Tag Archives: female singer/songwriters

Album review – Barb Jungr: Stockport to Memphis

23 Dec

River: Barb Jungr and the Northampton and Derngate Community Choir raise the roof for Christmas

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr's finest work to date

Stockport to Memphis: some of Barb Jungr’s finest work to date

Substrata of autobiography, moments caught in time and the inherited trove of familial memories lurk beneath the polished surface of Barb Jungr’s new album, Stockport to Memphis. The occasional jagged shard among the softer elements hints at pockets of darkness to counter the exuberance of the title track, a foot-stomping anthem in which she tips a knowing wink at the young woman who sought – and found – escape from small, northern-town blues in music way back when.

So far, so pleasingly typical. Jungr’s ability to juxtapose bittersweet nostalgia with something bleaker is her stock in trade, giving depth and often an ominous power to her re-imaginings of seminal numbers from the great modern songbook. Heroes including Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Joni Mitchell (an aching version of “River” which, reinforced with a choral backing, has been released as a Christmas single), Neil Young (“Old Man”) and Tom Waits (“Way Down in the Hole”) are represented with skill and style.

But the big news here is that Jungr has connected with the muse, and in partnership with regular accompanist and producer Simon Wallace, found space to exercise her song-writing muscles.

The six self-penned songs (which also include a number written with her former Sticky Moments singing partner Michael Parker) provide an intriguing counterpoint to the cornerstones of the modern standards. “Sunset to Break Your Heart” is further evidence of  Jungr’s particular way with a break-up song: that characteristic mixture of searing desolation and the cynicism of the survivor. But there is joyful optimism, too, in the promise of “New Life “ and – my highlight of the album – “Urban Fox”, a beautiful and evocative jazz-tinged ode to that maligned creature. Without question, some of her finest work to date.

Barb Jungr will be touring extensively throughout 2013. On January 12th she will be at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Suffolk.

EP Review – Anna MacDonald: Paper Flowers

3 Aug

Naj’s Song: never mind the shaky camera work, just listen to Anna MacDonald and the Portobello Orchestra

Paper Flowers: a nightingale sings in George Square?

If a nightingale ever sings in Glasgow’s George Square, I’ll bet it sounds just like Anna MacDonald. Her voice has the same combination of urgency, brilliance and beauty that creeps into your sleep in the early hours and makes you wonder if you’re still dreaming.

On the epic “Matty Groves”, one of the standout tracks on her second EP Paper Flowers, it soars and shimmers as if ricocheting off the majestic buildings and echoes into the distant night like a siren call to another world. This traditional folk song is a sad and violent tale that builds on a simple melodic hook. In MacDonald’s feverish version, she seems to meld the bitter rivalry of the street fight with doomed love and murder in a mixture of urban imagery and pastoral folklore.

MacDonald is a gifted songwriter, too. Her ballads – the title track, the atmospheric “Glasgow Rain” and “Naj’s Song” – complement another traditional number, “Banks of Inverurie”, as sweet, melancholy paeans to hearts broken against the gritty background of a city that is clearly a major influence on her work. The texture is an arresting weave of Scottish and Gaelic traditions, with a dash of English folk. A full album would be welcome, and soon.

These are heady days for the female Scottish troubadour. That other notable MacDonald, Amy, already on to her third album, has helped to open a door into mainstream pop music for what seems like an army of young women, each with their own blend of traditional and modern musical tastes. Where Amy favours fierce, guitar-driven narratives in the manner of her breakthrough hit “This is the Life”, Anna is deceptively gentle and contemplative, that angelic voice telling quietly bleak truths about the realities of waning love and loneliness. There is plenty of room for them both.

Album Review – Broadcaster featuring Peggy Seeger: Folksploitation

5 Jul

First Time Ever: Peggy Seeger’s shamen-like vocal takes a classic to another place

Folksploitation: Seeger’s voice rises triumphant above the vocoder treatment

The Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. Morrissey and Sandie Shaw. The Bee Gees and Dionne Warwick. Jack White and Loretta Lynn. The KLF and Tammy Wynette. There’s a great tradition in pop music of collaboration between iconic female singers and contemporary singer/songwriter producers that brings their work and back stories to the attention of a new generation.

Note that I don’t use the word ‘rescue’, although in the case of Dusty Springfield, the timely approach of the Pet Shop Boys with “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” led directly to a welcome late career revival. I hesitate, too, to use the much-abused word ‘Diva’, although these women had earned such a status in the historical arc of pop long before any second flourishing opened up new territory for them.

I would certainly hesitate to call Peggy Seeger a ‘Diva’, although if anything, she merits the title in her sphere even more than any of the women mentioned above.  She is a touchstone for folk singers and songwriters of any age. While she herself has dipped in and out of the music business, always having plenty of other fish to fry as an activist and archivist, her songs, her musicianship and that timeless, multi-textured voice have made her a constant influence on her peers and subsequent generations.

Her long partnership – personal and artistic – with Ewan MacColl, which began when she came to the UK in the 1950s, and their prodigious body of work embracing traditional folk songs and new material, made her in many eyes the founding mother of the modern folk revival.

And it would be patently ridiculous to call her extraordinary new collaboration with experimental dance music pioneer Broadcaster a ‘rescue’. New York-born Seeger has long since returned to live in the UK after several years back in her homeland, and at the age of 77 is still singing and touring (albeit avoiding long flights these days) with great zest and verve. But Folksploitation has already ignited a whole new wave of interest in the woman whose voice cuts like the chant of a shamen across Broadcaster’s edgy techno beats with all the wisdom of the ages. It’s an utterly absorbing and frequently exhilarating experience.

Peggy Seeger today: still pushing the boundaries (photograph: Dale Herbert)

Seeger embraces the world of dubs and samples as if to the manner born. And it’s hard to resist the woman for whom Ewan MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” when she consents to such a radical reworking. Here, as “First Time Ever”, its arrival is signalled by a Numanesque burst of electronica, before fragments of one of the great modern standards build into a remarkable collage that rescues it from the desert of a thousand hotel lobbies and sends it on a completely different trajectory.

The album goes way beyond mere sampling. The compelling beat that underpins the bleak “Little White Grains” is a fascinating juxtaposition, hooking you in even as you’re floored by the grimness of the lyrics. And in the midst of all these new sounds, you never forget that Seeger’s work has always been lyric- (and specifically, story-) centred. As those lyrics often concern timeless themes – drug addiction, violence, abusive relationships – they have a contemporary resonance that’s a perfect match for this hustling, urban treatment.  The narrative lines of “Bad, Bad Girl” and “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” are driven by Broadcaster’s insistent riffs, with Seeger’s voice given the full vocoder treatment, from which it emerges astringent and triumphant.

Despite the essential darkness of much of the material, Folksploitation is a thrilling, hypnotic experiment which Seeger’s die-hard fans will probably approach with trepidation. But ultimately, it’s a surprising triumph for this redoubtable singer’s capacity to push the boundaries and make her listeners think again. So yes, let’s add Broadcaster and Peggy Seeger to that list.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

31 Jan

Hello Cruel World: damaged goods make for a fine album of sanguine songs

Hello Cruel World: Gretchen Peters shows you the dark side - and how to survive it

What a trying year Gretchen Peters had in 2010. Worldly and personal challenges hurled themselves at her from every direction. Man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the shore around the Florida bolthole where she writes her songs. Her adopted hometown of Nashville was stricken by catastrophic floods. And one of her oldest friends committed suicide. On the bright side, she married her pianist Barry Walsh after a 20-year relationship; and her child revealed that he was transgender – a shared journey that she says she found inspiring and disorienting in equal parts.

Songwriters of lesser skill might have walked into all the melodramatic traps sprung by such a discomfiting and extended period of life experience, and turned them into a self-indulgent misery fest, shot through with the well-worn leitmotif of the stoic survivor. Not so Peters. “The grain of sand becomes the pearl,” she sings on the title track of her album Hello Cruel World, setting the scene for an unflinching but ultimately hopeful response to her recent ride on the Big Dipper of life.

There’s no hint of smiling bravely through the tears here. Instead, Peters’ lyrics roll with the punches as she picks her way through the wreckage of “Natural Disaster”, the sanguine home truths of “Dark Angel” and a meditation on the testing of faith, “Saint Francis”. Some tracks enter mesmerising art-song territory: the starkly beautiful “The Matador” with its heart-breaking accordion (courtesy of Peters’ husband Barry Walsh); and “Woman on the Wheel”, which takes an old fairground attraction as a metaphor for the listener’s insidious fears.

Peters further proves herself a past mistress in the art of darkness with the glorious “Five Minutes”, a country-tinged torch song that quietly shows how the lingering power of an eternal passion will always manage to disrupt the most mundane, workaday life. “Camille” follows in similar vein, its muted trumpet intro (from Vinnie Giesielski – Peters has surrounded herself with some serious musical talent) heralding a bleak tale of the other woman that is expertly wreathed in whisky vapours and midnight smoke. And “Idlewild” is a throat-catching child’s-eye vision of parental dislocation (and an interesting comparison with Mary Black’s recent take on a similar theme, “The Night Was Dark and Deep”).

It sounds like strong meat for a casual listen but Peters’ essential optimism and resilience mean that even in its bleakest moments, Hello Cruel World offers much more than a fix of suffering for those who tend to roam across shadier emotional plains. Redemption, a tad weary and accepting of the trials that have gone before, comes with the gentle “Little World”, which seizes gratefully on the familiar comforts of home.

This is Peters’ sixth solo album. And thanks to the gimlet-eyed take on life that informs her lyrics, a voice that sings the story straight, and arrangements that imbue the songs with a stark, poignant beauty, it’s an absorbing transformation of adversity into art.

Album review: Galia Arad – Ooh La Baby

23 Jan

“Better Than Bonnie”: a song for the other woman, with a sneaky dash of Britney Spears

Ooh La Baby: Suzanne Vega meets Marianne Faithfull in the singular new talent of Galia Arad

Concept albums are springing up everywhere. Hot on the heels of Kate Bush’s extended meditation on the white stuff (50 Words for Snow), we have Ooh La Baby, the tale of a fractious love affair with a feckless Irishman told from the perspective of New York-based singer/songwriter Galia Arad.

The genre is where the similarity begins and ends. These two artists occupy completely different territory. But there is one moment – “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, the duet with Elton John – when Bush’s otherwise largely existential take on the mysterious power of snow chimes with Arad’s earthy, melancholy exploration of the frustrations of an all-consuming passion. Ooh La Baby is a glittering stream of such moments, brought vividly to life in Arad’s wry lyrics and delivered with a voice of deceptive purity and innocence.

Arad is interesting company as she mines a rich seam of rock and roll, blues and folk influences and comes up with a highly individualistic formula of her own – mix the whimsical intensity of a Suzanne Vega with the occasional mordant observation from a Marianne Faithfull and you’ll arrive at something approaching the bittersweet musical spirit of this witty new voice.

One of the standout tracks is the upbeat song of the other woman, “Better than Bonnie”, with its triumphant sideways raid on Britney Spears’s signature song “Oops!… I Did it Again”. Equally good are the slow, gentle ballads like “You’re Always There”, the shuffling “Something Sweet” and the contemplative “Will I Be Loved (By You)”, which edges hesitantly into earshot on the tail of a moving fiddle solo (“Dad’s Intro”).

Moods shift in the blink of an eye, reflecting the emotional ebb and flow of the affair from high intensity to bleak disillusionment. Lyrical beauty is lascerated now and then by moments of Faithfull-esque rage and frustration – nowhere more acerbically than on “Don’t Go”, a prolonged sigh of exasperation and desire.

Less obviously engaging is the input of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan (on the lilting “Four Leaf Lover Boy” and a foul-mouthed intro to the vicious slugfest “Full of Sh*t”), which is a pity because – perhaps a consequence of the recent annual blast of Christmas evergreen, “Fairy Tale of New York”, a poignant reminder of his glory days – I expected more than the trashed sound of his spoken vocals actually delivers.

The album is beautifully produced by Tommy Faragher, whose track record includes work with Dusty Springfield, Taylor Dayne and Al Green. He’s certainly given Galia Arad the space she and her guitar need to untangle this complex narrative. And there’s enough evidence here to herald the arrival of a compelling new talent.

Album Review: Judie Tzuke – One Tree Less

17 Jan

“If”: Judie Tzuke at Union Chapel in 2010 – still a voice to be reckoned with

Here’s a piece of advice for Adele, Jessie J, Emili Sandé and everybody else who is riding the crest of a huge wave of fascination with young female singers and songwriters in the UK: make the most of your hour in the sun. Because once you’ve hit middle age, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any kind of coverage in the mainstream music press.

A flurry of New Year articles hailed 2012 as the year of rock’s illustrious old guys. Bowie, Elton John, Meatloaf, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood will all turn 65 in the next 12 months, pointed out The Independent. While in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick hailed forthcoming new albums from Leonard Cohen (77) and Paul McCartney (69), Springsteen and the E Street Band, and rumours of 50th anniversary tours from the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The usually excellent McCormick’s crystal-ball piece did at least name check Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Lana del Rey – prime examples of contemporary young female talent, all. But the absence in any of these stories of any reference to mature women singers (Madonna aside) reveals once again the curious neglect of a significant category of talent that frequently blights the best broad music journalism. It’s as if the media suffers from an odd, sexist/ageist blind spot. Even The Guardian’s TV listing for New Year’s Eve fell into the trap, wondering vaguely what Sandie Shaw was doing in Jools Holland’s Later line-up, apparently ignorant of her well-received participation in his 2011 tour.

At least Shaw got a mention at all. Frankly, with the exception of Kate Bush (as left-field in her career management as in her approach to her music) and Annie Lennox (who is, in any case, more likely to garner column inches for her socio-political activism than her music these days), senior British female singers seem to become invisible to the press once they pass 40. Which means that a whole range of performers and recording artists – Eddi Reader, Elkie Brooks, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr and Mary Hopkin, to name but a handful – are now producing some of their finest work in their middle years, without the hope of a mainstream profile or review to remind people that they’re out there, no less creative than their male contemporaries and in many cases a great deal more active.

Let’s add Judie Tzuke to the list. Her new album, One Tree Less, is a beauty. Troubled, uneasy lyrics juxtapose natural references with smarting, visceral explorations of broken relationships, fractured trust and self-doubt. The arrangements are string-laden, echoing aural landscapes, liberally sprinkled with epic piano riffs and sparkling guitar sequences that draw you in, making the occasional sharp jab of the words all the more startling.

“Stay With Me Till Dawn”: Judie Tzuke’s slow-burning torch song is still a classy affair after all these years

Tzuke has been making records for 35 years. She had her first hit, the torchy, slow-burning ballad “Stay With Me Till Dawn”, in 1978, lifted from the album Welcome to the Cruise, while she was signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. From the start, there was an edginess beneath the ethereal voice and polished pop lyrics – a restlessness and an anxiety that hinted at more substantial themes. In the wake of its success, she was put in the same bracket as Kate Bush, simply by dint of being a new, happening female singer songwriter. Truly, the music industry’s marketing imagination has never known its own bounds.

A stellar future seemed assured as Tzuke became a much in-demand touring artist and released a series of acclaimed albums through the early 1980s (she moved from Rocket to Chrysalis in 1982). But like so many before her, she found herself buffeted by an industry that has never been great at promoting and sustaining singular female talent. Ricocheting from one record company to the next for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s with diminishing returns, and occasionally beset with management disagreements, she took time out to have her two daughters (the eldest, Bailey, is now a singer in her own right and contributes backing vocals on the new album) before returning to the fray with her own label – finally in complete charge of her own career (Elton John handed back the copyright on her first three albums in 1999).

These days, the voice has a pleasing mahogany-dark timbre that compliments Tzuke’s misty upper register. From the title track, the ominous and agitated “One Tree Less”, with its tentative discovery of hope, to brooding, thoughtful numbers like “The Other Side” and “Till It’s Over”, the album showcases the ripeness of her talents – and particularly her ability to suggest an inner life in which doubt and uncertainty are constantly preying shadows, without ever sounding trite or pretentious. In other words, she is still exploring the consequences of that first dawn.

“Joy” is a deeply personal take on a friendship interrupted by tragedy. “Humankind” favours a dramatic piano intro, leading into a bleak wonder across the face of the human condition. “The Other Side” bridges the divide between life-as-a-bitch and security – but as always, with Tzuke, that note of hesitation is left hanging in the air: “though I might be wrong…”

“I Can Wait” is an up tempo, guitar-driven ballad about the sudden discovery of passion, “A Moving Target” an urgent, self-directed plea for acceptance of the way things are.

More substantial themes, indeed. So yes, Judie Tzuke is very much alive and kicking – and apparently in her prime. And more people should know about it. She’s touring the UK throughout March – which sounds like a good opportunity to catch up with one of our foremost, lamentably unsung, female singer/songwriters.

Album Review: Anita Skorgan – Adventus (Special Edition)

15 Nov

Is it True? The song that captured the hearts of Radio 2 listeners

Adventus: a Christmas album that evokes and provokes

“Christmas has started,” said Anita Skorgan before launching into a chilled, jazz-inflected version of “Silent Night” which achieved the near-impossible feat of giving you the feeling that you were hearing that familiar carol for the first time. It was the last number of a short set intended to showcase the UK release of a special edition of her recent album, Adventus, delivered in the opulent surroundings of the palm court at the Langham Hotel.

Skorgan’s surprised delight at the growing British interest in her work was as charming as her songs – contemplative, searching threnodies with a non-evangelistic spiritual accent that is a rare antidote to the annual rash of festive standards already descending on us.

It would be patronising to call this Skorgan’s breakthrough when has been a major star in her native Norway for more than 30 years. Yet there’s something very touching and satisfying about a successful, mature artist finding deserved but unexpected acclaim beyond their established market. And for that, she has to thank BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine, who introduced Skorgan’s showcase and has been playing her songs for a couple of years – and listeners of his Radio 2 lunchtime show, who heard something profoundly appealing in her pure soprano and gentle melodies and wanted to know more about her. That powerful connection was crystallised in the wake of last summer’s atrocities in Oslo and Utøya, when Skorgan sang live on the show, her clear, soaring voice epitomising the dignified grief of her nation.

The Eurovision years: Anita Skorgan sings “Oliver” in Jerusalem, 1979

Anita Skorgan: voice of a nation

In fact, Anita Skorgan is no stranger to international audiences. But in helping to bring her to wider attention, Vine has succeeded where several high-profile Eurovision appearances failed. Readers whose memories stretch back to the late 1970s might recall her stalwart efforts for Norway, which included the excellent “Oliver” in 1979, a duet with her former husband Jahn Teigen and in 1988, songwriting credits for Karoline Krüger’s fifth-placed “For Vår Jord”.

Adventus is actually an updated and largely anglicised version of Julenatt, a 1994 album that sowed the seeds of Skorgan’s hugely popular – and groundbreaking for a pop singer – seasonal tours of traditionally sober Norwegian churches. The first track on the album – the poignant “Is it True” – is the song that captured the hearts of Jeremy Vine’s listeners, and the way she delivered it to an enraptured showcase audience showed exactly why this thoughtful, questioning and deeply personal exploration of hope struck such a chord.

Equally absorbing, “The Miracle in Me” was another performance highlight. With lyrics from the pen of Skorgan’s regular song-writing partner Kari Iveland, it interprets the story of Christ’s birth from Mary’s point of view without a hint of evangelising. Like “Peace”, in which faith bursts from uncertainty with a glorious burst of the saxophone from Tore Brunborg,  and “Come With Me”, these songs are thematic rather than specifically religious.

There are a handful of traditional numbers, including a Norwegian version of “Mary’s Boy Child”, plus Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu”, “Den Fattige Gud” (on which Skorgan is joined by rousing Salvation Army horn orchestra, and the sweet folk song “Et Lite Barn”, all delivered with a vocal clarity thrillingly free of artifice or schmaltz. There’s also a homage to her hero, Johan Sebastian Bach, whose first Prelude she references on “Kyrie Eleison”.

Skorgan’s voice has a beguiling honesty and underlying nordic melancholy. Rather than imposing a particular narrative, she invites you to explore a thought or a feeling with her. The result is an album that is evocative and subtly provocative. Light the candles. Christmas has started indeed.

Album review: Jo Birchall – Something to Say

22 Sep
 
Wonderful: Jo Birchall delivers a late blast of summer
 

Something to Say: Jo Birchall firmly in the driving seat

Here’s a late blast of summer. A collection of bright, guitar-driven pop songs – self-penned, with a handful of faithful covers thrown in – from London-based Liverpudlian Jo Birchall.

A veteran of the first series of Pop Idol, Birchall is blessed with a fine, confident voice and a well-stocked songwriter’s tool chest. Signed to Gary Barlow’s production company in the wake of Pop Idol exposure, she made an album for Decca, which was promptly shelved when the record company restructured. Meanwhile, Barlow, who continued to be a champion of her work, became preoccupied with the revival of Take That, and Birchall’s career was interrupted by family illness and personal loss.

But if the last five years have been a bit of a roller-coaster, she’s very much back in the ascendant following Barlow’s advice to get into the driving seat. Something to Say is a polished production, and Birchall was particularly impressive when she launched the album at a showcase in July.

On a humid evening in the oak-panelled cavern upstairs at Kettners, packed with seasoned music hacks and industry insiders, she commanded the room impressively with a brisk set that easily kept the wailing Soho police sirens at bay: no mean achievement.

Birchall excels at the Nashville-tinged ballad. “All About Love”, “Wonderful” and the title track, “Something to Say”, are well-constructed, radio-friendly earworms with upbeat lyrics. But in true country-influenced tradition, there’s also an underlying melancholy and a more than a hint of bitter experience in some of the low-key numbers, particularly the standout track, “Unanswered”, with its aching, Dusty-style piano.

“Unanswered” unplugged

The covers, which include “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You”, are fine, straight-down-the-middle interpretations. But on the evidence of the rest of the album, Birchall doesn’t really need to bulk out her own song-writing talents with other people’s old crowd-pleasers.

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.

Adele: a Torch Singer for the 21st Century

7 May

Someone Like You: Adele comes of age as a 21st-century torch singer at the Brit Awards 2011

When BBC Breakfast tackled the subject of Adele’s universal appeal and meteoric rise yesterday, the most enlightened comments came not from the ‘experts’ on the sofa but from the people interviewed on the street. One by one, they identified, easily and succinctly why her voice and lyrics strike such a chord with an extraordinary range of listeners. Back in the studio, meanwhile, the conversation got bogged down in sales figures and clichés, and an awkward segue into Cheryl Cole’s appointment as an X Factor judge in the States. What nobody identified as the root of Adele’s success is that she is, above all, the epitome of the torch singer – one of the finest of her generation – whose lyrics, combined with a voice of real range and depth, unravel the epic personal emotions of everyday heartbreak.

In the following article, a version of which appears in the current issue of Theatre & Performance magazine (with some unfortunate graphical errors), I have tried to analyse the eternal popularity of the torch singer, placing singers like Adele, Marianne Faithfull, Justin Bond and Mari Wilson – who here gives a splendid masterclass on the art of torch-singing – in this great tradition.

Marianne Faithfull: grande dame of torch singers (photo by Patrick Swirc)

Adele is dominating the pop charts with her lush, wounded ballads. Tracie Bennett is burning up the West End with her visceral performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses and High Heels is a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to unravelling the nuances of lyrics we thought we knew so well.

Yes, the torch song – and our appetite for its cathartic powers – is alive and well. And singers who can deliver one effectively, honestly and with integrity, will always exert a special hold on our broken hearts.

Perhaps it’s the drama: the singer alone in the spotlight, spinning a tale of loss, abandonment, loneliness and longing. Regardless of the genre – rock and pop, country, jazz, cabaret, folk or musical theatre – it’s one of the most totemic images in show business. And it’s served its exponents well since the term ‘torch singer’ was first coined in the 1920s to describe a brace of singers who plied their trade on Broadway, in revues and after-hours nightclubs, and in the early radio and recording studios, specialising in melancholy numbers that struck an emotional chord in the listener that went beyond mere sentiment.

These days, only specialists and enthusiasts will give a second thought to performers like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice Libby Holman or Lee Wiley. But they were all, in their way, trailblazers for the torch singers who have followed in their wake, and not just the great triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; three women whose influence on technique, delivery and style continue to resonate with many performers half a century and more after their premature deaths.

Piaf’s place at the top of the tree is a useful reminder that the French chanson has always been a key influence on the concept of the torch song. Brice’s signature song “My Man” – still one of the darkest and most brutal examples of this type of lyric – started life as “Mon Homme”, a lament popularised in Parisian music-halls by the legendary Mistinguett.

Broadway shows have also contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the torch-song, ever since Helen Morgan perched on a piano and delivered a tremulous “Bill” in Showboat, and Libby Holman growled “Moanin’ Low” to a delightedly scandalised audience in The Little Show just before the Wall Street Crash unleashed the Great Depression.

Many great torch songs now recognised as standards started life as stage numbers – a tradition that has been continued by great composers and lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and most recently, Jason Robert Brown.

But broken hearts have also always provided rich material for song writers and, as jazz and big band music moved over to make way for mainstream pop music in the 1950s, they discovered an even broader, global medium to explore the darker side of love. And so the torch was picked up by pop singers like Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey and Elkie Brooks, superstars Streisand and Minnelli, and later by Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor and a string of rising 21st century stars including Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It’s no coincidence that the iconic status of many of the great torch singers has been assisted by their propensity for living in a way that seemed to perfectly reflect the lyrics to which they brought such insight and emotional substance. Even today, our response to the unique vocal qualities of Piaf, Judy and Billie is complicated by our knowledge of the personal price they each paid for success and affirmation by audiences – and a music industry – who perhaps did not always have their best interests at heart.

How else to explain the contemporary appeal of a play that focuses on the traumas of Garland’s final appearances at The Talk of the Town? In End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett has been a revelation as the self-destructing star, peeling back the layers of internal conflict and drug-fogged delusion one by one. And it’s in the songs that her characterisation is rooted, conjuring the essence of Garland with “The Man That Got Away” in a way that’s had the audience mesmerised night after night.

Even playing these women in dramatised accounts of their lives exerts a tremendous physical toll that gives an insight into the close relationship between the torch singer and the material that is her stock in trade. Piaf, Pam Gems’s play, pulls no punches in its depiction of the way the singer’s voice absorbed all the abuse the Little Sparrow inflicted on it, while still emerging powerful as a bell from her wracked body. For Elaine Paige, who played the role in 1992, it was a painful revelation.

“There was something about her I felt akin to, a kind of obsessive quality,” she once recalled in an interview with this writer. “I find something and I get involved and get hooked and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite as exhausting. I was very fulfilled and very drained. Every night. I’ve had problems with my knees ever since, from walking around with bowed legs, bent double! She isn’t the easiest character to play without suffering a bit yourself.”

There are occasional reminders that self-destructive tendencies in a singer can still fuel an uncomfortable fascination, particularly when an artist seems completely absorbed by the experiences they are singing about. Look at Amy Winehouse who has long since proved herself one of the great torch singers of our age, despite a back-story that evokes the darker excesses of Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.

Winehouse could draw some inspiration from another trailblazer, Marianne Faithfull, who has long since emerged from the chaos of her own tabloid years to become a stately grande dame of dramatic song. Faithfull’s voice testifies to self-inflicted ravages but there is a beauty and an honesty in her lyrical interpretations that remains utterly arresting.

“I’ve always loved story songs,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of my acting thing, to get into character and live the story with the person. But I think it’s got stronger, probably because I’ve got a bit more compassion now, for myself and others!”

While torch singing – and the image of the torch singer – is primarily associated with female performers, there have also been great, intuitive male interpreters capable of twisting the heartstrings in this way. From Brel, Sinatra and Scott Walker to Marc Almond and Ian Shaw, great male vocalists have also demonstrated a way with desolate lyrics that come into their own at midnight.

For New York transgender singer Justin Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v’, the best torch songs achieve their power through evocation.

“Great torch singers create a safer space for us to address our desires and heartaches,” v says. “We get to live our pain through them. When singing a torch song, my mission as a singer has always been to reveal ideas and emotions that would allow my audiences to experience things in a communal way that they might ordinarily allow themselves to deal with only in private – thereby validating them and their experiences of loss, anger, loneliness or desire.”

In the End: Justin Bond spins a torch song at Joe’s Pub in New York

But is it really necessary to have lived to the extremes suggested by so many torch song lyrics? Go to a gig by any of our finest contemporary torch singers – Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Ian Shaw, Antony Hegarty, Martha or Rufus Wainwright – and at some point in the evening you are guaranteed an emotional workout as prescribed by Bond. But in most cases, the emotional realism that they generate with a particular song is founded on an understanding of the lyric that taps into their own human experiences rather than a 24-hour commitment to excess.

“I don’t think ‘good acting’ alone can put across a torch song,” says Bond. “I was pretty much in touch with my emotions as a child, and I think I was capable of tearing up a Jacques Brel tune even in my teens. You’re never too young to understand great sadness OR sexual desire, trust [me].”

Bond cites Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a great torch number – “written from the perspective of a louche gay man coming of age in very tenuous times” – but says the torch song is in good hands with modern song writers.

“I like some of Jarvis Cocker’s songs. “This is Hardcore” is a great torch song,” v says. “Antony [Hegarty] writes beautiful torch songs and Rufus Wainwright has written some lovely examples. My record, Dendrophile, is coming out in the States on April 5th and includes covers of what might be considered torch songs – “Superstar”, “Diamonds and Rust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”.

“The fact that they are called ‘torch songs’ implies a burning,” adds Bond. “The greatest loves and strongest desires come from a deeply spiritual need. Great torch songs evoke a kind of dissatisfaction caused by uncontrollable, even unwanted, desires that aren’t being satisfied.”

The true torch singer, then, is defined by a capacity to touch us, regardless of sexuality or age, and the extravagance of many of the lyrics they interpret is a disguise for deep, shared, ordinary emotions. A great exponent gives us permission to acknowledge those emotions. As long as we need that, the torch singer’s future is assured.

Torch Singing Masterclass With Mari Wilson

Mari Wilson: you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness (photo by John Haxby)

Choose your torch songs carefully. I was 15 when I first saw Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” in The Girl Can’t Help It. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then when I started gigging properly in 1981, I was driving along in my Austin A40 and finally it came on the radio. I started singing it in my sets and it felt right – and it still does. It’s such a well-crafted song. Every time I sing it, it’s like being on a football pitch. I’ll decide to take it over there, or stay here in the middle. That’s why you never get bored singing a song of this quality. A great torch song needs that breadth and depth.

Use your experience to tell the story. It’s lovely when people write and tell me that my recording is the best version. But to be honest, I think I sing it much better now because I’ve lived twice as long – and I’m a much better singer! Back then, I hadn’t had my heart broken in a major, adult way. You can only sing from your own experience.

It isn’t all about age. Listen to Adele. She’s only 21 but she’s obviously singing from a deep hurt. Or Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” at 14. Or Amy Winehouse singing “Love is a Losing Game”. You can have the experience to put across a torch lyric at any age. It’s about being able to be honest and vulnerable. You can’t be cynical, you have to be willing to open yourself up, because actually, when you’re singing a torch song, you’re admitting something about yourself and what the lyric means to you.

Write your own material. Trying to find the right songs is difficult. You have to be interested in the lyrics over and over again. I’ve been writing a lot of my own songs [Mari Wilson’s one-woman musical, The Love Thing, had its debut at the Leicester Square Theatre last November]. A lot of the time when you’re singing, you’re also acting. But you have to find an element of truth in the material.

Be your own age. I’m singing “My Love” at the moment and when you’re in your 50s, it’s all about how kind and dependable your love is. Because when you get older, that’s what you want! Friendship and kindness really matter. Of course sex is important but there’s more to it than being great in the sack. And pop music has always been about sex and young people. Jessie J’s “The Price Tag” and “Do it Like a Dude” are fantastic – but where is there to go after that? You need romance and love.

Understand the lyrics. Mick Jagger’s lyrics for “Wild Horses” were written about his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. They were relevant then, to a young person. But they’re equally relevant to me today – “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain…”, “Let’s do some living after we die…” – you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness. That’s what’s so good about the words: there are so many possible interpretations and they can all have meaning, regardless of what stage you’re at.

Sing according to your venue. It really does make a difference. We did The Love Thing in the basement at Leicester Square, without a proper sound system and nothing between me and the audience. In contrast, I’ve just sung at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, which was really lovely. There’s something special about a larger room when the lights go down and the spotlight’s on you. You have some help creating the mood and it helps you to sing a torch song better. Equally, you need to be able to get up and sing at a party – like Judy Garland or, I’m told, Amy Winehouse who, by all accounts, is extraordinary in those private settings. I once sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” at a party. It was song that we played at my mum’s funeral, where it had everyone in a heap, so it’s a tricky one for me. But it was also very special to be able to move people in such an intimate space.