siobhan Brown on backing vocals).

Amanda says she’s extremely proud of this album. And so she should be. She took a leap of faith that’s sure to pay off big time. Living proof that resilience, self-belief will make it happen.

The digital version isn’t available until 2020, but CDs can be purchased from Amanda St. John’s website.

Live dates coming up include Sunday 12th October 2019 at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry with the Innishowen Gospel Choir, and Thursday 17th October 2019 in the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh.