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A heart full of soul

What makes a truly great soul song? A little bit of rhythm and blues, a great deal of spunk and a voice that melts your heart. This fortnight, we look at some British women who are tapping into that rich source of black soul music and coming up with pretty amazing moves.

Bibek Bhattacharya        Print Edition: April 20, 2008

If you were to look at the UK charts, you would probably be forgiven for thinking that this is the ’60s and that the new number ones are by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Nina Simone. But then you hear the very British accents of the chart toppers, and realise that what you’re listening to is blue-eyed soul of a very different kind. No term has been coined yet, but the phrase “Soul Sisters” is being bandied about quite frequently.

Joss Stone
Joss Stone
So, let’s begin at the beginning, circa 2003, when a little-known white girl called Joss Stone from Kent stormed the charts with the multi-platinum winning The Soul Sessions. It was a mix of ’70s funk grooves, wahwah guitars, and brilliant covers of vintage soul songs. So good were they that it seemed impossible that they’d come from a 16-year-old. Next year, she followed it up with an even bigger hit, Mind, Body and Soul—this time mostly originals. After this flurry of albums, she returned with the even more commercial sound of Introducing Joss Stone in 2007. In the intervening years, her success had a huge impact back in the UK. In the three years between 2004 and 2007, a soul explosion shook the country, with smart soulful women coming out of the woodwork.

The first of the sensations was Corinne Bailey Rae, a 27-year-old singersongwriter from Leeds. Hitting #1 with her eponymous debut album in 2006, she signalled a move away from such “girl-bands” as The Sugababes and Girls Aloud with her wry sliceof-life songs. Voted the breakthrough artiste of 2006, she is a fantastic writer and singer. Since then, her star has been on the ascendancy, with a Grammy win this year for her guest vocals on Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters.

Lily Allen
Lily Allen
An even bigger hit that year was Lily Allen, a smart, mouthy girl with a pronounced London accent singing sassy songs which were a mix of soul, hip hop and pure attitude. Trained to be a horticulturist, music was a massive left turn, but her debut album Alright, Still went through the roof powered by chart-scorching songs like LDN and Smile. She was a MySpace phenomenon, garnering enough fans online to make her album a hit.

Sweeping away the BRIT and NME Awards, Alright, Still even earned a nomination in this year’s Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Album. The biggest phenomenon of the lot has got to be Amy Winehouse.

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse
She recorded an album of jazzy originals called Frank in 2003 which got her attention and not much else. Changing tracks three years later, she released the retro-soul of Back to Black at the tail-end of 2006. She made all of UK to swing along to her single Rehab look like child’s play. Blessed with a gorgeous “old-soul” voice and mining the classic sounds of Motown, she has since become a fixture on the nation’s consciousness as much for her rocket-powered songs as for her out-of-control behaviour.

And so now we fast forward to 2008 and take a look at two soul singers who are ruling the roost in the UK with #1 albums and sparking debate about a soul revival in the country.

ADELE-19

She’s being called many things, ranging from the new Amy Winehouse to the new Kate Nash. But unlike Winehouse, she does not seem overtly fond of alcohol and tattoo ink. At the heart of the hype surrounding the new “It” Girl is a singer with a remarkable voice and a songwriter with an astute sense of melody and emotional depth. Born and bred in London, her influences are impeccable. Listen to her voice, and names like Roberta Flack and Erykah Badu come to mind. Her debut album 19 topped the charts in February and took everybody by surprise. Adele’s songs beg a second listen. Not only does a song like Hometown Glory—a loving paean to London—showcase her impeccable voice, but also highlight how great her songs sound when paired with just a guitar or a piano.

Check out: http://www.myspace.com/adelelondon
 Download this: Hometown Glory

Duffy-Rockferry

With a few alterations, current charttopper (March 9) Duffy’s story might be the same as that of Adele or Lily Allen, but the deviations are crucial. Aimee Ann Duffy is Welsh for starters. And if Amy Winehouse is influenced by Motown, then Duffy’s musical predecessors would be ’60s girl bands like The Ronettes and The Crystals and perhaps even a smattering of that other ’60s icon Lulu. But the greatest of Duffy’s gifts has to be her voice. Growing up in a remote north Wales seaside village, she didn’t get much exposure to different styles of music. However, she did aspire to become a musician. For a 23-year-old, she has put in many years of grind, working as a waitress (among other odd-jobs) and singing on other people’s albums. From getting recognition in 2007 to top of the pops is quite a journey, but she has the talent to back it up. Listen to her current single Mercy and it reveals the goods she’s got—an excellent set of musicians, a producer of the calibre of Bernard Butler, a great swinging sound that begs you to dance and lyrics veering between a ballsy sneer and an eye for social melodrama.

Check out: http://www.myspace.com/duffymyspace
Download this: Mercy

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