Ghost writer: the unsung star of British music

She's hardly known outside the music industry, yet Amanda Ghost is increasingly seen as Britain's most influential songwriter. Sophie Morris talks to a young Londoner who has penned hits for everyone from James Blunt to Beyoncé
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The Independent Online

In the summer of 2005, James Blunt's irritatingly catchy ballad, "You're Beautiful", went stratospheric. It topped the charts in Britain, the US and Canada and became the first song by a British artist ever to climb to the top of the Latin American Top 40. Blunt went on to collect two Ivor Novello awards the following year.

Then word leaked out that the creative hand behind his crooning, forlorn vocals actually belonged to one Amanda Ghost, a British singer-songwriter who was at the start of her own burgeoning performing career when she co-wrote the tune. At the time, she tried to play down her involvement, saying she had just "tweaked a chorus". Now she admits that that was considerable understatement, explaining that she was wary of overshadowing Blunt's well-earned success – and pointing out that there is no shame in having worked with another writer on a song.

The single overexposed Blunt and polarised critical and common opinion, despite its massive commercial success. Ghost's only complaint was that some in the music industry, particularly in this country, questioned her input on the track. "People said, 'Ghost never wrote that'," she recalls. "That I slept with James Blunt to get the publishing [rights]. So I just played it down and had a massive No 1 hit to follow it, which neither of those other two artists on the song have managed to achieve. I have got my head down and done great work, and I think that's the best way to silence all the critics."

She admits to having been "very angry" at the time, but the episode marked a turning point in her fortunes, not just in terms of the huge royalties it earned her. It attracted the attention of a host of major artists in the US; that subsequent No 1 record was a duet for Beyoncé and Shakira, "Beautiful Liar", which bagged the top spot in 32 countries.

The requests soon started flooding in. Could she write a single for the latest American Idol winner? No problem. How about a couple of songs for Whitney Houston's comeback album, collaborating with Mariah Carey, and acting as a sort of taste consultant for Liam Howlett on The Prodigy's upcoming release? It's a deal. Ghost has been busy on all of the above in the past 18 months, and has even found time to help her best friend, Boy George, revive his career after an eight-year hiatus and numerous scandals, not to mention marrying a television producer and giving birth to their daughter.

Her latest assignment is to give Beyoncé a country-and-western makeover for the R & B star's next album. Ghost is calling it "a tinge of country and western, a flavour. It's not a Carrie Underwood record. The lyrics are going to be deeper, with more acoustic guitars." The versatility evident in Ghost's track record suggests she is up to the job.

Ghost, 33, is no overnight success. She was tipped for a glittering singing career back in 2000 but her first album (released only in the US) sank with little trace. She had been plucked from the gigging circuit by Andrew Wickham, the man who first signed Joni Mitchell. She was flown to LA and given the red carpet treatment. Warner Bros released Ghost Stories the same year, amid plenty of hype.

An interview at the time described her as a "singer-songwriter to rival the Americans" and as having "star quality", while Ghost, with a wisdom more advanced than her years, remarked prophetically: "It's a house of cards at this point. I don't want to sit here in five years' time talking about why it went wrong."

Yet here she is. This time, though, it looks as if she is sat atop an empire made of much stronger stuff. In addition to these recent chart successes, she is a producer on her own label, Plan A Records, which released Boy George's Time Machine comeback last year, and the ink is still drying on a television contract which will make her presenter and judge on a US reality show to discover the next hit songwriter.

She plans to release her own album on the back of the programme next year, with a sound she describes as "very bare, acoustic, and quite dark". She concedes that she needs it to be a success artistically, "but if it sells 10 copies I don't care, because financially I don't need to".

If the names now championing Ghost's cause have anything to do with it, that seems unlikely, and she may well find herself touring the world with a toddler in tow. She says Jay-Z is sure to be involved if the album is released in the US. She calls him a "really good friend". Other A-list cheerleaders are Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. Ghost made a Radio 2 show about Mitchell earlier this year, bagging a rare interview with the legendary star, and Mitchell said that her friend Ghost's song "Blood On The Line" had reignited her own faith in music. Liam Howlett is also a great friend, while Ghost credits Boy George, who she met at a nightclub when she was 19, with having made her the songwriter she is today. You are unlikely to find an interview with George in which he doesn't compliment his friend and her musical talents.

A few weeks ago, Ghost was in the studio with Beyoncé in New York, expressing milk as she twiddled the graphic equaliser. This week she will be back there working with boy wonder Mark Ronson, who sprinkled fairy-dust on Amy Winehouse's Back To Black album. But she is not tempted to pack up and cross the ocean permanently to join her two sisters, who are raising their families in New York. She is anchored here by her husband, by the desire to bring up her daughter up in Britain, and by a love of London. She was born in Enfield to an Indian father and Spanish mother, and still lives in nearby Notting Hill.

But her rose-tinted view of the capital is somewhat clouded by certain aspects of its music industry, where she says sexist attitudes towards female songwriters still reign. This is one thing that really angers her. "There's only one other really successful female songwriter in this country and that's Cathy Dennis," she says. "And that's not because there aren't brilliant writers. It's tough to get a break. I'm British and I just don't work here. The industry is so closed, and it's really difficult for women to do well. In America, they don't care who you are. They don't care where you went to school, if you have a penis, whether you know the right sort of people or if they can get drunk with you. They just care about success."

Back at Warner Brothers, in the early years of this century, that success wasn't quite so forthcoming, and Ghost admits she had a "terrible time" then. She sounds rather more cheery about the experience in hindsight.

She has been called upon to trot out the details of her grand fall from grace on numerous occasions. "I was flown to LA in first class," she recalled in one interview, "picked up by a stretch limo, taken to the Warner lot in Burbank and driven around in a little gold cart. I felt like Judy Garland. You go in and you see pictures of Joni and Chrissie Hynde. It was, 'I've arrived, I've made it'."

Then the glitter began to rub bare. Ghost Story was well-reviewed but sold scarcely 200,000 copies. But she could not simply run home – her contract kept her tied for three excruciating years, as Warner Brothers tried to get its money's worth. According to Ghost, this involved telling her to behave like Pink one week and Avril Lavigne the next, as she struggled to produce anything it was willing to release.

"I was stuck in LA, waiting for Warners to put out my second album, which they wouldn't do. The chairman said I had a great voice but couldn't write hits. A lot of people said that about me." Now Ghost is on the wish-list of every major producer in town, including Clive Davis, the septuagenarian chairman of RCA Records, who oversees the careers of Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and all the American Idol winners. (If these names seem lightweight, there is barely a music legend Davis hasn't crossed paths with in some capacity in the past 60 years. He was even parodied in This Is Spinal Tap).

"He's giving me a shot and getting me to write with his artists," says Ghost. "It's not about if he wants to go down the pub and sleep with me. It's about talent, which is why I love America."

Today, success seems to attend pretty much everything she touches, although there is still a question mark over her ability to succeed as a performer in her own right. Ghost claims to have come to terms with the fact that that kind of success may continue to elude her. She has grown used to hearing big-name accolades each time she has put a record out, only for the predicted solo success to fail to materialise.

"Before I had success I was so obsessed with selling millions of records and being nice to the record label, and it consumed me. I've let go of that now and because of that I've become a better artist and I think I really understand what works in songs." Which is?

"An Amanda Ghost song," she adds, "is honest. I write them from my heart, and I think that's why they do well. The public can smell a rat."

Perhaps that is where Blunt, the lovesick nice boy since exposed as an unchivalrous bed-hopper, went wrong.