The singer-songwriter has found famous fans — from Sam Smith to Elton John — with her new tracks "Heaven" and "Difficult"
Amy Allen
Amy Allen
| Credit: Carly Foulkes

Amy Allen is ready to step into the spotlight after working for years as a behind-the-scenes hitmaker.

Since honing her craft at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Allen, 28, has become a go-to songwriter for a slew of A-list artists. Following the success of her Selena Gomez collaboration ″Back to You″ in 2018, Allen co-wrote Halsey's No. 1 hit ″Without Me″ — and earlier this year, she and pal Harry Styles notched a No. 1 on Billboard's Pop Songs chart with ″Adore You.″

Now Allen is ready to reintroduce herself as an artist. She's preparing to release her debut album, and her singles have found her famous fans: Sam Smith sang Allen's praises over her heartbreaking new track ″Heaven,″ while Elton John added ″Difficult″ to his ″Rocket Hour" playlist on Apple Music.

Here, Allen opens up about her songwriting journey.

How did you get into music? What did you listen to growing up?

I always just grew up listening to classic rock with my dad in the car, driving to and from sports and rehearsals of different things. Fleetwood Mac and the Stones and Tom Petty. Those were the songs that I first started teaching myself on bass. And then I got a little bit older and saved up for my first guitar, and then started writing songs. And it just went from there. I've just always loved the classic rock, and then into the '90s, female pop-rock, like with the Alanis era and everything.

When did music go from a pastime to, ″I'm doing to pursue this full-time″?

At my high school, we all got to do a senior project, so you could bring the focus on for your last month of school. And I really wanted to make an EP. So I made one — it was like kind of classic rock inspired, kind of bluegrass-inspired. Some of the local radio stations in Maine would play it.

Then I went away to college, and I was studying to be a nurse. I was doing biochemistry and I just missed music so much. And when I'd go home I would hear my songs on the radio, but I wasn't playing as much as I wanted to when I would go back to college. And then like a year and half into school I was just like, ″I need to do this full time. I really don't like what I'm doing.″ So I transferred to Berklee College of Music just down the road in Boston and started a band. And then just went from there and was writing a lot, and then I got into writing for other people. That's the era of writing ″Without Me″ and ″Back to You″ and a bunch of songs for other people.

How did you break into the publishing side and writing with other big artists?

Towards the end of my school year at Berklee, I was going to New York a lot because we were playing a lot of shows there with my band. I met this guy named Scott Harris, who is a really big pop writer — he has done a lot of Shawn Mendes stuff and pretty much every massive pop artist, he has written with or has songs out with. We got introduced through a mutual connection and we really hit it off writing together. I ended up moving to New York to do that, just so that I could be writing for other people. And whenever he would go to L.A. to do like a big pop session, I would take his sessions in New York. That's kind of how I broke into it. And then I wrote that [Selena Gomez] song ″Back to You" and then moved to L.A., and it all went from there.

It sounds like that one Selena Gomez song changed everything for you.

I grew up listening to Selena Gomez, and I know that she's going to be a pop icon forever. She's just like one of those people and one of those names that isn't going to go away anytime soon because she's awesome. I was so psyched. And I got to move to LA, which was something that I knew I kind of wanted to do down the line. I just didn't know how soon I'd be able to realistically do it. So it meant a lot. And it definitely propelled my career in the pop writing field further.

You also had a hit, "Adore You," with Harry Styles earlier this year.

Harry Styles is one of my absolute favorites and he's a blessing to be able to work with. He's amazing. He's like everything that anybody would ever think he is, times a million. He's just personable and inspired and incredibly authentic and knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. And what's genuine to him is very musical. He's one of the artists that I've just been blown away by every time we are together. So he's great. And he's funny as hell, which makes writing music a lot more fun because sometimes it can get really serious. So it's nice to have someone who has a good sense of humor in the session always.

When did you decide to swerve from the songwriting lane back into the artist lane?

It was definitely a big change to go from artists to then writing for other people. And then after two years of doing that I did this one singer-songwriter showcase during Grammy week — it would have been two Grammys ago now. As a songwriter I'm a highly emotional person obviously, but I just don't cry that often. But I was up on stage and I was playing bass and singing "Without Me," and I just got to that point where you're like, "Oh my God, I feel like if I open my mouth for one more second I'm going to be sobbing." I was trying to hold it in, then I got off the stage and my best friend and manager at the time looked at me and was like, "Are you good?" I was like, "I miss performing so f—ing much."

I just had been pushing it down for the past two years because I've been on this roll of writing for other people and it's been fun — it's opened all these doors and I've learned so much about writing and about myself, but it doesn't matter because I miss it so much just doing my own thing." So that would have been a year and a half ago. And I just immediately didn't waste any anytime and stopped doing sessions for other artists.

And I've just been now working on my album for a year, and it's done and I'm so excited for it to come out. But of course, the world has been going through some massive changes. So it's been a roller coaster, but I'm really excited for it to be out. And it was a very big gear shift to go from writer to back to artists now, of course, but it's fun.

Let's talk about your song "Difficult" — you're really reclaiming that word in a cool way.

I just feel like "difficult" is a word as a woman if you are independent or you are a trailblazer in some way that you can be called pretty often. I think for a lot of women it's a negative connotation word. The more I started talking to other women about it, the more responses I started getting like, "Oh, this is a very massive thing that is just not okay." So I think that's a really important thing to do, reclaim that word and take it as a positive. If somebody is calling you that, they're basically calling you somebody that is speaking up and standing up for yourself. And I just feel like it's a good thing to put into the pop space because I think it needs to be heard and understood — a helpful reminder of who people are and what it means to stand up and self-advocate and just be the individual that you are.

Your new song "Heaven" is about watching loved ones deal with addiction. Why was that important for you to address?

I'm from Windham, Maine, which is a very small town, and I would always write about growing up in a small town with a family that has, just like every family has, its bright sides and its dark sides. And I think it's easy to not write about that sometimes because it's a hard place to go to. But I feel like as a writer that's almost your obligation to write about the hard things.

The theme through my whole album really is dealing with family members and friends and any type of person that is in your life that has addiction or struggles with something that is really out of your control to help or to stop at the end of the day. That's what "Heaven" is about. I wrote it with my friend, Jon Bellion — he and I had pretty similar stories. We kind of got it out of our systems.

I went into the session that day with the first line in that song: "You've never been to heaven, but you got pretty close last night." And I remember sitting down and saying that to Jon and being like, "This is probably too dark to write about, but I just keep having this one line in my head that's like a family member that was just on this scary pathway. And you're so close and I just don't want you to tip over the edge." That's where that song came from. And I think it's also something that's not spoken about too much in pop music. So I wanted to allow myself to do that in a way that felt authentic and hopefully relatable to a lot of other people.