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A crop of female talent – from Adele to Winehouse August 28, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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The top 5 albums on the BBC Radio 1 chart in the week of August 14 were all by female artists.  The top 4 positions were shared by two UKsingers, Adele and Amy Winehouse.  This odd phenomenon started at the beginning of August, and prompted The Guardian to declare that “Men can’t do pop any more”.

For the last decade, I have been following the careers of a crop of female artists with a unique sound that sets them apart.  They are mostly from theUK, several were barely 20 when they gained prominence, and many have come into the mainstream in the last five years.

Adele

Alphabetically the first on the list, and currently the most successful, is Adele.  Earlier this year Billboard, theUS music magazine, declared her “the first living artist since the Beatles in 1964 to have two titles simultaneously in the top five of both theUK singles and album charts”.  Not bad for a girl just past 20.

She has had two studio albums so far, 19 and 21, the latter of which was at top of both the UK and US charts in the early part of August.

Born Adele Laurie Blue Atkins on 5th May, 1988, in Tottenham, England to a teenage mother, Adele moved to West Norwood, South London when she was 11.  West Norwood was the inspiration for her first song Hometown Glory.

After graduating from The BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, she was discovered by Jonathan Dickins at September Management, who became her official representative.  Releasing Hometown Glory in October 2007, she received the BRIT Awards Critics’ Choice and was named the number-one predicted breakthrough act of 2008 in an annual BBC poll of music critics, Sound of 2008.

At the 2011 BRIT Awards, Adele sang the single Someone Like You, which went to number one in theUK, while the album from which it came was also top of the chart.

Lily Allen

Lily Rose Beatrice Allen, daughter of actor and musician Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, was born in 1985.  She developed an interest in glam and alternative rock at a young age, and left school to spend time developing a musical career.

After achieving some success with recordings she offered on MySpace, she signed a contract with Regal Recordings and completed her first studio album in 2006, Alright, Still, which produced the first single Smile and won her nominations at the Brit, Grammy and MTV Music Video awards.  A strong Cockney accent and crude language are hallmarks of her early work.

Lily had a troubled childhood, having been expelled from several schools for drinking and smoking, but her musical talent was unmistakable.  Her musical career was likewise troubled, with her acidic remarks about other pop musicians attracting controversy.

The gestation of her second studio album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, was long and beset by personal problems and changes in the structure of the parent of her record label.  Nevertheless, it debuted at number one in the UK, Canada and Australia, and number five in the US.  It also produced a couple of singles, The Fear and Not Fair, which reached the top ten 10 in theUK.

In June 2011, Allen married Sam Cooper, owner of a building company, and is said to be working on a musical version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, scheduled to open inLondon’sWest End in 2012.

Dido

In sharp contrast to Adele, Dido, born Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, was already 28 when she came into prominence with her debut Album No Angel.  Unlike Adele, who has a gutsy, in-your-face voice, Dido sings almost in whispers.  Also unlike Adele, she comes from a well-educated, and probably well-to-do, family, her father being a publisher and her mother a poet.  Perhaps this explains why she was christened Dido, after the Queen of Carthage in Virgil’s Aeneid.  Her brother, Rowland Constantine O’Malley Armstrong, also known as Rollo, is a record producer and a member of the dance band Faithless.

Dido’s breakthrough came when her first single, Here With Me was used in the television series Roswell and Thank You in the movie Sliding Doors, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow.  Both are from the No Angel album.  Thank You was given a further boost when Eminem featured its first verse in his single Stan, the video for which also contains a cameo appearance by Dido herself, although this segment is censored in most versions.

On the back of her follow-up studio album Life for Rent, which produced two further hits, White Flag and Life for Rent, she went on a sold-out world tour in 2004.  A third studio album, Safe Trip Home, took several years to appear, and although containing some strong singles material, such as The Day Before The Day and Grafton Street, was not as popular as Life For Rent.

Duffy

Duffy, born Aimée Ann Duffy in Nefyn, Gwynedd, Wales, became the first Welsh female singer to have a number one single on the UK charts since Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart in 1984 when she released Mercy from her debut album Rockferry, which won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album.

Her teen years were marked by some dramatic events, one of which was being put into a police safe house at age 13, when her stepfather’s ex-wife apparently contracted an assassin to kill her stepfather.  Development of her musical talent was not always smooth sailing either.  The Mail on Sunday reported that she was “…asked to leave her school choir because her voice was ‘too big’…”.

Duffy did not have a large record collection in her youth.  Her exposure to music was her father’s videotapes of the 1960s TV show Ready Steady Go!  After finishing school in Pembrokeshire, she returned to her birthplace in 2003 and started singing in various local bands, eventually appearing in the Welsh talent show, Wawffactor.  In 2004, when she was 20, Duffy recorded an EP with three Welsh songs which achieved some fame in Wales, while holding down two part-time jobs.

By 2007, Duffy had achieved enough fame to win a contract with A&M Records in the UK, as she was preparing material for her debut album named after Rock Ferry, where her grandmother lives.  In January 2008, Duffy was runner-up to Adele in the Sound of 2008 poll among industry experts by BBC News.  In March, she released Rockferry, which scooped up a number of awards, including three Brit awards and the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2009.

Several songs in Rockferry won critical acclaim.  Mercy, which featured in the final episode of the American TV show Grey’s Anatomy and the soundtrack for Sex and the City: The Movie, was Song of the Year in the 2008 MOJO Awards, and Ed White was named Songwriter of the Year for his contribution to Warwick Avenue.

Her second studio album, Endlessly, unfortunately did not repeat the success of Rockferry, and Duffy announced early in 2011 that she was taking a break before working on her third studio album.

Ellie Goulding

Like Adele and Duffy, Ellie Goulding was named in the BBC News poll Sound of 2010, predicted to be an emerging act, and shared the honour with Adele as the only other artist who also went on to win the Critics’ Choice Award in the BRIT Awards.  Her debut album Lights reached number one in the UK upon release in 2010 and produced several singles – Starry Eyed, Guns and Horses and The Writer.  It was later re-released as Bright Lights, with some extra tracks, including a cover of Your Song by Elton John.

Born Elena Jane Goulding in 1985 in Hereford, Herefordshire, she started playing the clarinet at age nine and subsequently also learned to play the guitar, winning a singing competition in college.  The pinnacle of her career to date is being the only live performer at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  She is said to be working on her second studio album.

Norah Jones

Born in March 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, to world-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar and concert producer Sue Jones, Geethali Norah Jones Shankar spent her childhood with her mother in Grapevine, Texas after her parents separated.  She sang in the school choir and played the alto saxophone in the school band, having developed an interest in the music of Bill Evans and Billie Holiday, and eventually won the DownBeat Student Award for Best Jazz Vocalist.

Her breakthrough came when executives of Blue Note Records got hold of a three-track demo and decided to sign her on.  Her debut album, Come Away With Me, a mixture of acoustic pop, soul and jazz, reached number one in the Billboard 200 albums chart and won five Grammy awards in 2003.  The title track, Come Away With Me, reached number two in Canada.

Her follow-up studio album, Feels Like Home, showed influence of country music.  This is understandable, as Jones herself cites Willie Nelson as her mentor.  It sold a million copies within a week of release and reached number one in at least 16 countries around the world.  In 2004, TIME magazine included her among the TIME 100 list of the most influential people.

She wrote or co-wrote every song in her third album, Not Too Late, which appeared in 2007 and reached number one in 20 countries.  In the same year, she made her film debut in My Blueberry Nights, co-starring with Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman.

Her fourth album, The Fall, was also her first to reach number one in the United States, although the single from it, Chasing Pirates, reached number 7 on the jazz charts.

Laura Marling

In the first decade of the 21st century, folk music may not be considered mainstream musical material.  It is surprising, therefore, that Laura Marling, born in Hampshire, England, in February 1990, won the Best Female Solo Artist in the Brit Awards in 2011.  The reasons for her success are perhaps the strong melodies and angst-ridden lyrics of her work.  I wrote a blog post about her in 2010.

Her father, who ran a recording studio, introduced her early to folk music.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008 and nominated for the Mercury Prize.

The follow-up album, I Speak Because I Can, appeared in March 2010 and entered the UK album chart at number four.  It shows more maturity and emphasis on the “responsibility of womanhood”, according to NMEWhat He Wrote and Devil’s Spoke are haunting tracks.

She has announced the title of her third album to be A Creature I Don’t Know, scheduled to be released in September 2011.

Katie Melua

Katevan Melua was born in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, in September 1984, and moved to Northern Ireland and later England with her heart specialist father.  She originally planned to be either a historian or a politician, but winning in a British talent show Stars Up Their Noses on ITV changed the direction of her career.

Composer and producer Mike Batt gave Melua the break in her musical career when he signed her to his company Dramatico, releasing her first album Call Off The Search in 2003.  The lead single from the album, The Closest Thing To Crazy, had a difficult start.  It wasn’t until Terry Wogan started to play it on his breakfast show on BBC Radio 2 that its recognition gathered momentum, ahead of the release of the album in November, which eventually spent six weeks at the top of theUK charts.

Subsequent singles from the album, Call Off The Search and Crawling Up A Hill, didn’t repeat the success of the first.

Melua’s mellow and introspective singing style is soothing and endearing.  Since Call Off The Search, she has issued three further albums, Piece By Piece, Pictures and The House.  Beyond Nine Million Bicycles from Piece By Piece, other singles from her follow-up albums seem to have achieved less success.

She holds the Guinness World Record for playing the deepest underwater concert at 303 metres below sea level on Norwegian Statoil’s Troll A platform in the North Sea

Joss Stone

Born in April 1987, Jocelyn Eve Stoker, otherwise known as Joss Stone, was 17 when she hit the headlines with her debut album Soul Sessions, which made the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2004.

Her distinctive style combining soul and funky a la Aretha Franklin is not surprising, as Franklin was one of her idols.  She readily admits that Aretha Franklin: Greatest Hits was the first CD she owned.

In 2001, at the age of 13, Stone took part in the BBC TV talent show Star for a Night in London, eventually winning it with Donna Summer’s 1979 hit On The Radio.  She caught the attention of S-Curve Records founder and CEO Steve Greenberg, who signed her on in 2002 and released Soul Sessions in 2003.  The album reached the top five in the UK charts and the top forty of the US Billboard 200.

As the material in Soul Sessions is mostly covers, Stone sometimes calls her second album, Mind Body & Soul, her “real debut”.  It proved to be an even bigger success than Soul Sessions, breaking into the UK charts a number one, enabling her to break Avril Levigne’s record of being the youngest female to reach the top of the UK album charts.  The album produced her biggest hit to date, You Had Me, which reached number nine in theUK.

Although her third studio album, Introducing Joss Stone does not seem as successful as her first two, it nevertheless debuted at number two in the US, unseating Amy Winehouse as the highest debut on the US charts by a British female solo artist.  The lead single, Tell Me ‘Bout It, reached number twenty-eight in theUK.

Stone apparently wrote and recorded her fourth studio album, Colour Me Free!, in a week in Devon, where she spent her teenage years, but a dispute about its cover eventually ended with her leaving the EMI label.

Amy Winehouse

Since her passing in July, details about Amy Winehouse’s troubled 27-year life have been well celebrated.  Although her output consists of two studio albums only, she remains one of the most talented female singers to have emerged in the last decade.  Her idiosyncratic mix of musical styles and uniquely powerful voice have earned her numerous awards, also making her the first female to win five Grammys.

Apart from a distinctive musical style, Winehouse also sported instantly recognisable hairstyle and makeup, traceable to Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes from the 1960s.

Winehouse’s second studio album, Back To Black, was more successful than her debut Frank, and produced more widely recognisable singles, such as Rehab, Back to Black and You Know I’m No Good.  Was the video for Back to Black showing a funeral prophetic?

Several of her peers, including Adele and Lady Gaga, credit Winehouse’s success for making it easier for them to break into the market.  It was as if she made unconventional style for female artists acceptable.

Winehouse clearly overstepped the limits of acceptable behaviour even for the worst rock stars, bungling live performances and just generally making a messy spectacle of herself in public.  Now that she’s dead, I prefer to remember the tremendous music she brought to us.  Rest in peace, Amy.

From Adele to Winehouse, a crop of female talent in the last decade has challenged the musical standards of their predecessors in the history of pop and rock, and raised the bar significantly for their successors.  Is it really true, as the Guardian claims, that men can’t do pop any more, and would it matter if it was true?

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Comments»

1. gitary - September 8, 2015

Just desire to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in your post is just great and i can assume you
are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your feed
to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry
on the enjoyable work.

Alan Yu - September 9, 2015

Thank you for your kind words. I’m no expert on anything, just someone with a little interest. I’m about to write another about some other talent I’ve recently discovered. Watch this space. Thanks for stopping by.


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