Growing up in a strict Christian household with missionary parents who relocated their family from Oklahoma to Honduras sure wasn't easy for Amy "Ames" Kuney. Nothing is more normal than a child/teenager questioning their parents and resenting life choices that seem to adversely affect them, but fitting in was particularly tough for Ames, who is openly gay. As is also the norm, she found solace in music.
"My folks put me in piano lessons when I was 4 — I have a really musical family," she says. "I grew up in the church, so I was performing at church from a young age. I grew up in a musical church family. It was around the time Hanson came out — it was around 1997, '98. I'm from Tulsa, Oklahoma, originally and so are they. They came out with 'MMMBop,' and I loved it and decided that I wanted to write pop music. So that's when I started fiddling around with songwriting. I took a lot of pride in their success and wanted to write songs myself."
This might mark the first time this writer has been told that Hanson was a major influence on another artist, and frankly we love that fact. Outside of the three wholesome brothers, influences were hard to come by for Ames because of her aforementioned conservative Christian upbringing.
"We weren't allowed to listen to a lot of secular music," Ames says. "But I had a sister who was in college and she would send me CDs. One of the first ones was Fiona Apple's Tidal. To this day, it's still one of my favorite albums of all time. I had it on vinyl and CD. That really spoke to me. Bonnie Raitt, Suzanne Vega, Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco — those are some of my early influences in the '90s."
Morissette, DiFranco, et al., have provided solace for young teens for decades now, though they had a challenge on their hands making a 13-year-old Ames feel better when she was moved to Honduras.
"When I was 13, we moved to Honduras as missionaries," she says. "I lived there for six years with my parents, and they're still there. That was a really intense situation. It was good and bad. I learned so much. I grew up a lot. I read hundreds of books and wrote a lot. We continued to be home-schooled there. A lot of alone time, and I kept writing songs and getting better at guitar and piano. It was like a personal boot camp for me, living there. It was a Christian mission, so it was pretty strict. I'm both grateful and, I wouldn't say resentful but there are parts of it that were definitely difficult. I'm also gay and it was hard to be myself in that environment. But looking back, it really helped me become who I am today as an artist."
That must have been tough. Let's face it, without painting with too broad a brush, conservative Christians are not known for their open minds regarding homosexuality. Ames remains positive.
"A lot of the people I knew then I'm still in contact with and they've grown a lot," she says. "I think social media has helped. It's been interesting to watch the growth of people, opening their minds and becoming accepting. I just learned after a while to try to see the good parts of things and chase that. Matt Simons is an artist who regularly plays at Hotel Cafe, and he just released a song called 'Amy's Song' that is actually my story more or less. I wrote it with him and he put it out, and there's a video that goes along with it that was shot in Amsterdam. A lot of the young people in the video used it to come out to their families. It's a really powerful video."
After jumping out of the family nest, Ames moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago, simply because she felt this is the place to be for aspiring musicians. She still feels that way today.
"I mostly write for other artists, but every once in a while a song will come about that's just so personal to me that I'll keep it and release it myself," she says. "But I do a lot of co-writing, and I write a lot for film and television. Actually I have two songs on the new Kelly Clarkson album Meaning of Life — 'Slow Dance' and 'Move You.' That album was just nominated for a Grammy and I'm very proud of it. I'll be watching in February."
Another blessing about living in L.A., Ames says, is the blue bubble we live in. Sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia — it all still exists here. Of course it does. But there's always that feeling that things are just better in SoCal.
"Los Angeles is almost a different country," Ames says. "I'm one of those people who really likes to choose my battles carefully, because there are a lot of them. If I feel I'm being disrespected, I'll say something. I know women who will speak out, make sure the producer knows their name and addresses them. A lot of times, if it's me and two other males in the room, they'll talk to each other and make the decisions and I'm not always included. I'm trying to get better at inserting myself. That also has to do with my upbringing because it was a very 'women are seen but not heard' vibe.
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"It's been a challenge to speak up and step up, but the environment and the social climate — people are very much more aware of what they say, hoping to not offend. I know the administration sucks, but I think the response to it will be hard but beautiful in the end."
Ames plays at the Hotel Cafe on Jan. 4 as part of a short residency. She says she'll be playing some new songs, some old, and some she wrote for other people.
"Yearly, I'm writing 150 to 180 or 190 songs," she says. "Most of those songs don't get cut. Statistically it's a little gloomy. You have all of these songs, and then six or seven of them get cut and released. I may be playing a lot of stuff that I've written for other people. Sometimes if you've heard the songs overproduced and then you hear them live, they take on a whole new spirit. I'm gonna try that for the first couple of shows."
Ames plays with Baby Fuzz and No/Me at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 4, at Hotel Cafe.